Step away from the ‘smartphone’ and try using your hands and mind to make something – #bookreview

The Make: Series of How-to Books

A British scientist made headlines a few years ago when she warned that young people no longer make or repair things. It has become all too easy for them now, she cautioned, to simply throw away old or broken devices and buy new ones.

A key point was that many things currently being discarded could be fixed or refurbished and put to new uses. It would just take a little effort, a little learning, and some imagination.

I ran into some of that “no longer make or repair things” attitude a few years ago while working temporarily as a substitute teacher. If you have ever been a substitute in a public high school or middle school, you likely know that students often view “subs” as an excuse to pay absolutely no attention to anything he or she says.

When I could get no interest or response to the day’s assigned work in a science class, I tried introducing a challenge: Imagine you have become stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean, and you have just a few items with which to try to survive and attract the attention of a passing ship. The items ranged from coconuts and palm fronds to a pocket mirror, a small magnifying glass, a couple of cups, some string and a safety-pin.

I figured the kids might come up with some clever ways to (1) crack open the coconuts for food and liquid, (2) start a fire using a magnifying glass and dried palm fronds, (3) use the string and safety-pin to catch a fish to cook over the fire, (4) use the cups to boil seawater and capture the steam to make a little drinking water, and (5) prepare a separate pile of palm fronds to burn as a rescue signal to a passing ship.

Ha. At first, the students seemed intrigued and engaged by the challenge. They immediately started calling out survival “strategies.” Unfortunately, most of their ideas started with two concepts: “First, I’d go to the mall and buy…” or “First, I’d go online and buy….”

The reality of being stranded in isolation without immediate communication did not even register with them at first. When they did begin to try to imagine surviving without their smartphones, they quickly ran out of ideas and became sullen or antagonistic toward me.

This experience also became the straw that finally broke the back of my desire to continue as a substitute teacher. I had grown up at a time when making, tinkering, building, and repairing all were noble pursuits for a teenager interested in science, electronics, space and engineering. If I wanted a shortwave radio or a new type of model airplane or a small rocket I could launch in my back yard, I built them from scratch or combined pieces of previous projects. None of this experience registered with my students. And my next attempts to stir up enthusiasm for making and repairing things similarly fell flat.

Make It So?

Do you worry that your kids are growing up not knowing how to make things or fix things? Do you fret that you no longer remember how to make things or fix things?

Working with your hands, eyes and brain – and not just mindlessly swiping an index finger across a tiny screen – can be both physically and mentally rewarding.

Of course, the web is alive with “how to” information for making or repairing almost anything. And I make occasional pilgrimages to public libraries and bookstores to find reference materials and instruction books related to specific projects.

I am an unabashed fan of the “Make:” series of books from Maker Media. I don’t build all of their projects, but I do try out some of them. And I enjoy reading about zany, yet sometimes practical, stuff such as (1) how to use a magnet to tell if money is counterfeit, (2) how to create artwork that actually does something, using just a handful of electronic components, (3) how to generate electric power with several lemons connected in series, or (4) how to make some really good paper airplanes and paper helicopters. The “Make:” books consistently feature clear, well-organized instructional text, illustrations and photographs of how things go together.

Books such as Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (2nd edition), Easy 1+2+3 Projects, and Planes, Gliders, and Paper Rockets can appeal to parents and children who are in elementary school or older. For older kids and their parents, or for would-be engineers, Make: books such as Bluetooth, Getting Started with Intel Edison, and 3D Printing Projects can be helpful and enlightening how-to guides. Books on numerous other topics also are offered.

Do your kids (and/or you) seem unhealthily addicted now to clutching and staring at smartphones all day? You may want to try putting the devices aside and seeing what you can create with your hands, your mind, some household materials and a few readily available gadgets that don’t require pricey data plans and contracts.

You can do it! Power off now! (Okay, for just a few minutes at first if you insist and if you have a really bad case of smartphone withdrawal.)

— Si Dunn

Book Briefs: Four Works of Fiction & Nonfiction from the American Southwest – #bookreview

A Texas Jubilee: Thirteen Stories from the Lone Star State
James Ward Lee
(TCU Press – paperback, Kindle)

James Ward Lee, former English department chairman at the University of North Texas, has earned his membership in the Texas Literary Hall of Fame the hard way. He has written numerous books, short stories and other well-received works.

A Texas Jubilee, his entertaining and absorbing new short story collection, focuses on life in fictitious Bodark Springs, a small East Texas town, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The interconnected stories often have colorful characters, richly detailed local conflicts, and troubling events such as the arrival of an aged man claiming to be Jesse James and the occasional appearance of a bike messenger who delivers World War II death-notice telegrams. One of the best stories, “A Blue and Gray Christmas,” reflects on a grandmother’s early childhood memories of the Civil War.

Unsolved Mysteries of the Old West
W.C. Jameson
(Taylor Trade – paperback, Kindle)

Many of  writer and treasure hunter W.C. Jameson’s books and articles have entertained readers who love “the Old West and a good mystery.” This second edition contains 21 “baffling” tales that still stir up people’s imaginations and sometimes continue a few disputes.

One of the best of the “unsolved mysteries” in Jameson’s book involves an alien spacecraft that may–or may not–have crashed north of Fort Worth, Texas, in 1897, in the tiny town of Aurora.

On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest
Char Miller
(Trinity University Press – paperback, Kindle)

The American Southwest is a hotbed of water-supply controversies and immigration disputes, plus sharp political clashes over how to deal with both major issues.

In On the Edge, former Trinity University history professor Char Miller’s taut, insightful essays zero in on “the American Southwest, a region I have known, loved and misunderstood.” He reflects on San Antonio and Los Angeles and what is happening to “the borderlands that stretch between them.”

He puts special emphasis on sustainability and “the environmental pressures, judicial struggles, social injustices, and economic disparities that have troubled the communities I have resided in.”

Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid the Narco-Violence
Edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso
(Arte Publico Press – paperback)

Mexico’s gruesome narcotics wars and heightened U.S. border security efforts have disrupted many economic, cultural and personal ties between the American Southwest and Mexico.

This  eye-opening book’s 12 bilingual essays highlight key losses, including the casual ease with which tourists used to cross the border. One writer notes: “The typical American tourist (including Mexican Americans) had no passport; it wasn’t needed. They often did not plan ahead. People walked or drove across the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, San Diego/Tijuana and…Nogales/Nogales…and found a vibrant restaurant with delicious food and even better music. This happenstance border crossing allowed for adventures and exploring for the day….”

While some of the essays are dispiriting, hope also emerges within this important collection.

Si Dunn

What Makes You Tick? – Do we exist only inside our brains, or does the mind have a longer reach? – #bookreview

What Makes You Tick? A New Paradigm for Neuroscience
Gerard Verschuuren
(Solas Press, paperback)

What is the connection between the mind and the brain? Does the mind exist independent of the brain? And does the human mind communicate with something—or someone–beyond its “biological substrata and physics”?

Gerard Verschuuren tackles these and other mystery-laden questions in his book that proposes a “new paradigm for neuroscience.” While he hopes to expand the thinking of neuroscientists—to look beyond the brain for answers to what and who and how we are—he also has written What Makes You Tick? with general readers in mind.

Verschuuren contends: “Science can’t possibly explain all of what we are . Apparently , it is not just a clockwork mechanism that makes us tick; there is so much more to it.”

The author is a human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He also is a computer specialist who has published several other works. As writer, speaker, and consultant, he works “at the interface of science, philosophy, and religion.”

He brings all of these aspects together in his new book, and he draws from notable scientists and others who believe that the mind has connections and workings that reach beyond the complex processes at work inside our skulls.

You may not agree with all of Dr. Verschuuren’s assertions, conclusions and evidence. But his book is well written, and his points are well argued. What Makes Us Tick? likely will stir up some new debates and possibly some expanded thinking, too, about where the mind actually resides within – and beyond? – the human body.

Si Dunn

LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future – #bookreview

LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future
Sal Cangeloso
(O’Reilly,
paperback, Kindle)

Sal Cangeloso of Geek.com and ExtremeTech.com wants to warm you up to some really cool lighting: light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.

His new book, LED Lighting: A Primer to Lighting the Future, encourages readers to start using more LEDs and let loose of the incandescent bulb’s 130-year-old technology, as well as the curly, tricky-to-recycle compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs that last longest when they are not turned off and on and off and on and.…

Lighting and lighting choices are not actually simple topics, and Cangeloso packs plenty of information, both practical and technical, into his helpful 58-page book. He includes a couple of simple, do-it-yourself experiments involving small LED lamps, resistors and batteries, as well.

LED Lighting delves into matters such as color quality, power consumption comparisons, and prices, as well as the sometimes “off-putting” fact that LED bulbs often look like yellow bug lamps, even though they produce white light. The author also explains why highly efficient LED bulbs have built-in heat sinks, while other types of light bulbs do not. “The main reason is that LEDs don’t give off heat in the form of infrared radiation. This means cooling must be handled through other means, such as conduction through a heat sink.”

LED bulbs also don’t give off ultraviolet (UV) light. So that’s one more practical reason to consider using them. As Cangeloso notes: “LED bulbs don’t attract insects, which are drawn to UV light.”

Si Dunn

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments – Real CSI basics – #bookreview

Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture
Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
(O’Reilly, paperbackKindle)

Movies, TV shows and detective novels have elevated forensic science to a cultural fascination. And in real life, a clue uncovered with a microscope or a chemical test frequently is the one that provides the big break toward solving a crime.

You may daydream about what it might be like to work in a crime lab. And if you write crime novels, you likely will generate mental images of crime scene investigators or detectives trying to decipher puzzling clues. You might even picture a laboratory packed with sophisticated electronic analyzers that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Indeed, some labs do have that type of equipment. But this book’s authors note: “Here’s a startling fact: the vast majority of forensic work, even today, is done with low-tech procedures that would be familiar to a forensic scientist of 100 years ago.”

Indeed, they add: “You don’t need a multi-million dollar lab to do real, useful forensic investigations. All you need are some chemicals and basic equipment, much of which can be found around the home.”

You will also need “a decent microscope—the fundamental tool of the forensic scientist—but even an inexpensive student model will serve.”

The Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture is intended for “responsible” teenagers and adults who want “to learn about forensic science by doing real, hands-on laboratory work. DIY hobbyists and forensics enthusiasts can use this book to learn and master the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue forensics as a lifelong hobby. Home school parents and public school teachers can use this book as the basis of a year-long, lab-based course in forensic science.”

The hefty, 425-page book offers more than 50 lab experiments, and each session represents actual procedures used each day by professional forensic analysts.

The labs are organized into 11 groups:

  1. Soil Analysis
  2. Hair and Fiber Analysis
  3. Glass and Plastic Analysis
  4. Revealing Latent Fingerprints
  5. Detecting Blood
  6. Impression Analysis
  7. Forensic Drug Testing
  8. Forensic Toxicology
  9. Gunshot and Explosive Residues Analysis
  10. Detecting Altered and Forged Documents
  11. Forensic Biology

Even though the book says it contains “no lectures,” each lab is introduced with a short background summary, plus lab safety cautions and warnings, lists of equipment and materials, and related how-to instructions. Also, each group of labs is introduced with a short overview of its category and its importance in forensic science. The book also contains comments from Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory.

This is not a book that young students should use without supervision. Even “responsible teens” will need close guidance. And adults, too, must be very careful to follow all safety instructions.

But this is a fascinating how-to guide for learning the basics of forensic science, whether you hope to do it as a career or hobby, gain a science credit, or merely describe some of the techniques in a mystery novel or screenplay.

Si Dunn

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present – #bookreview #in #music

Dance All Night: Those Other Southwestern Swing Bands, Past and Present
Jean A. Boyd
(Texas Tech University Press, hardback, list price $65.00; paperback, list price $39.95)

Fans of 1930s and 1940s western swing will find plenty to enjoy in this entertaining book by Jean A. Boyd, a  Baylor University music history professor and native of Fort Worth, Texas.

She celebrates the distinctive music and its Texas roots and highlights several groups that, unlike Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, did not or have not made it into the national spotlight.

Yet these bands have picked, fiddled, strummed and sung their way to regional stardom in Texas and Oklahoma.

Her book likely will also appeal to musicologists and performers. She includes musical analysis and transcriptions of recorded performances, as well as histories and recollections.

Si Dunn 

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Fitness for Geeks – A book that will knock you OFF your butt – #bookreview

Fitness for Geeks: Real Science, Great Nutrition, and Good Health
Bruce W. Perry
(O’Reilly,
paperback, list price $34.95; Kindle edition, list price $27.99)

You know it’s true: You spend way too much time at home and at the office just sitting on your back pockets, staring at computer screens.

You do have some mobile devices. But, to use them, you mostly just carry them into your favorite free WiFi coffee shop and then sit, eat bagels and drink coffee while you poke, occasionally twitch a finger and squint.

 Not much of a healthy workout, is it?

 Many of us now spend most of our days and nights engaged in what Bruce W. Perry calls “a marathon bout of sitting.” Indeed, toss in the time spent sitting in your car as you commute to and from work, and you are a perfect example of a modern lifestyle that some scientists now term “chair living.”

It’s time, says Perry, to move, to skip the elevator and take the stairs (two at a time, if possible) on your way to and from those chairs.

 It’s time to find the company fitness center and start using it. It’s time to pay closer attention to what and how much you are eating, especially while sitting, computing and commuting. And it’s time to realize that you are spending too much time in front of your computer or TV when you should be sleeping.

Perry, a software engineer, journalist and self-described “fitness geek” has written an entertaining, inspiring and downright helpful book that draws from “the many parallels between software design and fitness geekdom, such as the whole concept of antipatterns, or learning how to do something by studying how not to do it first.”

There are, he notes, many apps, websites and devices now that can help you track, calculate and chart effort, calories, distances, sleep and other fitness factors.  He even tosses in a few bits of code that can help you, for example, display the route and distance that you just covered on a bike ride

Now is the time for all good geeks to come to the aid of their chair-shaped, digitally softened bodies.

Fitness for Geeks is organized into 11 standalone chapters that you can read in any order, Perry says. The chapters are:

  1.  Fitness and the Human Codebase: Reboot Your Operating System
  2. Fitness Tools and Apps
  3. Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs
  4. Micronutrients: Vitamins, Minerals, and Phytochemicals
  5. Food Hacks: Finding and Choosing Food
  6. Food Timing: When to Eat, When to Fast
  7. The Other World: A.K.A Outside
  8. Hello, Gym! Finding Your Way Around the Fitness Facility
  9. Randomizing Fitness and the Importance of R & R
  10. Code Maintenance: Human Fueling and Supplements
  11. Lifestyle Hacks for Fitness

 There is no complete escape from chair living, of course. We still have to sit at our home computers, sit in front of our TVs, sit in our cars, sit at coffee shops, and sit, sit, sit at the office.

But chair living does not have to consume us and kill us. We can find the time to make better choices: Skip the escalator and the éclair; eat a carrot and take the stairs. And we can find tools that can help us enhance those choices – digital and physical. They are already out there. 

Mainly, we just have to make ourselves get off our butts for a little while each day and do something healthful with the time out of chair.

Bruce W. Perry’s new book can help you discover – yes, even program – a workable path to better living.

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Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.