Tag Archives: 3 stars

Book: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

I’ve been saying this for years.
300 pages, ★★★

The book’s opening quote:

Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. Many students graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers… reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.

The book then demonstrates, somewhat repetitively (because each chapter was written by a different author) that students aren’t learning anything in university. They’re studying less than 40 years ago, putting less effort in, and preferentially choosing the easiest classes, but at the same time expecting much more: an amazing job, a salary high enough to repay their giant student loan, and lots of prestige to bask in after graduation. Invariably, they will get none of the above.

This book blames universities, not just students, for post-graduation disappointment and the looming student debt crisis that’s intertwined with it. According to this book, while universities are waxing lyrical about the “critical thinking skills” and “good writing skills” that are supposedly important to “success”, university courses do very little to train the critical thinking skills and writing skills of their students. Reading lists are short and optional (most students don’t read); writing assignments are few and not taken seriously (plagiarism largely goes unnoticed, and the plagiarising student receives a grade anyway); and students make very little progress in their three years of study (at a huge cost).

I saw a lot of these troubles while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Britain. Much of this is true there, too: students are lazy, spoiled and expect fantastic jobs despite being completely incompetent. Writing essays isn’t important and nobody notices plagiarism. (The list goes on…)

Two key findings stand out from this book:

(1) Education starts at home. Most of the variation in high-school test scores in the US can be explained by gender, race, education level of parents, number of parents in the household, and occupation of parents. Your parents are your biggest teachers.

(2) Test scores of people who drop out of high school, on average, improve at a faster rate post-dropout than the scores of students who go to college. This is shown in the graph on page 56. Amazing!

I didn’t learn anything new here, but I did feel comforted that I’ve been right all along. Some university students are lazy, spoiled and have an unjustified sense of aggrandisement. They expect too much after graduation and, especially in the current economic climate in the US and Europe, will ultimately be very disappointed.

I saw no evidence of any of these problems in Australia, though 🙂 ★★★


Book: Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics

Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics
Picture from Amazon

Some light reading for a quantum physics post-doc. Inaccessible for most.
284 pages, ★★★

The topic is fascinating. Entangled photons (light ‘particles’) are known to exhibit what Einstein famously called “spooky action-at-a-distance”. Entangled photons exist in every possible state (and even in every possible position) until one of them is observed. The observation of one of the photons, no matter how far away it has travelled, instantly (literally instantly—at infinite speed—not just at the speed of light) influences the other photon by deciding its ‘state’. This has puzzled physicists for decades and has started to fascinate the public in recent years.

However, this book is inaccessible for me. I haven’t studied physics to this high a level. Its diagrams are incomprehensible for me because I’m not familiar with the symbols—and the book, foolishly, doesn’t define them. There are no analogies to help me understand these weird phenomena, and the characters (e.g. Einstein) don’t come to life to the extent that they do in Michio Kaku’s books. Entanglement makes light holidaying read for an established quantum physicist but is inaccessible and irrelevant to most other people. Fails to engage the public. ★★★

Book: China: Land of Dragons and Emperors


As simple a Chinese history as is possible to write. Needs a revamp.
255 pages, ★★

Chinese history is notoriously complicated. There have been 83 dynasties (maybe 85) and 559 emperors (plus about 8 more “chairmen” since the 1911 revolution—but this is debatable), each with their own cultures, palaces and stories. As a civilisation, China enjoys the longest unbroken history on Earth. For five thousand years, dynasties followed the predictable cycle of “conquer-rise-prosper-decline” due to warfare, patriotism, tyranny and corruption, respectively. Dynasties often ruled simultaneously in different locations, particularly in the first half of China’s 5000-year history. With China’s vast population and its fondness of large governments, the number of influential people in China’s history is unfathomably large for most people. To confuse matters further, many important people and cities had several names, and the historical record was destroyed and re-written several times in the course of China’s 5000-year history.

China’s official history of the last 100 years alone comprises several tomes filled with tiny Chinese characters on wafer-thin bible-paper. To make an abridged version of the last 5000 years especially for children, therefore, is a remarkable feat. Adeline Yen Mah (whose other books I’ve reviewed here) writes beautifully and accurately in a way that captivates. She includes anecdotes to keep children interested, and peppers the book with editorials that keep young people’s moral compasses on track during scenes of violence or promiscuity.

This book lacked sufficient detail to make it interesting for me. Zheng He’s story is a really exciting one, but it was glossed over in just a few pages in this book. Only the Qing and Tang dynasties were written in sufficient detail for me. Despite its brevity, though, all the most important people and events were at least mentioned in this book.

Reading this book on an iPad, I found myself reimagining PDF as a real iBook specifically designed for the iPad. Chinese history is an exciting topic, and iBooks on the iPad lends itself wonderfully to the videos, animations, speeches and 3D relics that could help bring this colourful history to life. The current version, a black-and-white scanned PDF, seems very dated in 2013. This book needs a digital revamp.

China: Land of Dragons and Emperors was definitely less interesting than Watching the Tree for several reasons. As someone who reads almost every remotely-interesting book on the “China” shelf, particularly non-fiction, I already know most of what she’s writing. It’s also aimed at children, and I was reading it on an iPad with all its drawbacks. If only the book could be re-engineered to take full advantage of all the features the iPad can offer, this book would be very special indeed.

I recommend this book for young teenagers (aged 10-16) who already love reading but don’t yet know much about China. Its discontinuous, highly-chaptered structure lends itself well to reading in bed. (For those who already know a lot about China but don’t like reading so much, I recommend 1421 instead.) ★★★

Book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Giant newspaper column.
209 pages, ★★★

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a feisty, comical account of how punctuation can completely change the meaning of a text. It contains some historic examples of punctuation disasters, such as a love letter (which, when punctuated differently, becomes nasty); and an unpunctuated telegram, which could signal either distress or “everything’s okay” depending on how the receiver chooses to punctuate it.

This book’s thesis is that we should show everyone the importance of punctuation. The author asks us to bring black marker pens and correction fluid when we go out so that we can correct mistakes on menus, advertisements and billboards. She even jokingly asks us to take “a gun” in the event that we start to care too much.

This book reads like an extended newspaper column. Its humorous tone and light subject matter render it palatable enough to read on a pleasant Sunday morning. Also, just like a Sunday newspaper column, this book provokes conversation in places, usually through jokes and trivia, and takes a strongly-opinionated stance on inoffensive and irrelevant topics. Jeremy Clarkson’s column plays a similar role in society to this book.

The fact that I proofread part-time helped me to enjoy Eats, Shoots & Leaves more than most people would. How much can punctuation really influence our lives? Does good punctuation enrich our human existence? Does punctuation even make an interesting topic of conversation? No! Three stars is the most I can give to a non-academic book on this topic. ★★★

Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise


GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole. 

Book: China Since 1911

China Since 1911

Explains 1911 to 1989 in more political detail than you’ll ever need to know!
315 pages, 

China Since 1911 is told from a purely political perspective. This book is a concise, authoritative historical account of the 1911 Nationalist revolution to the anti-reform protests of 1989. This period of history was one of China’s most tumultuous: warlords fought each other in the 1910s, the Nationalist regime collapsed into mini-states in the 1920s, Japan invaded in the 1930s, then World War II broke out in the 1940s. Widespread famine took root in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution uprooted what little progress China had made in the 1960s, Mao’s death in the 1970s left China politically divided and spiritually lost, then anti-corruption protests spread across the nation from west to east in the 1980s, the most famous of which took place in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Only the last chapter of this book, when the dust starts to settle, does China show any signs of hope!

You’ll learn almost nothing about Chinese culture from this book. It documents the internal political struggles that gave rise to certain (crazy) decisions, but makes almost no comment on the social implications of those decisions. The text is littered with names of medium-level Chinese officials whom I’ll never remember. For a social history, I recommend reading Mao’s Last DancerWild Swans or the soothing 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)(Chinese) instead.

While China Since 1911 is extremely well-researched, there was not enough social emphasis for my liking. This book should be renamed China’s Political Leadership since 1911 instead. 


Book: Collapse


Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic.
608 pages, ★★★

Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:

“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.

I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!

I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.

Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?

For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (3 more islands and Japan)
  • Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
  • Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)

Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.

Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.

Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).

The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.

The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”

…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)

Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn

Book: Please Stop Laughing at Me

Please Stop Laughing at Me
Please Stop Laughing at Me

Bad inspiration for people struggling with bullying.
304 pages, ★★★

Please Stop Laughing at Me is an autobiographical story loaded with pained descriptions about how horrible it is to be bullied. These passages would resonate with some kids and grip their attention, which is a shame because the author provides some irresponsible solutions towards the end of the book.

I have two major problems with this book.

First, the protagonist is in a very privileged position. She’s fortunate enough to have two parents who care about her deeply. She’s quite well-off, and she’s able to change schools when the social environment at one school gets out of hand. Since many bullied kids are from deprived social backgrounds, how can this girl’s exotic holidays and expensive surgery (more on that later) inspire the majority of those struggling with bullying to find a way out? Bullied kids reading this book might get the erroneous impression that friends and happiness depend on having lots of money. They will be disappointed.

Second, the author places a large amount of emphasis on how corrective surgery on her breasts solved her bullying problem. She went against doctors’ advice and had this surgery too young. Doesn’t this teach kids to defy authority and give in to peer pressure? And what about those kids who are bullied despite looking ‘normal’? How can surgery ‘correct’ them? This books fails to illustrate how resisting bullies requires being mentally strong—not physically “perfect”.

In conclusion, Please Stop Laughing at Me tells children that money and breasts make you happy and popular! While the author’s journey was certainly a difficult one, it’s not a journey than can—or should—inspire young people. Be sure to criticise this book with any child who’s read it. ★★★

Book: EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment

EDF4004: Curriculum and Assessment
Custom book compiled from various chapters of other books

Wordy and top-heavy. Time’s better spent reading PEEL, Oosterhof & Marsh.
290 pages, ★★★

Q: Why the strange title?

“EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment” is a custom book that contains all the major readings for the Monash University EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment course as of 2011 (the reading list has since changed, but the general ideas here are still relevant). The publishers have overhauled the formatting to make it consistent, added new page numbers and even a new index for this “custom book”. It’s probably only found in Monash University.

Q: What does “top-heavy” mean?

Good question. In places, this book leaves the classroom and focusses—again—too much on theory. I want practical classroom advice, not classroom theory. I’m a training to be a teacher, but this book seems more tailored either to a philosopher or a Minister of Education. I say “top-heavy” because this book is aimed at those at the top of their profession, not at graduate teachers. I didn’t need to read most of this book.

In this book, you’ll find the following information:

Curriculum Design: This book tells you how to design a curriculum from the top down. Unfortunately, the description is wordy and hard to follow, and our tutorials were much more useful in explaining the curriculum design process than this book. I used this book to make this diagram, but the notes I took in our tutorials were much clearer and more useful.

Maker’s (16-part curriculum design) Model—totally confusing, overly-theoretical re-hash of PEEL practices. Read PEEL instead.

Gardner’s (8) Multiple Intelligences—be sure to cater to all of these skills when designing assessments and assignments:

  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Naturalist
  • Spatial
  • Bodily-Kinaesthetic
  • Music

(7) Aspects of Quality Learning—check that your assignments and assessments contain all these classroom aspects:

  • Processing
  • Planning
  • Linking
  • Reflecting
  • Decision making
  • Risk taking
  • Working collaboratively

Bloom’s (6-tier) Taxonomy—make sure your assignments and assessments satisfy the following modes of thinking:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyse
  • Evaluate
  • Create

While browsing the web, I found a previous Monash University student’s blog (coincidentally, also from 2011), who put some useful study notes online. Check out her site here. Her diagram (titled Appendix 1) combines Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences nicely.

(5) Orientations of a curriculum—Cultural, Personal (see William Kilpatrick), Vocational, Social (see Harold Rugg) and Economic (see David Snedden).

The literature cited in EDF4004 are in overwhelming agreement that there’s been a recent call for “new basics” that take into account the “multi-literacies” that “transcend social boundaries”. Basically, play to every student’s individual strengths, no matter what those strengths are.

(8) Student Masks (by Keefe & Carrington, 2006) — students disguise problems with strange behaviour. Here’s a translation (left = what you see; right = what’s really going on).

Academic masks

  • Mask of super-competence → student may have reading difficulties
  • Mask of the clown → has ADHD
  • Mask of boredom → struggling with focus and studies
  • Mask of activity (busy doing futile tasks) → struggling to complete the work (stuck)

Self-esteem masks

  • Mask of helplessness → being ostracised
  • Mask of invisibility → low self-esteem
  • Mask of the victim (and bully, too) → talk to student then refer to psychologist
  • Mask of contempt (“school sucks”) → feels rejected by studies, socially or at home

Remember that these ‘masks’ were devised by Keefe & Carrington, 2006.

Page 122 summarises Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design in two concise bullet points! (There’s no need to read that two-star book now):

  • Curriculum Content—same for everyone
  • Curriculum Process—varied for each student (use a mixture of PEEL techniques)

Page 130 tells us that Aboriginals are doing terribly in Australian secondary schools.

Page 164-5 tell us how peer-assessment and self-assessment are great learning tools but teachers are seldom well-trained enough to implement them properly. In peer-assessment and self-assessment, remember to:

  • Promote the value of self-reflection
  • Set targets (or get the students to set themselves targets)
  • Develop explicit criteria (so students can’t cheat when marking)
  • Provide practice (students’ self-assessment ability gets better with time)

Page 179 tells us that parents want honest, individualistic, constructive school reports, and longer, better-organised meetings with teachers at parents evenings.

Mirroring Oosterhof somewhat, page 192 reminds us that there are four types of portfolio assessments:

  • Showcase portfolio (my best work)
  • Evaluation portfolio (all my work, graded)
  • Document portfolio (teacher’s secret record)
  • Process portfolio (student’s own progress reports)

There were only two more surprises in the rest of the book:

(1) Celebrating student achievement can be carried out in the form of brochures, newsletters, in-school displays… and out-of-school displays at (for example) supermarkets and universities. Students displaying their best work in a supermarket (supervised, of course) is a great idea.

(2) ICT can assist student learning. iPads are so ubiquitous now that students would probably rebel if you banned them from schools. Compared to the dazzling, high-resolution graphics on an iPad, a conversation with even the most informative teacher can seem like a bore in comparison. How are we supposed to compete with iPads for a student’s attention? (iPads are marvellous things, but teaching students how to use them specifically for study seems like an arduous task.)

The most useful part of this book was at the end: “how to make a grading rubric”. Thankfully, we’d already done this in yesterday’s tutorial. First column: criteria. Next columns contain high, medium and low ability descriptors for each criterion. Final column is “not shown”. Give each square points (typically high = 3; med = 2; low = 1; none = 0) and total each student’s score. This is great information, but I’d heard it already.

I see a pattern here. Is there anything about teaching that I haven’t already read? Or are all other teaching books just re-hashes of PEELOosterhof and Marsh?

Do I really need to read anything else? ★★★

Book: The Content of Science: A Constructivist Approach to its Teaching and Learning

The Content of Science
$195, anyone?

Only selected chapters are relevant to secondary level science.
292 pages, ★★★

We were asked to read chapter 2 as part of our teacher training, but in my view, chapter 2 wasn’t the most useful chapter. (Chapter 2 talked about constructivism and how to overcome alternative conceptions, but honestly, it was a little unclear.)

Chapter 3 was a little better. It said that students need to make connections between:

  • the concepts they learn in different classes; and
  • between the concepts they learn in school and their personal experience.

I particularly liked a phrase in chapter 4 written by Layton (1991). He writes that researchers “need more emphasis on researching deconstruction and reconstruction”. This reinforces the idea that “kids are not empty vessels” succinctly (see TED talk below). I like this quote by Layton so much that I quoted it in a recent assignment.

Chapter 5 details how to design class projects. Author Cliff Malcolm proposes conducting group design projects in the five following steps:

  1. Analyse existing examples and present findings
  2. Choose components that your group wants to include
  3. Design your project
  4. Build your project
  5. Submit project and present your design to the class

The above approach, which is relevant to making 2D and 3D models, is also analogous to the methods of teaching proposed by Posner (1982), Osbourne & Freyburg (1985) and Chiappetta & Koballa, Jr. (2006), which deal with the scientific models in students’ minds. The teaching approach for teaching both tangible and intangible (scientific) models begins with exploring students’ existing conceptions. Discussion and experimentation should then be used to (a) find faults in the existing models, and (b) design an improved, more scientific model, which is shared with the class.

Summary of Constructivist Teaching Methods
Click to download PDF version.

Chapter 6, in my opinion, focuses too much on assessing students quantitatively. While it’s true that grades motivate students to a certain extent, allocating extra teacher-time to improving the accuracy of those grades has negligible effect on student motivation. This book goes much further than Oosterhof’s assessment manual in the range and extent of testing. This book advocates tallying every move of every student: how many times they raise their hands, how many times they daydream or chat; how many intelligent questions they ask their peers. Collecting this immense amount of data would require at least one teaching assistant in each class, and the results may be no more useful than the informal observations that a teacher makes instinctively anyway. Chapter 6 is assessment ad absurdum.

The next few chapters are only relevant to primary schools. Richard Gunstone, however, in the final chapter, describes his “P-O-E” method (predict—observe—explain), which, in my view, should accompany every demonstration done in science class. Over time, P-O-E is also a subtle way of introducing students to aspects of the scientific method. A study by Wittrock & Kelly (1984) showed that “before-during-after” approach (very similar to P-O-E) increased reading comprehension in English classes significantly.

Only half of this book was relevant to me so I give it only three stars. James. ★★★

Book: The Goldilocks Enigma

The Goldilocks Enigma
Life’s so perfect. Why?

Mind-boggling science proves the world is a marvellous place.
(I already knew that.)

350 pages, ★★★

The Goldilocks Enigma follows the same structural model as The Future of Physics, The Science Delusion and 23 Things. All these books are collections of easy-to-read scientific essays with introductions, fact-boxes, conclusions and summaries that plug a single thesis (in this case, “Life is miraculously improbable“). This formulaic approach to non-fiction really works, and the arguments stick in my head this way.

The Goldilocks Enigma proposes that the universe seems so perfectly suited for life that to some people, it looks purpose-built (the anthropic principle), or created by a deity (creationism). The author renounces multiverse theories as ridiculous (reductio ad absurdum) both on scientific and philosophical levels. I agree.

I saw author Paul Davies speak at the AAAS Annual Conference in Chicago in 2009. He emphasised the sheer miraculousness of Earth’s existence—six physical constants are calibrated perfectly:

Tweak any one of these constants and life becomes impossible! Some people liken this impossibility to “a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and assembling a perfectly-formed Boeing 747”. It’s reassuring to see scientific evidence of how precious and rare our planet is.

The physics in this book overlaps significantly with The Trouble with PhysicsQuantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Science Delusion. While it’s an easy book to understand, it’s only mildly entertaining. Unless you’re really interested, only read one of these popular physics books. The Science Delusion is the best. ★★★

Book: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

My fiancée and I have a great relationship. We’ve been together for almost three years and today, we bought wedding bands from Tiffany’s. Everything we do is romantic—from the day we met (on the Beijing subway) to the normal, suburban life we now lead in Australia.

Of course, no relationship is perfect all the time. But when I picked up this self-help classic from the library, I learned that when it comes to love, I’m not as clueless as I thought…

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Self-help classic

So theoretical. And where’s the sex?
286 pages, ★★★

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus screams, “NINETEEN-NINETIES!” at you. It’s a relationship manual written for sexually dimorphic salarymen and housewives, and it rose to fame in the 1990s while the Spice Girls were still a surprise. Men and women were changing, but weren’t yet sure of who they were. Call it ‘pre-post-feminism’, if you like.

Enter this book. It’s so theoretical! Each double-page spread sports at least two sub-headings, and there’s a pull-out quote every three pages. You can skim-read all the sub-headings and still get the gist: “men and women think differently”.

Sometimes, it’s too theoretical. It’s somewhere between a self-help book and an instruction manual! I’d prefer to learn the same information in a more entertaining format—by attending John Gray’s lectures and seminars, for example, or by watching a TV documentary. The message of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus begs to be served in a more interactive way than a printed book.

Despite focussing on the sexes, I’m surprised to see that this book is completely devoid of sex itself! If you want sex tips, you’ll need to read another book called, The Secrets of Successful Relationships, also by John Gray. I know that sex is only one part of a romantic relationship, but it’s quite an important part… I’m sure John Gray had his reasons for omitting it from this book.

I have two problems with this book. First, who starts a love letter with “I’m angry that…”, then includes four paragraphs of negative emotions followed by one paragraph of love? Is this normal? I’m certainly not going to do it, even though this book says that I should.

Second: it’s very basic in places. The list of 101 things that a man can do to ‘score points’ with a woman are so glaringly obvious that I already do all of them—and more—without even thinking about it.

This book can help couples who have small problems (i.e. too small to seek professional help). Otherwise, just read it because it’s a classic in its genre. Remember that while men and women are different, they’re not as different as John Gray claims—and nor should they be.

Feminist talks are everywhere, but here’s a great TED talk for men. Men changed in the feminist revolution, too. Enjoy. 🙂 ★★★

Book: Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay

The Year of the Snake has begun and I wish all my readers a healthy, prosperous and Happy Chinese New Year!

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay
Book 3 in the trilogy

Massive, cliché rebellion. Far too much Hunger Games.
455 pages, ★★★

I found this book boring.

Ninety percent of Mockingjay depicts a rebellion against the Capitol, during which, Peeta is captured and Katniss fights in a mockingjay costume. Mockingjay reminded me of two more disappointing trilogies: Matrix Revolutions and The Bourne Ultimatum… all were action-packed but lacked an interesting story.

Even though some people die along the way, Mockingjay ends with Peeta and Katniss living happily ever after. The evil Capitol falls.

I strongly recommend the first book, but it leaves you with no cravings for a second or third book at all. Don’t waste your time reading them just because they exist—one Hunger Games book was enough. ★★★

Book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Stretched. Easy to read.
237 pages, ★★★

Amy Chua (a.k.a. “Tiger Mother”) bullies her children into being successful. Her loveable mixture of strict rules, punishments and blackmail locks her children into a world of all work and no play.

“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Clearly, Amy Chua loves her children. She sees them as fallen deities, as sleeping giants, who, with enough maternal provocation, can once again prove themselves as prodigies. She sees in them infinite potential, and pressures them immensely to succeed.

Love for her children sometimes blinds her to reality. On page 7, she writes:

“I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at 2 months [of age], Sophia understood this”.

Really? That sounds like over-analaysis to me.

On page 8, she continues over-analysing: when her daughter draws what her husband calls “two overlapping circles”, Amy Chua calls it “doing simple set theory”. On page 11, she describes 豆腐脑, a simple Chinese tofu dish, as, “silken tofu braised in a light alabone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish”. (Her description is correct—it’s just pretentious.)

Amy’s propensity to overestimate her ability to raise children is exemplified most clearly on page 82, when she takes pride in having raised a “weakling, underweight” puppy into an adult dog that “excelled on its dog IQ test” despite hating dogs. Clearly, she’s not only blinded by love, but also by pride.

Fortunately, Amy Chua’s ruthlessness is somewhat justified. Her daughters, not yet 20, have articles printed in the New York Post and have been accepted into world-class universities. It’s the millions of Tiger Mothers with average kids that are cause for concern.

Interestingly, the Chinese version of her book was titled “我在美国做妈妈”, which translates roughly as, “I am a mother in America”: no mention of tigers; no implication of being fierce, and no connotation of being Chinese! The Chinese title makes her parenting style look “normal”. Check out the Chinese cover, below:


While Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy, double-spaced read, it is no more informative than Amy Chua’s famous Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. You can save time and just read the article (and this) instead. ★★★

Book: The History of Seafaring

The History of Seafaring
Very large, hardback, full-colour book

Like a guided tour of a maritime museum, in print
374 extra-large pages, ★★★

The History of Seafaring feels like a guided tour of a maritime museum. Some 270 artefacts are represented as large, colour images in this book—some of which are 50 cm across. It’s a beautiful tome, weighs nearly 3 kilograms, and would look good in a company’s waiting room, or on a conservatory coffee table.

Most people needn’t read it from start to finish. Even though it’s well-written and beautifully-produced, I only give this book three stars because my interest in seafaring waned before the end. Skim-read it and zoom in on the parts you find interesting. ★★★

Book: Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction

I’m feeling a lull after reading Haruki Murakami’s epic 1Q84. I even considered giving in to star-inflation and giving it a six- or seven-star rating. 1Q84 changed my taste in books.

I’ve also run out of books. 1Q84 raised the bar for me so drastically that yesterday, for the first time ever, I returned home from the library empty-handed. That Chinese children’s book aside, nothing on the shelves appealed to me. Only 8 books in the library’s database had the caliber to match Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (most of which are novels by J.K. Rowling, Haruki Murakami and Mo Yan), and none of them were available. I’m roughly third in the queue for each of them, so about a two-month wait is expected.

So I hunted for books on my iPod. Like most digitally-pirated books, I found they were all quite boring, too (it’s interesting how the pirate internet contains only the most popular music but only the least popular books). This book on Quantum Theory was the best of a terrible selection.

So here goes…

Quantum Theory
Another PDF on iBooks

If I were ever forced to learn quantum theory, I’d start by reading this book.
128 pages, ★★★

Neither entertaining nor comprehensive, this book is exactly what its title promises: a very short introduction.

Written by the highly-respected John Polkinghorne, this book introduces a world where the laws of nature are so far-removed from that of our everyday experience that they are practically incomprehensible to most laypeople. Feynman said, “we can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Theory”. Someone else famous said, “If a person claims to understand quantum theory, then they are lying”.

I didn’t enjoy reading this book, and I’d only recommend it for those who, for whatever unthinkable reason, are required to know the basics of quantum theory (perhaps for a one-off job or for a test). Only in this rare and unfortunate circumstance would I recommend this book to anyone sane. I give it stars because it’s a well-written (if dry), and if you push yourself, you can learn something. I hold back two stars because this book want as fun as it could’ve been. A Very Short Introduction to Relativity might be more interesting. ★★★

1Q84 refined my taste in books. You’ll see more famous fiction reviewed on this blog in the future. I promise.