Friday, May 29, 2015

The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen ***

So much of our perception depends on our expectations.
After subjects made their guesses, they were told the real odds of those bad thing happening. The majority of the subjects were good at remembering the actual risk if it wasn't as bad as their guess. But the adolescents were worst at recalling the risk when the risk was worse than their original guess.
Their expectations determined what they would remember and what they would not.

In a similar way, my expectations for The Teenage Brain by Frances Jensen determined my reading. To be fair, my expectations were set by the author's MD and the subtitle: "A neuroscientist's survival guide ..." I expected new, insightful, science-based advice. What I got was mostly "Dear Abby"-type advice.
Studies have shown that teenagers who report sleep disturbances have more often consumed soft drinks, fried foods, sweets, and caffeine.
I also got hyperbole, sensationalism, and opinion.
At least one [my emphasis] expert on adolescent drug use told me [least credible reference ever] told me he believes pot is, in fact, a gateway drug.
And confusing editing.
... the highest levels occurring in the morning upon awakening. Those levels [the highest] increase 50 - 60 percent throughout the day.
In the chapter on computer addiction, the famous story about students asked to refrain from electronics for 24-hours was repeated. I wondered about asking the smug tellers of this story to refrain for 24-hours from using electricity or plumbing, suggestions that are as silly as not using electronics in the 21st-century. Certainly people in the 19th century got along just fine without electricity or plumbing, but so what?

The book has two authors, and I imagine they split the work and disagreed:
By instilling "too much" self-confidence ... parents "accidentally" inject their kid with a heavy dose of narcissism and a sense of entitlement
Seven pages later in a new chapter:
You want to always remain as positive as you can because you want to empower your teenagers
 On a positive note: 
The author Jensen is very activity with legal challenges to the criminal justice system treating teenagers as adults. She has assisted in several Supreme Court cases, and the chapter on Crime and Punishment is especially heart-felt and persuasive.

A comprehensive and sympathetic guide for parent with a bias toward excusing teenage behaviors.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Women After All by Melvin Konner *****

With almost 70 pages of notes, Women After All by Melvin Konnerstrives to answer both the questions of nature vs nurture and the future for human sex roles. In a book that is often weighed down with citations and abstracts, four conclusions are argued.
  1. Stereotypical male/female behavior is biological. Among the pages of evidence:
    ... consider the wonderfully interesting people who start out XY [genetically male] but are born with the fairly ambiguous claim "It's a girl." [female genitals]. ... [At puberty] these girls became [stereotypical] men ... despite the fact that they were not raised to be that at all. Our best explanation is biological.
  2. Evolution has created a wide variety of sex roles ... men in charge, women in charge, equality, and even a reversion to single sex species.
  3. Primate (including us) females are usually in charge or equal, with the exception of the last few thousand years. These recent millennia are marked by brutal subjugation, violence, and rape of women. Less than 100 years ago, Margaret Sanger was convicted for distributing birth control information.
    The judge ruled that women did not have "the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there would be no resulting conception."
    After many sickening chapters, Konner shows that sex trafficking, slavery, and rape is still everywhere.
  4. Women are returning to power and, with modern science, men are optional. This latter conclusion is a not so veiled warning to straighten up or be eliminated.
These main conclusions are supported by many studies by archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and biologists. In addition to nature vs nurture, these studies address many other current issues. The only observed effect of children raised by same-sex parents is that they tend to be less homophobic. Circumcision reduces the chance to contract AIDS. Recent human history has not been a period of monogamy,
as successful men could own slaves, keep concubines, and seize women at war.
...sixteen million men alive today-including one out twelve central Asian males [are descendant of Genghis Khan].
The is a comprehensive and readable, though sometimes bogged down in credits and citations, history of human sex roles and sex roles generally since the beginning of life on earth. An exciting treasure trove for non-fiction readers.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

French Pastry Murder by Leslie Meier ****

French Pastry Murder by Leslie Meier is a cozy mystery, the 21st in the series, but the first for me. In this installment Lucy Stone and her friends (four couples in all) get mixed up in a veritable crime spree involving the french police, the US Secret Service, and King Farouk. While there are two murders, in keeping with the genre, the protagonists are never in jeopardy and have plenty of time to sample the food and tourists sites.

 A couple of times I wondered about the protagonists (from a small town in Maine), and by implication the target audience. For people who wanted to visit France, their knowledge of basics seemed to be limited, while in many other cases, their knowledge of French history was absolutely encyclopedic.
Truffles, for example, could cost thousands of euros for a kilo, which she thought was less than a pound, but she wasn't actually sure.
This seemed doubly odd because these tourists were also buying fresh food, where they should have had plenty of direct experience with kilograms.

Overall, a pleasant cozy mystery.

Post note: Given the title, I expected recipes, but, alas, no recipes.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Patently Female by Vare and Ptacek ****

Patently Female by Vare and Ptacek is their third book about female inventors. I don't know how much duplication there is, but several of the biggies made it into this volume: Marie Curie, Grace Murray Hopper, Hedy Lamarr, and Ada Lovelace. They share the book with hundreds of others of all ages and importance.

I found his book is fascinating in several dimensions. First, no book about women in science and technology can avoid the subject of prejudice and discrimination.

For example Mary Engle Pennington was refused her bachelor of science at University of Pennsylvania (1892) because she was female. Undaunted she stayed and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1895.

Another example is Patsy Sherman:
...when she told her high school teacher she wanted to be a nuclear physicist, [she] was named "most confused person" in class. ... she took the school's career suitability test for girls: it told her to become a housewife. She insisted on taking the test they gave to boys: it said she was suited to be a chemist.
She went on to work at 3M and invent Scotchgard.

Also the book is full with wonderful trivia. What is the challenge to inventing TV dinners?
trying to come up with a dinner in which all the ingredients would require the same cooking time.
Didn't think of that, did you?

In addition, I found several personal points, like the fact that early computer programming groups recruited women and musicians. I can remember this from the mid-1960s, though the practice evidently start with ENIAC in the 1940s.

Most interesting to me was the story of Lynn Conway, a computer scientist who worked at the fabled Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. I remember her well and even remember the curious discussions about her history. Xerox PARC was an elite group very interested in educational pedigrees. Lynn Conway didn't have one. For this reason and others, she was surrounded with quiet rumors about her origins. The other scientists were curious, but ultimately unconcerned. She was smart enough, or even smarter, and that was all that really mattered.

Now I read that as a boy, she attended MIT, received a BS and MS from Columbia, and did research at IBM, before she dropped out for sexual reassignment surgery. Given the times, she basically had to start over without her transcripts or resume. I'm guessing she had some help from friends who knew her history to end up at Xerox PARC soon after her surgery.

This was kept quiet, but I am proudly confident that the people at PARC would have taken it in stride ... not so sure about those outside the PARC campus. It was still the 1970s, just a few years after Stonewall.

A wonderful book of 100s of short biographies of women scientists, engineers, and inventors.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Flinn ****

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good by Kathleen Flinn is a memoir of living poor during the depression and again during the 1950s in Michigan. It is also a cookbook of basic comfort food like bean soup, chicken and biscuits, pancakes, coffee cake, and lemon meringue pie.

Author Flinn started life poor mostly eating what could be grown  and canned, or shot and frozen. She wore hand-me-downs either from her older siblings or the local thrift store, which her mother told her was a fancy department store. In this rural setting, with few friends, she spent much time reading, and with her imagination. One of the things she imagined a lot was cooking, not surprising for a hungry child.

When she grew up she followed her dreams by attending the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and becoming a successful writer.

The book is full of nice remembrances of the 1930s - 1950s. Her mother cooked on a electric skillet, a kitchen gadget I also remember from childhood, but one of those cooking innovations that have not stood the test of time, like the pressure cooker, stove-top potato baker, toaster oven, and crock pot.

Another interesting insight was to recall that the 1950s began the transition to prepared food. Flinn traces her family's return to prosperity and along with the rest of the country, they got exchanged their chickens and canning jars for McDonalds, air conditioners, dishwashers, and supermarkets.

Even if you don't cook, this is a delightful visit to the journey out of the Depression brought on during the prosperous years following WWII.

Friday, May 8, 2015

At the Mercy of the River by Peter Stark ***

The Lugenda River travels northeast through northern Mozambique from near the southern end of Lake Malawi (near the Malawi border) to the Tanzania border in the north. You might be thinking, "I've never heard of any of these places." You'd be right and in good company.

At the Mercy of the River by Peter Stark is a adventure memoir of the first Europeans to travel the length of this river. Well the first ones in recent history. Or the first ones who published a book, or at least the first ones to publish a book in English.

In between recounting this kayak journey, author Stark muses about the meaning of exploration and discovery. Mozambique has been discovered multiple times, by Arabian traders, by Chinese explorers, by Portuguese colonizers, and finally by this white party of four men and one woman (the leader and organizer) from Africa and the U.S.

This book has three intertwined narratives. First, it chronicles the voyage down the Lugenda, the crocodiles and hippos, the rapids and waterfalls, and even the few native villages. Second, it follows the personal bonds and conflicts formed and broken as the trip progresses. Finally, it offers historical context for European exploration and discovery of Africa. If one or two of these threads are not interesting to you, then you'll need to skim through one or two thirds of the book, because these topics are mixed in every chapter, and some paragraphs.

Some of the encounters with native residents were frightening, but most were friendly or even humorous.
[I] pushed my hands on the rudder pedals. ... [The rudder] waved back and forth, like some strange animal tail. [The natives] began laughing hysterically, as if they couldn't believe a boat would have anything so silly as this.
I think they found it both clever and ridiculous..., a frivolous and complicated way to perform a very simple task. All the effort and good metal that went into making this thing? Why can't they just steer their canoe with a paddle like everyone else?
This well-researched book included many interesting tidbits: such as Swahili, the language of southeastern Africa, is an amalgam of Arabic and Bantu; there is no domesticated livestock in the area because of tsetse flies; wild game hunting is more ecologically sound because each visitor pays 10x to 20x more than ecotourists, thus reducing the tourist footprint/damage.

This book is a wonderful introduction to Mozambique, though it jumps from historic times to daily adventures, and the mixes internal dialogue with river-running excitement. This can be distracting at times.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Medical Ethics edited by Laura Egendorf **

Medical Ethics edited by Laura Egendorf was not the book I wanted. I was looking for a framework to analyzing questions of medical ethics, and illustrative applications of this framework to various ethical issues. This was not that book.

However, I can easily imagine a student with an assignment to write a persuasive essay pro-or-con paper about some medical issue, like universal healthcare, assisted suicide, sex selection, or cloning. In that case, this is you book. You can have your homework complete in plenty of time to get to whatever party is on your schedule.

This book presents essays by partisan politicians, much like talking heads on television. All of the essays advocate specific positions with no serious attempt to be balanced or accurate. If you missed this on the news, well here it is. Enjoy!