Writing is hard. That’s why I enlisted the help of GPT-2, the world-famous writing robot, to write this travel guide to our beautiful planet.
To create this masterpiece, I first asked GPT-2 to list its favourite places on Earth. It listed 20 locations (and numbered them from 1 to 21 because it omitted number 13), most of which were real places. I then fed the list of places back into the writing machine one by one to generate each of the chapters.
Interestingly, it invented a few fictional places including one called “El Gringo del Diablo” (which is every bit as diabolical as the name suggests) and you can read about it in chapter 2. GPT-2 went off topic several times (something I’m still working on) and included recipes, interviews, news articles and stories in this travel guide as well.
This book is a sequel to Humanity, which GPT-2 wrote earlier the same week and is also available on Amazon.com.
Writing is hard. That’s why I enlisted GPT-2, the world-famous AI-powered writing robot, to write me a book overnight while I slept. After being trained by reading millions of real English-language articles on the internet spanning a wide range of genres, I left the machine running overnight to write me a book.
I didn’t ask it to write a self-help book. It decided that by itself. (In fact, in the test run, it wrote a very detailed news report about a bombing in Afghanistan… entirely fictional, of course.)
The machine occasionally got stuck. Sometimes, it would get caught in endless loops and write the same thing over and over again until I intervened. On more than one occasion, it would write “Yours sincerely,” or simply “THE END” and refuse to write any more. These trials were discarded until a coherent book emerged.
To create this masterpiece, I allowed GPT-2 to write whatever it wanted (with creativity set to “high”) without any input prompt. Fortunately, it wrote a numbered list… so I fed each of those list items successively back into GPT-2 (with “moderate” creativity this time) to create each of the chapters.
What emerged is this book, titled Humanity, which is a subjective reflection of human nature as we like to portray ourselves on the internet. It’s dark at times, uplifting at others, and there’s even a realistic (but fake) interview with Donald J. Trump.
Before we blame GPT-2 for writing things we find disagreeable, please remember that humans, collectively, taught GPT-2 literally everything it knows.
This book is a collection of lies we taught to our Year 12 Chemistry students in their graduation year.
The lies include well-meaning simplifications of the truth, mistakes in the textbook, and, in a few extreme cases, blatant falsehoods.
This book isn’t a criticism of the VCE Chemistry course at all. In fact, I wrote this book to demonstrate the overwhelming complexity of Chemistry and the consequential need to make appropriate omissions and generalisations during our teaching as we tailor our lessons to the appropriate year level of students.
Rules taught as true usually work 90% of the time in this subject. Chemistry has rules, exceptions, exceptions to exceptions and so on. You’ll peel pack these layers of rules and exceptions like an onion until you reach the core, where you’ll find physics and specialist maths.
Click here to download We Lied to You (2019 edition).
After several hurdles, I’m happy to announce that Fighting Chemophobia is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions for international delivery. Amazon.com and three other independent online book vendors have signed up to stock Fighting Chemophobia.
Buy your copy by clicking the links below – or search Amazon.com or your Kindle device for Fighting Chemophobia to download the book.
Signed copies are of this new third edition are of course still available via this website. Click the PayPal link below to order your signed copy.
I’ve been working on some exciting things in the last few months. Watch this space for teasers.
The second batch of Fighting Chemophobia books are finished! After a long search, we have finally found two great companies for printing and distribution in China. Dianzan design and printing company has laid the book out with great care and precision and turned Fighting Chemophobia into an excellent-quality product in both hardback and paperback editions. The 80 gsm Dowling paper feels great, and there are even some full-page colour images scattered throughout the book. Shunfeng Express is handling cheap, quick shipping and is currently achieving 2-day deliveries within China. They predict 7-day delivery times internationally.
This second batch is higher quality than the first. I’m sure you’ll love what these people have produced.
Working with a publisher could have saved me the search for an editor, a printer, a distributor, a marketer and a translator. Self-publishing has been more rewarding in this regard: not only have I selected the people I’ve worked with to bring this book to completion but I’ve probably learned more this way about the process of writing, editing, printing, binding, marketing and distributing a book than if a publisher had handled the entire process on my behalf.
You can buy your signed copy of the second batch of Fighting Chemophobia using the PayPal link below. Click subscribe on this page to receive future (approximately fortnightly) email updates.
Reading is the key to developing a comprehensive understanding of any subject by yourself. By the end of Year 12, you’ll need to have mastered the skills of independent reading, note-taking, and asking for help. Today, we’ll focus on the first of those key skills: independent reading.
There are three main types of reading: inspectional, analytical and synoptical reading. How you read depends on your purpose for reading.
1) News articles require Inspectional Reading
In a magazine or academic journal, skim over the headlines and pictures to find articles that might interest you. I recommend reading New Scientist as an excellent source of up-to-date science news. I used to read this magazine each morning before reading the day’s textbook chapter(s) while I was a student in Cambridge. Inspectional reading involves skim-reading then re-reading if the article is particularly relevant to you. You might even want to cut it out and keep it for future reference.
2) Your Chemistry textbook requires Analytical Reading
The key to analytical reading is to make annotationsand excellent notes. If you’ve purchased a printed copy of the book, then you’ve purchased the right to annotate that book with ink, Post-it Notes® and highlighters. In difficult/technical sections of the book (such as the introduction page to NMR spectroscopy in Heinemann Chemistry 2), summarise each paragraph in 7 words or fewer in the margin. Transfer your notes to A4, lined paper and file your notes in an organised way. Note-making is the best way to learn while you read a technically difficult text such as your Chemistry textbook.
3) When you have an assignment due, you’ll need to do a Synoptical Reading of your source materials
When you need to build a bibliography, you’ll need to glean pieces of information from many sources and summarise them into your own words. You’ll also need to keep a properly-formatted references list to append to your assignment. You can read the entire text or just relevant parts – but make sure your reading is varied. Read books or articles from the references sections of books that are particularly relevant to your assignment. When writing your essay, much of the structure of the essay will ‘magically’ emerge when you link together in a logical way the dozens of sentence-long summaries that you created during your synoptical reading.
How do you read?
Is there a special reading/note-taking technique that works well for you? Do you make flashcards or mind maps? Let us know in the comments section below.
Anyone who’s spent time in a classroom knows that in any academic subject, the student who reads the textbook several times from cover to cover and makes colourful, organised notes all over it is going to excel in examinations. For this reason, I’ve been trying to get students reading their textbooks (and making great notes on them) almost as long as I’ve been teaching (since 2006). Glancing your eyes over the words in a textbook isn’t enough. How should you use a textbook properly, in any subject? There are six rules you need to follow.
1. Make notes all over your textbook
The signs of a well-used textbook are obvious: it should be inked heavily with a student’s own notes, the cover should be wrinkled and torn, and there should be at least three different brands of sticky tape holding the book together. It should flex open at 180 degrees with ease, exposing the sturdy threads of spine that prevent it from falling apart. Textbooks are designed to be used! A pristine textbook is the hallmark of a student who doesn’t study. Treat your textbook as your own, and prove that you’ve read it by plastering it with your own notes. Taking notes while you read has been proven to increase comprehension levels by up to 50%… and it makes revising much easier, too. (Just re-read your notes!) What do great textbook notes look like? In all the important sections (and that’s most sections), you should draw a horizontal line in the margin to separate each paragraph. Each paragraph should be summarised in eight words or fewer in the resulting spaces. (See next week’s post on How to Make Great Notes.)
2. Translate key words in your textbook
If you’re studying in a second language, or if you speak more than one language, it will help you to translate key terms into your first language in your textbook. Circle important new words and phrases in the textbook and write the words in your first language beside them.
3. Build vocabulary lists & concept lists based on what you read in the textbook
Vocabulary lists need to contain three things: the word in English, the definition in English and the word in your first language (if not English). Vocabulary lists relevant to the topic you’re studying need to be placed large in prominent places: your bedroom wall (if you’re a student) or on the classroom wall (if you’re a teacher). Build word lists and learn these vocabulary lists using spaced repetition software such as Pleco for iOS or ProVoc for Mac. These apps will quiz you on the vocabulary you’ve been reading at exactly the best time-intervals to ensure you beat the famous “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve”!
4. Highlight your textbook carefully
Highlight important concepts, but don’t go overboard. If you highlight everything, nothing stands out! Use your highlighter and your pen in approximately a 1:1 ratio: they should occupy approximately the same surface area on each page. The best use of a highlighter is to highlight not only key sentences in the book, but also to highlight important notes and summaries that you’ve made yourself. Key things to highlight in a Chemistry textbook, for example:
Formulae that need to be learned (lead-acid battery half-equations)
Ions (their names, formulae, charges and colours)
Acronyms and mnemonics that you’ve created from bullet lists
Phrases that examiners really care about (“carbon-carbon double bonds” and “alternative reaction pathway”, for example)
5. Make your own notes on paper using the textbook and external sources
Learning is consolidated further in your mind when you translate the notes you made in the textbook margins to make your own hand-written notes on paper. Make a first set of notes on A4 paper. Use a logical colour scheme and concise language and diagrams to consolidate the key information. Use the textbook as the basis for at least 90% for your notes, but also add information (no more than 10%) from other textbooks, news articles and examiners’ reports. Keep your notes safe, organised and visible. Hand-write your notes! Research has shown that people consolidate much more of the information they’ve read into their long-term memory when they hand-write their notes than when they use a computer to type them up. There are several theories that attempt to explain why: the most convincing of these are that computers can be distracting, that typing requires less hand-to-eye coordination than writing, and that typing is slower than writing (if we include colours, diagrams and large amounts of superscript, subscript and the special symbols required for Chemistry). Always hand-write your notes.
6. Always know the textbook references for your current topic of study
Not all teachers give textbook references for the topics they’re teaching in class. But knowing the textbook reference is crucial if students want to review what they’ve learned after the lesson. How can you make your own notes or do further reading if you don’t have a textbook reference? Even worse, many teachers provide students with their own notes, summaries or PowerPoint slides that accompany a lesson. I’m strongly against this. Learning happens in the act of taking great notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.
Learning happens in the act of taking notes, and a teacher who gives their students pre-made notes is depriving their students of the opportunity to learn.
If your teacher gives you notes or PowerPoint slides, don’t use them. Kindly ask your teacher for a textbook reference and make your own notes directly from the textbook instead. The textbook will always be more coherent, more comprehensive and more correct than any notes that your teacher distributes in class. For more information, watch this 10-minute clip from ThePenguinProf:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOlJiMKEjpY
High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres 392 pages, ★★★★★
Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.
By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.
‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.
‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.
Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.
Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★
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. ★★★★★
The Night Guest is the story of a 75-year-old widow who has a government carer arrive unexpectedly to take full-time care of her. The widow sadly declines into dementia throughout the novel and becomes increasingly dependent on her carer. However, not everything is as it seems. As you progress through this book, you’ll find yourself asking yourself what’s real and what’s not: is Freda (the carer) really a government worker? Does Ruth (the widow) really have dementia? Is Freda taking advantage of Ruth?
The ending, which I won’t reveal here, is darker than anyone but the author could have imagined. Not only is it dark, but its characters are bitchy and unpleasant and I didn’t learn anything positive from this book. I didn’t even enjoy it. Some reviewers have commended the author for creating these nasty characters and the book’s unpredictable plot in a debut novel, but personally, I think the author’s crossed a line of “negativity” and this book doesn’t deserve any credit.
There are no men in this book (not in major roles, anyway), which instantly throws its character cast off balance. What bothers me more is that nothing positive happens in this book from start to finish. The Night Guest is a gloomy, uninspiring novel with a small number of silently vindictive female characters and absolutely no point to it. I learned nothing, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would have stopped reading after 80 pages if I weren’t obliged to review it.
The “suspense” that some newspaper reviews have written about is actually just “boredom”. The “darkness” is actually “bitchiness” and the “horror” is more sickening than frightening. The relationships between all the characters are covertly abusive and become more so as you read on. This novel has no likeable characters.
So who might enjoy this book? People who enjoy horror movies, possibly? Fortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I can only give it two stars. ★★
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.★★★★
Great IELTS advice for native speakers of English 184 pages, ★★★★★
I took IELTS recently and achieved the highest grade, band 9. IELTS is the examination system by which Australia (and many other countries) tests the English level of new immigrants.
Scores range from band 1 to band 9. Someone at band 4 is a “limited user”, band 7 is “very good”, and band 9 is “expert”. Band 7 is usually high enough to enter most professions—however, the bar is being raised to band 8 in many industries.
Most IELTS books cater to the lower bands—4, 5 and 6, across which, you can make improvements simply by learning new vocabulary and making fewer grammar mistakes. I used to teach IELTS to this category of students. Many of the other IELTS books out there will ask you to practice prepositions, spelling, word lists and simple punctuation page after page. Most native speakers, however, don’t need that kind of practice.
IELTS for Success aims to raise your score from 7 to 9, which is much more difficult to do. Only knowledge of the IELTS test can do this. The book tells you the marking criteria and the style of writing the examiners are looking for—after which, native English speakers can achieve a band 9 score.
The writing section is the trickiest. IELTS examiners are looking for a very particular style of essay. A good IELTS essay describes the merits of both sides of a given argument before reaching a wishy-washy conclusion, in which you’re allowed to sit on the fence. TOEFL, however, which is used in the United States, asks for a strongly-opinionated, one-sided argument that merely acknowledges the counterargument in no more than one sentence. IELTS for Success tells you all these tips and more.
IELTS for Success is the best IELTS book that’s aimed at native speakers. It gives you “knowledge of the test”, as I call it, without the mid-level English practice. ★★★★★
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. ★★★
I just got married! I also just finished reading The Saber Tooth Curriculum…
Classic satire full of good quotes. Subject of running jokes since 1939. 139 pages, ★★★★★
The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is a collection of seven short, satirical stories that illustrate some quirky aspects of our education system. The same Stone Age society is used as a metaphor for our modern world throughout.
Allusion to the modern world is thinly-veiled. This Stone Age society has middle schools, universities, education officials, investors, and even a national curriculum. Only humour—including humorous names of people and school subjects—separates this Stone Age society from reality.
The main messages in this book’s seven stories are:
The scientific method has made absurd yet un-disprovable theories become accepted in education; (See this example.)
Schools teach an outdated set of skills to students;
School reform meets resistance from all angles;
Universities dictate school curricula with lofty, academic content and overcomplicate education with ‘credits’, ‘units’ and rules on ‘pre-requisites’;
Unions control education for the short-term benefit of society;
When young people learn outdated skills, they can’t find meaningful work;
All of this is extremely difficult to change.
I agree with most of these points. After graduation from Cambridge during the economic crisis with no job, no practical skills and no employers even remotely interested in hiring biology graduates, I felt I’d been cheated into some massive con. Unlike history or art, biology isn’t particularly interesting to other people, either. I would love to see curricula become more relevant to society than they are today—we’d have a more interesting, more employable crop of graduates in years to come.
Part II, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, is the most famous story in this book. In synopsis, a cave-dwelling society refuses to alter its school curricula despite an impending ice age which completely redefines the skills required in the workplace. This story highlights how schools still teach swathes of irrelevant knowledge (too much maths, too much chemistry) and neglect the useful skills to the detriment of everyone (reading, writing, health, religion, and more).
The most incredible thing about this book is that it’s still relevant 70 years after being written! As long as school curricula are playing catch-up with society, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum will stay relevant. Recommended for anyone who went to university. ★★★★★
Sounds like a Bible story. Heroic. 349 pages, ★★★★
Greg Mortenson, a nurse by profession and avid mountaineer from the United States, built over 50 schools, mostly for girls, in the challenging Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (Af-Pak).
Every step of this project was difficult. Building materials are hard to find and even harder to transport (much of the timber was lugged up a mountain by hand). Local leaders were averse to educating girls (and Mortenson intended to prioritise girls in his schools); and regular attacks between ethnic groups kept everyone on edge. Despite getting lost, kidnapped, and his passport destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded spectacularly.
Three Cups of Tea feels like an adventure novel throughout. It opens with a lucky plane landing, where the pilot uses a shop-bought GPS navigation system to determine whether they’re heading the right way (and they’re not—they do an about turn and land the plane with seemingly no fuel). Later, on page 179, Mortenson shares his medical experience to save the life of both a new-born baby and its mother in what the locals described as a ‘miracle’. Greg’s remarkable story is written in the third person, which makes it feel like an Indiana Jones adventure story. Some of Mortenson’s achievements even feel Biblical in proportion. (Indeed, many have pipped him for a future Nobel Peace Prize.)
Humor is added occasionally. “The British must have had a sense of humour to draw a border across an indefensible wasteland [Af-Pak], Mortenson thought” (page 159). The part where the guard destroyed Mortenson’s passport (“immediately rendering the entire document useless”) is also written with humour.
Jon Krakauer wrote a book exposing “lies and exaggerations” from Three Cups of Tea called Three Cups of Deceit.This is interesting because Three Cups of Tea describes Jon Krakauer as one of the biggest financial supporters of Mortenson’s schools project. He organised fundraising events and sold $25 tickets. Why Krakauer then wrote a book criticising Mortenson’s approach remains a mystery to me. I’ll have to read it and find out. ★★★★
Information lacks relevance throughout. I was asking, “What’s the point of this book?” somewhere around the middle. I only finished this book because I was in a hospital waiting room and found it slightly more entertaining than watching kindergarten programmes on the overhead TV.
I lost interest completely at this point:
“Imagine twisting the beads on your team’s necklace and watching the corresponding beads on the other team’s necklace twist in the opposite direction. Now imagine shattering that necklace and asking them what order the beads were in by asking them to re-twist them. Of course, the only beads whose directions can’t be communicated are the ones attached to the clasp. That’s basically Quantum Theory.”
Paraphrased from page two-hundred-and-something
This drivel disappoints me. I expect PopSci (that’s Popular Science) to bridge the gap between theory and application, thus bringing researchers closer to the public. Unfortunately, this book pushes them further apart.
This is a shame, because there’s some fascinating research being done in the field of Information Theory:
Enigma machines (WW2)
stock market fluctuations
evolution of religion
This book fails to communicate all of this amazing stuff.
Information needs to be edited by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to make it relevant and fun. I sincerely hope that this book isn’t the “new language of science” as its subtitle claims. ★