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Friday, October 31, 2008

Teach 'Both' Sides

Teach Both SidesWhile reading a story in the Houston Chronicle on the recent naming of three ID proponents to the six member Texas Science Standards Review Panel, I read the following quote, "Close-minded efforts to ban students from (hearing both sides) is dangerous and a clear detriment to students."

It used to be that when I heard this argument about teaching 'both' sides regarding evolution, I'd sarcastically wonder to myself if that meant the right side and the wrong side. However, once I got to thinking about it a little more, I realized how biased the statement actually was. Using the word 'both' implies two sides, but what are these two sides? On the one hand, there's obviously the side of evolution, the pro-science side, backed by overwhelming evidence and endorsed by the scientific community. But what, exactly, is the other side? That Tepeu and Gucamatz created all plants and animals through their thoughts; that Pangu created the earth after emerging from a cosmic egg, and after dying his body became the sun, moon, stars, creatures, and plants; that Ra, alone and lonely, masturbated to create two more gods, and those gods went on to have children gods, who eventually created everything, including the plants and animals; that Yahweh created plants and animals a couple days after he created the Earth, or that some unspecified intelligence has been tinkering with life throughout the ages?

The problem is, there are many more than two sides concerning what the various peoples of the world believe and have believed concerning how life got here. Now, if any of those stories were actually true, that would be one thing. After all, science is about following the evidence wherever it leads. It just so happens that all of the evidence supports evolution. Unless you're a proponent of Last Thursdayism, there's really no question that evolution has occured.

When someone says to teach 'both' sides, what they usually mean is evolution, and their particular interpretation of the Bible. They're not interested in actual fairness. They want to see their religious view elevated above all other religious views to be taught in school.

Website Update- Updated Graphics Program & New Quotes

It looks like I've just squeaked by getting an update in for this month. In fact, I've made a few changes (though a couple are very small). First, I've updated my Programming page with the latest version of my Circle Gradient Pattern Generator. This new version makes animations, not just still images. In a related update, I've added a couple of those animations to my Artwork page, including YouTube versions that loop when you play them (just add &loop=1 to the src link in the embed tag). Unfortunately, part of the way I control the animations right now is through actually changing the code itself, meaning that an executable version for my Downloads page is still a ways off. Hopefully I'll get to it eventually.

For a very small update, I've added a few new quotes to my Quotes page - one by Douglas Adams, one by Mark Twain, and one by Jean Giraudoux. I don't really expect most visitors to this site to look at that page, but it's a nice place for me to keep them for myself.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Random Videos

I've spent my lunch breaks this week playing around with a VB program I wrote. Well, technically, I borrowed some of the code from the Brightness Demo ©2005 by Tanner "DemonSpectre" Helland as the method to display the pixels on screen, but the actual image generation was something I developed. Go look at the Circle Gradient Pattern Generator on my Programming page if you're more interested. Initially, I made the program to generate a bunch of still images, like in the collection I have on my Artwork page. I'd always wanted to make animations with it, and that's what I finally got around to this week. Click on either of the two thumbnails below to see what the animations look like (Quicktime files, ~1.3 MB each). If you set Quicktime to loop the video, it should do so seamlessly.

Animation 4 First Frame Animation 8 First Frame

I haven't quite gotten the program to where I'm ready to share it, yet, but I hope to next week. So, consider this a preview of an upcoming website update.

Update I've uploaded both videos to YouTube, if you don't feel like downloading a Quicktime movie. The quality isn't near as good, but at least it gives you an idea of what the animations look like. Both are available below the fold.

This video was still processing as I post this. Hopefully it goes through okay.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A New Addition to the Family

I've never been much of a 'dog' guy. It's not that I don't like them, but, as I like to say, that I like other people's dogs. I like wrestling with them, playing tug of war, fetch - all the fun stuff. But I never wanted the responsibility of having to take care of one myself.

Ever since my parents found a box of kittens abandoned in a gutter, I've had cats. Cats are easy to take care of - give 'em food and water and a way to get outside, and they'll be fine. They like human affection, but as long as they have another cat to keep them company, they seem to do just fine when no people are around. Dogs are different - you have to groom them, pick up their crap, take them for walks, actually play with them every day. In a lot of ways, they're like kids, except that they'll never grow up to be able to take care of themselves. Hence, my preference for playing with other people's dogs.

Well, the other day while we were putting up Halloween decorations, a dog roaming around the neighborhood ran into our yard chasing one of the cats. I chased after them to make sure the dog didn't eat the cat, and all it took was a stern word to get the dog to leave the cat alone. Then it decided to stick around in our yard for a while. It was pretty friendly, and my daughter, as she would put it, 'loved on it' quite a bit. Well, a few hours after we'd finished with the decorations and gone back inside, the dog was still on our front door step. That's when we made our biggest mistake - we gave it a bowl of water and a small dish of cat food. It didn't leave after that, and was still out front the next morning.

So, we did the responsible thing. We put up signs around the neighborhood, called the Humane Society, ran an ad in the paper, but we never heard from anybody looking for the dog. I suppose we could have taken her to the pound, but could you do that to a face like this?


So, we decided to keep her, and named her Maddie. She's doing okay so far, but it's still tense with the cats. Right now, the dog gets the back yard, while the cats get the front yard and the house. Hopefully, they'll figure out how to get along. Here's another picture of Maddie to show how big she is:

Maddie & Jeff

BTW, my daughter took both of those pictures.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Science Standards Review Panel

TEA LogoOh boy, it looks like we're in for an ugly mess down here in Texas. For a bit of background - the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist, who has openly advocated the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools (transcript & recording). Last year, Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail announcment of a lecture by Barbara Forrest critical of Intelligent Design. This past May, McLeroy pulled some shenanigans with a last minute cut and paste job of the English standards - having the BoE approve the new standards before anyone had sufficient time to review them, all after a three year process by teachers and experts to develop the new standards. At the end of that post, I wrote, "And don't forget that the science standards are the next in line to be reviewed. If the board can be so underhanded on a topic as uncontroversial as English, I fear just what stunts they're going to pull when it comes to subjects like biology and geology."

Now, the Board of Education has just named the six people who will be on the Texas Science Standards Review Panel:

  • David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin;
  • Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence;
  • Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research;
  • Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state;
  • Ralph Seelke, an ID proponent and biology professor at the University of Wiconsin, Superior;
  • Charles Garner, an ID proponent and chemistry professor from Baylor.

The first three of those members are the type of people you'd expect on a science standards review panel. But the last three are certainly worrying, especially given the past actions of the BoE. For anyone unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute, it is nominally* a conservative think tank, whose main purpose seems to be promotion of Intelligent Design and attempts to discredit evolution. Meyer, Seelke, and Garner, have all signed the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism" statement. For an idea of how relevant that list actually is, consider Project Steve. Meyer and Seelke are even co-athors of the book,
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. For a good review of the Discovery Institute and this book, take a look at the review on ars technica. The conclusion, although a little less than polite, sums up the book pretty nicely:

But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book, but its authors are expecting that legislators and the courts will be too stupid to notice that, or to remember that the Supreme Court has declared teaching creationism an unconstitutional imposition of religion. As laws similar to Louisiana's resurface in other states next year, we can only hope that legislators choose not to live down to the low expectations of EE's authors.

I'd hope I wouldn't have to mention that evolution is in fact true, and that it's well supported by evidence and the scientific community, but unfortunately, with the state of things right now, I think I do have to say that. For a discussion of some of that evidence, take a look at a previous blog entry of mine, A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution.

While the current mantra of ID proponents seems to be to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, you have to question their motives when they say that. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too bad. Science is not a dogmatic acceptance of the teachings of your mentors - it's all about questioning the world around you and looking for evidence. Questioning the weaknesses of a theory is where you find the interesting discoveries. However, creationists tend to single out evolution with this approach. Currently, our understanding of gravity is a whole lot worse than our understanding of evolution, but you don't hear an outcry for schools to teach Intelligent Falling, or to point out the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. You also have to question just what will be taught, considering what creationists suppose are weaknesses of evolutionary theory. When you still have people asking 'what use is half an eye?', you can just imagine what they'd want the science curriculum to be. I'm not saying the review panel is that ignorant, but consider that it will be up to individual teachers to present these weaknesses.

Anyway, if you live in Texas, or if you just promote reality based education, there are several resources for this issue:

*I use the word nominally here, because it's more of a propaganda institute than anything else.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tabbed Browsing

Tabs - Just Say NoDouglas Adams once wrote, "Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."

Well, I must be a little advanced, because I'm already not understanding why it is that the kids do what they do these days. I won't even get into the silliness of using a cell phone to send text messages. No, my rant for today is on tabbed browsing. What's the point?

In my opinion, one of the best things Microsoft ever did was to implement the taskbar, and to make programs like Word give each document its own icon on the taskbar. Say I'm editing a document, and I'm pulling in sections from a few different documents. All I have to do is glance at the taskbar and click once to get to the document I want to copy from, and click once more to get back to the document I want to paste to. And it doesn't matter what any of those documents are. I could be pulling from web pages, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, pdf's, etc. And vice versa, I could be pasting into any of those types of documents. It puts the focus on the documents, making the applications themselves almost transparent.

Now, enter tabbed browsing, and all of a sudden, web pages are organized differently than everything else. It's no longer a quick glance at the taskbar to see what I have open. I have to switch to the browser, first, and then use its interface to see what I have open. I've now increased the number of clicks to get to documents, increased the time to find the documents, and, worst of all, reverted back to a mindset concentrating on applications instead of the documents.

Maybe some people push their browsers harder than I do. I've read of some people who have dozens of tabs open at once to handle the web sites they're visiting. Me, I typically only have between 20 to 30 documents of any kind open at one time. When I start doing some serious browsing during my lunch break, I seldom have more than half a dozen instances of IE open at once, and it's never seemed to be a problem.

I guess I should also mention that I use a handy utility called Taskbar Shuffle. It allows you to drag the icons around on your task bar to organize them however you want. I have no idea why it took a 3rd party to do this, and why it isn't just built into the OS to begin with, but at least it's a simple fix. I also use a pretty big monitor (1920 x 1200), so making my taskbar 3 lines tall doesn't really detract much from the real estate available to programs.

Oh well, to each their own, I guess. I just don't understand all the hubbub over tabbed browsing, when to me it's just an annoyance.

Update 2010-12-04 Okay, fine, I've finally come around. I use my browser now almost exactly like Eric described - related sessions as tabs in the same main window.

Books, A Year in Review - 2008, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsHere is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

There were three books I read this past year that I really, really liked: The City of Ember (the first of the Books of Ember), The Jungle Book, and At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea. I would strongly recommend all three of these books.

Tales of The Frog Princess

I've already posted a short review of the first book of this series. After reading the rest of the books, my opinions is pretty much the same. Out of all the young adult and children's fiction I've read over the past couple years, these books are definitely the simplest. For an adult, they're mildly entertaining. However, my 9 year old daughter (8 at the time she read them) absolutely loved them. She read the entire series, and even liked some parts so much that as soon as she finished a paragraph, she carried the book over to me and asked me to read it. So, to quote what I wrote from the previous review, "I guess the verdict is that if you're looking for a book for a child that's graduated from some of the simpler early readers (like the Junie B. Jones series), but isn't quite ready for young adult fiction, yet, then this series may be good for them. It's certainly rated very high on Amazon, and my daughter very much enjoys it."

The Books of Ember

I've already posted a short review of the first book in this series, and a movie based on the first book just opened this past weekend. The short summary of the first book is that the City of Ember is dying. The generator powering the city is breaking down and the city is running out of supplies. However, the people of Ember don't know anything at all besides their own city. The two main characters, Lina and Doon, must figure out a way to solve the city's problems. The second and fourth books in the series are sequels, while the third is a prequel. Unfortunately, I can't describe their plots without spoiling the outcome of the first.

The first book is incredible. It really sucks you in, and you have a hard time putting it down. Even my daughter read it in just two days. The rest of the books in the series aren't as engaging or exciting, but they are still very good books, and I still very much enjoyed reading them.

Once Upon a Time in the North

This book is a prequel to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It explains how two characters, Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison, first met. If I'd never read His Dark Materials and simply picked up this book, I would have thought that it was a decent story, but nothing to write home about. The best part, I thought, was the setting, in Pullman's alternate universe where history took a slightly different course than in ours. However, the reality is that I have read His Dark Materials, and seeing as how Lee Scoresby was my favorite character from the original series, I was interested to read more about his development. So, if you liked His Dark Materials, this is a nice short story that fills in a little more about some of the characters.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

There are five books in this series, but at an average of 135 pages per book, with a large font and some illustrations thrown in, the entire series still doesn't take long to read. As probably most people know now that the movie's come out, the stories are about a group of kids (twin brothers and their sister) who, after moving with their mother into the house of their old uncle, Arthur Spiderwick, discover a field guide that Spiderwick made describing a magical world of fairies, goblins, trolls, etc., that exists right alongside the normal world, but is usually hidden because the magic creatures don't want to be seen. The evil shape shifting ogre, Mulgrath, wants to steal the book, because he thinks the information it contains can help him conquer the world. As can be expected, the books were much better than the movie. Not only were there more details, but the characters were also more likeable, and the story made more sense. It should also be noted that the movie was very liberal in its adaptation. Overall, I enjoyed the series, and would recommend it to young and old like.

Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently Series

I originally read these books in middle school, and this is the first time I've re-read them as an adult. They were better than I remembered - probably because I now understand most of the references. Like most of Adams' books, they're humorous science fiction. The book jacket itself describes the book as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic". The main character, Dirk Gently (actually, more of a secondary character in the first novel, but the main character in the second), is a private investigator, who operates based on the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things." The plots themselves are a bit meandering, but the joy of these books aren't the stories themselves, but the way they're told. There was one section I found particularly funny, which I'll quote here. It's a section where Dirk is discussing the supposed fact of Isaac Newton inventing the cat door, and is a bit dismissive of his discovery of gravity.

"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." ...

"You see?" he said dropping his cigarette butt, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see."

Anyway, that's pretty indicative of the way the books are written. If you don't particularly like that passage, this may not be the series for you. I, however, liked it very much.

Peter Pan

Perhaps it's impossible to read a book like Peter Pan without any preconceptions. The story has become such a part of popular culture, with numerous adaptations. I grew up watching a cartoon called Fox's Peter Pan and the Pirates, which was where most of my knowledge of the characters came. I've only seen clips from most movie adaptations of the story, and only saw the Disney version of the story after I was an adult. Still, with all those glimpses and the Fox cartoon, I'd already formed those characters in my mind. To read the story and see them not live up to my expectations was a disappointment. This was especially true of Peter Pan himself, who was much more self-centered in the book than in any of the adaptations I'd seen. Still, it's a good story, and I enjoyed reading it. Perhaps I just need to read it a second time, now that I know what to expect.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde

Hmm. I don't have much to say on this. It was an okay story, but not great. Given how prevalent the story is in popular culture, and given how short it is, it probably is worth reading. It's just not the type of story that I'll probably ever read again. I do have one gripe - in the story, Mr. Hyde looks like pretty much a normal person, just sinister in some unrecognizable way. However, so many depictions of Hyde show him to be monstrous. In fact, the actual book that I read had a picture of a green skinned Hyde on the cover. Note that the Amazon link I've provided here is to a different edition than the one I read - I couldn't find that one on Amazon.

Gulliver's Travels

I've already posted a full review of this story. The brief summary is that Dr. Lemuel Gulliver goes on a series of trips to distant lands, each with a strange people or culture. I didn't like the book very much. For one thing, it's a political satire, but I don't know enough about the politics of the time to get most of the jokes - a bit like when my 9 year old watches The Daily Show. Worse, I disagreed with many of the themes. In the lands of Laputa and Balnibarbi, Swift mocks science. In Glubbdubdrib, Swift presents the typical grumpy old man attitude of how things were so much better in the good old days. And in general, the book was rather misanthropic. As I wrote for many of the above books, this one is probably worth reading just because it's a classic and there are so many modern references to it. However, don't go in expecting a light hearted tale of Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians, which is all that most people seem to know about the book.

The Jungle Book

I've already posted a full review of this book. It is a collection of short stories largely centered around the inhabitants of an Indian jungle, and then largely around Mowgli, the "man-cub" raised by wolves. To quote my full review, "The non-human characters were anthropomorphized to a degree - they could speak to each other (and to Mowgli), they were more intelligent than in real life, and there was a bit more organization and 'Law' than really exists, but to a large degree, the animals in the book behaved like they really would in the wild." I liked this book very much, and can definitely see why it's retained its popularity for so long.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover From the Ground Up

Buy it from Amazon
I've already posted a full review of this book. For someone like me, this book was extremely interesting. It's the autobiography of Fred Weick, a very influential aeronautical engineer. He developed a method for designing propellers, lead the wind tunnel research to develop the NACA cowling, invented the tricycle landing gear, designed the Ercoupe airplane, and was the chief engineer at Piper for a number of years, among other things. If you're an aviation buff, this is definitely a good book about a person you may not have heard enough about, before.

Dreams From My Father

Before I'd completely made up my mind about who I was going to vote for for president this time around, I figured that if there was a chance I was going to vote for Obama, I ought to try to learn a bit more about him, first. So, I bought this book. It was very interesting, and made someone like me, who'd grown up in a white suburban neighborhood, think about race issues that have never really affected me, but have had such a huge impact on other people. I did think Obama made a little bit too much of an us vs. them mentality with regard to race. But, I do recognize that racism and tension between different races does exist, particularly in certain regions, so I can understand why some people do think that way. I'll also note that I've seen a few right wing e-mails that quote portions of the book, trying to make a big deal out of them. But, having read the book, I don't think they're nearly as bad as the out of context quotes make them out to be. I'll list one of those quotes here as an illustration - the part about "ingratiating" himself to white people.

When people who don't know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother's race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose - the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds. And if I were to explain that no, the tragedy is not mine, or at least not mine alone, it is yours, sons and daughters of Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island, it is yours, children of Africa, it is the tragedy of both my wife's six-year-old cousin and his white first grade classmates, so that you need not guess at what troubles me, it's on the nightly news for all to see, and that if we could acknowledge at least that much then the tragic cycle begins to break down...well, I suspect that I sound incurably naive, wedded to lost hopes, like those Communists who peddle their newspapers on the fringes of various college towns. Or worse, I sound like I'm trying to hide from myself.

In context, it becomes more clear that it's about how people will treat him when discovering he's of a mixed race couple. While I'm at it, there's a section from Audacity of Hope I've seen that's also used dishonestly - the often misquoted section of the book about standing with Muslims. Here's the actual quote (see Right Truth for more commentary):

They [Muslim immigrants] have been reminded that the history of immigration in this country has a dark underbelly; they need specific reassurances that their citizenship really means something, that America has learned the right lessons from the Japanese internments during World War II, and that I will stand with them should the political winds shift in an ugly direction."

Hardly sounds like an endorsement of terrorism to me (and, by the way, Muslim is hardly a synonym for terrorist). For discussion of other out of context, garbled, or just plain fabricated quotes from the two books, check out this page from factcheck.org.

Tao Te Ching

I've already posted a full review of this book. As one of the central texts of Taoism, it has significant cultural influence. It's written as poetry, and can be read in a long afternoon. I didn't agree with all of it, but it was still thought provoking.

The God Delusion

For me at least, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared going into it. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion. I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.

By the way, I have started working on a full review for the book, but it's taking a bit of time. I hope to post that full review within the next month, but as usual, I'm not making any promises.

The Voyage of the Beagle

I've already posted a full review of this book. In fact, I'll just quote the introduction of that review here.

There are many reasons to like this book. One can't ignore the historical importance, since this expedition gave Darwin much of the insight that would lead to developing the theory of evolution, but this book would still be interesting even if Darwin had gone on to do nothing after sailing on the Beagle. The book is basically the journal of a young man on a round the world voyage, visiting much of South America, Tahiti, Australia, and a few other places, describing all the different cultures, geographies, and animals that he encountered.

The Victorian language makes it a bit of a long read, but it's still very interesting. Note that the Amazon link I've provided here is to a different edition than the one I read - I couldn't find that one on Amazon.


This book was divided into basically two halves. The first half was a general overview of paleontology, how we know what we know, the general trends of dinosaur evolution, etc. The second half was devoted to short one to two page summaries of individual dinosaur species. It's not exactly an in-depth book, and I think it's targeted more at young adults, but I thought it was a very good introduction and overview. For an interested layman like me, who's read lots of articles on dinosaurs here and there, and looked at exhibits in museums, a book like this helps tie all that information together.

At the Water's Edge

I've already posted a full review of this book. Again, I'll simply quote the introduction of that review here.

It was written by Carl Zimmer, and as the long title suggests, is all about those two dramatic transitions of life evolving into such distinct environments. This book was great - one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while. It was just the right blend of story telling, concepts, and evidence, and made for a very compelling read. In fact, I think I finished it in less than a week.

It's also worth mentioning that Carl Zimmer has a blog, The Loom, in which he'll sometimes publish supplementary material to his books. I now have several other of his books on my wishlist.

The Parrot's Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity

This book was full of many stories of, well, animal intelligence. It's not meant to be a scientific examination of the field of animal intelligence, just a collection of anecdotes. As an example, consider the photo from the cover of the book. It shows a man ferrying a leopard and her cub across a river. The full story is that the man, a conservationist named Billy Arjan Singh, adpoted and raised the leopard when she was orphaned. Part of raising her included taking her along on his boat trips. Once she was mature and released back into the wild, she became pregnant and had cubs. When a flood came, she remembered the high ground of Singh's compound, and carried her two cubs to his home. When the flood waters began receding and she was ready to leave, on her first crossing of the river with a cub, she found that it was still a little high and the current dangerous. So, once she returned for the second cub, she carried it down to the boat and waited for Singh to ferry her across.

The book was interesting, but after reading books by Carl Zimmer and Frans de Waal, you get a little spoiled. Still, the sequel, The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity ,is on my wish list.

Great Mythconceptions: The Science Behind the Myths

This book reminds me of a print version of Snopes or Myth Busters. The author, Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, has regular radio and television programs in Australia and the UK. This book is a collection of some of the myths he's dispelled in those shows. It covers such topics as the echo of ducks' quacks, the bogus Bible code, the health of aspartame, etc. It's interesting and useful as a quick reference for people who buy into many of those old wives tales. Just remember that no single source is the final authority on anything. I'm not sure I agree with everything that he wrote, and I'd need to see a bit more evidence on some of the topics to be convinced. Still, it was worth reading.

Formatting updated 2008-10-14 to improve layout, but text not changed.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Books, A Year in Review - 2008, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsJust about a year ago, I started the books section of this blog, with an entry called Books I've Read in the Last Year. It was originally prompted by an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. So, I wrote up the entry to compare my reading habits to the general population.

Well, it's been about a year since that entry, so I thought I'd take a look at how I compared this year. First, here are the books I read, which I've tried to group by subject (as oppposed to chronologically, alphabetically, or any other order):

  1. The Frog Princess (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  2. Dragon's Breath: (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  3. Once Upon a Curse (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  4. No Place for Magic (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  5. The City of Ember (Books of Ember)
  6. The People of Sparks (Books of Ember)
  7. The Prophet of Yonwood (Books of Ember)
  8. The Diamond of Darkhold (Books of Ember)
  9. Once Upon a Time in the North
  10. The Spiderwick Chronicles
  11. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  12. The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul
  13. Peter Pan
  14. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde*
  15. Gulliver's Travels
  16. The Jungle Book
  17. From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer
  18. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
  19. Tao Te Ching
  20. The God Delusion
  21. The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches*
  22. Dinosaurs
  23. At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea
  24. The Parrot's Lament : And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
  25. Great Mythconceptions: The Science Behind the Myths

*-indicates that the Amazon link is to a different edition than the one I actually read.

Now, on to the analysis.

Okay, that makes for 26 books overall. Actually, it's technically 30, but I'm only counting the Spiderwick Chronicles as one because the entire series is so short. So, I've read more books than last year (13), which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I've made it a point to try to read more.

As far as the genres, I was still a bit heavy on children's fiction. The Frog Princess series was the one most targeted at children and children only. The Spiderwick Chronicles was pretty simple to read, but the story was suitable for all ages. The rest of the books traditionally classified as children's literature I thought were also good for all ages. And I did manage to get in a few books traditionally targeted as adult fiction.

I've been trying to catch up on the classics, as well. I missed out on reading many of them when I was younger, but there are so many references to them that I think they should form a part of our literary base. I still have a ways to go, though, before being able to check off all the books from this list.

I also read more non-fiction this year than last, getting a bit closer to averaging a non-fiction book for every fictional one. I read one memoir and one biography - types of books which I rarely read. I also read two religiously themed books, which is another type that I haven't read much in the past. To round out the list, I did read 5 science themed books, which is a familiar topic for me.

Overall, in addition to greater quantity, I think I was a bit better rounded in my reading this year than last.

Taking a look at last year's entry, at the end, I had a list of the books on my night stand that I'd intended to read. I did manage to read 3 out of 5 of them, which isn't bad, but I still have the two to go.

I commented in that first entry that this section was "also a shameless opportunity to link to Amazon" to try to make a bit of a commission on book sales. If anyone's curious as to how lucrative that's been for me, I earned $7.22 since I started the books section. In addition to a little bit I had from previous commisions from a few other Amazon links I have on my main site, that was enough to get me a gift certificate for $10.21, which I put to good use ordering Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, which is now part of that stack on my night stand. For comparison, it costs me about $5 a month to host this site, in addition to the yearly domain registration fee. The Amazon commission doesn't even come close to making this site break even, so it's a good thing I don't do it for the money.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll give a brief review of each of the books.

Update: Part II is now online.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Website Update - Updated Religious Essays Section

I've updated the Religious Essays section of this site. Previously, the essays were available only as .pdf files. I figured that that might discourage some people from reading them. So, I've made the individual essays all available as regular HTML files. Hopefully, this will make them more accessible to people who don't want to download .pdf files. I did keep the .pdf file that's a collection of all the essays, but I changed the page layout slightly. I converted it to a 5.5"x8.5" sheet. That's half the size of a regular letter size paper, which works out just right for using a duplexer to print 4 pages per sheet of paper, and folding all the sheets in half to make a little booklet out of it (and yes, I realize I'm probably the only person that's ever going to do that). I also added two new essays, which are adaptations of blog entries I wrote recently, Further Musings on the Soul and Pascal's Wager, as well as expanding the essay, Problems with a Day-Age Interpretation of Genesis, using some information I wrote for a comment on a blog entry.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for September

Top 10 ListIt's the start of a new month, so I went through the server logs to see what the most popular pages were on this site for the month of September. There was a little shuffling around, but for the most part, the popular pages have stayed popular. One surprise was the blog entry, Website Update- New Section, Religious Essays. The only reason I can guess why that page is so popular is that in the comments I gave a pretty detailed response to a guy who raised some questions about my essays.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Physical Comparison of Humans to Other Animals
  4. Blog - Website Update- New Section, Religious Essays (maybe for the comments?)
  5. Programming
  6. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  8. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  9. X-Plane, UDP, and Visual Basic, for X-Plane version 8
  10. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool

List for Previous Months

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