Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Books I've Read 2009

I’ve been keeping track of the books I read each year for about 10 years now. I usually just write a page about them in my planner and move on, but this year I thought I would share the list. My goal is to read at least a book a month, on average. Sometimes I get bogged down with other things, or I pick a really long one, so the cadence isn’t right, but I usually catch up with a shorter book or when I travel for work. I usually only get a half hour or so of reading in before bed, but that isn’t every night, so a typical book takes me several weeks to get through it. I’m not a particularly fast reader...20-50 pages an hour, depending on the density of words and ideas in the text.

Instead of going through them in the order I read them, I am clumping them according to subject.


Introduction to Space Weather, Moldwin:

I used it for the text for my class for the first time this year, so I am counting it as a “new” book read in 2009. It’s a switch from what I had been using, but the other one wasn’t really a textbook, so I thought I’d try this out. It’s the right subject, but I think it is too low of a level for the junior-oriented class I teach. However, one student (out of 15) complimented it very highly in their open-form evaluation. I have a few months to decide if I want to use it again or not. For those of you not in the space weather business, this is a nice introduction to the field (with easy problems at the end of each section).


Call to Conversion, Wallis

I really like the Christian viewpoints of Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of several books. This is one of them. It’s not a new book, but it was very well written and I enjoyed it very much. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Christianity.

The Shack, Young

I don’t know whether to put this here or in general fiction. It’s not a particularly well-written book , in my opinion, but others were raving about it, so I gave it a try. I like the main religious idea of the book in that God wants to have a personal relationship with us, but I don’t like the make-believe fantasy aspects of the story and I really don’t like the attempt of the author to make it seem like a true story (in the foreword and afterward sections).

Political/Current Events

How Soccer Explains the World, Foer

Clever book in which the author travels to famous soccer venues around the world and then uses the stories and sights of the area to interpret world events. His main conclusion is that even though globalization has made the world smaller and made local name brands meaningless, the local people still have strongly held views of nationalism, even to the point of xenophobia. Even though capitalism loves globalization, actual people usually do not.

The Federalists, Anti-Federalists, and the American Tradition, McWilliams

A long and arduous book containing various essays regarding the Founding Fathers. A good read, overall, but some parts were very slow going. I think that I am somewhere in between the Federalists (strong central government, weak state governments) and anti-Federalists (just the opposite), but in general my political leanings are towards the Federalists.

Citizen Paine, Kaminski

This book had a short biography of Thomas Paine and then several hundred pages of quotes from his writings, organized by category. I found the quotes difficult to understand without the rest of the text around them, so after a while I just breezed through them. The bio, however, was very informative. I didn’t know Thomas Paine came to America just a year or so before 1776, and wrote his major works (The American Crisis and Common Sense) after only being here for a very short while. He was a man looking to start fight, one who wholeheartedly committed himself to a cause with fervent zeal. He went on to be a rabble-rouser in France during their revolution a few decades later.

One United People, Millican

An excellent (but slow-going) examination of every single one of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist is still one of the most authoritative works on the thoughts behind the Founding Fathers regarding the Constitution. Millican reaches the conclusion that the 3 writers of these essays are all in agreement that the Constitution supports a strong central government and weak state governments. After reading his book, I agree.

General Fiction

Streets of Laredo, McMurtry

Larry McMurtry is an excellent storyteller. This is number 4 in the Lonesome Dove series (Lonesome Dove is number 3, but it’s the most famous of the set).

The Host, Meyers

Yes, I read a Stephanie Meyers book this year. At least it wasn’t one of the Twilight books, okay?! Seriously, though, she is also an excellent writer and this was a terrific book. I highly recommend it, especially to science fiction lovers.

Kids’ Books

The Lightning Thief, Riordan

Sea of Monsters, Riordan

The Titan’s Curse, Riordan

Battle of the Labyrinth, Riordan

The Last Olympian, Riordan

Yes, I read the entire Percy Jackson series. My son was so excited about them and kept asking me to read it that I eventually gave in and plowed through them. They are good books, and Rick Riordan has a nice way of weaving a storyline together throughout several books. It was worth the time.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, DiCamillo

Okay, I’ve read a lot of kids’ books this year, but this is another that I am including in the list because my son read it for his school “book club” and parents are invited to the discussion. So, I thought I’d read it. It’s a 200-page book, but with the large font and pictures, it took about 2 hours. It’s a captivating story about learning to love, losing love, and moving on to new love.

I’m currently reading Jews and Christians: A Troubled Family as well as Eragon. The latter is a back-and-forth deal with my son where we each read a page. Not quite as good as the Riordan books, but my son is enjoying it. So, I don’t think these two books actually make it on the list, since I am not done with them yet, but I’ll mention them here at the end.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Kind Of Dense

I just realized that pantsmonkey is a friend of mine. This blogger has posted comments on my site several times over the summer, but just now I finally made the connection. I guess I’m kind of dense sometimes.

I see on her blog that she is deeply passionate about GLBT rights, especially gay marriage. She is saddened each time another state declares that marriage is only between a man and a woman, taking away the possibility of GLBT people to experience “the full range of human experience.”

I completely agree with her.

I should also do more to stop the legislative assault on common decency. I do not see how limiting the private affairs of other people helps those who vote for these law and state constitutional amendments. Like I have said, I think that the Bible (yes, I am a Christian) is not anti-gay, and a good website that summarizes some of the arguments in favor of this position are posted here. I am not a Biblical scholar, but I think I know enough to understand that the premises laid on this post are valid and cast serious doubt on fundamental Christianity’s staunch resistance to anything GLBT related. There is a chance I could be wrong, but I would like to at least discuss it and publicly, objectively scrutinize the arguments for and against Christian condemnation GLBT rights.

Not today...another post sometime.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I love to write, but lately I have not had the chance to really complete a manuscript. Other things just seem to get in the way, and the few hours I occasionally spend on a paper isn't enough to bring one to fruition. This is something I don't like about my job: I like so many things about it that spending time on one thing means not doing something else I actually like to do.

Last week I was at a meeting, and a colleague reminded me that I had missed the deadline for a journal special issue. I was very sad, and a bit frustrated, that I had let this slip. He then said that if I can get him a manuscript by December 23, he would include it in the bundle he is sending off to the journal (apparently this journal wants all of the papers for the special issue at the same time). Tuesday night I started converting my Powerpoint slides into a paper outline. I flew home from the meeting on Wednesday, continuing to work on the text on the plane. Thursday I finished my final exam preparations and dove back into writing. Friday I gave my exam, continued writing, and sometime past 5 pm sent out an email to my potential coauthors with a completed (but still a bit rough) manuscript of the study.

I am glad that I have not lost my mo-jo for writing, and that I can crank out a paper in less than a week, given that I completely ignore everything else that I am supposed to be doing.

Today I got an email from my colleague: he had a number of people at the meeting ask him for an extension, so he talked with the journal and the new deadline is January 22. I have time to revise. Ahh. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Big Class Next Term

Next semester I get to teach a large survey course for non-science majors. It’s already full and I am giving overrides (I am sure some will drop), and expect the final class size will be the capacity of the lecture hall: 120. Last time I taught it this was the case (hitting 175 that time).

It’s a fun class to teach and I enjoy the challenge, but last time I it was a difficult chore to get them involved in the classroom. At the beginning of the term I used an electronic survey tool, but not enough were bringing their laptops to class and not enough of those were participating in the free response answers, so I eventually dropped it. I did it the old-fashioned way: having them raise their hands for the survey and waiting for someone to speak out loud when I asked a (simple) question. Discussion was limited to small groups, occasionally forcing them to talk to their neighbors for a minute or two, but large-group discussion, even feedback to the whole class on the small-group conversations, was like pulling teeth with tweezers...not exactly painful, just impossible.

This time around, I plan to do it differently. I am going to incorporate a lot more about identifying good-vs-bad science in everyday life than I did last time. I put in a bit of this last time, but not that much and only late in the term, once we had covered the basics of the science concepts for the class. This time I have been collecting “interesting” newspaper, magazine, and web articles this a science component to it (hopefully somewhat relevant to the class topic). I am going to have the small-group discussions again, but force them to report back to the class, and then make those reports part of the homework and test content. Hopefully my teaching assistant will take good notes on the whole-class discussion. I plan on doing this once a week, providing a mid-lecture break every Thursday class session. On Tuesdays, I will do the other thing I did last time: show and discuss videos (web, TV, or movie clips). Again, these were mainly shown last time to identify good versus bad science, but I would do it only on a few dedicated class sessions. This time, I will spread it throughout the term, doing this every Tuesday as the mid-lecture “something different.”

This “every class session” interaction will, I hope, make the class sessions more interesting for the students. I also hope that they learn something from these discussions about being critical of “scientific” information they receive through informal or unintended avenues. It’s going to require some time investment on my part, but I think it will be worth it for me as well. I am looking to the new term.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

One United People

I’ve read several books on the Founding Fathers this past year. In particular I wanted to learn more about Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. I had already read the big tome “John Adams” a few years ago...excellent book, if you have the time. David McCullough poured through all of the letters known to exist that were written by or to John Adams in order to write that book. Apparently some of our Founding Fathers were very prolific letter writers. I only wish I could write that much. Thomas Jefferson is an interesting character because he was so young when it began. He wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while in his mid twenties. Thomas Paine is peculiar in that he came from England literally just a year or two before he starting writing his booklets to stir up support for the independence movement against his home country. He seemed to be zealous in all he did throughout his life, but had a caustic personality that kept his friend count to a minimum (and alienated those he had pretty quickly). He was not a “fancy” writer like Adams or Jefferson, but he was a good one that spoke in a clear and passionate voice that resonated with many people.

The book I just finished was “One United People,” a detailed commentary by Edward Millican on the entire 85 essays of “The Federalist.” The Federalist is a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the pseudonym of Publius and published in a few newspapers around New York in order to help with the ratification of the newly signed Constitution. They were written over the course of 8 months or so, starting in October 1787, just after the Constitution Convention that summer had passed a new document binding the states together under a stronger central government than the original plan under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had left extensive power with the states, and they were hampering anything getting done on a national level (like repaying the debt from the Revolutionary War, or maintaining an army or navy). Trade was also a big issue, as the states were starting to impose tariffs on each other and squabble about economic concerns. There was a grave fear that European countries would soon take control of various states and cause the new country to fracture apart. The new Constitution addressed this problem with the creation of a strong central government, essentially placing all sovereignty at the national level and making the state governments completely subordinate to the new central government. The Federalist essays were written to inflame passion for the Constitution and rebut the arguments of the anti-Federalists, and were not specifically intended to be a complete and polished masterpiece of intellectual discourse. In fact, they might not have actually swayed the legislators of New York to ratify the new Constitution. However, with their publication as a bound book in late 1788, they became the foremost treatise of political thought from America. They are still used today as a reference for interpreting the Constitution, as it is the best collection of essays on what the Founding Fathers might have been thinking when they originally wrote the law of the land.

The argument in One United People is that the Federalist papers provide a clear and unwavering defense of nationalism and a strong central government. Hamilton and Jay were certainly nationalists who didn’t want to leave any power with the state governments, except to manage local affairs. Even these few duties of the states were at risk of being taken away, as the Federalist writers often stated that the federal government should expand its scope as local issues become national concerns. Madison is the only one of the three authors who might be suspect as a strong nationalist, particularly his “fragmented society” article (the famous No. 10) that argues in support of competing special interests as a necessary part of the deliberations of the national government. This is not, however, a defense of states’ rights and a call for a weak central government, and Millican repeatedly shows other places in Madison’s essays as Publius that call for a strong central government and a very limited role for the states. Overall, the Federalist shows that the Founding Fathers wanted the new government under the Constitution to be the only sovereign entity of the United States of America, and to put an end to the infighting that was developing between the states in the period immediately following the Revolutionary War.

So, for those that want to call up the ghosts of the Founding Fathers to argue against a strong central government, specifically for addressing domestic issues like health care and economic regulation, I think that you are mistaken. I think that most of the Founding Fathers would be fine with the current state of the union.