Monthly Archives: December 2013

2013 Reading List

Father Time

Father Time marches on.

     In 2008, influenced by the enablers on LibraryThing.com, I started keeping track of the books I read. That year I was working to finish my degree and read 26 books, 14 of them were for two upper level classes. You could argue that two of the title I have listed shouldn’t count. Fahrenheit 451 was a re-read. I hated it in high school and I hated it, maybe a little less but I still hated it,  forty years later. Una mujer en la obscuridad, a Spanish language version of Dashiel Hammet’s “Woman in the Dark” was a desperate attempt on my part to gain some mastery in the foreign language I needed for a degree. I failed at it completely, even after wearing out a Vox Spanish-English dictionary I can’t tell you the plot of the book.

   

     In 2010 I read 31 books, then 30 in 2011, and 50 (!) in 2012. 2012 started with a trip to England that got me off to a great start. This year I managed to read only 28. For the fourth year is a row there is no fiction in the list. I can’t name a best, I just can’t settle on the what that means but here are a few I can descriptors I can decide on.

     The oddest book I read the year was “The bald-headed hermit and the artichoke : an erotic thesaurus” If you want to say or write something bawdy and just don’t have the right word, well, it is in here.

     The most depressing book was “Medical apartheid : the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present.”

     The most inspiring book this year was “Vanished : the sixty-year search for the missing men of World War II” . It is sad and at times brutal but the devotion you will find here is truly inspirational.

     The best blend of science and history “Bones in the basement : postmortem racism in nineteenth-century medical training”. Using modern forensics to examine remains found buried in the basement of an 19th century medical school sounds like an invitation to use a myriad of polysyllabic words. There are some in here but only when necessary. This is an amazingly readable book on what could be a very technical topic.

     The biggest disappointment had to be “ Lotions, potions, and deadly elixirs : frontier medicine in the American West” I wanted a serious book about 19th century medicines, although the information seems to be accurate the book is anything but serious.

     Here is the full list in order they were read.

1. Washington, Harriet. Medical apartheid : the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

2. Bingham, Howard. Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight : Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America.”Landham, Md: M. Evans, 2013.

3. Shultz, Suzanne. Body snatching : the robbing of graves for the education of physicians in early nineteenth century America. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2005.

4. Gantz, Carroll. The vacuum cleaner : a history. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co, 2012.

5. Carson, Clayborne. Martin’s dream : my journey and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. : a memoir. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

6. Wells, Ida B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases,  Project Gutenberg, 1892

7. Wells, Ida B. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States . Project Gutenberg. 1895

8. Bethard, Wayne. Lotions, potions, and deadly elixirs : frontier medicine in the American West. Lanham, Md: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 2013.

9. Flexner, James T. Doctors on horseback pioneers of American medicine. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992. (1937)

10. Savitt, Todd L. Medicine and slavery : the diseases and health care of Blacks in antebellum Virginia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

11. Peterkin, Allan D. The bald-headed hermit and the artichoke : an erotic thesaurus. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999.

12. Williams, Joseph M. Style : the basics of clarity and grace. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.

13. Bailyn, Bernard, and Edward C. Lathem. On the teaching and writing of history : responses to a series of questions. Hanover, N.H: Montgomery Endowment, Dartmouth College, 1994.

14. Covach, John R. What’s that sound? : an introduction to rock and its history. New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton, 2009.

15. Gilderhus, Mark T. History and historians : a historiographical introduction. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2010.

16. Liell, Scott. 46 pages : Thomas Paine, Common sense, and the turning point to American independence. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003.

17. Cozzone, Chris. Boxing in New Mexico, 1868-1940. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013.

18. Hornblum, Allen M., Judith L. Newman, and Gregory J. Dober. Against their will : the secret history of medical experimentation on children in cold war America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

19. Bacevich, Andrew J. Breach of trust : how Americans failed their soldiers and their country. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

20. Wiener, Jon. Historians in trouble : plagiarism, fraud, and politics in the ivory tower. New York: New Press Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2005.

21. Brundage, Anthony. Going to the sources : a guide to historical research and writing. Wheeling, Ill: Harlan Davidson, 2008.

22. Blakely, Robert L., and Judith M. Harrington. Bones in the basement : postmortem racism in nineteenth-century medical training. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

23. Gross, Samuel. A discourse on the life, character, and services of Daniel Drake, M.D delivered, by request, before the faculty and medical students of the University of Louisville, January 27, 1853.  Office of the Louisville Journal. 1853.

24. Friedman, David M. A mind of its own : a cultural history of the penis. New York: Free Press, 2001.

25. Hylton, Wil S. Vanished : the sixty-year search for the missing men of World War II. New York, New York: Riverhead Books. 2013

26. DiCarlo, Christopher. How to become a really good pain in the ass : a critical thinker’s guide to asking the right questions. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2011.

27. Huffaker, Robert, et al. When the news went live : Dallas 1963. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2013.

28. Gottschalk, Peter. American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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Review: When the news went live

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Dallas 1963

 I was six years old when Kennedy was shot, like all American’s my age and older I felt I knew the story. Basically I did, but here we get more than the basics. Lyndon Johnston opposed appointing the federal judge that swore him in as president. Oswald’s mother asked a reporter to take her to see her son in jail, was she friendless or grabbing the chance to rub elbows with a television personality?

In addition to the details that help fill in the story and show the names from the history books the be real people the writers show us that 1963 was a different world. Learning how they covered a world changing event without modern technology dragged me back to the 1960s. Film cameras instead of video, payphones not cell phones, it was a different world and this book brings it back.

Their reflections on the state of journalism was telling. All four mentioned “fair and balanced” while refusing to mention the network that uses it as a mantra. One noteD that if they were not fair and balanced in their time the editor would have fired them. But they did not stop there. The only bright spot they say in today’s media is Comedy Central’s news satire. By calling out the hypocrisy, misinformation, and cheerleading of “conventional” news The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do the country a service. The authors also wrote about an early interview program the did where the only opinions allowed were from the guest and phoned in from the public. Reporters gave information not their opinions. Facts were reported without regard to any red or blue tint the truth might have.

If you believe any of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination pass this book by, it exposes the mundane origins of several of them. If you enjoy “news” that simply and uncritically supports your opinions you won’t enjoy these journalists opinions. I really enjoyed reading Huffaker, Mercer, Phenix, and Wise’s recollections and opinions. I also learned why, when Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker went on trial their lawyer’s name was so familiar. 

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December 23, 2013 · 8:11 pm

What NOT to give

    My wife has been out of town this week and, in addition to the added responsibilities of feeding myself and deciding what to watch on television, waves of winter weather have turned my commute into nightmares more this week than all of last year. I am trying to post something every week but this week I have been preoccupied, less with “is that ice on the road” and more with what to get my wife for Christmas this year. It is only Wednesday as I write this but I have been as clueless about what to post this week as I am about what gift to give this year. Then a co-worker mentioned the absolute worst gift to ever give your spouse and I remembered this book review I wrote for the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program earlier this year.

 

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I have always been interested in gadgets and when I saw “The Vacuum Cleaner: A History” I thought that it would be at least a great change of pace. Carroll Gantz’s book turned out to be much more than that. Beginning with Levi Dickenson’s 1797 discovery of the best variety of sorghum tassels to use in making brooms Gantz shows us two hundred years of American industrial advances through the lens of floor care. This approach to the history of vacuum cleaners allowed him to illustrate how technological progress changed America’s homelife. The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of patent drawings (that have a definite steampunk feel) and  photographs of the vacuum cleaners being discussed. I was surprised at how many of them were familiar.

 

Quoting from Catherine Beecher’s 1841 book “A Treatise of Domestic Economy For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School” to demonstrate how labor intensive it was to clean carpets, which were even then very popular among those who could afford them, Gantz clearly demonstrates the need for a better method. Gantz follows the technology from whisk brooms to floor sweepers, to human powered suction cleaners, both one and two person operated machines, and on up to today’s robots. Along the way we learn about steam powered suction cleaners mounted on horse drawn carriages, the advances electrification brought, the battle between AC and DC current, and what that meant for both manufactures and consumers.

 

As vacuum cleaners changed from wood and leather into plastic and electronics Gantz shows us the birth of industrial design, something that until this book I thought of as simply a marketing tool. Now I have a better understanding of the importance of good design and respect for people like Egmont Aren who redesigned the Kitchenaid Mixer in 1928, making it cheaper to build, half as heavy, and better looking. His design, with a few very minor changes still being manufactured and sold today.

 

I enjoyed Gantz’s book more than I expected even though my interest faded when reading about last few decades. The history of vacuum cleaners seemed to have been reduced to international mergers, acquisitions, and divisions being spun off. Except, that is, for James Dyson’s story. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of technology or social history. If you know someone with those interests “The Vacuum Cleaner: A History” might be a good gift.

 

A vacuum cleaner, any household appliance, is never a good choice to give your spouse during the holidays.

 

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Review: How to become a really good pain in the ass

    After reading the title to Christopher DiCarlo’s book How to become a really good pain in the ass : a critical thinker’s guide to asking the right questions I really wanted to read it, I wanted to like it. I have been working on my critical thinking skills for years so this is not my first exposure to it. I was hoping that DiCarlo’s style, judging from the title, would put a new spin on the things.

 

    DiCarlo divided the book into three sections, the first, which until I looked back at the table of contents I felt was the shortest, looks at the nuts and bolts concepts involved in critical thinking. It was wonderful, the explanations were fresh and relevant and most important, clear. The second sections was a brief look at the founders of critical thinking, DiCarlo calls them “the best damn pains in the ass in history.” I think Socrates deserves better but I am not an undergraduate anymore and that is the audience DiCarlo is writing for. The third section, well, that is where things started to go wrong.

 

    In the introduction DiCarlo discusses what he calls the 5 Big Questions, What can I know, why am I here, what am I, how should I behave, and what is to come of me? Interesting questions that DiCarlo examines in great detail in the final section of his book. Very soon it is obvious that the book has changed into a long, long argument against superstition. Specifically the superstitions that many people call religions. I have two problems with this tactic.

 

    First, DiCarlo wasted both his and the readers time as well as a small forest of trees. Early in the section he said all that needs to be said, there is no evidence supporting any claims of any supernatural creator, it is strictly a matter of faith.There is no way to prove the existence of a creator and there is no way to prove that there is no creator. There you go, the argument is a logical stalemate, why waste time on it?

 

    Second, if moving superstitious thinkers to adopt critical thinking is your goal, alienating them is not the way to do it. The book would have been much better if it had included examples of diagramming arguments and practice detecting fallacies and building strong arguments. Teach a man to fish and all that. Teach a man to think critically and one day he will turn it on his superstitions.

 

    I find that I have to give each section its own recommendation, the first is wonderful, if you are at all interested in the topic read this. The second is an adequate introduction to the founders of critical thinking. I recommend you avoid the third, all I can say about it is that it is a waste of time. Book cover

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The 5 Questions

Socrates photo by Juan P. Aparicio

Socrates
photo by Juan P. Aparicio

What can I know?

Why am I here?

What am I?

How should I behave?

What is to become of me?

I recently started reading a book by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo on critical thinking. I try to explain the topic before giving the title because it could be misinterpreted, “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”. So far the book is interesting and the author’s lighthearted approach to the difficult subject is a big plus. (Coursera’s class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue takes the same approach) DiCarlo starts off with these questions because to “know thyself” is basic to understanding why we believe what we do.

So to answer the first question, what can I know, what can we be absolutely, positively, 100% sure of, the simple answer is – not much. While studying history I came to understand that everyone is biased, everyone who writes anything has some bias that may or may not affect what they are writing. In addition there are more records in archives than any one person can look at in a lifetime. Our ideas about what happened in the past is constantly changing, usually improving, as more data on any given subject is found. Not all the new data comes from archives, some comes from research done in fields outside of history. Science sometimes explains what the written records cannot. So, we can’t know anything we read with absolute certainty.

If you watched the television program House you know that, as Dr. Gregory House says, “everybody lies”. Thanks to the same biases that prevent us from being sure of anything written we are unable to trust anything anybody says. I have never heard anyone say anything bad about my mother but is she said that she read my blog and loved everything I wrote I am not sure I could believe her.

Have you ever seen a magic act? If so then you understand why we cannot believe everything we see. But what can we “know”? Math? Is 2+2=4 even if your name is Winston Smith and it is the end of the book? I think so. II and II is IIII. But statistics are math and everybody knows that as Mark Twain said there are, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” so how can we trust math? Back in 1954 Darrell Huff wrote a little book filled with a lot of silly little illustrations titled “How to Lie with Statistics” in which he demonstrated that lying statistics are designed to do that. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally. If you asked dentists “do you recommend Crest toothpaste? it is a leading question. If you do it at a Procter & Gamble shareholders meeting it is downright dishonest. If you announced that Mitt Romney was going to win the last election after polling subscribers to the Wall Street Journal your math was not your problem, you “random sampling” was.

We can trust mathematics and math based science that offers reproducible results but there is one more hiccup. As much math as I have studied, and I have taken a lot of math classes, that was years ago and I have forgotten or misremember much of it. So how can I know if the math I am seeing is accurate or error filled?

There is the real problem, none of us are experts in everything. We have to carefully evaluate our sources of information against our own standards for truth. Personally I want my facts as close to the truth as humanly possible. Which is why I am reading yet another book on critical thinking skills.

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