Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Basher Basics: Punctuation by Mary Budzik, Simon Basher


Rating: WORTHY!

Part of a series which covers a wide variety of educational topics from science to writing to music and math, and so on, this small volume looks like a children's book on the outside, but it really isn't - not unless that child is writing intelligently. Once they're ready for a nudge to the next level, this book will get them there. And it wouldn't go amiss as a gift for older writers too - not a few of them published ones!

Again I'm unconvinced of the value of the illustrations by Basher, but younger children might like them. Each page covers a different aspect of punctuation, in some detail, but not too heavily. The text is larger so it makes for easy reading both in seeing it and in following it. I recommend this for anyone who is interested in better using language - which ought to be all of us.


Basher Basics: Creative Writing by Mary Budzik, Simon Basher


Rating: WORTHY!

This is part of a series I'd never seen before. It evidently started out with science books and now has also branched into writing. These look - from the cover - like young children's books, but fortunately my blog has nothing to do with covers, which are all glitz and slick packaging. Mine is about what's between the covers: writing, and if you look past the cover, you'll see why I like this book. These are not for the very young, but any child who has taken their first steps into creative writing can benefit - as can many adults, including not a few published authors!

This book is a how to of getting started, and of understanding all aspects of creating a story. Each topic fills only one page of fairly large text, so there's not a lot of heavy reading, but what is there cuts straight to the chase. Frankly, I am unconvinced of the value of Basher's illustrations, which tend to obfuscate as much as illuminate, but the writing itself is where the value is here. I recommend this but it will be useless without a companion volume which I also review today: Punctuation!


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jane Austen's England by Roy Adkins, Lesley Adkins


Rating: WORTHY!

Sometimes fortune favors the depraved, so today I have two books to blog which were pure joy to read. The first is this one, written not about Jane Austen's stories, but about her times - not her life, but the time in which she lived, and what life was like back then. It's reasonably-well documented because people were fond of writing letters and keeping journals, and some of Austen's own letters are quoted from here.

Austen was a contemporary (near enough) of Mary Shelley, although to my knowledge, the two never met. Austen was twenty-two and had completed Lady Susan when Shelly was born. She died by the time Shelley was twenty, the year before the latter published Frankenstein, so while Shelley had undoubtedly heard of Austen, the reverse was never the case. Austen as so prim and proper that the two of them probably would not have got along together even had they known each other! The Brontës were all of this era, but they were all born right around the time Austen died, so they never met either, which was probably just as well. By all accounts, Charlotte was no fan of Austen's.

There were other well-known writers alive in this era, too, such as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who published anonymously, Donatien Alphonse François, aka the Marquis de Sade, who died three years before Austen, and Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley's mother, who died as Shelley was born. There was also Sophia Briscoe, and in terms of better known writers, both Charles Dickens and Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot were born around the time Austen died - to within a few years. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, was around treize when Austen died.

Austen was not the only known and read female writer of that time; Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Ann Radcliffe all preceded her very slightly, and she knew of, and liked at least two of these. She disliked Radcliffe. The reason I mention all of these people is that this book surprisingly does not. Despite it being about Jane Austen's England, and despite it quoting many many writers of letters and journals, there are none other of what we might term "professional" writers, even mentioned! We get not a word on their lives or influence during this era. I found that very strange.

That glaring flaw aside, I enjoyed this book every much; it was well written, well-supported by contemporary account, well-referenced, and fascinating in many regards. It was very much another era back then, with different senses and sensibilities, much misplaced pride and prejudice, and a different outlook on life altogether, with death and disease looming at every stage. There was war, off an on, and many injured ex-soldiers had been left on the scrap-heap with little to their name despite their sacrifices. There was a huge gap between rich and poor, as there is now, and very little hope for - or love of - the latter.

This book devotes a chapter to each stage of life, exploring what it was like for rich and for poor, what customs and habits were, and how things fell together. There was an introduction, which I skipped as I do all antiquated prologues, prefaces, forewords and so on; then comes a chapter each devoted to marriage, "breeding", childhood, home, fashion, church, work, leisure, travel, crime, medicine, and death. Some of it is amusing, much disturbing, some very surprising. Nude weddings, for example, were not invented by Star Trek writers!

Aside from the missing writerly references, this is all-in-all a very comprehensive work, and a must-read for anyone who aspires to write a novel as Austen did. I recommend this as a worthy read, although I must confess curiosity as to why Roy gets precedence in the attribution over Lesley. The names are not alphabetical, so was this done because Roy did the most work? Because it was his idea? Or because even in 2013 when this book was published, even in a book dedicated to a woman and her times, the male still takes precedence as he did during Austen's lifetime, and the woman still takes his name?


Friday, February 17, 2017

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris, London Ladd


Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated by the curiously-named London Ladd, this memoir is aimed at children and was written by MLK's sister, who wasn't there at the Lincoln Memorial rally in Washington DC that day he made his dream speech, but who had traveled with him on many other trips.

That day, she was home taking care of their parents, but she watched the story on TV, and it's clear from her writing how proud she felt of her brother and how much she loved him. It's depressing to think how she must have felt that day he was shot. There is now a stone marker at the Lincoln memorial identifying the place from which he delivered the speech. It's tragic that two people, one white, one black, and who were so influential in freeing people from slavery should both have been murdered, and are now memorialized in different ways at the same location.

The author writes passionately and very descriptively, bringing the stories to life, and the memories powerfully to mind. I thought it sad that the text of the speech wasn't included here, though, but it's easily found online, at places such as The Martin Luther King, Jr Research and Education Institute, and it's also available on You Tube I recommend this book for young children, to teach them an important piece of history in a struggle that sadly is still forced to continue to this day.


Platypuses by Megan Borgert-Spaniol


Rating: WORTHY!

I don't know of anyone who doesn't love a platypus, although the critters can be dangerous. The have poison spikes on their back legs that can do you up a treat if they stick you with one, although if you have one raised from infancy, it seems that it's not inclined to spike you, because I've seen people on TV handle platypuses without harm.

This book is part of a big series (Blastoff! Readers: Animal Safari) on different animals, but this same author and judged from this one, it looks like this is a fun and educational series. despite being quite short, it's full of informative text (although not too much!) and a bunch of photos of cute-looking platypuses. I recommend it for any kid who is interested in learning about a specific animal. Whether you'd want to get the whole series is another issue! That would be some investment.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly


Rating: WARTY!

I found this best seller to be very disappointing. I listened to the audio-book version which lacked a little something in enthusiasm, but otherwise wasn't too bad of a listen in terms of the reader's voice. The problem was much more with the material, and it got me thinking about what people would be looking for when they pulled this off the shelf at the book store or the library, and whether they would be as disappointed in it as I was. For me, I was looking for what promised to be an interesting and shamefully belated story of the contribution of black women to the US space program. Waht OI got was a rambling family history written by a relative which was more focused on rehashing the shameful black history of the US rather than telling the story of these women.

Though the Russians put a woman into space in 1963 (Valentina Tereshkova), it was really more of a showboat than a space flight, aimed at furthering the embarrassment the Americans, who were continually playing catch-up back then, than ever it was a serious effort to integrate women into the space program. The Americans to their shame, took twenty years to set this right, and it wasn't until a year after the Russians had put a second woman into space, Svetlana Savitskaya.

Sally Ride was a physicist and went into space aboard the shuttle in 1983. It took the bulk of another decade before the first black woman went into space: Mae Jemison, who is an engineer and a physician and went up in 1992, which was a decade after the first black male astronaut, Guion Bluford, had gone up there. Everyone knows Armstrong and Aldrin. They may even know names like Gagarin and Glenn, but few know the names of Bluford and Jemison. No one even remembers the second two men on the Moon (it was Charles Conrad and Alan Bean), so why would they ever hear about black women who helped make it possible for early astronauts to get into space and return safely?

Of course we typically don't hear of the back-room people in these adventures, so this isn't quite as bad as it's painted, but what makes it worse is that white people tend to think that all of those 'unsung heroes' are also white, and so do far too many black people. It's a bad habit that shamefully overdue for correction, so it's a good thing to learn that no, they're not all white! A good many of them are black (and Asians and Hispanics too, for that matter). I just wish the three depicted in this book: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, had a better memorial.

The book covers a range of topics and many people, but is primarily about those three women who succeeded despite having to contend with the appalling discrimination which had become so embedded in the nation's psyche so much that it was actually considered normal back then, and in some minds, is still viewed that way today. But let's not mention any recent presidents.

The problem I had is that the book is so intent upon laying the scene that the main characters tend to get subsumed into the scenery, which in my opinion does them a dire disservice. The discerning listener can pick out their dark threads which have been in the dark for far too long before now, finally, being brought into the light, as they run through the story and intertwine, along with other characters, such as the rebellious Miriam Mann, who quietly removed the 'coloreds' sign from the cafeteria table every time a new one appeared until whoever was putting it there finally gave up. A small victory but an important one.

So while I believe books of this nature are important ones, I have to caution potential readers about this one. You should consider what it is you're looking for before you plump for this volume. If it's a book version of the movie you just saw, then this isn't it. This is much longer, and more detailed and in considerably more depth than Hollywood ever likes to go, and more than you (or I) might be prepared for. If you're looking for black abuses revisited, then this will work for you, but if you've been there and done that, and are looking for something a bit different this time like a good real life story that gets under the personal skin of the black female experience, this one might leave you as dissatisfied as it did me.

Hollywood likes it short and snappy, perky and preferably controversial, but shallow and easy and that has its place, but this isn't any of that apart from the controversial bit), and it rambles endlessly and digresses mercilessly, and offers all kinds of details you may not care about or be interested in (such as soap-box derbies).

It doesn't even get to the NASA bit until two-thirds the way through, and then it's a long stretch of John Glenn, a huge leap from there to the Apollo program and the Apollo 1 disaster (from which NASA learned nothing if we're to judge from the subsequent Challenger and Columbia disasters which together robbed us of more than four times as many astronauts as the Apollo One fire did), and then a quick skip to the moon landing and we're done. I confess I skipped tracks increasingly as I plowed through this as the bits that interested me became ever more scarce, but I did want to tackle this before I took on the easy, sugar-coated, and simplified version of the movie. I haven't seen that yet, but even unseen, I'd recommend the movie over this for most people.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Happiest Kids in the World by Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison


Rating: WARTY!

I requested this book because I thought it would be interesting, and in some ways it was, but I evidently expected too much from it because it failed to make a case for me. It's sad, because I felt like I shared some common ground with the authors. I've never been to Holland, but I grew up in England and went to school there, and now I'm seeing my own kids through school in the US, so I share two of the three perspectives presented here, but I have to say that the picture painted by the authors felt narrow, very biased, and worse than this, there was really nothing offered to suggest how a nation which might want to emulate the Dutch could get from here to there.

The fact that we call them Dutch, and they call themselves Nederlanders, and we call the nation Holland is an interesting mix of etymology which has deep roots. The word 'dutch' just means people, and there were mountain dutch and lowland dutch, but the ones we now call Dutch go stuck with the abbreviated version of that title. Holland was just one part of a group of people who settled together into one nation, and the rest of them got stuck with that name! Nothing to do with the book, but just in passing....

I'm open to the notion that the Dutch can teach us some things, but I was neither convinced that they have a world-beating handle on things by this book, nor that what was presented here offered was anything more than what intelligent and common-sense parents are doing anyway. In this regard it was rather insulting because the authors seemed intent upon translating a lot of personal perceptions into a generalized diagnosis of, and prescription for everyone, so that all Dutch were painted the same color - and a very bright one, whereas all Brits and all Americans were each panted their own dull and muddy shade of grey. This struck me as entirely unfair.

In 2013, a Unicef report rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world, so something seems to be working there. Two writers, a Brit named Michele Hutchison who moved to the Netherlands in 2004 with her Dutch husband, and an American, Rina Mae Acosta who is also married to a Dutch guy, are raising their kids in Amsterdam and they explored why it is that Dutch children are so happy. This book is the result. In that same survey, Britain ranked 16th and the USA ranked 26th, which was just above the three poorest countries in the survey, so I can't help, but ask why that is. Why did the Dutch do so well, and the Americans and Brits so poorly? or is it not quite so black and white as is portrayed here?

While I initially felt that I might like this book, and rate it positively and encourage others to read it, the more I read of it, the more disillusioned I became. It is truly important to widen our perspective when it comes to how we live our lives, and in particular, how we relate to and raise our children, but I had serious qualms about the validity of the conclusions the authors were drawing.

The first of and most obvious of these is that the Unicef report was only one survey, and a recent one, so I have to say I'm skeptical about basing any long-range planning on a single narrow study. The study did cover five dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, behavior and risks, and housing and environment, but the idea that the Dutch do it best is based on that single snapshot. I'd have to ask: were Dutch kids also the happiest five, ten, fifty years before? If so, then we have something to build on, if not, then what's changed and how reliable is it? We don't know from what we're told here, and that question isn't asked in this book.

There was one part of this book which related how the principal of a school, who liked to greet each child as they came in through the door, mentioned that this was not always the way it was done: kids came piling in chaotically when she first arrived. This is a change she has made herself to this one school. There was no mention of whether this same polite, stress-free organization existed in other schools or whether it was just this one principal's peccadillo. To me this was a failing, and it was one which ran like a thread through the book. There is no grand plan here or any deep survey, just a lot of anecdote and opinion. It's not something I'd want to base my kids' futures on.

This book does cover raising children from conception through schooling, so in that regard, it's comprehensive, but the authors haven't finished putting their kids through high school, and since this is based so much on personal experience, that end of things was a bit bare; however, it was at the beginning of that path of life where I encountered another instance of confusion or conflation. At one point early in the book the authors praise the Dutch for their having babies at home as opposed to in the delivery ward of the nearest hospital, but later we learn that only 25% of Dutch mothers-to-be actually do this.

Now that's higher than in other countries, but I'm unclear what the point was that the authors were trying to make here. If the number of moms (even though it's relatively large) is still in the minority, can we make any valid claim that this materially contributes to anything beyond the personal, much less to kids being happy?

This was further confused later when I read of moms in the US and Britain, who do give birth in hospital, being kicked out after a very short stay. This was mentioned like it was a problem, but If the idea is to have a safe birth and then get mom home as soon as is practicable, how is this problematical as compared with those quarter of Dutch moms who stay home for the birth? I didn't get the point of those portions of the book which were like this.

What bothered me is that the authors clearly are starting out with the conclusion that the Dutch do it better than anyone and the Brits and the Americans do it badly by comparison, yet we never get any questioning of whether this is really true on a widespread basis. The odd survey will only tell you so much, yet the Dutch get endless praise here to the point of it being tedious and irritating. Frankly this praise felt like fan-girling. We never got an unbiased perspective with the same kind of detail on how things are done elsewhere, except for frequent and very negative sniping which was as unfair as it was inaccurate.

Worse than this, we tend to get a lot of personal anecdote from one or other author including a three-page-and-a-half spread about the high-school experiences of one of the authors. While it's sad that anyone should have to go through what she did, the fact remains that it's her personal subjective experience. So far so good, but the thing is that after a revelation like this one, the authors generalize and talk as though their own personal experiences, interviews and opinion apply to everyone equally!

No, they don't. My school experience in Britain was far removed from hers, and my kids' experiences are likewise far removed from the ones depicted here as being representative of the USA. You cannot generalize from the personal or blandly take your own experience and treat it like it speaks for everyone. It was things like this which made me quickly lose all faith in this book's message, turning me from a potential convert to an adverse critic.

The vista over which this book looks is disturbingly narrow. We get a lot of author opinion, and we get second-hand interviews and comments made by Dutch women, but for a book about children's happiness, we get precious little from the kids. We don't get a significant number of kids views, and the few we do get are anecdotal Dutch ones. We almost never hear from other kids in other countries, and the authors make no effort to try to seek out views which might actually oppose theirs, to give some balance to the presentation.

It's this lack of adequate comparison with other countries in a quantifiable way which lets the book down. We hear a lot of opinion, but precious little to back it up. One thing that's mentioned, for example, is suicides in Silicon valley, but if we look national suicide rates in Wikipedia, the Dutch do not come out best! A lot of Middle-East countries are lowest, with the Dutch appear halfway down the list, beating US citizens, but not doing as well as the British. It seems to me if the kids are extraordinarily happy here, this certainly doesn't seem to permeate into adulthood, and the authors never address this or ask why. They simply keeping on pointing to the shiny Dutch way and praising the bright colors of the Dutch lifestyle, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's a rather thin veneer of paint in many places.

One of the odd things which are praised is how tall Dutch men and women are. This point was made over a dozen times in one way or another, but I fail to see how it relates to happy children, unless being happy somehow magically makes a person taller! Dutch men average the tallest in the world at five feet eleven inches in the survey I read, although the authors cite one which quotes them at six feet one inch. Dutch women came second to Latvian women for tallest, but the fact is that eight other nations in the survey I saw were within two centimeters of the Dutch, so I kept asking, "What's your point?" I still don't know! Nor do I know how tall the authors are, talking of perspective. If they're relatively short, then perhaps the Dutch men did seem particularly tall and this is why they kept returning to this. Again, it felt like fan-girling. Other than that I have no explanation for the repeated references to it!

This was one of a many digressions which took us away from the main topic (if we assume from the book title that the main topic is childhood happiness). It's for this and related reasons that I have questions about the approach this book took. If we put aside the Unicef survey for a minute, the entire rest of the book consisted of observations and some interviewing, but there was really nothing offered to support a causal relation between A and B - it was simply assumed.

At one point, for example, the book began talking about biking adding six months to life expectancy. It rambled on about how the Dutch have taken to bikes and how children learn to bike independently to school at an early age, and while I can see that this contributes to children gaining confidence, I don't see how it's any different from other activities pursued by children in other countries which contribute equally to child welfare and confidence. It was just tossed in under the untenable and unsupported assumption that this very Dutch activity was quite different from anything any other nation does and therefore must somehow contribute to this unique Dutch happiness!

The most amusing thing to me about this whole story of children biking to school was that the author complained of how busy the bike lanes were, yet the school was only a half mile away! Why were the children not walking, and getting their exercise and building their confidence that way? It was one more confusing episode that made no sense at all.

Meanwhile, the dangers of cycling were swept under the rug. A report discussed at DutchNews.nl (April 2016) shows that 25% of those who die in a road accident in the Netherlands are cyclists, compared with a European average of 8%. Denmark and Hungary are next on the unsafe cycling list; in both countries, 16% of the people who die in road accidents are cyclists, so to pretend there is no problem with cycling safety or that dangers are low and controlled is simply dishonest.

With regard to child mortality, it's the same in the Netherlands as it is in the U.K., with the US being about twice that. other numbers do not put the Netherlands out there as a shining and unique exemplar. This is not to run the Dutch down but to put things into a perspective which the authors of this book seemed somewhat loathe to embrace in their gushing prose. There's a report online which numbers 2,375 children as victims of human trafficking in the EU in 2013 and 2014, and most come from Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. This did not fill me with confidence that the Dutch system is so much better or safer. These are just a couple of examples which I found quickly and which are glossed over or ignored here.

I'd have been a lot happier if their survey of childhood happiness had gone wider and crossed a greater range of social classes. This is why I had questions about whether the authors of this book are correctly diagnosing the situation. Perhaps they are. Perhaps everything they have discussed is measurably a contributor to their conclusion and explains why Dutch children are happier, but I never felt convinced of it by what I read. It was all too loosely wrapped, too rambling, too repetitive and disorganized.

The authors offer a lot of suggestions, but nowhere was there any discussion about whether or not other parents in other countries were already doing these things despite not being Dutch, or whether it was even practical to advocate 'the Dutch way' when so much of it is inextricably tied to Dutch culture and Dutch laws, and government and national attitudes. You can't simply move those things to another country, and even if you could, you can't expect them to work as they do at home. Also conspicuous by its absence was any survey of Dutch ex-pats, who are living in other countries, but adhering to the Dutch method. Does it even work abroad? How do their kids fare? The book is silent on this perspective.

There was some talk of stress. One the one hand we're told that the Dutch lifestyle avoids stress and this is a contributor to happiness, but then the authors turn right around and tell me that there's a special world in Dutch, Faalangst, which is exactly what it sounds like: fail angst. The very fact that such a concept exists and has a special word for it presupposes that there's stress and attendant measurement of it, which are the very things we're told don't exist! This evident hypocrisy was not an isolated incident.

One section of the book covers bullying, and Britain and the US are given a poor commentary here, yet a quick look online again reveals that this is not a fair picture. World Atlas doesn't show Britain or the US in the worst 10. Even in this older study more UK students (42%) said they were happier in school most of the time than on average in the rest of Europe (33%). Most of the bullying seemed to be tied to racism and religion, and nothing to do with pressure of school work. This study reports the Netherlands and the UK almost neck-and-neck with the US not far behind, so there appears not to be a huge discrepancy.

Google really screwed me over yesterday when I began writing this! I must have hit some oddball key combination while typing, and my entire blog edit screen went blank! I'd never encountered this before, nothing I did would bring it back, and my last save had a half-hour before because I was so focused on writing this! Google doesn't do backups or undo in its blogger environment.

More fool me for trusting Google, whose motto is "don't be evil"! Thanks Google. That's a half hour of my life I can't get back! I decided to quit for the night because I'd spent so long on this. The rest of my review, below, is more of a summary so I don't end up spending a large portion of yet another evening on this when I need to be doing other things!

So let's get going. On another tangent, the book delved into antibiotic use, and yes, the Netherlands does commendably have the lowest human antibiotic consumption rate in Europe, but what this book doesn't reveal is that between 2005 and 2009 The Netherlands also was among those nations with the highest sales of antibiotics for veterinary use of 10 European countries investigated! It's the antibiotic use in animals which is really the issue in the form of germs building resistance to the drugs, and which is becoming a chronic and dangerous problem, so once again we had a biased perspective which favored the Dutch.

Anecdotal stories of kids being too tied up with "building up their resumes" instead of playing outside that were related here neither described my childhood in England, nor that of my own kids' childhood here in the US. I'm guessing they don't represent a whole host of other kids either, judged from what I see in my neighborhood, so once again we had a personal perspective being generalized and applied as though everyone else was the same. It's not the case, and it's misleading.

At one point the authors gush about how Dutch moms never get depressed, but dutchdailynews.com reports that "The Netherlands, U.S. Have Highest Depression Rates in World"! Another web site, iamexpat.nl, agrees: "... new study has found that the Dutch have very high rates of depressive disorders compared to the rest of Europe." The nltimes.nl website agrees: "Eight percent of the Dutch population aged 12 years and older admitted to suffering from depression in 2014. That is more than 1 million people."

So once again we get a different view outside of the book to the one we got inside it, and the one inside both favors the Dutch and appears not to have been well-considered. The more of these instances I encountered, the less confidence I had that this book was being fair or was telling it how it really is!

One of the things mentioned more than once was the Dutch habit of making a "breakfast" out of chocolate sprinkles on a slice of bread and butter. That sounds yukky to me, but apparently it's quite popular; however, as dutchfood.about.com explains, it's not the only thing they have for breakfast and I think it's misleading to go on about it like it is.

This lack of a reliable and comprehensive coverage of the facts was disturbing to me, and I found it over and over again. For example, the chapter on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) fails to mention how close most results are, giving a false impression. It does show that the Netherlands is in the lead (except in science, where the U.K. came ahead, but the book mentions only the ranking, without recognizing that the rankings can be misleading. Look for yourself, here.

In this chart, for reading, the Netherlands is placed 11th, the UK comes 27th, and the US a "shocking" 41st! But if you look at the actual scores, the Netherlands gets a 512, the UK a 492, and the US a 470. This is a less than a 10 percent difference. So yes, the Netherlands is ahead, and yes, the UK and the US need to do more, but the actual difference is smaller than we're led to believe when we're told only the rankings. This same mis-perception applies to reading, where Netherlands scored 503, the UK 498, and the US 497. That's a one percent difference, but to hear only the ranking, we learn that the Netherlands came fifteenth, while the UK and US were 22nd and 24th. That makes it sound so much worse and it's misleading. This also applies to the science scores, where there's only a two percent difference.

So yes, the authors made their point about the Netherlands having a decent education system, but need that have been done at the expense of unnecessarily dissing the US and the UK? No, it needn't, and worse than this is the studied ignoring of all those nations which appeared above the Netherlands in the scoring, such as for example, Norway, which scored well in PISA and also did well in the happiest kids ranking, as did Finland (except in science!), Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium to name five. None of these other countries come under the microscope in order to determine what it is they're doing right and whether or not it compares or contrasts with the Dutch system. Again, I found this lack of a wider perspective to be glaring and regrettable.

There was a chapter on discipline which showed a Dutch bias too: even as we're told Dutch kids are badly behaved (as in running around in restaurants, and so on), we're expected to accept that and not find any real fault with it. Again we're given no comparative examples except for one anecdote of quiet French kids on beach! These quiet kids were taken as representative of the entire French nation and contrasted with the Dutch kids who were exploring and so on.

For all we knew, the French kids had been exploring, and were tired and wanted to rest. Maybe they'd been to that beach many times and were bored. Maybe they'd been brought to the beach against their will and resented it because they'd rather be doing something else. The fact is that we don't know, and even if we did know, it was entirely wrong and completely unfair to make a comparison like that and generalize from it. These two chapters were really the final straw for me, and they lost whatever remaining goodwill I'd harbored for this book, because this type generalization was rife: taking a few stories, or an interview or two, or a personal opinion, and extrapolating it into a grand argument favoring the Dutch way.

In the final analysis, we have only a narrow viewpoint from two writers who are apparently quite comfortably-off as judged from the text (occupations, lifestyle, friends, etc.). One of the things they discuss is owning cargo bikes and tandem bikes which can cost several thousand dollars, but my point here is that their perspective is not necessarily representative of everyone, and I didn't see any serious effort to expand their viewpoint beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances or to seek out contrary points of view for the sake of presenting a balanced argument. It seemed like the only things they were reporting were those which upheld their preconceived conclusion, and they were downplaying or ignoring anything which might sabotage that apple cart.

Finally, I have to say a few words about the technical aspects of reading this book. The advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher, was available only as a PDF, and it felt to me like it was written for the print edition, with no thought given to reading it as an ebook. If you can read it on a tablet or a desktop or laptop, and see it pretty much full size, then it makes for a decent read.

I read most of it on my phone, because it was more convenient for me, but it made for a very annoying read! The screen on my phone is larger than most, but if I tried the read the book as single pages, the text was annoyingly small. I could turn the phone sideways and read the text in a larger format, but then I had to contend with sliding the page up and down to read all of it. This would not have been so bad had it not been for the tendency of the app (BlueFire Reader) to get confused. Often when I tried to slide the page down or up, the screen would switch to the previous page or to the next page, There didn't seem to be any reliable way to swipe the page up or down without triggering a page change and it really was annoying. In the end I put up with the tiny text and read it as single pages. Just FYI!

Here are one or two more brief notes that I missed yesterday(!), in this and the next two paragraphs. A paper on Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) noted that "The incidence of STI-consultations and diagnoses increased substantially in recent years, both at GPs and STI centers" so again, not everything is as perfect as it might seem with Holland's child-rearing practices. A reason for this STI increase might be that Dutch do not employ condoms as frequently as some other countries in Europe, such as France, for instance. Maybe those French kids on the beach were soberly contemplating that?!

On this same sexual score, the incidence of teen pregnancy in Holland is almost the same as in Germany, and HIV infections and abortion rates are higher in the Netherlands than in Germany, so here we have another case of another country doing equally well, without a hint of recognition from the authors, or any hint of questioning whether the Germans do things the same, or differently, and what that means in either case. Again it's biased reporting.

There's a comment at one point on the wearing of school uniforms, which isn't the practice in Holland. The problem with this is once again that the authors don't look at the other side of that coin, either. School uniform is not just about identity and belonging, it's also about not being singled-out for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is that poor families, who cannot afford to dress their kids the way wealthier families can, do not stand out in an adverse way from everyone else who might be wearing designer clothing and the latest fashions otherwise. This is another example of where this book failed in not seeking out a broader sample base than merely the authors' own opinions, or the personal acquaintances of the authors.

So to conclude quickly, while I'm by no means trying to say that there's nothing we can learn from the Dutch, I have reiterate that this book failed to convince me that there's any more we can learn from them that smart and caring parents haven't been doing all along. Much of what's advocated here is simply common sense, and it's insulting to continually suggest that parents elsewhere, particularly in the UK and the US are not doing these things or are clueless about them.

Worse than this, though, is that their conclusion, grandly titled "Let's Start a Revolution" offered no way to start this revolution! Yes, individuals can adopt best practices, but a lot of what was discussed here was dependent upon the Dutch government, Dutch laws, Dutch culture, and so on. You can't pick that up and drop it into another country and expect it to be accepted or to work.

The authors' failure here, was in their offering absolutely no suggestions as to how other countries, even assuming they buy the authors' Dutch is best philosophy, could go about embracing the Dutch way, and if it's not possible, then what was the point of discussing all of those things? The book too often felt that it was much more interested criticizing British and American child-rearing than ever it was in trying to offer suggestions as to exactly how those societies might facilitate changes which could bring these supposed benefits of the Dutch way into those other countries, and for these reasons I cannot recommend this as a worthy read.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Gangster Women by Susan McNicoll


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a book about the women who hung out with the infamous mobsters and gangsters, mostly during their heyday in the early thirties, but also covering one from the fifties. it tells an unflinching tale of the ruthlessness and brutality, and of the love and loyalty. The book begins by covering the quartet of Billie Frechette, Marie Comforti, Jean Delaney Crompton, and Helen Gillis. Frechette was John Dillinger's girlfriend, and Delaney was one of three sisters, all of whom took up with gangsters. Helen Gillis was the wife of Lester "Baby-Face" Nelson, who died in her arms with nine bullets in his body after an insane shootout on a back country lane in late November 1934.

That turned out to be a banner year for renowned gangsters flaming out. It saw the deaths of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in May, Marie Curie and John Dillinger in July (one of those might not be an outlaw), and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd in October. Ma and Fred Barker only just escaped that watershed year by 16 days, dying in a gunfight with police in mid-January 1935. There were lesser names, too, such as Ford Bradshaw, Robert Brady, Tommy Carroll who was an associate of Dillinger's and who was the boyfriend of Jean Crompton, Aussie Elliott, an associate of Floyd's, Fred "Shotgun" Goetz, of Valentine's Day Massacre fame, Joseph Moran, an associate of the Barker gang, and last but not least, Wilbur "Mad Dog" Underhill. Also on the list are five more associates of John Dillinger: Eddie Green, John Hamilton, Charles Makley, Harry Pierpont, and Homer Van Meter. Clearly it wasn't safe to be a member of the Dillinger crew!

The book covers Bonnie and Clyde, of course, and Clyde's brother Marvin Barrow aka Buck, who was wounded with his wife Blanche and died in July 1933. Blanche lived to a ripe old age. Bonnie and Clyde's career seemed like ti was laways on the downhill slope. They were petty thieves and violently resisted arrest. Their spree lasted only two years, all of it spent on the run, and often wounded. Bonnie was injured severely in a car accident and never recovered, spending the last year of her life in pain form an injured leg. They both die din their mid-twenties.

The last story in the book is of Bugsy Siegel's abused girlfriend Virginia Hill, who looked like a movie star and who evidently was a petulant and avaricious girl. She was apparently murdered in the mid-sixties, but she outlived a girl who as a kid, resolved to emulate her, and who ended up 'collateral damage' in a hit job on the guy she was traveling with, Little Augie Pisano. Janice Drake left behind a thirteen year old son.

It had to be infatuation. No one who wasn't blinded by love of some variety or another would be seen dead with these people. Or maybe they would....


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lise Meitner Pioneer of Nuclear Fission by Janet Hamilton


Rating: WORTHY!

This is a great book for young readers. It's clear, concise, informative, and pulls no punches. Lise Meitner was an Austrian who made amazing strides as a woman through a man's world of science and education. She earned herself a doctorate, became a professor, and importantly, was key to understanding the process of nuclear fission in uranium caused by the absorption of a neutron.

Born in Austria, Lise moved to Berlin in Germany to pursue a physics education, and she worked there for thirty years on the forefront of nuclear physics, fighting sexism by means of leading by example, rarely getting the distinction and recognition she earned, sometimes betrayed by those she worked with and trusted, and because she was Jewish, falling afoul of the brain-dead and psychotic Nazis who were destroying their own world-domination plans by chasing-off and killing the very Jewish scientists who could have won the war for them had they been enabled and inclined to do so! Morons.

Lise barely escaped Germany with her life and had to kiss goodbye not only her lab and equipment, but also pretty much everything she owned. First Holland and then Sweden took her in. Of all her calculations, her biggest miscalculation was her failure to move to Britain when she had the chance. World War Two broke out and she was trapped in Sweden for the duration, but she continued her work, her blind pursuit of science inexplicably helping her former colleague Otto Hahn who remained in Germany.

During World War One she had worked as an X-ray technician (pioneering the medical science with her own physics knowledge!), and as a nurse, and was so disturbed by the horrors she experienced there, that in the Second World War, she refused to contribute her expertise to developing the atomic bomb because she hated war so much.

In her later years she finally did receive much of the recognition she had been denied for much of her life, and led a quiet life in science, teaching and continuing her research. She died in 1968 at the ripe old age of nearly ninety! This is a great book for young girls to learn how much they could contribute if they decided to pursue a life in science as Lise Meitner had done.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

The History Puzzle by Susan Provost Beller


Rating: WORTHY!

This book doesn't offer a heck of a lot for the adult reader unless they're extraordinarily ignorant about historians, but it is a great middle-grade and lower high-school book which is where I donated it once I'd read it. The subtitle is "How we know what we know about the past." It's heavily biased towards US history, but it does not neglect historical and archaeological questions elsewhere, so we get coverage of Stonehenge and other such henges, of the so-called great wall of China, Roman ruins in Italy, and even cave paintings in France. Sadly, Africa gets no coverage.

That said, the author does offer some engaging stories about historical misunderstandings, such as that over the Battle of Little Big Horn, and who really did discover the Americas. The chapters are brief, each covering a different historical event or people, so we learn about gunboats in Lake Champlain, The Edmund Fitzgerald on lake Superior, which is big enough to be a sea if only someone would dump enough salt in there, Martin's Hundred, Mesa Verde, Herculaneum and Pompeii, and even Noah's ark! The Old Testament has it wrong! Who knew?!

I think this is a great introduction for young people to history, which is a subject that's all too often overlooked or under-served, and I recommend it. And it's written by a provost!


Trick of the Eye by Silke Vry


Rating: WORTHY!

There's not much to say about this book with a poetic title except that it's an awesome example of illusion and inventive art. Subtitled 'Art and Illusion', the book demonstrates handsomely that deceptive imagery in art is not anything new: it's been done for years - centuries, even.

This book has some eighty pages of examples from works by people like Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Robert Campin, Salvador Dali, MC Escher, Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Lucas Furtenagel, Vince van Gogh, Hans Holbein, Samuel van Hoogstraten, René Magritte, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Andrea Pozzo, George Seurat, Jan Vermeer, Paolo Veronese, and Leonardo da Vinci as well as a host of more modern artists, including Banksy.

It covers not only works of art, but also objects, including the Acropolis of Athens, and offers some do-it-yourself illusions in the end pages. I recommend this for anyone who enjoys illusions and art


Friday, November 25, 2016

Drowned City Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown


Rating: WORTHY!

At a time of Thanksgiving it's important to remember what we have to be thankful for, and to recall things which are, even after a mere decade, in danger of being forgotten. One of these was Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which was an appalling and embarrassing tragedy and which highlighted a complete failure across several systems including the local authorities under the (at best) neglectful Mayor Nagin, the Federal government under the utterly clueless George Bush, and pretty much everything in between.

Don Brown's (and yes, I'd pick Don over Dan any time!) very well-written and nicely-illustrated graphic novel tells the story as it was, unvarnished and nothing swept under the rug. It covers everything from the start (and I mean literally the start) of the hurricane to the cruel and horrific aftermath. It's a horrible read and I mean that in a sense I hope you'll understand: horrible, but necessary lest we forget what happens when humans are absurdly over-confident and tragically unprepared.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BALLS It Takes Some to Get Some by Chris Edwards


Rating: WARTY!

This is a review of a book for which I was allowed a review copy, for which thank the publisher!

This is the first of a disappointing pair of transgender books I'm reviewing today, both written by guys named Chris! The blurb for this book is as misleading as they get. You can't blame the author (Chris Edwards, not to be confused with author Christopher Edwards) for this because they have nothing to do with their blurb unless they self publish, but I did want to mention it as a point of order, and because it's something out of the author's hands that can seriously and negatively impact the very book the author has written.

The blurb says "At a time when the term transgender didn't exist...Chris Edwards endured 28 surgeries to become the person he always knew he was meant to be." The problem with this is that this book covers the author's experiences in changing gender largely during the nineties and into the early oughts (although it references some time before), whereas the term 'transgender' was coined in 1965, which was, I'm roughly estimating, about five years before the author was born) and was in common use by the seventies. So common had it become by the nineties that in 1992, the International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy had codified a definition of it! So no, the blurb is outright wrong here.

I really wanted to like this book because I loved the title. It was when I began reading the first chapter that I began to realize I should not have loved the title so much. I really didn't like the first chapter, but it improved after that, and so I had mixed feelings as I read on. Although it continued quite strongly from there on, it seriously deteriorated the further I read, and by the end, I didn't even want to read the epilogue and that's where I stopped.

For me the book was at it's best when it described the struggle the author went through to get where he needed to go, which was from the fabulously-named Kristin Eskandarian, to the end goal of Chris Edwards. Determined he was and suffer he did, and I suffered with him (after a fashion!) but enjoyed the experience while it lasted. Every fundamentalist who thinks being gay or transgender is a "choice" needs to read books like this to get themselves an education. No one chooses this ostracism, punishment, struggle, emotional overload and physical pain. No one wants it. No one wishes for it, but some must endure it, and amongst those are people who cannot do right by themselves until they have corrected, to the best of their ability, a heartless trick of nature. This author is one of those people.

Religion just pisses me off, frankly, which is why I had a hard time reading, towards the end of the book, this musing: "I always wondered why God made me transgender." This blind belief imposed by society on everyone from birth (well they try) that some magical being has a plan for all of us is delusional. It is also a burden no one should have to endure, because it makes life harder and inexplicable when you have to accommodate a big bearded giant in the sky. It forces questioning statements like this out of people because when you let god in, you let rationality out. I can't prove this, but the evidence is all on my side: no god had anything to do with this. It's just nature, screwing-up. Fortunately, albeit clumsy as yet, science has the power to go a long way towards correcting nature's mistakes of one sort or another. No god can help, and anyone who worships a god who would purposefully do this kind of thing to people is worshiping an evil, capricious god not worthy of human intellect or attention in my opinion.

The early strength of this book was in its unflinching reportage of the physical struggle: the inconvenience at best, and pain and suffering at worst. The weakness of it was that there seemed to be no "emotional content" as Bruce Lee so cutely phrased it in his movie Enter the dragon There needs to be emotional content in a story like this and I wasn't feeling it. And while this is a memoir and so is expected to be about the author, the problem was that it was all about him, with very little time or room for anyone else, least of all other people in his position.

We have mention of family and friends frequently, but they are always bit players and they seem to disappear completely in the latter portion of the book. We never really get a feel for what they went through because the author is so intently focused on what he's going through. This really came to a head (if you'll forgive the unintended pun) in the last few chapters where the focus was not on his life in general, his liberation, what he experienced in general as a man, and and how he felt about everything. Instead of that, which would have been wonderful, the sole focus was on his desperate quest to get laid!

This really soured me on the entire book, and cheapened the experience of reading it considerably. While I was hoping for more of the post-surgery story, all I got was this endless quest to find a female and this is when it really brought it home to me that the author was very much a guy. His story was all about balls, but it was balls in the sense of testosterone, and not in the sense of guts. In short, it was the opposite of what I'd hoped for when I first saw this title.

I'd wanted a before-and-after story and in a sense, there wasn't one because for the author, there was only after. There never was a before because he never was a woman except in the most superficial sense. I get that, I do, but there is still a story there, and I kept getting hints of it here and there which were disappointingly brief: about how he felt and how he was treated when he was perceived as a woman as compared with when he brought out the man who had always been subsumed under a female exterior.

I'd hoped for more of a general story of post-op life along those lines, but all we really got was the op. There was no 'post' other than what I just mentioned, which sadly was all about his new "post" if I can put it that way, and it sounded rather desperate and of an entirely frat-boy mentality, which turned me right off. It was this kind of thing which made me dislike that first chapter, too.

There's a sick genderist joke that a man's brains are in his penis, and this memoir played right into its hands. In fact the author indulges himself in this kind of genderism when he writes, "Luckily the testosterone had yet to override the female part of my brain that has no qualms about asking for directions." Seriously? There were several such Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot statements such as: "I wanted my first time to be with someone I really cared about—who cared about me" which felt so hypocritical coming as it did at the end of bunch of chapters which talked only about getting laid - and with not a single mention of sexual diseases and risks. I found myself wondering, more than once, what happened to the woman? And the answer was always there: there never was a woman, not in any sense in this book! It was always a guy!

That kind of thing would have made more sense had it not come after statements like this one: "He then informed me that if I’m with a woman at a revolving door, the gentlemanly thing to do is to enter first and get it going so she doesn’t have to exert any effort. This guy was a true gentleman in every sense of the word, which is exactly what I intended to be." To me that's sheer sexism. A 'true gentleman' may well be what he was, but he didn't give me that impression having read those last few chapters, where it was all about sex, never about relationships, companionship, building trust, shared interests, or getting to know someone before diving headlong into them. Again, these are things guys are known for doing - and juvenile guys at that. There is no feminine side to this.

That quote harbors another issue, too. Are men and women supposed to be treated equally or not? If we are, then women don't get to have doors opened for them, unless you happen to be going out first, and hold it for the next person coming right behind, but in that case, the gender of either person is irrelevant. It's just the polite thing to do. But equality means precisely that - equal treatment for all. You don't get get to have the car door opened, or for men to stand up when you enter the room, or for you keep your purse closed while the man's wallet is perennially open on your date. Otherwise it's not equality, it's privilege, class, and special treatment which is precisely what the suffragists accused men of. Do we really want to go back to that? More on privilege anon.

It felt very hypocritical reading a statement like that above from someone who is, in this very memoir, talking of equality in the extreme: of the right of those who are gender dysphoric to be allowed to equalize themselves as this author was allowed, and to be allowed to be treated as all other men and women when the surgeries are over. That's what equality means. But as long as you're talking about wanting to be "a true gentleman", then you're missing the point! This is not to say men should be allowed to be dicks and jerks. We can still be polite, considerate, and well-behaved, but this behavior should not be considered the sole preserve of the male gender, especially since (some would argue and upon very solid grounds!) men are not even there yet! There's no reason at all these days why a woman should not open a car door for a guy, or why she should not go down on one knee and propose marriage!

The author's family, which had played an important role in the early chapters, were pretty much banished from the second half of the book. No longer was this thirty-year-old guy traveling with his mom for consultations. Family was out, which frankly felt a bit odd to me. Traveling with family for post op help I could see, but for a consultation? It felt more like fiction than memoir, but in the end it was his choice.

The fictional shadow grew darker when I read a statement like this: "Dr. Laub had made it his mission to travel to underdeveloped countries and provide life-changing plastic surgeries to tens of thousands of people." Now I don't doubt that a surgeon could perform tens of thousands of operations over a long career. But I just did a calculation, and over a career of forty years, starting from age 28 (four years of university, four years of medical school, and two years of residency minimum, would put him at 28), a doctor could perform ten thousand operations if he did five per week, fifty weeks per year.

That's not a heavy load by any means, but remember that what we're talking about here is charitable surgery in third world countries, and he wasn't doing those at the rate of five per week for fifty weeks of the year over forty years. He was doing those on trips away from his regular work. Hundreds I can see, maybe even thousands of such operations, but tens of thousands, all of them life saving? No. Just no! Doing such work is commendable and worthy, but let's be realistic about what he does instead of inflating it. We're not Donald Trump after all. To do otherwise is to do Dr Laud a disservice. If he supervised or worked with teams of surgeons doing these surgeries, then I can see tens of thousands over an extended period. But not one man. In fact, working with teams is what he did if you read about his work. Wikipedia describes it as "tens of thousands of life-altering operations gratis." That sounds more like it and does indeed make him a super-hero in my book!

It was slips like this that made me distrust the author setting himself up as a sort of spokesperson for the gender dysphoric. Quite often throughout this book there were directives like this: "You should never ask someone who is transgender if they have had or plan to have surgery."

I didn't grow up in the US so it's not my nature to ask personal questions of people I just met. I wouldn't advise it whether they're transsexual or anything else. I don't even ask such questions of people I know well unless it's relevant and I know they will not mind. This is why I have to wonder if the author is really talking on behalf of all who share his experience, or if this is just how he feels, and he's projecting it onto everyone else.

I don't trust it. That's not to say I'm advising asking the first transgender person you encounter all manner of personal questions. Far from it! It's just that I don't believe that all transgender people are the same (except in that they're transgender!) I believe they're like everyone else: some won't want to talk about it - perhaps the majority - whereas others might well be inclined to discuss it in appropriate circumstances. This author wrote a book about it for goodness sake!

The point that it's their choice, not mine, yours, or this author's, so do not expect that, just because they've had a "weird surgery" that it's up for grabs in the topics for discussion department. And ask only if you know them well, and know they will be receptive to discussing it. Remember they did not have a choice over which body they were born in, but they do have a choice whether to discuss what they did about it. Respect that choice and leave it with them to make!

There was one more thing which bothered me, and which the author made only one mention of in the entire book, and that was privilege. This memoir reeks of it. These operations cost literally thousands of dollars (I won't go so far as to say tens of thousands of life-saving dollars!), and this guy or his family could afford them. He could afford the best, and could fly across country at the drop of a hat to discuss a procedure with a doctor, and pick out the best surgeon to perform it.

I wouldn't wish what he went through on anyone, and I admire and salute him for having the 'balls' and stamina, and the courage to go after what he wanted, but the fact is that, as badly done-to as he felt from being trapped in the wrong body and having to suffer emotional stress, and humiliation, and painful, prolonged surgeries to get the right body, he did have the money and means, and opportunity to get it done.

He was extremely privileged in that regard, but from the way this was written, I got no sense of gratitude or of appreciation from this book of how lucky he was he was or how grateful he was to have been privileged enough to pursue his dream when scores of others in his position do not have the same access he did. In a just world, everyone would have this access if they needed it, yet he writes as though it's a right (which it ought to be, granted!) he enjoyed without any sense of humility that he had this access when scores of others are denied it.

It felt rather selfish and was exemplified in this comment late in the book: "After all I do for everyone else, nobody was helping me." This was after his family had paid for surgeries and accompanied him left, right, and center, and his friends had been amazingly and commendably supportive, and he has a great network of people rooting for him, and he's had the opportunity to get precisely what he wanted in life, and now he's discussing getting laid and this is his comment? As much as I wanted to like and commend a book like this, this is not the one I find I can in good faith, lend my support to. I'm sorry and I wish the author all the best in his new life, but I cannot recommend this account of it.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino


Rating: WORTHY!

I was really pleased with this book, for which advance review copy, I thank the publisher!

I don't see this as being widely or wildly popular, but it will definitely appeal to anyone who's ever had an interest in Atari. I never owned one of their gaming boxes, but I am familiar with their computers, particularly the 520 ST which was quite the sensation in some computer circles, although the sensation quickly died.

I found it odd that this computer was not featured in the book, but the book focused nearly exclusively on games and on Artari's heyday, and in particular on the artwork accompanying the games, featured either on the box or in the manual. The artwork on the computer screen was abysmal by today's standards, but it was successful in its time because no-one knew any better, and it was the best that computers could do until Commodore came along with its wildly successful 64.

The artwork on the boxes and manuals though, was another world. It served the purpose of course, of firing up the imagination of kids (young and old) who evidently didn't care about the huge discrepancy between the resolution of the art on the box and the blocky 8-bit game that came inside! That discrepancy isn't mentioned in the book, but the art is given the adulation it deserves. There are interviews with the people who did the work, along with a potted history of Atari and the company's spectacular growth and subsequent fall into financial difficulties and obscurity even as the distinctive logo lived on.

The artist profiles include such names as Marc Erikson, Rick Guidice, Steve Hendricks, Terry Hoff, James Kelly, and Cliff Spohn. Usually in something like this it seems to be all white guys, but that wasn't the case here, interestingly enough. There were guys of Asian ancestry such as Hiro Kimura, and Warren Chang, and also several girls involved in these various enterprises, including one who was an engineer. Go engineering girls! Names such as Sharon Ashton, Susan Jaekel and Evelyn Seto are deservedly celebrated along with the unnamed woman who banned a highly questionable illustration for Atari's Haunted House Game!

As for the artwork itself, it's remarkable in how consistently strong it is, as well as consistently varied! I loved it and envied it. I think this book works as a trip down memory lane, as a coffee table art book, and as a history of a corporation that really brought a change to people's lives in the field of leisure activity as well as in corporate culture. It may surprise you to learn that Steve Jobs once worked at Atari. No kidding!

And what of the games? There are too many to list, but all the old favorites are here: Air-Sea battle, Breakout, Centipede, Donkey Kong, E.T., Food Fight, Galaga, Home Run, Indy 500, Joust, Krull, Mario Brothers, Night Driver, Oscar's Trash Race, Pac-Man, Qix, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Space invaders, Tetris, Ultra PONG,Video Pinball, Wizards, and Yars' Revenge, along with mentions of some unreleased games such as Dukes of Hazzard. One thing which particularly interested me was the story of the Atari burial at Alamogordo. I'd seen a documentary about this ( Atari: Game Over.), and it was fun to read the article.

I really liked this book, and I recommend it. It comes with a foreword, an afterword, end notes, and an extensive index. There's an article here (or at least there was when I first blogged this!) which will give you a feel for the work. Game on!


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press by Diana Childress


Rating: WORTHY!

This book is a fine example of why print books are refusing to roll over and die in the face of ebooks. There is no ebook that can stand spine to spine with a book like this one! Ebooks are spineless! This one has heft and weight, and is a solid piece of work in more than one way. Convenience is really all ebooks have to offer, so you have to ask yourself, do you feel literary? Well do you, punk? Sorry! Sorry! Got carried away there. But ask yourself this: if you're having someone over for dinner, would you do your grocery shopping at a convenience store?

This book, despite being small, actually feels heavy. It's glossy and feels wonderful to hold in the hand. It's bright and clear, and flawlessly printed and illustrated. None of your crappy Kindle app disjointed images and choppy, mismatched text lurks here. With this book, you can feel its individuality and personality in your hand and display this on a shelf. You own this and you can give it away or bequeath it to a relative. It's a good solid book!

But what of its content? Well that stands up to scrutiny too. It's very well written, simply but not idiotically. It's knowledgeable and full of interesting sidebars with bits and pieces which round out and fill out the overall story. For all of his fame, surprisingly little is known about Gutenberg. By digging around in some very well-kept ancient records, it's possible to piece together a coherent and quite detailed story of what he was up to and how he went about his inventive business making leaps from one technology to another. He was able to see things in a new way and come up with something never before seen, and which had a huge, huge impact on the world.

It's a pity that there isn't more, but what is known is here, rest assured, and as far as budding writers go, I can't think of a better book to read or to give to someone than one which gives us a clear and educational history of how this man set us free and made possible what all we hopeful writers do today. I shall be looking for more books by this author.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Level The Playing Field by Kristina Rutherford


Rating: WARTY!

Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher. Note also that this is going to be a lot longer review than I usually give to a book of this short length, because this is an important topic and I don't think it was covered adequately or ironically, equitably here!

The overall impression I had of this book was not that of a reasoned and cogent argument, or of anything that went into any depth. It felt much more like a rant, and as such it failed to make a case. This is the kind of subject which all too often becomes emotional, but that serves no purpose in trying to get a the roots of a discrepancy like this, to properly understand the issues, and to determine how best to set them right - or even if they can be set right.

What disappointed me most of all was that the author seemed unable to recognize the issues even when she described them. For instance, I read:

Every PGA Tour event is televised and some tournaments draw more than 10 million viewers. Only select LPGA Tour events are televised, and even major tournaments draw fewer than 1 million viewers.
I don't get her point here. It seems to me that she's elucidated the problem perfectly: the viewership of the female tournament is one tenth that of the male tournament, meaning that the advertisers are not going to show-up in droves, meaning the money is going to be significantly less, meaning that the winner's purse is going to be dramatically reduced. The the root of the discrepancy, and therefore the problem to be resolved here is why the viewership is so much less, but the author evidently wasn't interested in pursuing this question, preferring instead to wave a hand at media coverage and mark it down as explained. Well, they had media coverage here, but the viewership was far less. Why is the author not asking why that's the case? I'll talk more about this later.

On the one hand the book makes some good arguments for equity in how women are treated when it comes to sports and it definitely highlights the discrepancy between how male and female athletes are viewed (and paid), but on the other hand it came across as rather whiny and preachy, and it seemed far more focused on money and celebrity than ever it was in trying to understand why there's such a massive discrepancy between how athletes of each gender (regardless of whether they're celebrities or not) are viewed.

The author never did distinguish between equality in how athletes are treated, and equality in how athletes garner for themselves a fan base. You can legislate equality, as the US did when Democrat Senator Birch Bayh introduced what became known as Title IX in June 1972 (a year before Roe v. Wade made huge strides in another direction related tomember of Congressr who co-authored it, but it's most commonly referred to as Title IX. Patsy Mink was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress

At the beginning of this book we're asked, of two basketball stars, "Why aren't athletes like LeBron and Maya valued and recognized equally for their talent?" There are reasons for that which we'll go into shortly, and I would have been much more impressed had the book gone after real answers like this instead of the route it took. I would have been more impressed still had it approached the subject as fairly as it expects male and female athletes to be treated! The only 'solution' on offer here seemed to be that if women are given the same media exposure as men, then everything will magically balance-out, but nothing was put forward to support this claim, and frankly I have a hard time seeing that happening for a variety of reasons, and especially not in the US.

The first issue is the question of whether sports really represents the same kind of workplace that other occupations, say in the medical profession or in businesses not tied to professional sports offer. Frankly it doesn't. No one in their right mind would argue that two people, regardless of gender, who were doing the same job to the same degree of skill should get equal treatment including pay, in any ordinary endeavor, but the question of how you resolve whether two people are doing the same job in sports went totally unexamined. There were some random potshots taken at it, but nothing substantial.

Instead, we were treated to a distinctly monocular view: that of men v. women, without any attempt to look at the issue using any other lens. In particular, the fact that sports is one occupation which is conducted in the full glare of media, and with huge audiences in attendance and dramatic financial considerations in play wasn't addressed at all. This is one reason why, at the risk of a pun, it's a different ball game when compared with other occupations.

The book opens with a mention of several female athletes, including Danica Patrick, a NASCAR driver, who is gushingly described as "the most successful female race car driver in history" yet this driver has never won a race on US soil, and as of this writing has had only a single win to my knowledge. So how is her 'success' being calculated? By the fact that she earned thirteen million dollars last year? What does that have to do with being an athlete per se, or with being successful at her chosen sport? Nothing! It pretty much has to do with her having a monopoly in being a high-profile female on one hand, and her not being a complete disaster at what she does on the other.

While I would not deny Danica Patrick, or anyone else the success she's had, however it's measured, I would balk at trying to use this as an argument for equality and the author strangely seems to agree with this because whenever she talks about other female athletes, none of those are championed as successful for having no wins! On the contrary, they're put on a pedestal as being very successful in terms of winning things.

So we immediately have a disconnect in what constitutes success, which then means we have a problem in determining how that success should be rewarded. Do we value a high earner who is not successful at least insofar as garnering wins goes, or do we value success in terms of wins even when remuneration is poor? What's the goal here?! It cannot be the double standard the author seems to have set up. This is important.

I also have to wonder why this book doesn't reference other people who are sports professionals, but who do not earn the big bucks. There are thousands of people in sports, men and women, and only the so-called top-tier ones get the big bucks. Most of the others are entirely unpaid or only part-timers, or full-time professionals earning only the lowest level of financial remuneration for athletes in their field.

Admittedly this can be significant pay, and much higher than most of us can hope for, but I think it would have served a useful purpose to ask why they - both men and women - are not as highly paid as the ones featured in the book, and to ask: does the reason for their inequality offer any clues to the reason for the inequality between men and women - and I'm not talking in terms of performance. This is sports, remember, and individual performance is only one factor - and a relatively small one as it happens, because this isn't your regular everyday occupation, especially not in team sports.

The natural response to what I've said here might be that this book was talking only about high achievers, matching high-achieving males with similar females, but if we apply the 'logic' employed here, but in this direction, can we argue that those people, too, would magically get pay raises and achieve equality if only they could get the same media exposure? You really can't, so I'm wondering how it is that we think increased exposure alone would magically improve women's lot in sports?

If you think I'm trying to make an argument here that female sports professionals are really only lower-tier, or poorer-grade, or second-rate performers, then you're misunderstanding. The argument I am making here is that it's really not as simple or as straight-forward as this author seems to be trying to argue. You can't make a case for equal pay without supporting it, just as you can't make a case for those lower-tier athletes (of any gender) to be on par with the top-tier athletes without supporting that in some way, too.

You can't argue that it has to be done purely from a bald claim that person B ought really to be remunerated at the same level as person A, regardless. You have to ask what is being contributed, because professional sports is about exposure and audiences, not just about personal performance. This is an aspect of the endeavor which the book doesn't explore. Yes, it complains about poor exposure for female athletes, but it doesn't offer any suggestions or real examination of root causes! It merely blames the media and leaves it at that.

The only argument the author seems to be able to make is along the lines of "Hey! Fair's fair!" but the way this system works, and has worked for far too long, really has nothing to do with how well a given athlete performs. The most widely-followed sports really aren't about that, notwithstanding all of the individual achievement awards and post-game MVP appellations. It's about blind team solidarity, sheep-like (or perhaps more accurately, wolf-like) adherence to pack mentality, and in-your-face aggression towards every team and every supporter who isn't "us". Individual players have no part to play in that aspect of team 'sports' especially given that at some point the individual will move on or retire, while the team continues on largely unaffected by the loss of any one individual.

It's not that women can't give attitude or be aggressive, or assertive as over-hyped TV cameras love. They can. It's just that women in general are not as overt as men are in this regard and this applies whether the male or female in question is a player or a spectator. Women are not as combative (that's not to be read as 'not as competitive', which would be a huge lie) as men, and while this is perfectly fine - in fact, I personally prefer it - it doesn't play well given the juvenile frat-boy sports mentality which is rife in today's male-soaked sports media, where it's entirely given over to a combative attitude.

The mentality is 'destroy or be destroyed', 'win at all costs', losers are useless, and so on. The Queen song, We Are the Champions sums it up: "We are the champions! No time for losers 'cause we are the champions of the world!" This is how it's seen. The US football Super Bowl winners are hailed as champions of the world even though no other nations competed!

Again, it's a winner takes all mentality, and it has nothing to do with how well individual athletes perform per se. It's that very psychosis: aggression, combativeness, posing, strutting, in-your-face rudeness, and asinine attitude, which completely turns me off sports, but it is this which appeals to the cave-man mentality that far too many team sports and media outlets seem dedicated to embracing, promoting, and perpetuating. There is no more room for equity and fairness here that there was in the Roman Colosseum.

Before we go any further let's be clear that there are inequalities. According to the Women's Sports Foundation:

  • Female students comprise 57% of student populations, but female athletes received only 43% of participation opportunities at NCAA schools.
  • Male athletes get 55% of NCAA college athletic scholarship dollars. Guess how much women then get!
  • Women's teams receive only 40% of college sport operating dollars and 36% of college athletic team recruitment spending.
  • Median head coaches' salaries at NCAA Division I-FBS schools are $3,430,000 for men's teams and $1,172,400 for women's teams.
These telling stats are not ones you'll read in this book, because the book isn't about making that kind of a case. It's all about individuals, and I think that approach was a mistake. I think that very approach played into the media status quo rather than challenged it, which is what is actually needed here. There is a real problem, almost half a century on, in Title IX providing true equality for females in sports. This is a fact, but whether, if there were true and complete equality, this would translate into the same thing at the professional and media level, is another issue entirely. Given the result of over forty years of Title IX, the answer seems to be that it would not make enough of a difference.

The problem with the stats just quoted is that all we get is the bald fact of inequality. There's no exploration of why it's so or why it's being allowed to perpetuate and exacerbate in the professional world. This disparity is nowhere more pronounced than in professional soccer as is highlighted in Newsweek. The US women's team has won three world cups whereas the men's team has never advanced beyond the quarter-finals, yet male players routinely "earn" three times what female players do! To earn their relatively meager compensation, the women must win all twenty of the season games whereas the men could lose all twenty and still get full pay. Is this fair? Not even close. This is exactly the disparity that Title IX sought to set right, so how is it that it fails so badly when these athletes actually get to the professional level?

On this score (at the risk of another pun!) I was sorry to see some sleight-of-hand in this author's reporting. Consider this statement regarding remuneration in the National Women's Soccer League: "The average salary in the U.S. based NWSL is between $6,000 and $30,000 for a six-month season. A top-tier player on the men's pro side makes more than the high-end of that average - in a single week" Note how we went from an "average" to a top-tier performer? The average isn't even an average, it's a range. Is the actual average halfway between the two values? How does that compare with the men's average? We're not told, but comparing an "average" to a top-tier man's pay isn't comparing apples to apples. That said, the two would still be discrepant, but when the numbers are twisted and mismatched like that, it's really hard to get a good picture. We can't begin to figure out how to narrow a gap when we don't even get to know what the gap is or why it really exists!

One assertion from the author, referencing what someone else has said on the topic, is that "the key to closing this gap is simple: People just need to see us play. When increased exposure leads to interest from advertisers, the amount of money involved can rise pretty quickly," but this is not borne-out by experience. According to Newsweek, the Women's World Cup final of 2015 was the most watched soccer match - male or female - ever in the US, but this garnered nothing for women's sports, not even for women's soccer in the year that followed.

It's been almost twenty years since the US women's team won the World Cup soccer final in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl holding some 90,000 fans. It was a stunning game every bit the equal of a men's game - in truth leagues better than a men's game. The US men's soccer team has never done this! Whenever there's such a win, and there have been three, it's all "we're world class" and "women's sports are on the upsurge," but the day after it's always "ho-hum! What's next?" You cannot blame female athletes for asking "What do we have to do to get recognition? You cannot blame the US Olympic women who carried home 61 medals to the men's 55 from Rio for asking the same question. The author apparently isn't interested in asking this kind of question or pursuing it as far as it needs to go.

There are important aspects to these discrepancies which the author doesn't touch upon too, and which in fact relate directly to her calling an unfair play on pay. Look at US basketball, for example: while fifty or so top NBA players earn more than the entire WNBA teams roster combined, the NBA brings in five billion dollars, whereas the Women's National Basketball Association is lucky to break even. This is a question which ought to have been explored, but was not. Why does the WNBA fare so poorly? Is it because the media is shunning it, or because it simply doesn't attract as many fans and global sponsorship as the men's games do, and if that's the case, then why is that so? The author seems content to blame media bias, offer no support for the claim, and leave it at that.

We'll get back to that in a second, but let's take a moment and ask why the author never addresses the fact of women being segregated in sports as they are in no other profession, not even in the military these days. She simply accepts this segregation as a given, and I have to wonder why that inequality isn't addressed. If the leagues were white players on one side and black players on the other, then I'm sure she would have found that worth questioning, so why no questions about gender segregation? The black basketball league would then be the one making the big bucks and the white league would be in the position the women's league is, more than likely, in terms of garnering coverage! It's not an inapt comparison!

I further have to wonder if this segregation is part of the problem: if women, instead of playing in the WNBA, played in the NBA, how would they fare? This isn't to try and set up an argument for saying that women can't compete on equal terms and therefore shouldn't get equal treatment. Women have proven repeatedly that they can compete on equal terms. This is to point out that this book really doesn't delve very deep. It makes a superficial argument that everything ought to be equal, but it never makes a case for why, and it never wonders whether this particular aspect also ought to be equal and if so, would it improve matters? It avoids that altogether. It also avoids dress code, which we shall look at shortly.

Back to the segregation. It's a fact the women tend to be smaller and less muscular than men, but is this a problem? Maybe. Women would be typically shorter and lighter than the men they played against were the basketball leagues to be combined. In the NBA, the average height is six feet eight inches, whereas the average height in the WNBA is six feet. Would this be a disadvantage given that half the NBA players are necessarily six feet or less, and basketball is in theory at least, a non-contact sport? Would the advantage that a tall woman has among less tall-women in her league translate to poor performance if she became a medium-sized person among many taller persons in a male league? It's an interesting question, but it went unexplored and ignoring this made the author's case feel more like special pleading than it did a call for fair play.

Dd you know that the ball is also different between the male and female game in basketball? It's slightly smaller and lighter. Why is that and why does the author not address it? Why do female basketball players use a smaller ball while female soccer players do not? There's no answer because the author didn't ask the question. These differences in equipment translate across many other sports - the women's javelin and the women's discus are both smaller and lighter than the men's, the shot is lighter in the shotput, LPGA courses are shorter than PGA courses, and so on. In basketball, while women shoot free throws on par with men, their 3 pointers from the field average lower even in their own league. So what does equality mean? What does parity have to hinge upon? Again, we get not a word on this from the author who seems to be arguing for parity in pay but not in anything else.

As a Washington Post article puts it,

As Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, told me: "The reason we have females separated in sports is because in many sports, the best female athletes can't compete with the best male athletes. And everybody knows that, but nobody wants to say it. Females are structured like a disabled class for all sorts of, I think, good reasons."
This is something else the author did not explore in this book. Is the problem that simple or is there more to it? She didn't ask. According to the NY times, "There has yet to be a financially viable women's mainstream sports league in the United States." The author would undoubtedly argue that this is because of poor media coverage, but although she argues that, she fails to support any such argument.

And take a look at the crowd in the image accompanying the article. That says it all right there. Women are not sports attenders in general - not on the level at which men are - or even at which women are when it comes to men's games. The attendance by gender at all of the major sports in the US shows males turning up at literally twice the rate of female attendees. We read a lot in this book about women who play the sports, but nothing about those who attend and thereby help pay the salaries of the participants.

It bothers me that the author doesn't explore these aspects as a reason for disparity and inequality, asking why the attendance is so poor. Advertisers are not going to want to pay much to have an ad at a game with seven thousand people when they can have one at a game which will be seen by twice that number of people (not even including the viewers at home), and without extra advertising revenue, there's less cash to pay the players. The author doesn't explore, either, whether men really ought to get more if they play eighty games in a basketball season, which is twice what female players play.

There's an interesting, and sad, article here about this disparity in attendance related to Syracuse University's performance in the 2016 basketball season (and on the topic of inequality do compare the men's basketball page for Syracuse in Wikipedia with the women's! This makes a better argument about inequality than this book did, in my opinion!). Women had a far better season than the men (losing in the final whereas the men lost in the quarterfinals) yet their attendance was averaging less than a thousand, while the men's was almost twenty-two times as high.

Keep in mind that roughly thirty percent of the attendance at the men's games - that would be 6,000 to 7,000 people - was women. Where were these women when it came to games played by their own gender? ESPN is on record as saying that men accounted for 66% of its WNBA audience in 2013. Where were the women? Why are they viewing women's games at roughly the same percentage as they're viewing men's games? Why are so few men viewing women's games?

None of this is explored in the book, yet all of it is relevant to the case the author thought she was making. Is the lack of interest in women's sports not just from the media and from men, but also from women themselves? Apparently so, and this is one thing Title IX cannot legislate. They can compel equal opportunity (to more or less success as we've seen), but they cannot compel fans and supporters into existence or into attendance.

There are sports where women compete on perfectly equal terms with men, but where women are highly underrepresented. The author never explored this. For example, Danica Patrick has extremely high visibility and is highly rewarded for racing in NASCAR, but as mentioned, she has never won a race (as of this writing) on US soil, and has had only one win elsewhere. The author mentions Danica Patrick but never explores the details. Patrick earned about thirteen million in 2015, whereas Dale Earnhardt earned almost twice that, with no wins! Kyle Busch, who won at least five races earned less than Patrick did! There is no justice or parity anywhere in this particular story, yet no one seems to complain about that!

What do TV advertisers advertise at women's games? At men's games it seems to be cars, beer, power tools, and financial and retirement opportunities. What do advertisers want to offer to women, and do they have the same advertising budget to offer it with that the car and beer advertisers do? Again, this is unexplored, but it does have a bearing on the subject. More to the point is what happens in comparable situations.

For example, a new TV show is very much like a sports event. Because of the intensely capitalistic system the USA operates in, the show needs viewers to survive. If viewership goes down, the show is cancelled. We've lost a lot of quality shows because of this, while crappy so-called "reality' shows thrive. Why? Because this is what idiots watch on the idiot's lantern. It's that simple. Quality often fails were the lowest common denominator wins every time, and this is the issue: it all comes down to what makes money for the media. It has nothing to do with parity or equality, fairness or gender rights. If the female sports events don't attract viewers and sustain the attraction beyond world cup events, then advertisers are not going to be interested and the media is not going to cover them, yet this author doesn't ask why attendance is so poor. She just blames the media for it.

Let's talk about equality some more - in this case, equality of dress. Has anyone given any thought to how male athletes dress as compared to female ones? Probably not, but I think it's part of the problem. Take a look at your average male track athlete in the last Olympics and note how they dress for the track. On men, the shorts may be tight or loose fitting, and the shirt may be sleeveless or not, but they are wearing a shirt and shorts. Now take a look at the women who are, for all practical purposes, dressed in bikinis. Shotput? The same. Javelin? The same. Why is that? For beach volleyball, they wear even less! The men don't though. Why is that?

Consider this: swimming is the only event I can think of in the Olympics in which men wear less than women. Maybe it is literally for all practical purposes that women dress so skimpily, but if that's the case, then why are men not emulating them in terms of wearing an abbreviated top and bikini shorts? Now look at soccer or basketball. What do women wear? Very much the same as men do! Why is that? It seems to me that if you want to be taken seriously as an athlete, you might want to reconsider wearing bikinis for every event! Is this a valid argument? We don't know, because once again, this is a highly visible aspect to sports which this author completely ignores.

I didn't like this author's overall attitude either, quite frankly! At one point, she says, "But it's female athletes who most consistently give us representations of women who embody qualities like toughness and power and tenacity." How disrespectful is that to women who work in other professions? Are female firefighters not tough? Are female law enforcement disempowered? Are female soldiers, sailors, air personnel, and the Coast Guard lacking tenacity? Are female industry leaders powerless? Are teachers not tenacious? Are female nurses not tough?! The single-minded focus on athletes here, notwithstanding this was the main purpose of the book, was an insult to women working in other fields.

In conclusion, this book felt far more like a cult of personality than an honest exploration on gender inequity in sports. The bottom line, though would seem to be popularity: does the media really shun women's sports or does the media simply show what's most popular because it's from this that advertising revenue will derive, regardless of what gender is involved in the sport?

This question should have been one to explore, but we don't get that here: who attends? Who pays to watch? Is the female game perceived, by those who pay the entrance fees, just as worthy of admission price as the men's game is? As reported in late 2016, "The WNBA registered its highest attendance (1,561,530) since 2011 and the highest average attendance (7,655). For comparison, the average attendance at NBA games is over twice that, at around 17,000.

Are people simply voting with their feet not for which gender is worth supporting, but for which game is worth viewing with their limited budget? Which has the best atmosphere? Which one their friends will be going to and talking about the next day? Maybe it's just that simple, maybe it isn't, but we won't know the answer to that from reading this book, and I cannot recommend it because not only does it not achieve what it claims to aim at, it doesn't even pursue what it claims to be chasing! If you want to write a book about leveling the playing field, you need to be on the level in what you write.