Archive for: November, 2010

Around the Web: Future and/of the research library, Print vs. electronic textbooks and more

Nov 16 2010 Published by under around the web

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From the Archives: 40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Nov 14 2010 Published by under book review, education, reading diary, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

Since I did a science/religion review earlier this week, I thought I'd continue the theme this weekend with a couple of older reviews of books by Matthew Chapman.

This one, of 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, is from May 4, 2008.

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Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. (Post title field isn't big enough.)

This is a loosely connected sequel to Matthew Chapman's previous book, Trials of the monkey: An accidental memoir in which he revisited the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s. That was a great book, interweaving as it did Chapman's own colourful life story with the story of the trial as well as his visit to the original Tennessee town where it took place, Dayton.

40 Days and 40 Nights, on the other hand, is Chapman's chronicle of the latest battle between creationists and the reality-based community in the US -- the Dover, PA trial of 2005.

Chapman uses some of the same strategies in the Dover as he did in the first book on the Scopes Trial. He tells the story of the trial as a story about people: the lawyers, the defendants, the townspeople, the media. And a colourful lot they were, making those aspects of the book very entertaining and compelling. The weakness of the book is related to those colourful characters -- the chronicle of the trial itself never really seemed to come alive for me in the same way that his telling of the Scopes trial did.

It was also a bit of a disjointed narrative, switching back and forth between more character-based sections and trial description that just didn't work for me as well as in the first book. Perhaps the thing that I missed the most was Chapman's own story. In the Scopes book, Chapman was everywhere, it was his story as much as Dayton's or William Jennings Bryan's or Clarence Darrow's. 40 Days and 40 Nights needed to be more of a personal story, to engage me on a personal rather level rather than just as a spectator at a car crash.

Overall, however, it is a pretty good book, one that I would recommend for any public library and any academic library that collects popular science.

Chapman, Matthew. 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. New York: Collins, 2007. 288pp.

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From the Archives: Trials of the monkey: An accidental memoir by Matthew Chapman

Nov 13 2010 Published by under book review, education, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

Since I did a science/religion review earlier this week, I thought I'd continue the theme this weekend with a couple of older reviews of books by Matthew Chapman.

This one, of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir, is from August 8, 2007.

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Sometimes, you just get lucky with books. What with the Dover, Pennsylvania trial only a couple of years a ago and the opening of various creationist museums, the evolution vs. creationism controversy is never far out of the news. Of course, I've seen publicity for a lot of books about the issue and Matthew Chapman's 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania is one that I've been looking forward to reading. While waiting for the paperback of that one to come out, I was browsing at the discount table at the local bookstore when what should I encounter, but the hardcover Chapman's first book, Trials of the Monkey, about the original creationist trial spectacle, the Scopes Trial. For $7. My lucky day. So, I bought it. It hung around the house for a few months, as usual, and then one day I just picked it up and started reading the first few pages, on a whim. I had no plans to start reading it seriously as I was about 100 pages into another very interesting book. Best laid plans and all, I was hooked and raced through Chapman's fascinatingly complex and interrelated account of the twistings and turnings of his own life and the story of the Scopes trial.

The book really has three narrative threads going. First of all, Chapman's biography, the evolution of his life, a troubled and mixed up childhood through to odd jobs and finally as a successful Hollywood screenwriter and director. The first parallel thread is his plan to visit the site of the Scopes Trial (Dayton, TN) and attend the annual dramatic reenactment of the trial; this takes two parts, the first being a trip to Tennessee to research the trial and scout out the area and the second to attend the reenactment. The final thread that Chapman weaves into a couple of the middle chapters is the story of the Scopes Trial itself.

A few words about the sections dealing with Chapman's biography. Chapman has a gloriously checkered past. The great, great grandson of Charles Darwin, he first chronicles the devolution of his family line from the lofty heights of the great man to his own mediocrity (ie. What's more mediocre than Hollywood) via the alcoholism of his own mother. His childhood, adolescence and young adulthood were certainly ones of very little accomplishment and many brushes with authority as well as a few bizarre sexual obsessions and entanglements. His climb to a happy family life, albeit struggling with the pressures of Hollywood and his own hard drinking, is a happy way to end this particular thread.

His trips to Tennessee to take in the annual dramatic reenactment of the original trial takes up probably half the book. He visits with many creationists, interviewing them and following them around to gather information and get a feel for the ambiance of the place; the same with some of the local bigwigs. It's very interesting that he really makes no attempt to demonize any of them, almost going out of his way to present their best side as well as their lack of scientific rigour and their eccentricities. He often comes off as liking them personally, almost admiring their convictions. This thread ends rather strangely and I won't spoil the surprise. Needless to say, given his own biography, Chapman isn't able to end the book anywhere near the way he'd like.

The chapters where he describes the history of the Scopes trial begin with the story of George Rappleyea, the local businessman who dreamed up the whole mess as a way of promoting tourism and business for Dayton. It follows with a fairly straightforward description of the trial itself and it's aftermath. Well worth reading for a lot of the colourful interactions between the two camps, William Jennings Bryan and his merry band of creationists against Clarence Darrow and the evolutionists. While it was a bit more bare bones than I hoped, this section will lead me to the bibliography to find other works to fill in the blanks.

Which of the threads is the most interesting and compelling? Easily, Chapman's life story is the best part of the book, followed by the story of his visits to Dayton. I often found myself skipping ahead to the next relevant chapter to see what happens next in his various adventures. The story of the Scopes Trial itself is somewhat played down, not given the attention of the other two threads. But that seems appropriate in the context of the story Chapman wants to tell. He covers the details well enough, but just not with the elan of his more personal adventures.

Over all, this is a worthwhile and compelling story, filled with intimate and telling biographical detail and local Southern colour. Not strictly a science book, more of a cultural history mixed with biography. It didn't end up being what I expected at all from the book; I expected more straight reportage and less personal anecdote and cultural commentary. But on the whole, the unexpected combination worked well, being both entertaining and enlightening. If I ended up understanding a little less about the Scopes Trial than I'd hoped, I think I ended up understanding a little more about what makes Southern Christian fundamentalists tick.

I would recommend this book for any public library and any academic library that collects popular science. Of course, any library that has an interest in the evolution vs. creationism controversy can't do without this book. I look forward to reading his second book, the one about the Dover, PA trial, Forty days and Forty Nights.

Chapman, Matthew. Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir. New York: Picador, 2001. 367pp.

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Friday Fun: Student Found Assessed to Death in Campus Bathroom Stall

Nov 12 2010 Published by under friday fun

Ah, The Cronk. The higher ed gift that just keeps on giving.

Here it is: Student Found Assessed to Death in Campus Bathroom Stall.

The University of West Kansas has prided itself on its excessive commitment to outcomes assessment. Chang's parents have accused the college of going too far with its efforts to measure everything. "This was at least the thirteenth survey my daughter was asked to fill out in the past two weeks," said Chang's mother.

"Oh, you can never do enough assessment," said director of leadership initiatives and assessment, Peggy Kolby. "We're already writing a survey to measure the learning students do when bereaved."

This one is considerably darker than their usual, but still cringe-worthy in the way it can spark an uncomfortable recognition.

I also like their other story that they link to: University Rejects Innovative Plan to Do the Right Thing. "Not Measurable," Says VP.

"We loved the plan initially, but we just weren't thinking clearly," said director of leadership initiatives and assessment, Peggy Kolby. "We realized it's impossible to measure 'doing the right thing' before we invested any energy or financial resources errantly.

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Around the Web: CS Recruitment, Online privacy, Death by Twitter and more

Nov 12 2010 Published by under around the web

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Best Science Books 2010: Publisher's Weekly

Nov 11 2010 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading and collection development perusal, this time from Publisher's Weekly:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • About a Mountain by John D'Agata
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed by Judy Pasternak
  • Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error by Kathryn Schulz
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
  • The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu
  • Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments here.

Earlier entries in this year's list or lists can be found here.

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Best Science Books 2010: Amazon.com Editors' Picks

Nov 10 2010 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

It has begun. The annual year's best science books posting orgy!

Every year for the past 4 or 5 years I've been linking to and posting about all the "year's best books" lists that appear in various media outlets and highlighting the science books that are mentioned. From the beginning it's been a pretty popular service so I'm happy to continue it.

For my purposes, I define science books pretty broadly to include science, engineering, computing, history & philosophy of science & technology, environment, social aspects of science and even business books about technology trends or technology innovation.

I'm also always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments here.

Last year's lists can be found here.

So let us take a look at this year's first list: Amazon.com!

The list is cobbled together from various categories of their Top 100 Editors' Picks.

  • The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely
  • The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
  • Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler
  • Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
  • The World According to Monsanto by Marie-Monique Robin
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
  • Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar
  • The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
  • The Mind's Eye by Oliver Sacks
  • The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind by Melvin Konner
  • Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner
  • Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos

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Reading Diary: Atoms & Eden: Conversations on religion and science by Steve Paulson

Nov 08 2010 Published by under book review, culture of science, science books

Warning: I generally don't post about religion/atheism/new atheism or any of those similar topics. I also don't generally post about my own views on such subjects. This post clearly will be breaking those habits. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now on to the review proper...

First of all, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in any god, old- or new-fashioned. I have no spiritual feelings at all really, including any vague "search for a higher meaning or sense of transcendence." I tend to find those sorts of feelings a little odd and unexpected in other people. At the same time, I don't hold them against anyone and am generally pretty tolerant of privately practised religion. On the other hand, I'll be very blunt and very honest if someone asks me a question about my own views. In terms of public discussion of religious thoughts or practices, I tend to view them the same way as political thoughts or practices -- open to vigorous debate and strong criticism.

And therefore I was a bit surprised when Atoms & Eden arrived on my office doorstep. I guess I never really expected to get a review copy of a book exploring the topic of how religion and science can co-exist. More or less, because I don't think they can. On the other hand, it's a topic I'm pretty interested in reading about and exploring. For example, I often use the Scopes Trial as a test search case in Information Literacy sessions I do for various Science & Technology Studies courses. It's an interesting topic with a wide variety of sources available.

So, an interesting task, reviewing this book. As I started reading the the book, I knew I would have to read it carefully and attempt objectivity at least at a certain level. I understood from the beginning that I could both disagree strenuously with the philosophical position of the book yet at the same time find it to be a good example of it's genre, worth recommending to fans of the genre and libraries that collect in that area.

And that's more or less what's happened. I dislike the book's philosophical position, in fact finding it somewhat biased in the way the arguments are presented and the way the deck is loaded in favour of finding an "accommodation" between religion and science. At the same time, I do find it a good explication of the accomodationist viewpoint. In that respect, it was useful to me in that I know understand where they are coming from, helping me frame and clarify my own positions in response.

All that being said, I haven't even said work one about the book itself yet.

Let's dive in.

First of all, the author is Steve Paulson, an American radio producer. It's also worth noting that he was awarded the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. So right away we know what his point of view is going to be -- the whole Templeton-supported program is about finding ways to reconcile the scientific and religious viewpoints. In other words, the clearly accomodationist viewpoint.

The point of the book, made fairly explicit, is to try and circle around to a position, through various contrasting viewpoints, whereby people with religious feelings can feel that they also can take modern science seriously. Similarly, a second aim seems to be to convince critics of religion that the religious impulse that so many feel is compatible with a rational worldview, at least in an intellectual compartmentalization/non-overlapping magisteria kind of way. In other words, to establish a groundwork whereby religion can accept scientific truths and where scientific rationalists can at least stop mocking and making fun of believers.

Ok, I'm getting closer.

The book itself is in the form of a series of interviews with various well-known figures in the science/religion debate, based on an NPR radio show that Paulson hosts. Overall, the format works quite well, engaging the interviewees in at times spirited debate.

By my count, Paulson interviewed 9 (Edward O. Wilson, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Numbers, Daniel Dennett, Robert Wright, Stephen Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein, Stephen Weinberg) on the atheist side and 12 (Francis Collins, Karen Armstrong, Andrew Neuberg, Jon Haught,Simon Conway Morris, Alan Wallace, Ken Wilber, Elaine Pagels, Nidhal Guessoum, Paul Davies, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Goodall) on the religious or accomodationist side. While not hugely out of whack, I find it unfortunate that he didn't interview any creationists or intelligent design supporters. He mentions several times that he consciously decided to avoid them because they're too extreme and because their science just isn't credible. That's fine, at a certain level. What it does, though, is make the mushy middle accomodationists seem like the most reasonable of the bunch compared to the "extreme" atheists. Without the extreme on the other side as a counterweight, the book is unbalanced towards that mushy middle, making the false compromise seem so much more reasonable than either extreme. The presence of those creationists, I think, would have made the atheist position seem stronger.

In general, during the interviews Paulson doesn't let his subjects off the hook too easily and presses them to clarify and defend their positions. Does he toss softballs at the more religious/accomodationist and hardballs at the strident atheists? While feigning objectivity, does he ultimately take sides?

Unquestionably.

He doesn't press Francis Collins very much on how he reconciles his need for evidence in science with his really quite literal interpretations of religion. In many ways, Collins to me seems completely delusional. He gives Sam Harris a way harder time defending his strong opinions.

He also doesn't really press Karen Armstrong on how she's really 99.99% atheist -- but somehow doesn't want to give up going to church bake sales so she needs to come up with these bizarre and elaborate lame circular new age hippie twaddle rationalizations for being religious or spiritual or something.

It's the same thing played over and over throughout the book.

This exchange with Stephen Pinker says it all for me:

Paulson: But can you really equate religion with astrology, or religion with alchemy? No serious scholar still takes astrology or alchemy seriously. But there's a lot of serious thinking about religion.

Pinker: I would put faith in theat same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to belive it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy.

Paulson: Those are fighting words!

It's all there -- in an almost Mulder/Scully-like interchange. He really tips his hand here with his amusing overreaction. Paulson is really only interested in one side of the story, one answer to the science/religion question. And none of the equally outrageous things a Francis Collins says get the same dumbfounded reply.

Or this one:

Paulson:...Let me suggest another dangerous idea which is not on your list -- the idea that the mind is more than the physical mechanics of the brain, that there might be some aspect of consciousness that does beyond an individual's brain. Is this a dangerous idea?

Pinker: No, it's an idea that probably the majority of the population believes. The more dangerous idea is what most biologists believe, which is that the mind is the information-processing ability of the brain.

Which is another example of what bothered me the most about the book. The subtitle wasn't, "Taking sides in the science/religion debate" but "Conversations on religion & science." It's not an entirely equal conversation when the moderator tips his hand and favours one side so plainly.

Overall, I have to say the book certainly engaged and enraged me. I left me arguing with it on nearly every page. Not a bad thing, necessarily. On the other hand, it seems to me that part of the problem is that the whole project of the book is wrong-headed. In that sense, I'm not sure arguing with it is that productive. Arguing with Paulson and his ilk is sort of similar to the way he views arguing with creationists and ID supporters. Ultimately unproductive.

In terms of libraries that should acquire this book, I think that those that support any sort teaching or research on the topic would find it a useful addition to their collection. Similarly, for a library where the patron community need to know what that position is and how it's rationalized, then it is definitely appropriate. Most decent-sized public libraries as well would probably find it a popular book among their patrons.

Paulson, Steve. Atoms and Eden : Conversations on Religion and Science New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0199743162.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

(I have reviewed a number of relevant books over the years. I think I'll probably repost those reviews here on this blog over the next few days.)

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Exploring Open Science with Computer Science undergrads

York University Computer Science & Engineering professor Anestis Toptsis was kind enough recently to invite me to speak to his CSE 3000 Professional Practice in Computing class.

He gave me two lecture sessions this term, one to talk about library-ish stuff. In other words, what third year students need to know about finding conference and journal articles (and other stuff too) for their assignments and projects. You can find my notes here, in the lecture 1 section.

In the second session, which I gave yesterday, he basically let me talk about anything that interested me. So, of course, I talked about Open Science. Here are the slides I used, heavily based on the talk I gave at Brock for Open Access Week a little while ago.

I tried to emphasize demoing the projects as much as possible rather than just talking about them. I also emphasized the Polymath-type projects more than in the previous talk -- a strategy suggested by Michael Nielsen in an email exchange.

How was the reaction? A little stunned, I think, perhaps because I covered a lot of ground in a short period of time, from the state of scholarly publishing to blogging networks. But overall, I did seem to have their attention so that's a good thing.

I'm giving this talk again to first year Computer Science students in January so I have another kick at the can to get it right. I think I'll pare it down quite a bit and try and talk in greater detail about fewer concepts as well as integrating my overview with the detailed case studies a bit better. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

And once again, thanks to Anestis for giving me this great opportunity.

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Friday Fun: Hoarders Ruins Doctoral Student's Life

Nov 05 2010 Published by under friday fun

The Cronk News is an endless supply of silly, higher ed-mocking fun. I just can't get enough: Hoarders Ruins Doctoral Student's Life.

"She's been working so hard on her dissertation," said Dowling. "Her office wasn't fit for human consumption. I don't know how she could focus or get any work done in that room. I knew that Dr. Z would be able to help."

The crew of the show, including Dr. Robin Zasio, arrived at the house prepared to remove the hoard and provide cognitive therapy to Peeples.

"She had some sort of off-campus staff retreat for her graduate assistantship," said Dowling. "We went ahead and did this anyway as a gift to her. The junk clearing crew and I went through all of the stuff ourselves and made quick decisions about what to keep."

*snip*

"What my idiot partner thought was garbage was actually the hundreds of hours' worth my research for my lit review," said Peeples. "Not only do I have to start over gathering the information, but I owe thousands of dollars in book replacement costs to Duckett's library."

This one is very funny -- well worth reading the whole thing.

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