Archive for August, 2011

Review of Proofiness, by Charles Seife

Saturday, August 27th, 2011


The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception

by Charles Seife

Viking, 2010. 295 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve already admitted that I’m a certified Math Nut. And that I read popular-audience math books for fun. I had to remind myself that I’m not teaching Introduction to Statistics any more, so I didn’t need to mark passages to read to the class. (I couldn’t stop myself, though, from noticing passages that would have been great to read to a Statistics class.)

This book is very much along the lines of How to Lie With Statistics, but it uses up-to-date, recent examples. It demonstrates all too public examples of people who, either through ignorance or malfeasance, use statistics for nefarious purposes.

When I started at the library where I work now, they asked me to participate in a game of “Three Truths and a Lie.” I had just read the introduction to this book and effectively used what I learned: I inserted a number into each statement. Sure enough, only one person guessed which statement was my lie! Here’s how this concept worked in a much more serious scenario:

“As he held aloft a sheaf of papers, a beetle-browed Joe McCarthy assured his place in the history books with his bold claim: ‘I have here in my hand a list of 205 — a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.’

“That number — 205 — was a jolt of electricity that shocked Washington into action against communist infiltrators. Never mind that the number was a fabrication. It went up to 207 and then dropped again the following day, when McCarthy wrote to President Truman claiming that ‘we have been able to compile a list of 57 Communists in the State Department.’ A few days later, the number stabilized at 81 ‘security risks.’ McCarthy gave a lengthy speech in the Senate, giving some details about a large number of cases (fewer than 81, in fact), but without revealing enough information for others to check into his assertions.

“It really didn’t matter whether the list had 205 or 57 or 81 names. The very fact that McCarthy had attached a number to his accusations imbued them with an aura of truth. Would McCarthy make such specific claims if he didn’t have evidence to back them up? Even though White House officials suspected that he was bluffing, the numbers made them doubt themselves. The numbers gave McCarthy’s accusations heft; they were too substantial, too specific to ignore. Congress was forced to hold hearings to attempt to salvage the reputation of the State Department — and the Truman administration.

“McCarthy was, in fact, lying. He had no clue whether the State Department was harboring 205 communists or 57 or none at all; he was making wild guesses based upon information that he knew was worthless. Yet once he made the claim public and the Senate declared that it was going to hold hearings on the matter, he suddenly needed some names.”

Charles Seife sums up the point of this book:

“As McCarthy knew, numbers can be a powerful weapon. In skillful hands, phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true. They can be used to bludgeon enemies, to destroy critics, and to squelch debate. Indeed, some people have become incredibly adept at using fake numbers to prove falsehoods. They have become masters of proofiness: the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true — even when it’s not.

“Our society is now awash in proofiness. Using a few powerful techniques, thousands of people are crafting mathematical falsehoods to get you to swallow untruths. Advertisers forge numbers to get you to buy their products. Politicians fiddle with data to try to get you to reelect them. Pundits and prophets use phony math to get you to believe predictions that never seem to pan out. Businessmen use bogus numerical arguments to steal your money. Pollsters, pretending to listen to what you have to say, use proofiness to tell you what they want you to believe. . . .

“At the same time, proofiness has extraordinarily serious consequences. It nullifies elections, crowning victors who are undeserving — both Republican and Democratic. Worse yet, it is used to fix the outcome of future elections; politicians and judges use wrongheaded mathematics to manipulate voting districts and undermine the census that dictates which Americans are represented in Congress. Proofiness is largely responsible for the near destruction of our economy — and for the great sucking sound of more than a trillion dollars vanishing from the treasury. Prosecutors and justices use proofiness to acquit the guilty and convict the innocent — and even to put people to death. In short, bad math is undermining our democracy.”

But the good news is that you can fight Proofiness with knowledge:

“The threat is coming from both the left and the right. Indeed, proofiness sometimes seems to be the only thing that Republicans and Democrats have in common. Yet it’s possible to counteract it. Those who have learned to recognize proofiness can find it almost everywhere, ensnaring the public in a web of transparent falsehoods. To the wary, proofiness becomes a daily source of great amusement — and of blackest outrage.

“Once you know the methods people use to turn numbers into falsehoods, they are powerless against you. When you learn to shovel proofiness out of the way, some of the most controversial topics become simple and straightforward. For example, the question of who actually won the 2000 presidential election becomes crystal clear. (The surprising answer is one that almost nobody would have been willing to accept: not Bush, not Gore, and almost none of the people who voted for either candidate.) Understand proofiness and you can uncover many truths that had been obscured by a haze of lies.”

So this book can make the reader proofiness-proof. Besides being fascinating, it will empower you to see through the methods people use to try to cloud the truth. (You also might get some ideas for being a better contestant in a game of Three Truths and a Lie.)

I find myself wanting to cite examples of proofiness in action in the real world, but I’m afraid that once I get started, I won’t be able to stop. Even though I don’t teach Introduction to Statistics classes any more, I hope that professors out there will bring this book into their classrooms. They can use it to utterly silence that oh-so-annoying question students inevitably ask: “But how will we USE this?” The math in this book is woven into the very fabric of our society.

To finish off this review, I’m going to give a spoiler, so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know the “surprising answer” of who should have won the 2000 Presidential election:

Statistically speaking, within any reasonable margin of error, the 2000 presidential election in Florida was a tie. So according to Florida election law, the winner should have been determined by lot — the flip of a coin. I guess you can see why he says almost nobody would have been willing to accept that determination.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of The Trouble with Chickens, by Doreen Cronin

Friday, August 26th, 2011

The Trouble with Chickens

A J. J. Tully Mystery

by Doreen Cronin
illustrated by Kevin Cornell

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2011. 119 pages.

It’s always good to find a beginning chapter book that’s funny, clever, and absorbing. The Trouble with Chickens has twenty-two short chapters, but there are plenty of pictures and lots of space between the lines. A child will feel he or she has accomplished something when they finish the book, but they will have fun while doing so, and it’s not too intimidating.

It always helps when the book is funny. This book is a hard-boiled detective story, but the detective is a search-and-rescue dog who’s been put out to pasture. A chicken wants his help.

Here’s how J. J. Tully puts it:

“I could track the six-day-old scent of a lost hiker and pull a fat guy out from under a pile of rubble, but I couldn’t get that crazy chicken out of my yard.”

Two of the chicken’s four chicks are missing, and it’s up to J. J. to track them down. Unfortunately, he must endure help from the two chicks who are still on the loose. And the crime ends up being much more nefarious than it appears at first.

Doreen Cronin is the author of the brilliant Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, and its companions. Now she turns her hand to entertainment for children ready to read on their own. She’s still got that great sense of humor and gives us a look at human passions by displaying them in the bodies of animals. A lot of fun.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Energy Island, by Allan Drummond

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Energy Island

How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World

by Allan Drummond

Frances Foster Books (Farrar Straus Giroux), New York, 2011. 36 pages.
Starred Review

Energy Island is a nonfiction picture book about an island in Denmark that uses only renewable energy generated on the island. The island is very windy, so wind power is a major source of energy on the island, and you can see the effects of the wind in all the illustrations and the repeated cry of “Hold on to your hats!”

The story is told well, beginning with the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy sending a teacher named Soren Hermansen to the island of Samso to try to help the island become independent of nonrenewable energy. The book shows the resistance to the idea, and then the small and large beginnings. A breakthrough happened when a storm knocked out the off-island sources of energy, but the wind turbines that had been installed on the island still provided power.

The inspiring story is told quite simply, with exuberant illustrations. Sidebars give more detailed explanations of the concepts involved for those who want to know more.

This isn’t necessarily a book for school projects, so I hope that it doesn’t get buried in the nonfiction section. I hope children find it, because it tells a beautiful, inspiring — and true — story.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Desires of the Dead, by Kimberly Derting

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Desires of the Dead

by Kimberly Derting

Harper, 2011. 355 pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Body Finder, by Kimberly Derting, so I was excited when I heard a sequel was coming out, and checked it out right away.

Bodies that have been killed call to Violet. They affect her senses in a strange way, with a scent or a sound or a feeling. And when she senses them, she has to put them to rest. Disturbingly, the one who killed them has the same echo. That was a problem when she was around her cat, a natural killer of small animals. But when she finds a human body, it seems like she should use her abilities to find the killer.

The plot of this follow-up seemed a little more contrived, a little more relying on coincidence than the first book. However, it’s still classic romantic suspense: The heroine finds out just enough to lead her into deadly danger. How can she get out?

It also appears that the author is setting Violet up to join an organization that uses people with paranormal abilities to solve crimes. That will make it more believable, in future books, when she continues to encounter dead bodies.

So, this is a fun, exciting tale of romantic suspense with that one, creative paranormal twist.

At risk of being a stick-in-the-mud, I do want to give a word of warning for those who would care. Violet’s beautiful romance continues. They were best friends all their lives, and this seems like true love, and they will surely marry one day. They decide to have sex.

Now, this is handled sensitively and believably and not graphically. It’s realistic as to how a serious relationship like that would be likely to go with today’s teens. But it makes me a little sad. As in the first YA novel I ever read where the characters had sex outside of marriage, these ones wonder why they didn’t do it sooner. And I’m a little sad they have to wonder. There’s something really beautiful about saving sex for marriage. Because sex is so amazing, giving it only to someone who’s publicly committed to you for life is beautiful. Safe. Loving. Incredible. (More beautiful if they actually keep the commitment, but still….) If I had read this book when I was young and in love and trying to wait for marriage, it wouldn’t have helped. That’s all I’m saying….

But this is a good book, and an enjoyable and suspenseful read. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first book, and the romance wasn’t as moving, but then committed love isn’t quite as full of thrills and drama as the beginning of a relationship. Violet gets pulled into danger, and it’s pretty natural for someone who loves her to try to keep her out of that, so it’s natural for her to start having secrets…. It will be interesting to see how things continue on, as this book had all the marks of a series beginning.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of 13 Words, by Lemony Snicket

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

13 Words

by Lemony Snicket
illustrated by Maira Kalman

Harper, 2010. 36 pages.

This book is hilariously quirky, like so many of Lemony Snicket’s books. A Series of Unfortunate Events is too depressing for me, but this book is only a little melancholy, and bizarre enough to counterbalance that.

13 Words presents 13 words and tells a story about them. What makes the book so silly is the unusual choice of words, including such gems as haberdashery, panache, and mezzo-soprano.

The story is simple, and beautiful in its own bizarre way, about cheering up despondent friends and eating lots of cake. The pictures go right along with the words, portraying unusual details for the interested observer.

This is one of those books that you really must read for yourself, discovering the delightful details. Consider yourself advised about this silly book!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Daughter of the Forest

by Juliet Marillier

Book One of the Sevenwaters Trilogy
TOR Fantasy, New York, 2000 554 pages.
Starred Review

A huge thank-you to my sister Marcy, who gave me this book. I began reading it on the first leg of my trip to ALA Annual Conference 2011, read the first two chapters, and actually somehow left it behind between flights. So as soon as I got home, I ordered a replacement. Now I’ve read the second book as a library copy, but I’ve decided to order both the second and third books to have for my own. I am absolutely sure I will want to reread them again some day.

Daughter of the Forest is incredibly well-written. This is one of those books I love, a fairy tale retelling, but it’s done with a tremendous amount of loving detail, creating an intricate tapestry of a book. The story is told in old Ireland, in the time of the Druids, with Christianity just beginning to come. Sorcha and her six brothers are the children of Lord Colum, the powerful chieftain of Sevenwaters. Sorcha runs a little wild, the youngest of so many brothers. She has a bond with her brother Finbar, so they can speak without words.

Then her father and brothers capture and torture a Briton. Finbar, who is different, not so warlike, takes a bold step to help the Briton escape. The Briton is sheltered in the friar’s house. Can Sorcha, learning skills as a healer, help him survive? Will he be even willing to survive?

But her time helping the Briton is interrupted when her father comes home — with a new wife. This wife has a strange power over him. Sorcha and her brothers are uneasy.

And then the fairy tale I recognize begins. The evil stepmother turns all the brothers into swans. The only way Sorcha can restore them is to knit them all shirts out of nettles. But she must not utter even one sound until the work is done.

I never thought about it before, but there is definitely a novel in that tale! Juliet Marillier brings it to us with rich detail. There are some horrible moments, but you will be completely captivated by Sorcha’s tale. She goes from Ireland to Britain. The Fair Folk get involved. And the romantic hero is one of the most wonderful men I have ever encountered in fiction. He’s so loving, so careful to protect Sorcha.

Here’s a taste of Juliet Marillier’s rich prose, in the first chapter, when Finbar has declared he will not join his father’s military campaigns:

“Why do I remember this so well? Perhaps his displeasure with what we were becoming made Father take the choice he did, and so bring about a series of events more terrible than any of us could have imagined. Certainly, he used our well-being as one of his excuses for bringing her to Sevenwaters. That there was no logic in this was beside the point — he must have known in his heart that Finbar and I were made of strong stuff, already shaped in mind and spirit, if not quite grown, and that expecting us to bend to another will was like trying to alter the course of the tide, or to stop the forest from growing. But he was influenced by forces he was unable to understand. My mother would have recognized them. I often wondered, later, how much she knew of our future. The Sight does not always show what a person wants to see, but maybe she had an idea as she bade her children farewell, what a strange and crooked path their feet would follow.”

A truly magnificent tale.

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Source: This review is based on a book given to me by my sister Marcy.

Review of Me . . . Jane, by Patrick McDonnell

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Me . . . Jane

by Patrick McDonnell

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2011. 40 pages.
Starred Review

This is an exquisitely designed and perfectly crafted book. All the art and the words come together beautifully, with economy of word, to tell the childhood of a scientist.

Me . . . Jane tells of the childhood of Jane Goodall. The title refers to the fact that Jane loved the stories of Tarzan of the Apes, and dreamed of living in the jungles in Africa like the Jane in those books.

The book begins:

“Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.

“She cherished Jubilee and took him everywhere she went. And Jane loved to be outside.”

Every single illustration that shows Jane as a child shows her with Jubilee. And then at the end, a photograph of Jane as an adult reaching out to a chimpanzee mirrors the illustrations of her as a child. But my favorite thing is the picture at the front of the book of a happy Jane as a girl, holding her stuffed chimpanzee. The illustrations, even though cartoons, are recognizably of the same girl and toy.

I appreciated the pictures even more when I got to the end of the book and saw a picture of baby Jane hugging the same toy chimpanzee. Only in the baby picture, the toy is fluffy and new. Looking back at the picture of an older Jane still proudly holding Jubilee, now I noticed that almost all the fur is worn off! Especially in the middle, where she’s holding it. I now truly believe that she did everything with Jubilee!

The story tells of a curious and observant little girl. She loved animals, and was patient enough to hide in the chicken coop and watch until she found out where eggs came from. She loved nature and read the Tarzan books sitting in her favorite tree.

The story is told simply, with just a sentence or two on each page. You could read this to very young children, but older children will find plenty of details to think about as well. The design is beautiful, with most pages of text decorated with “ornamental engravings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” across from an illustration of Jane and Jubilee in that part of the story. The note at the back says that the engravings “collectively evoke Jane’s lifelong passion for detailed, scientific observation of nature.” I think they succeed in that.

This book is magnificent because it tells a true story, and at the same time evokes the feeling of what was in this little girl that motivated her to become the famous scientist. The author doesn’t have to come out and tell you she was patient and observant and indeed had great attention to detail. You get all those things from the story.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.