Friday, December 19, 2014

A peak into Bellwether and The Upcycle

For this week's Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader here something from near the very beginning of Bellwether by Connie Willis (because the book actually starts with a Robert Browning poem and then a discussion of the hula hoop - oh, this is fiction and a pretty funny book, just in case you are confused) ...

It's almost impossible to pinpoint the beginning of a fad. By the time it starts to look like one, its origins are far in the past, and trying to trace them back is exponentially harder than, say, looking for the source of the Nile. 

In the first place, there's probably more than one source, and in the second, you're dealing with human behavior. All Speke and Burton had to deal with were crocodiles, rapids, and the tsetse fly. In the third, we know something about how rivers work, like, they flow downhill. Fads seem to spring full-blown out of nowhere and for no good reason. Witness bungee-jumping. And Lava lamps. 


OMG - that website has one of the original ads for the Astro Lamp from 1963!  Cool!  If you are interested in the history of the Lava lamp, this is a surprisingly interesting writeup.

Right, to get back on track, for The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice we pick up Bellwether on page 56 ...

She picked up my sack from the bookstore. "What's this?" 

"A birthday present for Dr. Damati's little girl." 

She had already pulled it out and was examining it curiously. 

"It's a book," I said. 

"Didn't they have the video?" She stuck it back in the sack. "I would've bought her a Barbie." She tossed her swath of hair, and I could see that she had a strip of duct tape across her forehead. There was a cut-out circle in the middle with what looked like a lowercase i tattooed right between her eyes. 

"What's your tattoo?"

"It's not a tattoo," she said, brushing her hair back so I could see it better. It was a lowercase i. "Nobody wears tattoos anymore." 

I started to draw her attention her snowy owl and noticed that she was wearing duct tape there, too, a small circular patch right where the snowy owl had been. 

"Tattoos are artificial. Sticking all those chemicals and cancerinogens under your skin," she said. "It's a brand." 

"A brand," I said, wishing, as usual, that I hadn't started this. 

"Brands are organic. You're not injecting something into your body. You're bringing out something that's already there in your natural body. Fire's one of the four elements, you know." 

Sarah, over in Chem, would love to hear that. 

"I've never seen one before," I said. "What does the i stand for?"

She looked confused. "Stand for? It doesn't stand for anything. It's I. You know, me. Who I am. It's a personal statement." 

I decided not to ask her why her brand was lowercase, or if it had occurred to her that anyone seeing her with it would immediately assume it stood for incompetent. 

Sorry - that got kinda long, but I really couldn't figure out how to shorten it without it becoming even more confusing.  I just wished we had gotten to the sheep.

For non-fiction I thought I would share The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability - Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart...

Imagine you are sitting in the top-floor boardroom of a major United States consumer products company and you are meeting one-on-one with the company's executive in charge of sustainability. You have been in this facility many, many times before. Over seven years, you have met with executives in charge of finance, supply chains, manufacturing, product design, research and development, and marketing. Hundreds of meetings to listen, to learn, and to explore your new concepts for sustainable growth and beneficial innovation. 

[skipping a paragraph] 

This is the nature of the work. To use a detailed, defined inventory as a platform for invention, innovation. To ask and answer: What's next? 

Then picking up on page 56 ...

MacCready [the designer of the human-powered aircraft that won the first Kremer prize] didn't reject Mylar because it had never been used for an airplane's wings, nor did he reject it because it's expensive. To solve his problem, he went wherever he needed to go, even to this relatively new material.

This, from our experience, is crucial. You need to solve your problem using whatever is available to you, no matter the cost or the rarity. You can always return to the reality of schedules and budgets when the time comes to build.

Thomas Edison's work exemplifies this notion. He wanted a natural substance for his lightbulb filament and even tried human hair but finally suspected that bamboo coated with carbon would work. To find the exact bamboo for the job, he sent explorers to Japan. He didn't think that paying for botanists to comb the forests on the other side of the world was too much to invest in solving the problem. He correctly surmised that if he were to discover a workable solution, investors and companies would be only too happy to take over the issue of reducing the cost of importing bamboo.

We are not suggesting that you fritter away your money on your answer. But you need to come up with a solution first. Once you have solved your problem, you can deal with the issue of cost. 

BTW - The authors are talking about the creation of the Gossamer Condor

Have a lovely weekend ! 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Animals Teachers by Janet Halfmann

Animals Teachers
by Janet Halfmann
illustrated by Katy Hudson

Published: September 2, 2014
Publisher: Blue Apple Books 

Pages: 36
Format: Ebook (I have purchased a hardback now too)
Genre: Nonfiction Picture book
Age range: 4 - 8 years
Source: Digital book provided by Publisher for Cybils consideration and I have now purchased a hardback.

From Blue Apple Books:

How Do Animals Learn To Swim, Fish, Box, Or Build?

In the forest, in the pond, in caves, prairies, and jungles, in all the world's outdoor "classrooms," baby animals are...learning! They are taking lessons on how to be an expert swimmer, alarm-sounder, racer-chaser, or hide-and-seeker. They don't have books, or desks, or computers. But they do have teachers!
With clear, graceful prose and striking illustrations, Animal Teachers showcases the teacher-student dynamic between adult and young animals as they are taught crucial skills needed to handle daily challenges.
An entertaining combination of science and storytelling, this instructive title presents skills that a dozen different young animals have to learn.

First off - the illustrations absolutely blew me away. They are breathtakingly lovely. When I read the digital copy with my daughter, she wouldn't let me turn the pages until she finished drinking in the images - including the end pages. Just gorgeous. I have ordered the hardback and can't wait to see what the illustrations look like in person.

Each two page spread talks about a lesson - swimming lessons, boxing lessons, shouting lessons - and then talks about how baby animals learn that skill. Then there is also a question, like - "Who taught you what's good to eat? Do you ever try to bite your toes ?"  This answer-question style makes it a great candidate for read alouds to younger readers, providing opportunities for audience participation.

Animal Teachers is a gentle, lovely introduction to animals that provides younger children a different perspective than your typical "what sound do chickens make?" style of thing. It should also prove a good informational text for kindergarten or 1st grade students and work as a jump off point for projects. Two thumbs up!

If An Armadillo Went to a Restaurant by Ellen Fischer

If An Armadillo Went to a Restaurant
by Ellen Fischer, illustrated by Laura Wood

Published: July 29, 2014
Publisher: Scarletta Kids

Pages: 32
Format: Hardback
Genre: Nonfiction Picture book
Age range: Young audience 4-6 or 7?
Source: Provided by Publisher for Cybils consideration

From Scarletta Kids:

Slurp! Munch! Crunch!
Would an armadillo order spaghetti with meatballs if she went to a restaurant? No way! She would like a plate of ants and worms.
Through a series of questions and answers, readers learn about animals, where they live, and what they eat.

This is a super cute book and would be terrific for read alouds with Pre-K and Kindergarten groups. The illustrations are just lovely and giggle worthy when you take in the details. As the blurb says, the book is written in a question-answer format that can work well with a young audience if you like audience participation. (My daughter certainly liked shouting No Way!)

First comes a silly question - If a sea turtle crawled into a lagoon buffet, what would be order ? Fried chicken with gravy? No way! 

Then a more serious answer about an animal's diet - A sea turtle might order ... crabs and shrimp with a jellyfish on top.

Now the book does oversimplify - the giraffe eating peaches (or apricots - the book it at home, oops!) is a bit off. On the other hand, this could be a great lead-in to having children look up more detailed information about the diets of various animals.

Fun little book!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fighting Fire! by Michael Cooper - rambing discussion instead of strict review

Fighting Fire! Ten Deadliest Fires in American History and How We Fought Them
by Michael L. Cooper

Published: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)

Pages: 224
Genre: Nonfiction 
Age range: 10 - 14 Years
Source: Provided by Publisher for Cybils consideration

From the cover:
Since colonial times, the destructive power of fires and the bravery of those who fight them have remained constant in American history.

Fighting Fire! presents ten of the deadliest infernos this nation has ever endured: the great fires of Boston, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco; the disasters of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the General Slocum, and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub; the wildfire of Witch Creek in San Diego County; and the catastrophe of 9/11. 

Each blaze led to new firefighting techniques and technologies, yet the struggle against fires continues to this day. With historical images and a fast-paced text, this is both an exciting look at firefighting history and a celebration of the human spirit.

Okay - so I am about to be something of a wet blanket here (which is almost a pun, sorry about that). The tag line on the back of the book says:
Discover their stories and find out how each one changed the way fires are fought today. 
So - random piece of information about me that you might not have picked up on, since I haven't been posting about it lately - I do HAZWOPER (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) 40- and 8-hour training. I am pretty much on the operations end but I know several fire fighters and emergency response personnel. I already knew about all of the fires discussed in this book but I was interested in how the author was going to discuss them and excited about the idea of looking at them in the context of how firefighting changed because of each of them.

I thought the book started out well - the historic fires were discussed and basic issues, like the fact that there was no such thing as professional fire fighters initially and that as the idea took shape there were competing private companies that took to activities like fighting over which company was going to fight a fire (while the buildings burned down) and setting fires in each others patches (thus the first sentence from the blurb really annoyed me) as well as issues with the lack of equipment and infrastructure. It felt like the book was laying the base for a good discussion of how things have changed over time.

Then, somewhere about the General Slocum/Triangle Waist Fire chapters, things started going downhill for me. These were historic events that had some major repercussions but the book focused more on the horror of these fires without really taking the time to discuss how important changes were made in public attitudes and in law - it went from feeling educational to feeling like tawdry sensationalism. I felt that more time should have been taken to discuss context and impact - there was a bit, but not enough. The Triangle Waist Fire in particular marked a change between the concept of fire suppression to fire prevention. For example - the building they were in was of modern construction and considered "fire proof." For one narrow meaning of the term, this is true. The building was basically fine - it was just the people and the contents that burned.

There are lots of things to discuss that I felt were given insufficient attention. The Triangle Waist Fire was utterly horrific - it took until fairly recently for the last six bodies from this fire to be positively identified - almost 100 years. And it might seem more personal to young readers - nearly half the victims were teenagers. Changes in how people thought about the treatment of immigrant workers followed this fire. From the technology end - the nets that the fire fighters had, well, they didn't save any lives. The fire fighters actually got there quickly and put out the fire quickly. But they were clearly working with tools inadequate for the job of rescuing people. And building codes and inspections ... lots to discuss there too.

The 'fire escape' to nowhere from the Triangle Waist Fire. Instead of leading to the roof or the ground,
for some weird reason it lead to a second floor skylight.  I really want to see the building plans because
I don't understand the descriptions of this at all. Plus, the thing was weak and substandard anyhow
- it collapsed and many people fell to their deaths from here. Not how a fire escape is supposed to work.
Oh, oh - and the book mentions that "[The factory owners'] insurance company paid each victim's family about $75" but fails entirely to point out that the insurance company actually paid Harris and Blanck (the owners) about $400 per life lost and that they settled at trial for paying out about $75 per life. They actually made about $60,000 of the deaths of the workers!  It infuriates me even now! and they opened a new factory all of a week or so after the fire - one with no fire escapes and too few exits! Here - OSHA has a great link roundup from the 100th anniversary - go read - I will stop ranting about this one.

Okay - to get back on track ... The Cocoanut Grove chapter was a bit better - some specific changes were discussed. Still felt more sensationalized though. 

Then for some reason the book skips from Cocoanut Grove (1942) to 9/11 (2001). Um - there were fires between these two points. Some important ones actually. And thinking more about this, given the context of the book, the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire (NFPA pdf) should have been included as well. Six hundred and two people were killed and major changes were made in building codes following that fire. It is pretty relevant to the supposed discussion at hand.

So, anyhow, 1943 - 2000 falls into a black hole, along with the Rattlesnake Fire (1953) - started by arson in which 15 fire fighters died, is still used as a training example and led to major changes in how forest fires are fought, the Yellowstone fires of 1988 that never were controlled - they were finally put out by snowfall, the Oakland Fire Storm (1991) that destroyed 3469 homes, Alaska's 2003 fire that burned 1,305,592 acres - I will stop, you get the idea. Lots of possible candidates here.

Right so fast forward to 2001 - the book gives you a localized perspective of events mostly through the perspective of Chief Picciotto, then gives you some death statistics and says absolutely nothing about how this fire changed fire fighting or anything about different technologies used or anything to provide contexts. (BTW - a command center and a staging ground are two different things.) Many friends and friends of friends from around here went to help fight this fire and deal with the aftermath. I was personally offended by this chapter. The book makes it sound like emergency responders were just wandering around at random and doing ill advised things without fairly giving a sense of the utterly overwhelming scale of events. This was a huge event, even if you just look at it through the perspective of fire fighting and the book doesn't to it justice. Now that I think about it, this chapter was written quite differently from the previous ones. The other chapters were putting events into historical perspective - this one was really a personal view of events. I admit that for some of us it is still hard to put 9/11 into historical perspective - and that much of the books intended audience, they were not born yet, so for them this is already ancient history. Just - this chapter didn't mesh well. What changed in how we fight fires due to 9/11 book? What was different here - inadequate tools for the job verses Triangle Waist ? This was a huge important events in many ways but I don't think that the book handled it all that well.

I have even more issues with the 2007 wildfire chapter - there was nothing about what changed in firefighting here either. In fact, I am not even sure why this particular fire was included. I believe that it still stands as the largest evacuation in California, but why is that special? Lots of wildfires require evacuations. That isn't new. There have been plenty of other wildfires that were larger, some that caused way more damage to structures. The 1871 Peshtigo Wildfire is estimated to have killed 1700 people or more but it happened the same year as the Great Chicago Fire so it tends to get forgotten about. This 2007 fire, more commonly known as the Witch Fire (it started near Witch Creek) ranks 5th or lower in terms of acres burned in California. It was expensive but not as expensive as that Oakland fire. I just don't understand why the book picked this fire to close with. This was the last chapter - shouldn't it have been about something big ?  Instead it was more of a "We Love You Firefighters" - which is all well and good (some of my relatives and friends were fire fighters - so yup, totally on board with a big thank you) - but again this chapter felt completely tacked on with little rhyme or reason.Why this fire book?

More recently, in the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire 19 hotshots lost their lives leading to some intense debates about those last resort fire tents. But that would have happened after the book went to press I can forgive this one.

And does anyone remember the Great White fire at The Station nightclub in 2003 that killed 100 people and injured 230. Overcrowded club where pyrotechnics started a fire which spread amazingly quickly along flammable foam used as insulation in the building. Two of the four exits were chained shut, and some bouncer initially prevented people from using the stage door, so that the only exit was the front door - causing a huge bottleneck as people tried to escape. Sounds eerily familiar once you have read the stories about Cocoanut Grove and Imperial Theater, doesn't it. 

Sorry - I started rambling again.

Ah, but one of the reasons that I was so interested in this book was that link to technology, right.  So well did it do there?  As far as I can see, not well at all ...

What about the robots used as scouts in collapsed buildings? What about infrared sensors to find trapped people?  Scooting back in time, what about the development of fire suppressant foam? Smoke detectors? SCBA - self contained breathing apparatus? The only technology that the book really seems aware of is fire engines. There were a bunch of opportunities here to explore changes in how we fight fires and they were all ignored.

Also the way the last chapter ends is totally trivial ... "From colonial bucket brigades to modern engines that can pump ten thousand gallons of water a minute, firefighting techniques and technology have evolved dramatically. But one thing hasn't changed over the centuries: the dedication and bravery of our fire fighters."

a. As I already pointed out the behavior and concept of being a fire fighter has evolved significantly since colonial times - the books author even tells us so in the first few chapters!

b. The book barely mentions the changes in technology! Which is one of the things I was most interested in reading about! It has a lovely little gallery of images of fire engine photos over time WITH NO CAPTIONS TELLING YOU ANYTHING ABOUT THEM!

Oh man and the recommended reading list of 10 books has 4 books about 9/11 !

Oops - I started rambling again didn't I.

To sum up - yes I know that I am being a bit unfair since I know so much about this topic. I can poke holes and nitpick in a way that kids can't and won't. However, I still feel that this could have been a much better book if it did what it claimed on the back cover. The book took a great concept, good pictures and decent writing - then didn't really deliver. It fell back on listing 'some famous' fires, ditched the how we fight concept halfway through and ended with a whimper.

BTW - it is not a discussion of the ten deadliest fires in US history as advertised - the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) list is here and you can see only a little overlap. For example, this book has no coal mine fires. And, amazingly - those Great Fires like in Boston and Chicago - the loss of life there was extraordinarily low given the massive destruction, so while they were unarguably historically important, they were not 'deadliest' fires. Thus, the book doesn't even follow that criteria. Or you can take a look at the NFPA Deadliest Single Building or Complex Fires and Explosions list (the Great White/Station nightclub fire is there at number 17). Again, no match. I don't understand the criteria that the author used here.

On the other hand, most kids don't know anything about any of these events (this is also apparently increasingly true with adults as well - which really surprised me) so as a first introduction this book isn't that bad - I would much rather have kids read this book then learn nothing about these events, and I find it a much better true adventures style book than many I have read. Plus, it can serve as a jumping off point for more research - there are lots of obvious holes and unanswered questions that might spur interest in a younger reader. It might also be a good choice for reluctant readers. If you have students, I would say younger middle school age, interested in the topic, give this book a go. It isn't actually bad, it just really didn't live up to my expectations - in several ways.

Let me put this a bit differently.  I was hoping that there would be way more discussion of problems and the technologies used to overcome them. I would have given this book to my son to read then. Instead it focuses more and more on the horrific events and even starts to personalize them, without pulling back and providing a larger context or a really discussing technology at all.  I won't be giving this book to my son. He would have nightmares ... which leads me to this ... 

An important warning  - this book should only be given to readers that are not sensitive to fairly non-graphic but intense descriptions of death and tragedy. Some of the events described are pretty horrific and could lead to nightmares. Also be aware that if your students do some web searching on these fires, they might run into some pretty graphic images and much more graphic descriptions (testimony about the Triangle Shirt Fire and Cocoanut Grove fires still makes me ill to read) so preselect sites for them to visit to keep them from stumbling into anything too deep.

Well - there you go - a long rambling discussion that I hope helps you to decide whether this book would be a good one for any budding fire fighters in your life. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

A peak into Jackaby and In the Forbidden City

For this week's Book Beginnings on Friday, hosted by Rose City Reader here is the beginning of Jackaby by William Ritter ...

It was late January, and New England wore a fresh coat of snow as I stepped along the gangplank to the shore. The city of New Fiddleham glistened in the fading dusk, lamplight playing across the icy buildings that lined the waterfront, turning their brickwork to twinkling diamonds in the dark. In the inky black of the Atlantic, the reflected glow of gaslights danced and bobbed. I made my way forward, carrying everything that traveled with me in a single suitcase.

For The Friday 56 hosted at Freda's Voice we pick up Jackaby on page 56 ...

Jackaby climbed to his feet, dusted off his coat, which clinked and jingled as the contents of various pockets resettled, and tossed his scarf back over one shoulder. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss O'Connor. I don't suppose you have a roomate?" 

Mona's stance faltered. She looked briefly to Charlie and me, finding only equal bewilderment, and then back at the detective.

For non-fiction I thought I would share one of the books nominated for the nonfiction Cybils ...
In the Forbidden City by Chiu Kwong-chiu (Author), Nancy S. Steinhardt (Editor), Ben Wang (Translator), but the format really makes the book something that you need to feel and play with (they have a neat website too )...

The Forbidden City was the home of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It is said that during the golden days of the Ming dynasty, there was a staggering 100,000 eunuchs in the palace with 7,000 court maids to serve the emperor alone. It was very extravagant! By the Qing dynasty, however, the monarchs began to adopt a more austere and frugal way of living. The numbers of eunuchs and maids gradually decreased until there were only 100 to 200 people serving the last emperor. By then all the past excesses had disappeared under the great wheels of history. 

I would add something from page 56 but the book doesn't have page numbers ... hum ... and there are only 52 pages.

So from somewhere around page 47ish ...

The Gate of Divine Prowess is located at the north end of the Forbidden City, 961 meters away from the Meridian Gate. There is a Chinese saying, "The gate of the palace open to a place as deep as the sea." This not only refers to the vast area of the palace; it also refers to the vast system of laws and regulations contained within. There were difference rules for difference people, determined by their rank, gender, and whether they lived or served in the Inner Court or the Outer court. 

Happy Friday

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wondrous Words Wednesday 36

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy at the Bermuda Onion where you "can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love. Feel free to get creative!"

I am still brain-dead from my trip and what few cells I have firing are being used by paperwork and the Cybils books.

Let's see ... I have a few random words for this week though.

... so Kim applied herself as best she could to arts such as reading and legerdemain which could not be conveniently practiced while marching in the rain.

legerdemain \ˌle-jər-də-ˈmān\
 1: sleight of hand
 2: a display of skill or adroitness
 3: skilful use of one’s hands when performing conjuring tricks.

Origin: Middle English, from Middle French leger de main light of hand
First Known Use: 15th century

Hocus pocus juinor. The Anatomy of Legerdemain. OR, The Art of Jugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly, so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise. Unto each trick is added the figure where it is needed full for instruction. Præstat nihili quam nihil facere.

First published in 1634.

... she knew from experience that once he took a notion, he was as stubborn as a costermonger defending his route through the market. 

costermonger \-ˌməŋ-gər, -ˌmäŋ-\
British dated
:  a hawker of fruit or vegetables
:  a person who sells goods, especially fruit and vegetables, from a handcart in the street.
Origin costard + monger

First Known Use: 1514

1510s, "itinerant apple-seller" from coster (apple) + monger (seller). Sense extended from "apple-seller" to any salesman who plied his wares from a street-cart. Contemptuous use is from Shakespeare ("2 Henry IV"), but reason is unclear.

A young domovyk ...
A domovoi or domovoy (Russian: домово́й; IPA: [dəmɐˈvoj]; literally, "[he] from the house") is a house spirit in Slavic folklore. Traditionally, every house is said to have its domovoi. It does not do evil unless angered by a family’s poor keep of the household, profane language or neglect. The domovoi is seen as the home's guardian, and he sometimes helps with household chores and field work. Some even treat them as part of the family, albeit an unseen one, and leave them gifts such as milk and biscuits in the kitchen overnight.

I call it ratiocination.  

ratiocination  \-ˌō-sə-ˈnā-shən, -ˌnä-\
1:  the process of exact thinking :  reasoning
2:  a reasoned train of thought 
First Known Use: circa 1530

Happy Wednesday. 
Oh - BTW, if you haven't read it - I thought that Jackaby by William Ritter was quite fun. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Buried under books ...

I am finally on the downhill slope of reading the books for the elementary-middle grade non-fiction category of the Cybils - 92 down and only 18 more to go, except that I haven't been able to get my hands on two of the nominees. 

It looks something like this ... 

Here is the pile of the first 51 books that I read ...
I took this photo before I had to return some to the library.

Then this was my to-be-read pile ...
you can see the pile in the photo above sitting to the right in this picture

At this point I have read six of the books out of this pile, then I got these ...

and I have read 22 of these - only two out of this pile haven't been read yet.

And this doesn't include the ebooks or the books that I sat around in the bookstore to read - or the ILL book that I just got.


The good news that I have enjoyed the vast majority of these books. The bad news that that I have a ton of reviews that I need to write now! 

Monday, December 8, 2014

I'm Back !

I have been gone the past week to present at a conference in London. The whole family went and we had a lovely time.

The conference was at the Geological Society of London, which was founded in 1807 and is the oldest geological society in the world. Geo-geek squee time!

If you read or heard about Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed the World ... well, William Smith was a member of the GSL (after they were initially being total classist jerks) and they have one of his original maps on the wall there (the real one is covered by a curtain). They also have a couple of his chairs.

Bust of William Smith and his 1815 geological map of England, Wales and Scotland
One of William Smith's Chairs

 Now I have to sort out how to get back into the swing of things.