May 28, 2007

This way to the egress

PZ Myers has the creation museum carnival up and running. It looks like a terrific round-up of articles, which I look forward to reading the rest of the week post-4H, and I'm pleased that my little entry (the previous post) could be a part of it. Many thanks to Dr. Myers for the rounding up, and for the original idea, to John McKay, whose blog is named after Farm School's favorite cockroach (here too).

Now back to the fairgrounds...

P.S. If the humbuggery of Ken Ham's efforts has your interest piqued, you should enjoy this, too. But then again, Phineas T. knew he was a humbug.

May 26, 2007

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

I shouldn't even be here posting, because we're getting ready for the big 4H Beef Club weekend -- achievement day, interclub show, and sale. (No, Laura doesn't have to sell her heifer calf; only the steers get sold, heading straight to their doom and little wrapped packages. One reason an older friend of hers and longtime 4H member suggested a heifer over a steer.)

I've been reading and hearing again a fair amount this past week about the new creation museum in the U.S., since opening day is slated for Monday.

So it was a tonic to read Red Molly's thoughts on the subject, especially in conjunction with homeschooling (HT Alasandra, and also for the reminder about the John Wayne Centennial today, for which my kids are gleeful).

Even more interesting to learn that Red Molly's post is part of tomorrow's, erm, creation museum carnival to be hosted by one of my favorite science bloggers, PZ Myers at Pharyngula, which, by the way, has some of the best online prehistory/evolution reading lists in a variety of categories -- "for the kids", "for the grown-up layman", "for the more advanced/specialized reader", etc. (scroll through the comments for more titles).

Whether or not Monday is a holiday where you are, go visit a natural history museum (scroll all the way down for related links). Of special note,

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Alberta (which offers home school discounts)

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario

American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; the travelling Charles Darwin exhibit opens here on June 15, 2007 (through January 1, 2008) and has its own website

Museum of Science, Boston

Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado

Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya

the grandaddy of them all, the Natural History Museum, in London, England

and the great-grandaddy -- the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin aka the Naturkundemuseum aka the Humboldt Museum of Natural History in Berlin, with collections -- more than 20 million zoology specimens, more than 3 million palaeontology specimens, and more than one million mineralogy ones -- that date back to the establishment of the Prussian Academy, in 1700, and the Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in 1770. Celebrated for its Brachiosaurus brancai, the world's biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton. Thanks to the great grandaddy OC for the reminder.

Additional links:

The Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page. Because you can never underestimate the power of a well-placed sticker or bookmark. As I noted in my 2005 Posse post, "As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, 'Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue'."

Understanding Evolution website, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology; lots of resources for educators and children

Darwin Day Celebration website, with links, events, and other items leading to a celebration of the great man's bicentennial on February 12, 2009.

The Darwin exhibit is no longer at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC -- it's opening at the Field Museum in Chicago (see above) on June 15 -- but the website remains, with a good list of resources, some for kids.

The PBS Evolution series also has a nifty website, with some projects and links for "Teachers and Students"

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Verlyn Klinkengborg's New York Times column, August 2005, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution

Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge University; according to the project's website, "The main feature of the site is an online database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Charles Darwin up to the year 1865. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage - online for the first time - and all the letters from the years around the publication of Origin of species in 1859."

Coturnix's book list for adults

Becoming Human website

Project Beagle website and the Beagle blog

Evolved Homeschooling blog -- "A collection of evolution and science resources for the secular homeschooler".

And finally, you can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, gratis.

May 24, 2007

Respectable history for a general readership: bad news and a bit of good news

I'm slowly wading through news from the past week or two and was saddened to read in The New York Times (registration is free or use Bug Me Not) that the wonderful American Heritage Magazine has suspended publication with the April/May 2007 issue, now on newsstands. Editor Richard F. Snow, who started in the magazine's mailroom in 1965, told The Times earlier this month that the bimonthly magazine, owned by Forbes Inc., has been for sale since January, and "in the absence of a buyer ... the publishers have decided to put the next issue, June-July, on indefinite hold."

The good news is that at least for the present, American Heritage will continue to publish on its incredibly useful and informative (not to mention easy to navigate) website. Make use of it now while you can. You can, believe it or not, search the archives for articles in each and every print issue all the way back to the very first of December 1954, which includes the article on "The Writing of History: An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints" by D. W. Brogan. You can also revisit eminent American historian and first AH managing editor Bruce Catton's column, "Reading, Writing, and History" on the long-forgotten Cadwallader commotion. The AH website each day includes several features at the bottom of the page, including "today in history" and the quotation of the day. Today, the former includes the news thatin 1929, the Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts, opened; in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic; in 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram; and in 1830, the first American passenger railroad began service. The thought for the day is one of my favorite's from Mark Twain: "“It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

There's also a link on the home page to historian Bernard Weisberger's "Funeral Oration for American Heritage", published at History News Network [links provided by me],
Allow me to shed a sentimental senior tear or two for the dear, departed print version of American Heritage, executed by Forbes, Inc., for the crime of attracting only one third of a million (350,000 to be exact) regular readers. Whether the online edition is granted a full pardon or merely a reprieve seems unclear at this moment. It's all rather personal with me. I'm one of the earliest contributors, with a piece on revivalist star of the eighteen-seventies, Dwight L. Moody, in the August 1955 issue, Subsequently I wrote a very large quantity of reviews and articles on assorted topics, the last (on political polling) appearing in 2000 -- plus books for the then-independent American Heritage Corporation's juvenile, text-book and mail-order book divisions [many of which grace the Farm School shelves], all long since sold away or terminated with extreme prejudice. But the magazine was my true home, a perfect haven for an academically trained historian who enjoys the challenge of writing respectable history for a general readership. From 1970 to 1972 I was on full-time staff as an Associate Editor, a personal way station on the road to leaving college teaching. Finally, from 1989 to 1999 I was a regular columnist, connecting today's news with yesterday's history, much as HNN does now.

But it's those two years as Associate Editor that I recall most fondly. The company's offices were then in the Fred F. French building at 45th Street and 5th Avenue, handy to the restaurants, theaters and tourist attractions of midtown Manhattan. Bruce Catton was still there, friendly but usually secluded in his office and working on his own projects, but also doing a smooth, professional job of doctoring articles referred to him by Oliver Jensen, the active editor. ...

We had our squabbles, our jealousies, our complaints of the management and our share of the clashes between editorial and business departments. But I do not recall tension between the "picture people"--the highly competent pictorial research staff--and those of us on the "print side." We all agreed on the concept of a generously illustrated magazine, with words and images mutually reinforcing each other, that took history seriously. We liked and respected what we did, and this is not mere nostalgia for golden days of youthful aspiration--we were all well past thirty.

It is, of course, exactly that seriousness which critics of the magazine denied. They said its wish to entertain short-changed its power to instruct. I'll grant that there was a possible over-supply of drums and trumpets, "quaint corners of the past," and Great White Males in those early numbers. (Oliver Jensen stoutly denied this.) But there was also plenty of food for reflection. What was more, the pages included many articles by rising and already risen stars of the academy--Britons like B. H. Liddell Hart, J.H. Plumb and D.W. Brogan, and Americans like Allan Nevins, Richard B. Morris, Daniel Boorstin, Carl Degler, David Donald, T. Harry Williams and Bernard Bailyn. The thinking was that well-told narrative reclaimed history, for many readers, from memories of abominable teaching in their elementary and high schools, and that the amalgam of words and images opened minds and doors to further exploration. Of course scholarly analysis and critical examination of sources is urgent and can even occasionally be made intriguing. But I personally thought that the separate existence of "popular" history was saving the field from the flight into specialization and distance from the common concerns of life that befell academic philosophy and what was once called "political economy" and was read by most educated people. I have taken that philosophy with me into the areas of television documentaries. History deserves and has many mansions. [Emphasis mine, too.]
Read the rest here, especially Mr. Weisberger's thoughts on what led to the company's demise.

From the Times article [links provided by me, not NYT],
The magazine has always been a bit of an anomaly among American publications.

The circulation is currently 350,000, or as high as it has ever been, and hundreds of those readers can still be reliably counted on to write in arguing about the true causes of the Civil War or, as happened recently, to point out that the author of a World War II article doesn’t know the difference between the M-1 rifle and the M-16, which didn’t come in until Vietnam.

American Heritage was founded in 1954 by James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., refugees from Life, who from the beginning broke most of the rules of magazine publishing. They determined not to accept ads, for example — on the ground that there was a “basic incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of advertising” — and instead charged a yearly subscription of $10, a figure so steep at the time that readers were allowed to pay it in installments. They also published in clothbound, hardback volumes with full-color paintings mounted on the front.

The format was an instant hit with readers, who instead of tossing back issues often shelved them in their bookcases, but it initially confounded the United States Post Office, which decreed that American Heritage could use neither the book rate nor the periodical one. That ruling was eventually overturned, but not until the magazine had almost bankrupted itself by paying for parcel post.

The first editor of American Heritage was Bruce Catton, a Civil War historian who wrote in the inaugural issue in December 1954 that “the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here.” In the beginning, at least, that meant a fair amount of WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War. That inaugural issue, for example, includes a piece about a Union general who was falsely accused of treason in 1862, as well as articles about the country store, the Fall River steamship line and a lament by Cleveland Amory about the decline of New York men’s clubs.

Mr. Snow, 59, went to work in the American Heritage mailroom in 1965, when Columbia University insisted he take a little time off, and joined the staff full time when he finally graduated, in 1970. He has been there ever since, and in 1990 he became the magazine’s sixth editor, succeeding Byron Dobell. ...

Mr. Snow has been at American Heritage long enough that he can remember when it was an empire in the mid-’60s, employing 400 people, with the magazine as a flagship for what was in effect a publishing company selling books, many of them by some of America’s best-known popular historians, by direct mail. He was managing editor in 1980, when the magazine ceased publishing in hardback (except for subscribers who wanted to shell out extra for what Mr. Snow now calls a “padded, leatheroid edition”), and in 1982 when, bowing to economic necessity, it began soliciting ads.

“We all felt very bad about taking advertising,” Mr. Snow recalled. “But it had the odd effect of making us feel we were in touch with the world. There was a sense of a living connection to a process that was actually sort of fun — or at least it was fun while we were getting ads.”

American Heritage remained more driven by circulation than by ads, however. According to Scott Masterson, a senior vice president at Forbes and president of American Heritage, the magazine was losing money when Forbes bought it in 1986 and then bounced back for a while. But in the late ’90s, Mr. Masterson said, it failed to reap the kind of profits that many magazines did, and after 2001 it experienced the same downturn that afflicted the magazine business in general and had trouble recovering.

Part of the problem was the Internet, Mr. Snow said. “We’re really a general interest magazine,” he said. “We don’t play to a history buff in any narrow sense — like the Civil War re-enactors, for example. They can go on the Web and get thousands and thousands of hits.”

Three years ago Mr. Snow and Mr. Masterson decided to embrace the magazine’s aging readership and rejiggered American Heritage to appeal more specifically to baby boomers, mostly publishing articles about things that had happened in their lifetime. The formula was an editorial success, Mr. Snow said, yielding articles like one that appeared in the February-March issue about the Wrecking Crew, an unheralded studio band that played on many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s. But it failed to provide the hoped-for bump on the business end. “Forbes has been very, very patient,” he said. “but basically they’ve been carrying us for a while.”
Read the rest here.

From Bruce Catton's inaugural essay cited by The Times, "What They Did There", American Heritage Magazine, December 1954:
The sun goes down every evening over the muzzle of a gun that has been a museum piece for nearly a century, and where there was a battlefield there is now a park, with green fields rolling west under the sunset haze to the misty blue mountain wall. You can see it all just about as it used to be, and to look at it brings up deep moods and sacred memories that are part of our American heritage.

Yet the moods and the memories are not quite enough, for Gettysburg battlefield—like any other historic site—is memorable not for its scenic and evocative qualities but because it symbolizes the struggles and the sacrifices and the terrible hopes of people in a great moment of crisis. The men who fought at Gettysburg are all gone now but once they were very much alive, contending desperately with a fate which was almost more than they could cope with; and as Mr. Lincoln remarked, the world can never forget what they did there.

It is precisely that question—What did men do there?—that animates every worth-while examination of the American past.

For history after all is the story of people: a statement that might seem too obvious to be worth making if it were not for the fact that history so often is presented in terms of vast incomprehensible forces moving far under the surface, carrying human beings along, helpless, and making them conform to a pattern whose true shape they never see. The pattern does exist, often enough, and it is important to trace it. Yet it is good to remember that it is the people who make the pattern, and not the other way around.

The editors of any magazine calling itself American Heritage must begin by stating the faith that moves them; and the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here. They have done and thought and dreamed some rather extraordinary things, as a matter of fact, whose true significance does not always appear on the surface.

For a great many of the things people do seem rather unimportant, at first glance. They sing tinkly little songs, or they give way to queer enthusiasms about race horses or steamboats or carved figureheads for sailing ships; they fall victim to fear and suspicion, and so work hardship on some of their fellows who are doing the best they can according to the lights that were given them; they paint pictures of Indians, or of fire engines, or of landscapes that seem to carry some important message in their play of light and shade and color: they dig for precious metals in forsaken pockets of dangerous mountain ranges, they drowse lazily about the cracker barrel in a crossroads grocery store, and sometimes a few of them strive frantically to get people to buy one brand of soap rather than another, or grow snobbish and form clubs so that they can live comfortably on a plane above their fellows. These things are not very important, probably, except that each one contributes its own bit to the heritage by which we live—and each one, therefore, is worth looking at, because in each one we see the enthusiasms, the foibles, the impelling drives or the wistful dreams of the men and women who have made America.

So we propose to look into all such things; and because the infinite drama of human life can come out most clearly when people are least conscious of drama, trying to handle the prosaic business of making a living on a day-to-day basis, we believe that we do not always need to go to what are supposed to be the great moments of history in order to show American history in the making. The fearful climax of Gettysburg compels the attention, to be sure. But Gettysburg would not have been what it was if there had not been generations of plain folk beforehand, laying out farms and working in shops and stores, quite unaware that they were on the high road to destiny but somehow living and working in such a way that when destiny came along they could meet it without batting an eye.

Our beat, in other words, is anything that ever happened in America. Our principal question is: What did men do there? Our chief requirement as we set out to tell about it all is that the things we talk about must be interesting. The games men have played and the songs they have sung, the delusions they have had and the victories and defeats they have experienced, the homes they have built and the clothing they have worn, the aberrations from which they have suffered and the soaring, inexpressible ideals they have served—all of these, in one way or another, go to make up the heritage which we as Americans have today, and all of these make up the field which we propose to cover in this magazine.

The fabric of American life is a seamless web. Everything fits in somewhere. History is a continuous process; it extends far back into the past, and it will go on—in spite of today’s uneasy qualms—far into the future. As editors of this magazine we can think of no more eternally fascinating task than that of examining this continuous process on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes we shall talk about great men and what they did, and sometimes we shall talk about the doings of wholly obscure people who made the great men possible. But always we intend to deal with that great, unfinished, and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing and being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end, it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.


May 23, 2007

Into the woods

Tom and the kids went mushroom hunting for morels on Saturday. The haul came to about seven liters, including some whoppers (one below, in Daniel's hands),

We had some for dinner that night, sauteed in cream with fresh chives from the garden (and organic sea salt from Brittany, so there goes the 100-Mile idea), and the next day I made homemade mushroom soup. The remainder I popped into the freezer, to enjoy the rest of the year.

I hadn't eaten wild mushrooms regularly until I moved here. I took Tom's father's and brother's mushroom hunting abilities on faith, and when I was still around the next morning realized I was onto something good. I will say that having researched wild mushrooms in books and gone hunting with the men in the family, this is one subject where a book just isn't a suitable teacher. Being able to see and touch something you're going to eat that just might not agree with you is a darn sight better than a picture and description.

UPDATED to add:

For more information on mushroom hunting in general and morels in particular, see

The Great Morel website, along with its comprehensive links page (be sure to scroll all the way down) -- including, for Angela, one on Wild Harvest, dedicated to morels, fiddlehead ferns, and wild leeks.

May 22, 2007

It must be Spring...

because it's Carnival and fair time! In chronological order,
  • Doc announces that The Country Fair, complete with new look, will be up and running next month, with the first one of the year scheduled for Monday, June 18; submissions are due by Saturday, June 16. Tentative publishing dates for the Fairs are the third Monday of each month. See both of the previous links for how to submit an entry (or two) or even nominate a post you've enjoyed on someone else's blog. (N.B. I'm having a bit of trouble with the Country Fair link, and if you are too you can always go through Doc's blog or email until things are fixed.)
UPDATED to add: Dawn at By Sun and Candlelight is requesting submissions for her next Field Day, the Late Spring Edition, due by June 6th:

Let's celebrate these final weeks of late spring, and share the world of nature around us. What's happening in the garden, woods, fields, by the pond or the shore? How about through your windows or just a step or two outside your back door? Nature happens everywhere, in ways big and little. What does late spring look like where you live? I hope you will consider telling us, for our next Field Day will run on Thursday, June 7th, rain or shine!

May 18, 2007

When you riff upon a star

Last weekend a friend who knows me well enough to know that I don't care much for the Shrek movies sent me a recent Time Magazine article by James Poniewozik, "How Shrek Changed Fairy Tales". A few days later, in response to another friend, who thinks she might be a "prude" because she objects to such things as S&M in PG rated movies, I wrote, "I'll go you one better [than being a prude]. As I think I've written before, I don't even like the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, snarky asides meant for adults in what are supposed to be children's movies; pretty much all that Shrek-type, Over the Hedge, and new Disney stuff. It infantilizes adults and gives kids adult material they don't need, and I'm noticing that less and less is getting over the heads of my 9.5 and 8 year olds..."; the whole licensed product, product placement business is another annoyance I don't put up with. So I laughed this morning when I saw that Roger Sutton at his blog Read Roger had written a post on Monday about the Time article, entitled Nudge nudge wink wink.

From the Time article [emphases mine],
Shrek didn't remake fairy tales single-handed; it captured, and monetized, a long-simmering cultural trend. TV's Fractured Fairy Tales parodied Grimm classics, as have movies like The Princess Bride and Ever After and the books on which Shrek and Wicked were based. And highbrow postmodern and feminist writers, such as Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter, Robert Coover and Margaret Atwood, used the raw material of fairy stories to subvert traditions of storytelling that were as ingrained in us as breathing or to critique social messages that their readers had been fed along with their strained peas.

But those parodies had a dominant fairy-tale tradition to rebel against. The strange side effect of today's meta-stories is that kids get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals. My two sons (ages 2 and 5) love The Three Pigs, a storybook by David Wiesner in which the pigs escape the big bad wolf by physically fleeing their story (they fold a page into a paper airplane to fly off in). It's a gorgeous, fanciful book. It's also a kind of recursive meta-fiction that I didn't encounter before reading John Barth in college. Someday the kids will read the original tale and wonder why the stupid straw-house pig doesn't just hop onto the next bookshelf. Likewise, Shrek reimagines Puss in Boots as a Latin tomcat -- but what kid today even reads Puss in Boots in the original?

This is the new world of fairy tales: parodied, ironized, meta-fictionalized, politically adjusted and pop-culture saturated. (Yes, the original stories are still out there, but they don't have the same marketing force behind them: the Happy Meals, action figures, books, games and other ancillary-revenue projects.) All of which appeals to the grownups who chaperone the movie trips and endure the repeated DVD viewings. Old-school fairy tales, after all, are boring to us, not the kids. The Shrek movies have a nigh-scientific formula for the ratio of fart jokes to ask-your-mother jokes; Shrek the Third includes a visit to a fairy-tale high school where there's a Just Say Nay rally and a stoner-sounding kid stumbles out of a coach trailed by a cloud of "frankincense and myrrh" smoke. More broadly, each movie gives Shrek and Fiona an adult challenge: in the first, to find love and see beyond appearances; in Shrek 2, to meet the in-laws; in Shrek the Third, to take on adult responsibility and parenthood (Shrek has to find a new heir to the throne of Far Far Away, or he will have to succeed the king). ...

I feel like a traitor to my fellow parents for even saying this. These movies are made in part for me: a socially progressive, irony-friendly Gen Xer with rug rats. I thought Hoodwinked! and most of the Shrek series were hilarious, and God knows I don't want to go back to the days of suffering with my kids through a long, slow pour of Uncle Walt's wholesome syrup. But even if you ultimately reject their messages, old-school fairy tales are part of our cultural vocabulary. There's something a little sad about kids growing up in a culture where their fairy tales come pre-satirized, the skepticism, critique and revision having been done for them by the mama birds of Hollywood. Isn't irony supposed to derive from having something to rebel against? Isn't there a value in learning, for yourself, that life doesn't play out as simply as it does in fairy tales? Is there room for an original, nonparodic fairy story that's earnest without being cloying, that's enlightened without saying wonder is for suckers?

In fact, the strongest moments in Shrek the Third come when it steps back from the frantic pop-culture name dropping of Shrek 2 and you realize that its Grimm parodies have become fleshed-out characters in their own right. In August, Paramount releases Stardust, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel about a nerdy 19th century lad who ventures from England to a magical land to retrieve a fallen star. The live-action movie covers many of the same themes as the ubiquitous cartoon parodies--be yourself, don't trust appearances, women can be heroic too. But it creates its own fantastic settings (a seedy witches' bazaar, a sky pirate's dirigible ship). There's a kind of surprise and unembarrassed majesty that come from minting original characters and imagery rather than simply riffing on our cartoon patrimony. In the end, that's how you make magic.
All of which came to mind the other day when I added the "How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry" to my recent post, because in looking for a link I could provide with the How and Why books, I found this from an online interview with children's author Jon Scieszka (who said he "loved leafing through The Golden Book Encyclopedia and 'How and Why Wonder Books' and reading the back of cereal boxes and Mad magazine and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comic books") in Pif magazine,
[Pif]: Your new book is kind of a way to introduce readers to Aesop. What do Aesop's fables look like to the kid who's read Squids Will Be Squids first? For that matter, what do fairy tales look like after The Stinky Cheese Man? How is the ginger bread man handling all of this?

JS: Kids in general have a much more flexible intelligence than adults ever give them credit for. They may first read the Squid Fables and the Stinky Fairy Tales for pure entertainment, but when they come upon Aesop and the Grimm Brothers later, they get the connection between the old and the new. I've found that it's more the inflexible adult mind that thinks every kid has to know all of the "classic" fables and fairy tales before they can understand these new versions. But if adults were to think back on their own experience, they might remember that they first heard modern fairy tales and fables through cartoons like "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and the old Warner Bros. cartoons and Disney and advertising before they read the "classic" versions.
I tend to think the riffs make more sense with a foundation of the classics; that there's such a wealth and richness to the original fairy tales, available in infinite tellings and retellings; and that it probably wouldn't hurt kids to let them develop their own sense of irony. But then a) I'm old-fashioned and b) that's probably not news.

A brief, rather old-fashioned bibliography:

Shrek! by William Steig
Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline, a picture book retelling by Philip Pullman (yes, that Philip Pullman) and illustrated by Ian Beck
The SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages
Andrew Lang's "color" fairy books
The Jack Tales: Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians, collected and retold by Richard Chase, originally published in 1943

Poetry Friday: The Hazards of Science

From our little old copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems, collected by Eleanor Clymer and published in 1961 by Scholastic, this poem seems appropriate in light of my last couple of posts. I'm about 12 hours early because Tom is pouring more concrete for a job near here tomorrow, and I'm sure the kids and I'll be pressed into service before art lessons right after lunch.

The Hazards of Science
by Anonymous

A green little chemist
On a green little day
Mixed some green little chemicals
In a green little way.
The green little grasses
Now tenderly wave
O'er the green little chemist's
Green little grave.

May 16, 2007

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

For Daniel's eighth birthday last month, his grandfather sent him the UK edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. The book, an oversize red-covered tome, is an appealing jumble of activities and projects (make your own battery or tree house or the greatest paper plane in the world, learn basic first aid, five knots every boy should know), as well as useful knowledge -- there are chapters on grammar, some of Shakespeare's most famous quotations, Latin phrases every boy should know, and stargazing. Rather like E.D. Hirsch's "What Your 4th Grader Should Know", but in one volume with matches, alum, and copper batteries.

Snitching it from my son to read, at first I wished that the like chapters were lumped together, all the Famous Battles chapters and Extraordinary Stories (about extraordinary lives) together, and the various astronomy chapters (Astronomy, Charting the Universe, The Moon, The Solar System) together too, but then I realized I was looking at the book as a home educating adult woman in her forties, when what the average seven to 12 year-old boy (or girl -- and anyone who lets the title of a book stop her has other problems) probably wants is the surprise of discovering what's next. And that means chapters on codes and ciphers (including charts for Morse code and the NATO phonetic alphabet), making crystals, the story of Scott of the Antarctic, making a go-cart, and insects and spiders, side by side, by side by side. Enough to keep one happy on "Sunday afternoons and long summer days", as noted on the book's back cover, as well as winter days and tucked under the covers with one's torch, er, flashlight, reading about Joe Simpson's harrowing 1985 mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes with his friend Simon Yates.

The Dangerous Book reminds me a bit of an old but very useful doorstop I have on the shelf, the 1931 edition of The Volume Library: A Concise Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for Both Instruction and Reference, with sections on Education, Language & Grammar, Literature, History, Geography, Trade & Industry, The Atlas, Biographical Dictionary, Dictionary, Mathematics, Science, Hygiene, Government & Law, Fine Arts, and Useful Miscellany (which, like The Dangerous Book, includes Answers to Puzzling to Questions). More than half the fun lies in not knowing where a turn of the page will take you, and knowing that you are also certain to learn something new and fun. But dangerous only in the sense that a little learning, even about knot-making, is a dangerous thing.

Likewise, there's little dangerous or even brand-spanking new in the Igguldens' book for old-fashioned, or I suppose "retro" (sounds less conservative and more trendy, doesn't it?), families, where childhood still includes a bicycle, a patch of green to run around in, with some Latin and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have the fortitude or constitution to let the running around be fairly unfettered (that would be those of us whose kids have all needed stitches and whose idea -- the kids', that is -- of fun is leaping off stacks of big round straw bales), Dangerous is more of a remedial summer camp (and summer school) in a book, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially for those last children in the woods. Which is probably why the book has been so popular in the UK and now the US.

Daniel, always one of the first children in the woods, in the mud, and into his father's tools, reports that his new book "is good and it's fun, but it's more of a reading book than a doing book". His first choice for a "doing" book is still The American Boy's Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreward by the late Noel Perrin), which is on target with my thoughts last year.

So I was interested to learn that both Daniel and I are in complete agreement with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, who wrote last week in his post Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women): "While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn't contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest."

To remedy that, Mark suggests a list of his favorite "dangerous" books, including a couple by his friend (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle; also on the list is the Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, originally published by Popular Science Magazine in 1932, which I think is the volume still on my parents' kitchen shelf; I read it often but didn't use it much because it required so many exotic, um, ingredients. (Though Davy might find the information on how to re-ink typewriters useful.) In a similar vein is Lee's Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, which I discovered in the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue. The 1998 facsimile edition is a handy dandy size, 4-1/2" by 6" (and just under an inch thick), just right for keeping in a pocket or storing in, oh, say, a tree house, and was a bargain at under $8 Canadian; not surprisingly, the new edition comes with the following warning:
This is a reprint of a book compiled in 1895. It describes what was done and what was recommended to be done in accordance with the knowledge of the day.

On the medical side, some of the proposed remedies would not only be considered inadequate today, but would also be considered potentially harmful.


It would also be advisable to treat all corrosive, explosive, and toxic materials with greater caution than is indicated here, particularly any materials that come in contact with the body.
Not a bad idea when some of the recipes, only a few for food (ice cream, lemonade, beer, etc.), include how to make "camphorated tincture of opium" for whatever ails you, and the book has an entire section on "Fireworks and Explosives", with instructions on how to make dynamite. Dangerous doesn't begin to cover it.

What caught my eye in Mark's list of books was his mention of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, first published in 1960 by the Western Publishing Companty, in part because the kids spent the better part of the winter enjoying Golden Book's Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by W. Ben Hunt, and in part because the book is said to have influenced the Radioactive Boy Scout. Mark writes [emphasis on the third paragraph mine],
Dangerous projects [in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments] include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.

The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive ( has used copies for over $100). Of course, in today's litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued. I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$100 copy. I got lucky and found a $0 copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here's a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children's science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids' science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today's children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.
Which ties in nicely with a point Natalie Angier made last week in her CBC interview about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which I forgot to mention in my post the other day, that the worrying drop in children's scientific literacy is due in part to the idea kids have of science as dry and boring, brought home to them daily by dry and boring textbooks.

Unfortunately, BitTorrent doesn't work for those of us with Macs. I did find a free online PDF file of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments,though it's nearly useless for country bumpkins on slow dial-up; interestingly, I discovered the PDF link in this nifty post about retro science books, which also mentions Mr. Wizard's 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis (the post also laments the absence of Mr. Wizard on DVD, though the kids and I discovered recently via that Mr. Wizard is indeed available on DVD). In some brief email correspondence, Mark at Boing Boing was kind enough to mention that The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments can be had in book form from Lulu for under $30 US, which does appeal to the Luddite in me, not to mention handier for handing to your child. And spark an idea for more chemistry for school next year, especially if I remember to order the current catalogue from the homeschool-friendly Boreal Northwest lab supplies (which operates in the US as Now if only I could get Tom to build us a small lab building, separate from the house, where the kids could make messes and things could go bump (and boom) in the night.

I'll leave you with a bit of Noel Perrin's foreward to the 1983 centennial edition of American Boy's Handy Book, on the book's author, Dan Beard:
...of all the attempts to preserve wildness that he made in a long life (and he lived to be 90), the most successful was the book you are holding. It began as a series of articles for the old St. Nicholas magazine, designed to encourage city boys to recover their natural independence and self-sufficiency. It first became a book in 1882. For the next half-century it went through edition after edition, as innumerable fathers gave it to innumerable sons. Then as the new concept of boyhood gained strength, interest in the book faded, and now it has been hard to find for fifty years.

The book will be interesting to contemporary boys (and some girls, too, which would startle Mr. Beard) in two ways. First, like Huckleberry Finn -- or William Dean Howells' A Boy's Town, or Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy, or even like some TV programs on the "Little House on the Prairie" model -- it gives a picture of a kind of childhood now quite rare. Being a manual or handy-book, it gives an unusually faithful picture. Beard describes nothing that American boys weren't really doing a century ago -- in fact, nothing that it didn't seem to him almost any boy could (and would want to) do. It's like being given a glimpse of your great-grandfather's boyhood, only with none of the romantic haze the old man would cast around it, if he were alive and telling the story. Or it's like a look behind the scenes in Mark Twain. So that's how Huck and Jim cooked catfish; that's how he and Tom Sawyer must have made fire-balloons.

But the book is even more interesting as an actual manual to use right now. It is possible -- in fact, normal -- to watch "Little House" in an entirely passive mode, with no thought of clicking off the set and going out to dig a well or catch prairie dogs. It is not possible to read The American Boy's Handy Book without feeling a desire to try some of the things Beard talks about.

Parts of the book are, of course, outmoded. No one can go to the village glazier now and pick up free bits of surplus glass to use in making a home aquarium, or trot down the street to the blacksmith with directions for a couple of metal parts you want him to forge. ...

But because nature itself has changed hardly at all over the past century, however much our attitude toward it has, and because jackknives, axes, and fishhooks remain readily available, a good half of the directions are as useful today as they were in 1882. And as fascinating.
Not to mention dangerous.

If you'll excuse me now, I have to teach my six-year-old how to burn a hole in a leaf with a magnifying glass.

UPDATED to add: I forgot to mention one of our favorite out-of-print chemistry books, The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series. The books are generally paperback, large format, more than 48 pages, profusely illustrated (with maps, charts, and drawings, rather than photographs), and begin with a narrative approach followed by a question-and-answer format. The Chemistry volume covers subjects from "What Is Chemistry?" and "The Ancestors of Chemistry" to "The Language of Chemistry", "Some Interesting Elements", "Organic Chemistry", and "The Branches of Chemistry". Well worth the (Canadian) quarter I spent, considering the original price was 59 cents. We've got quite a few How and Why Wonder Books, and I've been keeping my eyes open for "The How and Why Wonder Book of Beginning Science" and "The How and Why Wonder Book of Science Experiments", among others.

May 15, 2007

New to me

Sylvia's Classical Bookworm blog, where the Sidebar Menu includes such tasty treats as "About the Great Books", "Great Books Online", "Great Publishers", "Libraries", "Reference", "Reading Guides", "Reading Groups", "Book Arts", "Illuminated Manuscripts", "Appurtenances", "Other Good Stuff", "Art", "Latin", and "Just for Fun". Worth noting that "Appurtenances" includes a link to the Antioch Bookplate Company, whose bookplates have graced my books for more than 30 years and now grace my children's.

Worth checking the archives for Sylvia's first posts from December 2004.

May 14, 2007

The beautiful basics of science

Listening to CBC radio while working in the garden last week, I heard an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which sounds very worthwhile. I take most Amazon reviews with a grain of salt, but I'm intrigued by the reviewer who called Canon "a prose-poem of science", which reminds me that the new book is also available unabridged on audio CD.

A transcript of the CBC interview isn't online, but I found this interview from yesterday's Boston Globe. From which:
IDEAS: What was your goal with "The Canon"?

ANGIER: In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand.

IDEAS: Is there any special reason why Americans are poorly educated in science?

ANGIER: Our obsession with money plays into it. I think there is some truth to David Baltimore's observation that people used to making a lot of money don't get that interested in science, science being a sort of blue-collar profession that requires a lot of hands-on work and that is probably not going to make you rich.

May 10, 2007

Found in the garden this morning

Happily and busily planting, transplanting, and moving things around in the flower garden early today, I came across this

which on closer inspection

proved to be a robin's egg. But why the female robin chose to lay it out in the open, with no nest in sight and far from any trees or shrubs, is a mystery. The grass at left was provided by me, and after taking pictures I recovered the egg to protect it from marauding magpies.

May 06, 2007

Thought of the day

If we shouldn't depend on our husbands financially, should we then expect them to fight our battles for us?

Just wondering.

Wired world of education

From yesterday's New York Times, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops", (or get past free registration with Bug Me Not):
The students at Liverpool [NY] High have used their school-issued laptops to exchange answers on tests, download pornography and hack into local businesses. When the school tightened its network security, a 10th grader not only found a way around it but also posted step-by-step instructions on the Web for others to follow (which they did).

Scores of the leased laptops break down each month, and every other morning, when the entire school has study hall, the network inevitably freezes because of the sheer number of students roaming the Internet instead of getting help from teachers.

So the Liverpool Central School District, just outside Syracuse, has decided to phase out laptops starting this fall, joining a handful of other schools around the country that adopted one-to-one computing programs and are now abandoning them as educationally empty — and worse.

Many of these districts had sought to prepare their students for a technology-driven world and close the so-called digital divide between students who had computers at home and those who did not.

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

Liverpool’s turnabout comes as more and more school districts nationwide continue to bring laptops into the classroom. Federal education officials do not keep track of how many schools have such programs, but two educational consultants, Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group, conducted a study of the nation’s 2,500 largest school districts last year and found that a quarter of the 1,000 respondents already had one-to-one computing, and fully half expected to by 2011.

Yet school officials here and in several other places said laptops had been abused by students, did not fit into lesson plans, and showed little, if any, measurable effect on grades and test scores at a time of increased pressure to meet state standards. Districts have dropped laptop programs after resistance from teachers, logistical and technical problems, and escalating maintenance costs.

Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not. ...

In the school library [at Liverpool], an 11th-grade history class was working on research papers. Many carried laptops in their hands or in backpacks even as their teacher, Tom McCarthy, encouraged them not to overlook books, newspapers and academic journals.

“The art of thinking is being lost,” he said. “Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.”
From Ireland, via Reuters, the other week:
The rising popularity of text messaging on mobile phones poses a threat to writing standards among Irish schoolchildren, an education commission says.

The frequency of errors in grammar and punctuation has become a serious concern, the State Examination Commission said in a report after reviewing last year's exam performance by 15-year-olds.

"The emergence of the mobile phone and the rise of text messaging as a popular means of communication would appear to have impacted on standards of writing as evidenced in the responses of candidates," the report said, according to Wednesday's Irish Times. "Text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing."
The report laments that, in many cases, candidates seemed "unduly reliant on short sentences, simple tenses and a limited vocabulary".

In 2003, Irish 15-year-olds were among the top 10 performers in an international league table of literacy standards compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
And in related news, "Teen pockets $25,000 in texting contest", and plans to spend her winnings on...not books.

May 04, 2007

A new point on the reading compass

"Books are like neighbors, and your personal library is your neighborhood. Take a look at your bookshelves. What kind of neighborhood are you living in? Are you in a slum or in the suburbs? Who are your neighbors? Are they trash talkers or shrewd sages? If you live next door to Socrates, then invite him to dinner every night. If you live next to Dan Brown, then put your house on the market. ...

A book is a friend who's always ready with a story or some advice. And if your friend is named Tolstoy or Shakespeare, then the stories are going to be transforming as well as entertaining. If your friend is named Plato or Aquinas, then the advice is liable to be life-changing."
from ROMAN Reading by Nick Senger
The other day, someone in one of my Well-Trained online groups forwarded a link for a new, free eBook on reading and literature, ROMAN Reading: 5 Practical Skills for Transforming Your Life through Literature (see this post too for additional download information) by Nick Senger, a reader of great literature and eighth grade teacher, who blogs at Literary Compass ("Reading the Great Books from a Catholic Point of View") and at now at RomanReading.

The ROMAN in the title, aside from a reference to faith, stands for Read, Outline, Mark, Ask, Name (no mention of religion in the text, by the way); as Mr. Senger writes, "With these five skills you can read any book, no matter how difficult", which would seem to make the brief book (73 pages, and short ones at that) a useful guide for those just beginning their literary careers. I think Laura, who'll be starting fifth grade in the fall, would be able to digest most of the information well, and the ideas in the book would certainly give her something to think about as she moves from the grammar stage to the logic stage, and as the focus in some of her reading -- no longer just for pleasure or for information -- begins to change.

An online friend with whom I'm supposed to be having a conversation about Great Books, and I would if only milkmen and matchmakers left me alone and the washing machine's spin cycle would reappear as dramatically as it disappeared, calls ROMAN Reading "a simpler and more contemporary version of [Mortimer] Adler's How to Read a Book", which strikes me as bang on. Not only will How to Read a Book make more sense in a few years, and possibly be less head-bangingly difficult, but you can probably avoid the need for How to Read 'How to Read a Book' if your kids start off their middle school years with ROMAN Reading. My only quibble so far is Mr. Senger's preference for taking notes in books with green pen; I like pencil better, and can still read my old college notes from 25 years ago. You can't go wrong with a Mirado Classic Black/HB 2.

Also worthwhile at Literary Compass, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike:

101 Essential Web Sites for Readers of Literature

Nick's Great Books reading list (which is also an appendix to the eBook): Introduction, and Parts I and II

Nick Senger's motive for sharing the book for free is is mission to change
lives one page at a time. I want to make the world a more literate place, a place where people think for themselves, learn about their world, and share their ideas with each other.

A literate world is a world of peace, tolerance and vision. We've got our work cut out for us.
A most worthy mission. Many thanks.

Poetry Friday: In Pursuit of Spring Early One Morning in May, with Edward Thomas

I first discovered the poems of Edward Thomas (1878-1917) as a child in my now out of print copy of All Day Long: An Anthology of Poetry for Children, compiled by Pamela Whitlock (Oxford University). Thmas wrote beautifully of the English countryside and the seasons. Later, in high school, I learned that he was also one of the World War I poets. And several years ago, I came across some of his prose at the library, a wonderful discovery. Equally wonderful, the discovery the other day of the website of the Edward Thomas Fellowship and also this page from the terrific Counter-Attack website of World War I literature, the result of a great deal of hard work from kidlitosphere friend Michele at Scholar's Blog.

From Thomas's biography page at the Fellowship website:
Edward Thomas was known during his lifetime as a critic, essayist and writer of books about the countryside. Born in London, his happiest days as a youth were spent either wandering over the commons of South London or with relatives in the countryside near Swindon. Wiltshire was to remain his favourite county.

As a schoolboy, Thomas was encouraged to write by James Ashcroft Noble, who had recognised the boy's talent and was himself a distinguished man of letters and a neighbour. At Noble's home, Thomas met and fell in love with Helen Noble, whom he subsequently married while still an undergraduate at Oxford University. After gaining a second-class degree in History, he decided to pursue a career as a writer, having been encouraged by the publication of some nature essays and especially his first book, The Woodland Life, while he was still a student [1897].

That decision, opposed by his father, led to years of poorly paid prose writing, both books and journalism. Life was a struggle for Helen, the three children and himself. Undoubtedly, this contributed to sporadic depressive illness. Nevertheless, his prose work established him amongst the foremost critics of the day.

He was moving towards the writing of poetry when, in 1913, he met and became close friends with the American poet Robert Frost, who further encouraged him to write verse, which he commenced in December 1914. Into the next two years, he crammed all his verse writing. Before he saw his poetry in print under his own name, he was killed at the Battle of Arras on Easter Day 1917. Since then, Thomas's reputation as a poet has increased greatly and, perhaps as important, his posthumous influence on the development of English verse has been crucial. Poets as diverse as WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Derek Walcott have acknowledged their debt to him.
Other friends and poets in Thomas's circle include Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon, who wrote Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, about his life and their friendship. The Fellowship website also includes a rich page of links, a page of selections from Thomas's prose, and poetry.

I was going to put up just Thomas's Sowing for today, but as I was reading through some of his other poems, I realized how many are about spring in general, and May in particular, so I decided to include a few others. That despite the fact that it's been pouring rain for two straight days and feels more like April than May, though the weather is great for the new pavement rose I planted yesterday morning.

by Edward Thomas (1898-1917)

It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl's chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;
Nothing undone
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying good-night.

But These Things Also
by Edward Thomas

But these things also are Spring's --
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was;

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small bird's dung
In splashes of purest white:

All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets
Who seeks through Winter's ruins
Something to pay Winter's debts,

While the North blows, and starling flocks
By chattering on and on
Keep their spirits up in the mist,
And Spring's here, Winter's not gone.

Early One Morning
by Edward Thomas

Early one morning in May I set out,
And nobody I knew was about.
I'm bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

There was no wind to trouble the weathercocks.
I had burnt my letters and darned my socks.

No one knew I was going away,
I thought myself I should come back some day.

I heard the brook through the town gardens run.
O sweet was the mud turned to dust by the sun.

A gate banged in a fence and banged in my head.
'A fine morning, sir', a shepherd said.

I could not return from my liberty,
To my youth and my love and my misery.

The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.
I'm bound away for ever,
Away somewhere, away for ever.

How at Once
by Edward Thomas

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year --
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.


Kelly at Big A little a has the round-up here. Thanks, Kelly!