Tag Archives: 4 stars

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

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Book: Climate: The Counter Consensus

Climate the Counter Consensus

Sharp, focused, lucid rebuttal to the climate change consensus. Very academic.
316 pages, ★★★★

I love ecology, I love climate science and I love reading climate skeptics’ arguments. They’re optimistic yet scientific at the same time. After reading books like Climate, I feel reassured and optimistic about the future—and this is exactly where mainstream climate science books fail. Climate reassures the reader by presenting boundless evidence in support of the Gaia Hypothesis that James Lovelock proposed back in 1965.

The Gaia Hypothesis suggested that Earth isn’t just teeming with life, but that Earth itself is a giant living organism: a giant living cell, if you like. The implications of this hypothesis were (a) that planet Earth is alive, by some standards; (b) that planet Earth is designed to heal itself from any reasonable amount of damage, and has done so in the past; and (c) that Earth, no matter what humans do to it, will fix itself eventually even if the repair process involves ridding the Earth of Homo sapiens altogether. (This idea that our planet is a giant, healthy, happy organism could only have prevailed in the 1960s!)

The first of these self-healing Gaia-like feedback loops is about cycles in solar intensity. We know that solar intensity cycles every 11 years and every 60 years due to solar activity, and also cycles every 23, 41 and 100 thousand years due to changes in the Earth’s orbit. Armed with this knowledge, Climate debunks all the major climate myths without mercy, saying that present climate change is linked to changes in solar activity and will self-correct in due course. Regardless of whether this is true, this notion at least has entertainment value for doomsayers and naysayers alike. (For the record, I keep my distance from climate politics!)

Other reassurances in this book include the CO2-temperature link being ‘tenuous’, the temperature rises being much smaller than predicted (despite ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations) and how plant growth and water usage is increased greatly by increased atmospheric CO2. All of these claims are based on solid evidence. (Surprisingly, the author doesn’t make any “warming would be good anyway” arguments—some scientists do.)

My only criticism of this book is that it becomes too academic towards the end. It tackles the Stern Review, Mann’s hockey stick and the IPCC’s Assessment Reports head-on. (These are battles I was hoping the author would avoid.) I would have preferred if this book had retained its balanced, optimistic tone throughout. Instead, we’re served up an intense academic rebuttal of ten current consensus. (for a more positive, thesis-driven (as opposed to antithesis-driven) argument, read Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It! instead. ).

Overall, this climate book is a thrilling ride up to around page 200. The ending (I’m not spoiling anything here—it’s non-fiction!) is an academic barrage rather than a call for balance in climate science, which I would have preferred, but I still enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars. It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the book’s thesis or not.

Recommended for people who have already done extensive reading about climate science. For beginners, read Cool It! by Bjørn Lomborg instead. ★★★★

 

Book: From Clockwork to Crapshoot

From Clockwork to Crapshoot

History-heavy skim of all of humanity’s Physics achievements.
340 pages, 

From Clockwork to Crapshoot appeals to readers who, like me, enjoy reading history of science. It covers ancient theories of astronomy, including how the measuring the relative distances between the sun, Earth and moon, and how the camera obscura was discovered; and goes right up to today’s most advanced theoretical physics—including QED and a ‘theory of everything’.

Its only flaw is that by choosing to cover all of humanity’s Physics achievements in only 340 pages, it skims over entire centuries, leaving some fascinating characters largely unexplored. There’s no time for characterisation in this fast-paced book—reading it, we just skim from one scientific snapshot to another every one or two pages. If this book were a CD, it would be an entire album of skits with little music. People who enjoy continuity and character arcs in their books will be disappointed with this one.

Dozens of characters are introduced (and then forgotten) very quickly; it’s easy to get lost within the first 100 pages. The best way to get he most out if this book is to draw a timeline as you read. It will allow you to learn much more than from reading alone.

That said, I like how the author describes not only successful theories whose key ideas persisted for centuries—but also rival theories that were abandoned long ago. Recommended for people who enjoy reading Physics non-fiction and don’t care much for characterisation.

Also consider this book I read last year: Chasing The Sun. 

Book: Disturbing the Solar System

Disturbing the Solar System

Tour of the solar system with “gravity” as its theme
362 pages, ★★★★

Watching the film”Gravity” at the cinema renewed in me a love of Physics. I downloaded the iPhone game (which is very good!) and then searched for more physics-related books and apps. Two of the best physics iPad apps are Star Walk and Solar Walk. They’re both rated five stars, both cost $2.99 and both are pictured below.

Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Solar Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Explore the solar system freely in four dimensions.
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot)
Star Walk app for iPad (screenshot). Point iPad at the sky to see constellations, nebulae, galaxies, supernovae, meteoroids, asteroids, satellites, the ISS, the sun, moon and planets. You can even point it downwards and see the sky ‘above’ the other hemisphere!

Disturbing the Solar System was the book equivalent of these amazing iPad apps. It tours the solar system, including moons and asteroids, and focusses on the collisions and orbits that helped to for the solar system we live in today.

Two interesting observations stood out. First was the story of Titius and Bode’s Law on page 100. Bode’s Law states that the orbital distances of all the planets between (and including) Mercury and Uranus follow a pattern:

a=0.4+0.3 \times 2^m

(where a is the semi-major axis of each planet in astronomical units and m is a positive integer).

Second was the role of the moon in stabilising Earth’s climate. The book explains that without the moon, our planet’s axis would wobble wildly every million years or so resulting in unstable climates that wouldn’t allow sufficient time for adaption by natural selection. Without our moon, the author argues, evolution on Earth would have been thwarted and humans might even have not existed!

Disturbing the Solar System an interesting read and is a perfect companion to the incredible iPad apps that I mentioned earlier. Use them in tandem so you can ‘see’ what you’re reading about. Recommended for anyone interested in the solar system. (For anyone less interested, just get the apps!) ★★★★

Book: The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

Beautifully illustrated.
248 pages, ★★★★

I love physics. I love the mysteries at the frontier of physics and the mind-boggling quantum and relativistic strangeness that happens at very large and very small scales. I’m also an admirer of Stephen Hawking—mostly for his ability to convey science in such a clear, lucid way, but also for his ability to inspire millions of children into developing a love of physics. His books, iPad apps, films and lectures have inspired millions of young people into science.

This book is no exception.

The highlight of this book is when he explains the Hawking radiation that’s emitted from the event horizons of black holes with low mass. Hawking radiation was calculated from the principle that particles and antiparticles, as pairs, pop in and out of existence all the time, even in a vacuum. They appear, then quickly collide again and annihilate each other. Therefore, if an antiparticle appears on one side of an event horizon, and its partner particle appears on the other, then even if there’s only a tiny distance between them, one of the particles could be emitted into space while the other gets drawn into the black hole. The event horizon thus emits a tiny amount of radiation while the black hole gains mass. Fascinating!

I love the illustrations in this book. They’re as clear as my favourite Chemistry textbook by Whitten et al. (reviewed here) and as informative as one of my favourite history textbooks: Quick Access to Chinese History. Here are two of my favourite pages (the graphic conclusion and the double-page spread on subatomic particles).

Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time subatomic particles page

The only downfall is in the penultimate chapter, when Stephen Hawking discusses the consequences of a deflating universe (as opposed to an inflating universe, which we live in). Hawking predicts that events would happen backwards, and takes the illustrations to the extreme. He says (and illustrates) that buildings would un-demolish themselves and that people would age backwards because the universe’s entropy needs to decrease. Personally, I think that if the second law of thermodynamics were to be reversed, I don’t think that the universe spontaneously reversing human demolition is the most efficient means of decreasing entropy. (A more efficient means might be to aggregate sub-atomic particles of a similar type—resulting in less entropy but more “mess” from a human perspective.) For me, this chapter was conjecture.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read. It engages young readers as well as adults, and conveys information in a clear, graphical way. Recommended for anyone starting to study physics. ★★★★

Book: Einstein’s Cosmos

Einstein's Cosmos by Michio Kaku

Excellent modern physics primer that’s mostly a biography of Einstein
203 pages, ★★★★

Author Michio Kaku is a very talented science writer. He is one of the few science writers who achieves the near-impossible goal of communicating advanced science accurately, in a way that’s easy to understand, and with added humour throughout. Most writers can’t do that!

In Einstein’s Cosmos, Kaku explores how Einstein’s life story shaped almost all of modern physics. The question of uniting two seemingly incompatible theories is a recurring theme in this book (and in physics itself). The first instance is on page 11, where we learn how Einstein was faced with the problem of reconciling Newton’s forces and Maxwell’s fields. “One of them had to fall”, Kaku writes. Einstein would topple Newtonian forces and replace them with something beautifully simple.

Kaku’s analogies are very easy to understand. To illustrate length contractions and time dilations using cars, he slows the speed of light down to 20mph and describes what each observer would see.

We’re now faced with an incompatibility between general relativity and quantum field theory. Both hold true at different scales, but they don’t seem to overlap properly as part of a grand “unifying theory”. Just as Einstein unified Newton’s and Maxwell’s equations, physicists are now faced with the task of unifying general relativity and quantum field theory—and the book almost exactly as it started.

Beautiful! ★★★★

 

Book: Information Graphics (Taschen)

Information Graphics

Giant trilingual compilation tome of graphics by various international artists.
5.0 kilograms, 

I’m a visual learner and a huge fan of data visualisation. I’m not very good at visualising data by myself (my own efforts are posted here), but I do appreciate the beauty and apparent simplicity of other people’s finished results. The surge in data visualisations we’ve seen in recent years is owed to two things: an overwhelming amount of data made available by the internet; and vast amounts of computing power available to analyse this data in great depth. We can now analyse entire genomes, millions of ‘tweets’, or entire books and their full revision histories relatively quickly to make meaningful conclusions.

All data visualisations can be judged by their beauty, utility and complexity. Very few of the examples in this book hit all three of those targets. The cover image, for example, is beautiful and complicated but useless. The “Earth history” timeline on page 257 is beautiful and useful but too simple. The “So You Need a Typeface” graphic (below) is useful and complex, but its scrambled layout makes it look bland and difficult to read.

photo-4

That said, this is an art book, and I’m not supposed to ‘like’ everything in it. Considering that art’s purpose is to make people think, then this book succeeds spectacularly. It’s multi-lingual (written in English, French, German, Russian and others—and no particular language dominates the book), so I’m left guessing most of its content. I wasn’t even sure how to read this book: the book itself is too large to open up on my desk, doesn’t fit in my bag, doesn’t fit in one hand, is too cumbersome to take outside and would be exhausting to read in bed. Closed, it’s the size of a pillow! Its intended audience probably reads it on giant artists’ drawing tables—I had to read it on the floor.

I didn’t learn much content from this book. There’s no story, no chapters or sections and the whole book lacks organisation. Many of the fonts are illegibly small, and most of the captions are uninformative (or in foreign languages), which implies that I’m actually not supposed to learn anything—just appreciate the pretty aesthetics.

What I did learn, however, was that I had a particular taste in data visualisations—I like them useful, beautiful and complicated. Thankfully, this book’s massive size meant that there were still dozens of graphics (in 500 pages) that I actually really liked. Recommended for fans of graphic design. 

 

Book: Diversity and Inclusion in Australian Schools

Diversity and Inclusion in Australian Schools

Necessary primer for teachers
396 pages, ★

This book is an introduction to the level of diversity we should expect in Australian schools. It covers:

  • Linguistic diversity (ESL and native speakers)
  • Cultural diversity (including indigenous cultures)
  • Gender diversity (i.e. girls and boys)
  • Learning difficulties
  • Challenging behaviour
  • Complex communication needs (e.g. inability to speak)
  • Intellectual disabilities (as different from, and more severe than, learning difficulties)
  • Sensory impairment
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • “Gifted and Talented” students

This book takes a highly theoretical, academic approach to the above topics. It describes what’s already being done in schools, and illustrates each topic with anecdotes from students’ perspectives but doesn’t directly teach teachers how to adapt their lessons to embrace this diversity. Even though this book was an excellent primer to the topic of diversity, I still need to read more about how to design lessons that cater to a range of learning styles in the classroom from books with a more practical focus. For my mini-project on ADHD, for example, the information in this textbook was far from adequate to make a 5-minute PowerPoint presentation. (Bizarrely, it covers deafness and gender in far more depth.)

That said, it’s one of those books that all teachers should refer to every time we meet a new form of diversity in our teaching career. It’s unlikely we’ll see all of these diversities in our first cohort of students—but it’s likely that we’ll see all of these diversities at some point in our careers. All teachers should have this book on their reference shelf.

At a hefty $79 exc. GST, this book is only worthwhile for teachers or teachers-in-training who will use this book professionally. Highly recommended for teachers. Not recommended for anyone else. 

 

Book: The Skilful Teacher

The Skilful Teacher: On technique, trust and responsiveness in the classroom

Expert, practical teaching advice.
279 pages, ★★★★

One of my lecturers at Monash University confessed to having an “academic crush” on this author when she started her teaching career. I can see why: Brookfield’s advice is useful, comprehensive and easy to read. It’s neither overly theoretical, nor weighed down by excessive branding (like the UbD and Whole Brain Teaching initiatives). I see this book by Stephen Brookfield as a one-man supplement to the PEEL teaching handbooks.

I’ve summarised some of the book’s highlights below.

First, bad classes are not your fault. Don’t take bad classes to heart.

Second, over-intervention and over-encouragement can cause negative effects: anxiety, patronisation, distrust and dependence. This begs the question: how should teachers occupy themselves when they’re at the sidelines in the classroom?

Third, I love this passage on page 90. Take a look at the images below.

photo 1 photo 2

Fourth, the book makes “critical incident questionnaire” (CIQ) a key selling point. The letters ‘CIQ’ are present on almost every double-page. CIQ forms train students to become reflective learners and provide teachers with up-to-date feedback about which ideas/concepts were taught clearly and which ideas/concepts were not. The author is a major supporter of quick CIQ forms in all classes.

Fifth, write helpful comments, whether they’re critical or supportive. Written comments should be clear, immediate, regular, accessible, individualised, affirming, future-oriented, justifiable and educative.

Sixth, don’t succumb to “conversional obsession” (the act of trying to convert impossibly stubborn students).

Seventh, manage your email trail. Which conversations might require a written record? Which conversations are best kept unwritten?

Finally, he ends with a joke. The last of 15 pieces of advice in the final chapter is written as follows: “Maxim 15: Don’t Trust What You’ve Just Read”.

Of course, everyone’s reading will be different. You’ll notice ideas in this book that I overlooked. I strongly recommend this book for any professional teacher. This book isn’t wholly relevant, but there’s a lot of relevance in this book. ★★★★

Book: Mindful Learning

Mindful Learning by David B. Strahan

Obvious, practical advice.
212 pages, ★★★★

Mindful Learning is exactly what you’d expect from looking at its title. It combines the results of four years’ collaborative research by teachers and students into how best to engage students in the learning process at school. Most of the book’s solutions are either well-established theories or are common sense. I’ve summarised four of my favourite snippets below.

First, most interesting was the “learning and face” section. Peer pressure and teacher pressure are often contradictory. Some students also feel pressured into “acting Black” or “acting Latino”, which often contradicts the wishes of their parents and teachers. Students hold the misconception that “being smart” is a “gift from birth”, and isn’t the result of tenacious practice. School students want success to be seen as effortless (“I didn’t practice for this test at all”), and failures to be seen either as inadvertent or someone else’s fault (“I forgot my homework/sports kit”).

Second, all our actions are efforts to fulfil five basic needs: security, belonging, power, freedom and fun. While this theory is by no means perfect, it’s a simple way for some students to develop more empathy. This theory comes from Glasser (1993).

Third, teaching and learning should be integrated with life; i.e. school curricula should be relevant! This is common sense, but is seldom carried out.

Finally, in a verbatim classroom transcript on page 29, a teacher asks a class how to calculate the volume of a fish. I tried it out with great success—it’s the best question I’ve ever set in a maths class. More on this later.

This book is more of a blend (like PEEL) than a brand (like UbD). It’s a collection of common sense teaching practices, and for that reason, I give it a positive review. I recommend this as a light, supplementary reading for existing professional teachers. ★★★★

Book: The Future Eaters

The Future Eaters

Australian history in three stages: Geology, Aboriginals, Europeans.
432 pages, ★

The Future Eaters is written in three parts: (1) the geological formation of the Australian continent; (2) the arrival of Aboriginals; and (3) the arrival of Europeans.

Part one is a geological history of the Australian continent. In short, Australia was a unique, vast, climatically stable continent. Australia had no ice ages, little climate change and no human influence, so its plants and animals evolved to be enormous and easy to catch, such as the moa (see picture below). Author Tim Flannery says that Australia’s impressive diversity of animal and plant species can be explained almost entirely by (a) millions of years of climatic stability; and (b) lack of humans.

Moa hunting
Moa (giant birds) prevalent in Australia before the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago.

Parts two and three talk about the Aboriginals and Europeans who arrived 40,000 and 300 years ago, respectively. These two parts are faster-paced and are by far the most interesting to read.

In terms of tone, The Future Eaters is hit-and-miss. Towards ancient Aboriginals, it’s sometimes flattering and sometimes accuses them of ecological recklessness. In some places, it’s wordy and long-winded, while in others, it’s extremely interesting and concise. I’ve summarised the three most interesting parts below.

1. Aboriginals loved fire. They burned forests to such an extent that early European explorers described Australia as the “land of fire”. Women and children started most of the fires. However, the medium-sized Aboriginal fires prevented the massive fires that would have occurred periodically anyway, and researchers predict that the result was no net increase in the annual acreage burned!

2. Australia’s animals have become smaller in the last 40,000 years. Aboriginals hunted the largest animals for food, and put an evolutionary pressure that selected for smaller, faster, and more nimble offspring. Kangaroos, koalas, lizards… everything except the wombat has shrunk considerably in size in the last 40,000 years. Even the Aboriginals themselves have shrunk by 9% since they arrived!

3. Terra nullius was a law that gave all “unused” land to the British. Because the first British settlers couldn’t recognise any “use” of the land (i.e. agriculture), they stole Aboriginal land claiming terra nullius as a justification. (The Aboriginals were of course using the land, but not for agriculture—as it was not required.) This law was only repealed in 1993 in Australia.

Author Tim Flannery is clearly a fan of Jared Diamond—he mentions him four times in this book.

“Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest living scientists” — Tim Flannery

I hope that Tim Flannery realises The Future Eaters is almost as information-rich as Collapse by Jared Diamond, which I reviewed two days ago. (Despite the title, I also found The Future Eaters less pessimistic than Collapse, which, taken together, earns these books the same 4 star rating.)

This book was extremely wordy in places but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in natural history, anthropology and Australia—or anyone in Australia who likes Jared Diamond. Keep reading The Future Eaters even when it seems slow. It’s worth it! 

Book: The Tsunami Countdown

The Tsunami Countdown

Gripping. So full of action and science that there’s no time for character development.
494 pages, ★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Protagonist Kai Tanaka faces a once-in-a-lifetime dilemma when a mega-tsunami heads towards his home state of Hawaii. Kai is both the acting director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Honolulu, and also a father of two typically rebellious and hormonal teenage girls. The Tsunami Countdown tells the story of Kai’s struggle to save both the Hawaiian people and his own family from the wrath of the mega-tsunami.

The thriller is written in two parts: analysis and action. The first, ‘analytical’ part describes the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre’s investigation into some freak data that emerged from meteorological and seismological monitoring stations around the Pacific. Even though the reader knows the outcome (a mega-tsunami is going to hit), the author keeps us addicted to the chase. Suspense builds on every page as new evidence comes to light, culminating in the loss of all contact with nearby Christmas Island—as if the island had disappeared completely. For me, following the protagonist’s train of thought through the scientific and moral dilemma was the most exciting part of this book.

The book becomes a tense, gripping, slightly frustrating action thriller after the “mega-tsunami” alarm is sounded. Very quickly, the reader follows the separate adventures of Kai, Rachel and their children. Rachel is a hotel manager shouldered with the responsibility of evacuating the most difficult group of evacuees imaginable: a congregation of fearless, elderly veterans, many disabled, who speak almost no English at all. On top of that, the guests’ usual reaction to a tsunami (taking refuge above the third floor of a sixth-storey building) would be insufficient when this mega-tsunami hits—only by evacuating to higher elevation inland could they be safe. Rachel’s attempt at a group evacuation is laden with obstacles: many dismiss the mega-tsunami warning as a misjudgment or a ‘prank’, and of those who do take action, many risk their lives by not paying attention to the details. Kai, meanwhile, embarks on an equally-impossible mission to rescue his daughters from the beach, making the occasional ethical decision as he does so.

While this second ‘action-thriller’ half is probably the most gripping story I’ve ever read, it also neglects character development in favour of pure action to the point that I was completely unmoved when key characters die towards the end! The incoming mega-tsunami leaves little time for characterisation and subplots. In the face of the tsunami, most of the characters become similar with the exception of a few obvious clichés (Kai’s daughters and Chuck). Character development is noticeably missing from the ‘dragster-car’ storyline in the second half (fast, straight and narrow).

One thing I did learn from this book is that people don’t always listen to experts. When the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre asked people to evacuate the mega-tsunami on foot, many took to their cars, which slowed everyone’s evacuation. Others didn’t listen to the warning, accepted their fate, or, as in the case of Kai’s teenage daughters, blatantly defied it by going to the beach. For me, “why do people ignore expert advice?” is one of the most interesting questions raised in this book.

I particularly recommend this book for young men such as myself. I enjoyed reading The Tsunami Countdown, and I praise the author for making it not only scientifically plausible, but also crammed with real science.

As a secondary school teacher, I would be happy to teach this book in a geography or science class. I would draw on the following aspects:

  • Earthquakes: Why they occur, types of waves they create
  • Meteors: Origin, structure, impacts, investigate real meteors
  • Waves: How they move, the energy they carry
  • Ethics: Who would you save first? Why do people ignore expert advice?
  • Politics: To what extent should the government help?
  • Modern history: Investigate the Boxing Day tsunami

Finally, the compass on the book’s cover is somewhat misleading. The cover on the American edition (titled Rogue Wave) is much more appropriate for this story. ★★★★

Book: 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

Perfect material for ProVoc (free language-learning software for Mac)
196 pages, ★★★★

I’ve been studying this gorgeous little book recently.

One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese language is its allegorical sayings. Like idioms, proverbs and set phrases, allegorical sayings enrich daily Chinese conversation and make the people who use them sound more intelligent. Many of these expressions make allegorical references to religion, history, legends or folklore.

Allegorical sayings come in two parts. The first part is an allegory (such as 八仙过海, “Eight Immortals cross the ocean”) and the second part is an explanation that describes  the context you’re in (such as 各显神通, “each displays his/her own unique talents”). This particular allegory is rooted in Daoism.

Some allegorical sayings rely on homophones. For example, 打破沙锅,问到底 is a homophone of 打破沙锅,璺到底. The first part means “break the earthenware pot”. As for the second part, just by changing one character, the meaning changes from “crack it right through” to “get to the bottom of this issue”. Therefore, saying the first part, “break the earthenware pot” can be an allusion to “get to the bottom of this issue” in Chinese conversation. The Chinese adore homophones.

This book explains 100 famous allegorical sayings with explanations and illustrations.

Here are three examples from the book:

  1. 狗拿耗子 – 多管闲事
    Dog trying to catch mice—meddling in other people’s business.
  2. 秋后的蚂蚱 – 蹦跶不了几天
    Grasshopper in late autumn—nearing one’s end.
  3. 小葱拌豆腐 – 一清二白
    Plain white tofu mixed with a little spring onion—as clear as day.

ProVoc is the perfect app for learning vocabulary on a Mac.

ProVoc Screenshot
Full-screen vocabulary slideshows and full-screen vocabulary tests in ProVoc (Free)
  • Create your own vocabulary database or download another user’s vocabulary list from within the app.
  • Click ‘Play’ to view gorgeous, full-screen slideshows of your vocabulary complete with sound, images and videos.
  • Take four types of quizzes based on your vocabulary. Difficult words will automatically appear more frequently than easy ones.
  • Customize just about everything using a simple, aesthetic, high-contrast interface. Create your own quiz styles, customise the slideshow, or share your vocabulary lists for others to use.

ProVoc and this book are a perfect combination for anyone wanting to improve the quality of their spoken Chinese! ★★★★

Book: New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Too much Uncle Tom.
195 pages, ★★★★

This collection of very detailed essays were written by different authors, so there’s naturally a lot of overlap in content.

Rather than review this book, I’m going to share some of the reflections I made while reading it.

  1. Some critics [of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] said the book isn’t a part of high culture because it appeals to the masses. Others said it appeals to sadness, too fundamental a human emotion, and thus yields no artistic merit. I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t sad at all because even though characters in the book suffer, the author doesn’t choose to dwell on their suffering. She merely describes it, leaving any reflection up to the reader.
  2. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison suggested angrily that there were two Jesus Christs: one passive, long-suffering Christ for blacks, and one rebellious, warrior Christ for whites. According to Christian values in 19th century America, whites and blacks were expected to respond to suffering in different ways!
  3. Stowe held back on describing sexual abuse because the novel’s intended audience included children. In reality, sexual abuse of young, female slaves was widespread (Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have abused his slaves sexually, for example).
  4. Women played a role in ending slavery by persuading their white husbands that slavery was wrong, and by requesting that blacks stay subservient rather than self-determined. (A violent slave population would not have elicited sympathy from the whites.) By not fanning the flames of oppression or of revolution, women allowed slavery to ‘burn out’ faster than it otherwise would have.
  5. Gothic portrayal of women in nursery rhymes as “houses” is something to think about.

Between these interesting points was a great amount of detail that would lend itself well to a book club or a literary seminar. This book contained more than enough analysis of Uncle Tom for the average, interested reader. ★★★★

Book: STS Education: International Perspectives on Reform

Okay, I acknowledge that most of these teaching books aren’t of any interest to most people. My next book review will be an interesting one—I promise. 🙂

STS Education
Another hard-to-find book

“Please make science education relevant”.
259 pages, ★★★★

STS stands for “Science, Technology & Society”. It’s an international group founded in Oxford in 1990 with the aim of re-thinking how to teach science in today’s schools. All the authors in this book broadly agree that the science taught in schools needs to be more relevant to our daily lives. No more lofty, pointless theory. Many of you will know that I agree with that. 🙂

Instead of just “this is how nuclear reactions happen”, STS aims to add, “here are the safety, environmental and economic implications of nuclear power plants”.

Instead of just “this is how plants photosynthesise”, STS might add, “here are the implications of using biomass as a source of ethanol for cars”.

STS isn’t alone. ChemCom, SEPUP, SATIS, SISCON and SCISP, and—shameless plug—The Triple Helix are all striving towards the same goal.

I’ve summarised the most interesting chapters of STS Education below. Notice that all the authors broadly agree!

In Chapter 1, Joan Solomon argues for moral science education because the next generation will use science to have a huge influence on society. She uses the industrial revolution, the green revolution, energy crises and myxomatosis to illustrate her point (in a revised edition, she might also allude to avian flu, SARS, improvised explosives and food safety scandals). Only “moral science” classes can ensure that the next generation’s use of science is positive.

In Chapter 2, Glen Aikenhead wants to keep science education relevant. According to Aikenhead, science has made three major leaps in history:

  • First, Natural Philosophy emerged based on observations of nature. Bernard Sylvester (12th century); Roger Bacon (13th century); Nicole Oresme (14th century); Leonardo da Vinci (15th century); Nicolaus Copernicus (16th century); Johannes Kepler & Galileo Galilei (17th century) all had a major influence.
  • In 17th century Europe, the counter-reformation led to the institutionalisation of science. Mersenne, Descartes, Bacon, Huygens, Boyle and Hooke all had a major influence.
  • In 19th century Europe, the Industrial Revolution led to the professionalisation of science.
  • In the 20th century, World War II led to the socialisation of science.

Aikenhead’s point (I think) it that science keeps changing, so our education of science should change, too.

In Chapter 3, John Ziman says there are 7 ways to teach science:
(Italicised comments are my own)

  1. Relevance approach—“here’s why we should learn about X”
  2. Vocational approach—“learning about X can help you work at Y”
  3. Transdisciplinerary approach—“X is relevant to your other classes”
  4. Historical approach—“here’s the story of how X was discovered”
  5. Philosophical approach—just don’t go there
  6. Sociological approach—the best approach—”X affects us all”
  7. Problematic approach—”what would happen if X…”

In Chapter 5*, Glen Aikenhead says STS aims to fill a “critical void” in the curriculum with “human compassion”. The actions proposed in this chapter looks like an extra layer to Bloom’s Taxonomy—a seventh, “Moral” tier. After students have understood, applied, evaluated and created things in class, can they make moral decisions based upon the information given? Aikenhead proposes that 10% to 40% of science education should be “moral science” (just once, 80% is suggested).

Aikenhead also says here that STS has four purposes (again, italicised comments are my own):

  • Cognitive—plain old brain training
  • Academic—useful knowledge for life
  • Personal—improve your own life by learning to make informed decisions
  • Social action—improve the lives of others by leading by example

*Chapter 5 was the chapter on our university reading list.

Chapter 11 talks about historiography and the public’s alternative conceptions of science. “No one has explored the views of the public about historicity of science and the relationship between theories that became superseded and those that replace them”. I love that sentence. I’d like to see “historiography of climatology” taught in schools—as well as, “alternative conceptions of science”. Both, though, are touchy subjects!

Chapter 12 is sloppy. The line “…all Africans believe in the existence of the creator—the supreme God” is ignorant, and, ironically, unscientific. (They’d never be allowed to write “all Asians” or “all Europeans”, so why is “all Africans” acceptable?)

Chapter 6 is only relevant to curriculum planners (i.e. governmental organisations). I skipped Chapter 13 on India. Chapter 14’s gender debate would have been interesting in 1990 but is now out-of-date. All other chapters were of little relevance to me.

STS is already an old idea, and some of its ideas have already been implemented in curricula worldwide. However, I think this doesn’t go far enough. I want to see MTS (for maths), HTS (for history), ATS (for art) taught in our classrooms. If we understand why we’re learning such seemingly irrelevant stuff as circle theory, then we might just pay a bit more attention in class. That can only be a good thing. ★★★★

Book: Geisha of Gion

Okay, I’m not just reading education books. Geisha of Gion has been sitting on my desk for a week or more, begging to be read. Yesterday, I finally read it.

Geisha of Gion
Written by the real-life geisha that supposedly inspired the protagonist of the same name in Memoirs of a Geisha. This book is also called, “Geisha, a Life”.

More of a ‘parallel alternative’ than a ‘fierce rebuttal’ to Memoirs.
352 pages, ★★★★

I found this book on Wikipedia while reading about Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently, according to Wikipedia:

After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life[3] in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.

Especially considering the real-life death threats involved, I expected Geisha of Gion to be a feisty, chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Memoirs of a Geisha (rather like Three Cups of Tea and its rebuttal, Three Cups of Deceit). But it’s not like that at all—there are absolutely zero references to the original book. Instead, it’s a flattering, alternative narrative written with geisha grace. The tone, however, an a few important details have been radically altered.

The main difference between Geisha of Gion and Memoirs of a Geisha is that the former portrays a much more positive light on geisha industry. The author claims that she never had sex as a geisha and that mizuage is not a “ritual deflowering” but merely a “change of hair-style”. She emphasises that the okiya (geisha-house) was almost constantly on the verge of bankruptcy (which destroys any claims that the okiya was making a mint through exploitation).

Mineko describes geishas as high-status entertainers:

We are de facto diplomats who have to be able to communicate with anyone. But this doesn’t mean we are doormats. We are expected to be sharp-witted and insightful. Over time, I learned to express my thoughts and opinions without causing offence to others.

That last sentence is particularly important. In stark contrast to the slightly weak, victimised protagonist in Memoirs of a Geisha, Mineko demonstrates her strength in this book by including stories of how she offended both Prince Charles and the Queen—on separate occasions!

This book’s abnormally high death rate worries me. It’s set mostly in 1970s Japan, renowned for its longevity, but people die at very young ages throughout. Disease is also more common than it should be—is there something dangerous about geisha-hood that this book isn’t telling us?

The truth, not that it matters at all, probably lies somewhere between these two books. I have no idea where; I also don’t care. Just enjoy reading them! ★★★★