Tag Archives: book

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: 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: 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: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Office-desk fantasy for dullard corporate brainwash victims
240 pages, ★

Admittedly, I usually don’t like self-help books. At worst, they can seem preachy and idiosyncratic. They overuse bolditalics and underlining, which makes the insulting assumption that, like those office workers I mentioned previously, I am incapable of focusing on extended prose. Only a tiny minority of self-help books persist with long-term fame (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, for example), while the vast majority get thrown out along with each passing fad.

That said, I do like some self-help books. It was an excellent self-help book that encouraged me to start reading back in 2011. I bought David Buzan’s Speed Reading from a market stall and used it (along with a blog) as motivation to read hundreds of books in the two years that followed. I lapped it up because I needed it. By applying the same logic, I conclude that the target audience of The One Thing is a sedentary desk-worker overwhelmed with boring, repetitive filing tasks and whose life has no sense of fulfillment. I didn’t gain anything from this book because thankfully, I’m not one of those people. I want you to read this review with an image of the book’s target audience in mind.

The One Thing is set in a fantasy world where small-minded, burned-out office workers busy themselves with mundane tasks like organising emails into folders or rearranging staples. People’s attention spans have been crushed, creativity has been killed, and people only skim-read because they have no time to pause and reflect. People are cogs in corporate machines and have forgotten how to think for themselves. Their universe is no wider than an office cubicle, and their only ‘window’ is a glaring computer screen.

The book tried to improve these people’s lives with the following mantra: “Focus on one thing at a time”. It then spends 240 pages rephrasing this same message repeatedly with bewildering diagrams. Some of these diagrams are so confusing that they look satirical. (I’ll be respectful and not post them here.)

The book’s biggest downfall is that it lacks ethos, or credibility. There are no historical references (in fact, there are no references at all) and the “exemplary people” mentioned in this book are all either modern-day corporations or billionaires. Predictably, the book mentions how Apple and Bill Gates both succeeded because they focused on their “One Thing”, but the logic of this link is tenuous at best. Where the ‘good’ self-help books make ample references to ancient wisdom and modern-day science and give dozens of inspiring anecdotes and statistics, The One Thing fails to deliver on all those fronts. I have no reason to take anything in The One Thing seriously.

There’s no foreword. There’s no preface. I therefore start reading chapter one without knowing the authors, without knowing why I should read this book and without knowing what I’m going to gain from it. This is a failing of The One Thing, not of the self-help genre in general. Tony Buzan, to name just one example, puts huge emphasis on the successes of his program before we even start reading. He peppers his writing with inspiring stories that are interesting to share with friends. The One Thing’s authors, however, have cut out all the useful parts (including references, which would have made the book somewhat credible) to make room for some more “fat” in the middle chapters. As a result, The One Thing is a book of zero importance.

The book is also bland. Take this quote as an example of its banality:

I ask, “How much money do you want to earn?” I get all kinds of answers, but usually the number is quite high. When I ask, “How did you pick this number?” I frequently get the familiar answer: “Don’t know”. I then ask, “Can you tell me your definition of a financially wealthy person?” Invariably, I get numbers that start at a million dollars and go up from there. When I ask how they arrived at this, they often say, “It sounds like a lot.” My response is, “It is, and it isn’t. It all depends on what you’d do with it”.

Most of the book is written in this nonsensical language. It hasn’t even been proofread properly and grammatical errors are surprisingly regular. Lacks humour throughout. I wish it didn’t take itself so seriously!

The One Thing doesn’t stand up to the competition. It tells you how to improve your life, but doesn’t do nearly as well as Buddhist books like Happiness or Tiny Buddha, which are also classed as ‘self-help’. It’s so bland that it’s not quite bad enough to be cleverly satirical (like Fight Club); and it lacks the depth of science and history that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers brought to the table in 2008.

As far as “how to improve your life” goes, it’s nothing compared with Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, who wrote at length in beautiful language about the placement of objects on your desk, the height of your chair, what to eat and how to sit, and how to clear your mind before working. Lin Yutang even told us at what times of day we are most productive.

The One Thing is a failed attempt at enlightenment for people in very boring lines of work. Take chapter 12 for example, which is titled “The Path to Great Questions”. After walking us through a brainstorming technique designed to formulate such “great questions”, the authors give us these four lame examples:

  1. What can I do to increase sales?
  2. What can I do to double sales?
  3. What can I do to double sales in six months?
  4. What can I do to increase my sales by 5 per cent this year?

WHAT? Is that all that’s on the author’s mind? So dull…

My criticisms aren’t all subjective, either. I also found this book internally-contradictory in places. There’s a whole chapter on “don’t be self-disciplined” (which is controversial purely for its own sake). Just ten pages later, the author says we should all be self-disciplined again, and spends three pages describing an experiment that suggested toddlers with more willpower would grow up to be happier, smarter, richer, healthier adults. So should we be self-disciplined or not? Confusing.

Here’s another contradiction: on page 73, he writes, underlined, “A balanced life is a myth”. We then wade through nine pages of jargon and idiosyncratic diagrams before finding the author’s proposed alternative on page 82: “Counterbalance your personal life bucket” (sic). This is another contradiction at worst, or just jargon-juggling at best. He’s certainly not giving useful advice.

I laughed when I reached page 114. Here, “One Thing” theory collapses when the authors explain that life is full of “One Things” and then asks us to do all of them in balance. (It therefore looks like the “One Thing” theory has been disproven!)

In conclusion, The One Thing is an idiosyncratic, pointlessly antagonistic and self-contradictory book written for people with no time (or for search engines!). It has tiny chapters, is highly visual, and makes heavy use of capitals, italics and underlining. Actually, this book is so repetitive and confusing that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s been written for search engines rather than people. This might just be the world’s first “search-engine optimised” book! Such poor-quality conveyance of such poor-quality ideas only deserves to be condensed into a one-page article and posted onto LinkedIn so we can all skim past it. It should never have been made into a book.

As a metaphor, this book is like a non-dry hand wash. I walk past it, I press it and I use it just because it’s there. It feels cold and flavourless and drips off my skin rather than sinking in. Even though it has a short-lived positive impact, I will never feel any long term benefits from having picked it up.

Reading this book is like eating plain tofu straight from the fridge. It’s not unhealthy, it’s just very, very bland—and around half-way through, you’ll realise it’s so pointless and tasteless that you’ll be mocking yourself for ever having read it. Aimed at Fight Club’s protagonist. Not recommended for anyone. 

Book: Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanley (9th Edition)

Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanlet (9th Edition)

The Most Perfect Chemistry Textbook in Existence.
1168 pages, ★★★★★

Here’s an early Christmas present for any Chemistry learners reading this post.

In the last few days, I’ve scoured dozens of Chemistry textbooks in search of “the perfect one”. My search came to an end this morning when I finally discovered Chemistry by Whitten, Davis, Peck & Stanlet (9th Edition)—commonly known as “Whitten”.

It’s visual. It’s perfect. It’s layout is clean and simple to understand. Everything’s colour-coded consistently across all 1000+ pages, and all in the right colours, too! Title fonts are humanist (similar to Myriad Pro, which is also used by Myer and Apple), instead of geometric (like Helvetica, which looks too harsh in comparison). Body text is set in a traditional, serif font (like Adobe Garamond), which is easy on the eyes during extended reading. Best of all, white space is left white, and not filled with distracting nonsense like cogs, cork boards and screws. Enjoy the sheer beauty of one of its pages here:

Whitten beautiful Chemistry textbook
A typical page from this gorgeously-curated Chemistry textbook

I was hooked already by page xxxvii.

The book looks wonderful on an iPad. It doesn’t come with all the digital bells and whistles that some textbooks have (such as 3D models) but to be honest, the static, 2D graphics in this book are of more educational value than all the graphics in interactive textbooks I’ve ever seen.

Hinze et al (2013) image
Click to read Hinze et al’s 2013 paper on the importance of ECPMs in Chemistry education

For example, electrostatic charge potential maps (ECPMs) of which I’m a huge fan, are used extensively in this book. I strongly believe in their educational value (read this paper on electrostatic charge potential maps by Hinze et al., 2013). ECPMs explain melting points, boiling points, covalent and ionic bonding, van der Waals’ forces and dipole-dipole interactions, hydrogen bonding, pH, K-values of acids and bases (Ka and Kb) and solubility, and then even help us to understanding reaction mechanisms. I believe that ECPMs are a golden bullet for learners of Chemistry, especially for visual learners, and Whitten’s Chemistry textbook uses ECPMs repeatedly throughout the whole book. Most textbooks don’t use them nearly enough.

Here’s an example of how Whitten uses ECPMs to explain trends in acidity:

Chemistry by Whitten page 358
Electrostatic charge potential maps are shown in colour. Perfect, right?

I’m reading this book on the new iPad Air. The back-lit white space that surrounds the body text clears your mind, soothes your eyes and makes the vivid diagrams stand out much more than they otherwise would. This is a no-nonsense textbook—every pixel is serves an educational purpose. And holding over 1000 of its beautiful pages in a device only 7.5 mm thin is a powerful feeling in itself! It’s like having an entire art gallery in your hand.

At over 1000 pages, it’s a very long textbook but the authors state explicitly in the foreword that nobody’s expected to read it from cover to cover. Instead, read its chapters as a supplement to your existing textbook while your Chemistry course progresses. Suitable for high school to undergraduate levels. Available easily online. Recommended for anyone who learns Chemistry visually—which is everyone 😉 ★★★★★

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.


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: 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: Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2

Colourful VCE Chemistry textbook especially good for visual learners
492 pages, ★★★★★

I care a great deal about colour and design. My revision notes always have a colour-scheme that makes sense to me, and I draw colour-coded character maps of the novels that I read (see examples in the “Popular Today” section on the right!). Information makes so much more sense to me in visual form. You can see some of those visualisations on the infographics section of by blog.

That’s one of the reasons I loved this VCE Chemistry textbook. While it doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s noticeably designed for visual learners such as myself.

First, I love the varied yet consistent use of fonts. The main text is set in Garamond on a white background, which makes it easy on the eyes when reading. Titles, tables and questions are set in a tall, rare, old-fashioned sans-serif font on a colourful background, which gives this book its unmistakably unique appearance. Annotations and extra information is set in a neutral sans-serif font (similar to Helvetica) off to the side, usually in colour, and balances the old-fashioned feel of the other two fonts beautifully. The whole book is visually pleasing, which makes me want to spend longer looking at the pages!

I also love the visual summaries at the end of each chapter. (This is where Heinemann—another VCE Chemistry textbook—falls down.) In particular, the visual summary on page 156 explains the properties of metallic bonding clearly and beautifully in one diagram. The diagram made a relatively complicated topic very simple to understand.

Nelson VCE Chemistry 1 & 2 page 156

I hope textbooks become more and more visual. Maybe with the introduction of the iPad in schools, colourful diagrams and interactive animations will become more common in the classroom. I hope so.

I’m also not alone here. Many students I’ve taught in schools are actually averse to reading the main text in a textbook. They don’t even notice the Garamond—they only see the titles and diagrams. While we still need to focus heavily on improving literacy on the one hand, we also need to acknowledge this trend towards more visual ways of presenting information on the other.

As a teacher, I advocate more ‘translation’ activities as discussed on PEELweb.org and as is routinely done with ESL students in IELTS: set students the tasks of translating diagrams into prose and vice-versa. We need to incorporate visual learners in our curricula, for which, this textbook is an excellent starting point. ★★★★★

Book: Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced (VCE Units 3 & 4)

Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced cover

The best textbook for VCE Chemistry Units 3 & 4
496 pages, ★★★★★

Heinemann Chemistry 2 Enhanced (Heinemann 2) is the best VCE Chemistry textbook in existence. There are two other major brands (Nelson and Jacaranda) but Heinemann 2 beats both of them in terms of comprehensiveness and clarity.

I read the whole book from start to finish in preparation for teaching VCE Chemistry. I love the clarity, the use of full colour and the connections to real life in this book. I also love how the most difficult unit,  Unit 4, consists of hard and easy chapters in alternation! Left-brained chemical production processes are interspaced with right-brained “chemistry in society” chapters, which are easier to understand. The whole book is organised according to the VCE Chemistry Study Design, too—and the Key Knowledge from the Study Design are pasted at the start of each chapter.

Heinemann 2 isn’t perfect, though. I noticed two errors:

Page 91: the infra-red (IR) spectrum of ethanol is wrong. Compare the book’s example (top) with a typical example found online (bottom):

Ethanol WRONG Infrared Spectrum

Ethanol Infrared Spectrum

Why is the O-H stretch in Heinemann 2‘s spectrum so narrow and short?

Page 445: the bottom paragraph on tin plating is very unclear. The book uses “tin” to refer both to the “tin can” and to the “tin plating”, even though only the latter is actually made of tin. An extract from Heinemann 2 is below.

Confusing Extract from Heinemann 2

…that’s confusing!

With the exceptions of IR spectroscopy and tin plating, Heinemann 2 gives you comprehensive coverage of all the topics in VCE Chemistry. As long as you look up those two topics on ChemGuide, Heinemann 2 is the only textbook you’ll need to buy. ★★★★★

More resources might pique students’ interest, though. Try these websites:

  1. ChemGuide — succinct, text, covers VCE well ★★★★★
  2. Richard Thornley — tutorials for VCE and a little beyond ★★★★★
  3. Kahn Academy — tutorials for VCE and far beyond ★★★★★
  4. ShowMe — covers most of VCE ★★★★

And try these iPhone apps for organic chemistry:

  1. Organic Chemistry Nomenclature — revision flashcards ★★★
  2. MolPrime — great for drawing organic molecules with your finger ★★★
  3. ChemSpider — look up properties of the molecules you drew in MolPrime! These two apps work seamlessly together. ★★★

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: 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: Choose Life

Choose Life

A vision of utopia shared by East and West
375 pages, ★★★★★

This book entered my reading list via a DVD called Let Harmony Redeem (和谐拯救危机). The DVD is a dialogue between Buddhist monk Ven. Master Chin Kung and renowned Buddhist Dahui Chen. This approximately 12-hour dialogue has had massive influence in Asian countries and in overseas Asian communities by revitalising traditional Chinese culture.

The DVD was modelled on a book called Choose Life. Choose Life is a dialogue between Daisaku Ikeda and the renowned British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Their conversations cover all aspects of life and culture and are organised by theme. Like the DVD, Let Harmony Redeem, the authors reach a consensus on all the topics despite their very different cultural perspectives. The result is calming and utopian.

Topics in Choose Life range from subconscious thought process to the social role of literature; from our animal instincts to the ideal property market. Most interesting was the dialogue on the purpose of a school education. The authors agreed that the primary aim of education should be to teach children how to live, and practical benefit should be relegated to just a secondary aim. I agree completely.

Choose Life reminds me of The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang (reviewed here). These two books describe a meaningful life at large and small scales.

I recommend Choose Life particularly for non-Asians who want to explore East Asian culture in more depth (like me!) ★★★★★

Book: Questioning Collapse

Macanany Yoffee Questioning Collapse

Grandiose, obsessive, delusional criticisms of Jared Diamond.
390 pages, ★★

Questioning Collapse is a direct rebuttal to Jared Diamond’s epic anthropological book titled Collapse (I reviewed that book here). In the preface, Questioning Collapse aims to improve on Collapse by being optimistic and easy-to-read, while at the same time retaining academic credibility. It also claims to correct some of Jared Diamond’s professional “mistakes”.

Unfortunately, Questioning Collapse didn’t need to be written. Collapse was a rare display of academic content written in very readable prose, and absolutely no improvement was needed. Jared Diamond also made it explicitly clear when he was making speculations, and there was therefore no need to “correct his mistakes”! These authors tried too hard to overstep the legendary Jared Diamond and failed.

Questioning Collapse is an edited book (i.e. each auth). Like most edited books, the chapters don’t quite fit together. There’s no consistency from beginning to end and the different authors sometimes repeat each other unnecessarily. Questioning Collapse isn’t even a pleasure to read. Despite its wanting to be ‘optimistic’, it spends more time deriding Jared Diamond than building on Collapse.

I’d like to see this book re-written in a positive tone and re-titled, “Collapse: a follow-up study” or “Collapse: recent developments”.

What bothers me most is that the authors of Questioning Collapse put lengthy, illustrated biographies in highlighted boxes at the end of each chapter. Why? It seems that this book isn’t about improving on Collapse at all—it was just a platform for a dozen or so scientists less successful than Jared Diamond to try and boost their careers. ★★

Book: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Beautiful, credible, vivid glimpse of the future.
565 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.

This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.

Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.

Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.

Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.

Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.

I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.

The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.

I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.

The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★

Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.