Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Get Yourself Checked

This week may sound a little depressing, but we're all about cancer.  We're reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies.  The book is called the biography of cancer, so one could safely assume that it's not the most uplifting book you've probably ever read in your life.

And while I usually reserve Tuesdays for something fun or something informative, recent events in my life have left me to use this day to make it a little more informative and public service announcement....ish.

Get regular screenings for cancer.  If you're a woman you should be getting mamograms, if you're a man, get regular check ups for testicular and prostate cancer.  Make sure you're telling your doctor about unusual symptoms that you have.

If your arm shakes uncontrolably one day, you might be tired.  If it does it on a lot of different days, it might be a sign of something bigger.  Unusual vison problems?  Something else you should clue your doctor in about.

I'm not telling you to be paranoid (and I am also not a doctor so please do not take any of this as law.  These are all just friendly suggestions that are probably a good idea), but regular check ups and yearly physicals aren't something to be blown off.  They can help doctors discover things you may not have known about otherwise.  Get that pap smear that you hate.  It turns out it may just help prevent cervical cancer.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Review Me Twice - A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar

We always like to be brutally honest with our reviews here on Review Me Twice so here it is: I didn't finish the book.  Which is really telling unto itself because I think this is now a grand total of two books that I haven't finished in time on this blog, and the first one I had already read, I was just rereading to refresh me memory.

It's not that this book was bad or wasn't informative or even interesting.  It's just that it's not interesting enough to keep me interested.  It seemed like everything else was more interesting: My FFX game, my TV show, other books.  Things that don't usually distract me were constantly distracting me.  I just couldn't seem to buckle down and finish this one on time.

So it's definitely not one to read in a pinch.  A very meandering read, meant to be put down and picked back up and inturrupted, but definitely finished.  Just at its own pace.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

John Forbes Nash Jr.

Our book this week is a biography about John Forbes Nash Jr.  I don't want to get into it too much, because, well, the idea is that you'll go read the biography and learn more about him.

However, whenever I read a biography, I personally at least like to have a little information about the person that I'm about to read about.  Kind of like a preview, or a warning.  It's like knowing what I'm going to be getting myself into.

Nash was a brilliant mathematician, and he showed his intelligence at a
young age.  He was only 22 when he got his PhD at Princeton, a dissertation on Game Theory that, eventually, won him a Nobel prize.  He did revolutionary work on manifold also, along with Game theory.

Eventually, Nash fell descended into extreme schizophrenia.  For years he succumbed to the mental illness, wandering the halls of Princeton Mathematics department.  It wasn't until the early 90s that he began to recover from his delusions, he says because of the environment that he was in as opposed to a regiment of drugs (which he had stopped taking).

It was in 1994 that he received the Nobel prize for his work on Game Theory.  It was a big deal not just because he was being recognized for his work, but because he had made such an amazing recovery out of the depths of fully onset schizophrenia.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Author Bio - Sylvia Nasar

Sylvia Nasar is our author this week, a journalist born in Germany, but whose family immigrated to the US in the 1950s.  She also lived in Turkey for awhile before going to school at Antioch College in Ohio and then getting her Masters at NYU.

In the 1980s, she joined Fortune magazine as a staff writer.  During the 1990s, she was also an economic correspondent for the New York Times.  She became a  John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia University, but it has since filed a lawsuit saying that the university has misdirected the funds from the endowment that are supposed to pay her salary.

She is the author of A Beautiful Mind, the biography on the Nobel Prize winning mathematician, John Nash. In 2001, a movie was made based on her novel starring Russell Crowe.  The book was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1998.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Review Me Twice - What If? by Randall Munroe

Alex picked the book this week but in all honesty, I probably would have picked it up sooner rather than later.  It's been flying off the shelves at my job and has had tantalizing pictures luring me into its pages.

This book is, in the truest sense of the word, a coffee table book.  You can stick it on your coffee table or a side table and people can pick it up and read snippets of it, and then put it back down.  It's fun and it's funny and it's informative and it's a conversation piece all in one.  Considering it's a book about stick figure web comics and science, that's REALLY hard to do.

But Munroe keeps you interested and engaged and amused and not to mention makes you a little smarter by the end of the day.  Everyone should go out and buy this book.  That's right, I said BUY it.  I mean, ok, you should read it to, but go buy yourself a copy.  You'll be really happy you did.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Too Much Time on Their Hands"

You've heard this phrase before, or maybe even used it yourself, to refer to a project that is seemingly useless and time-consuming. I hate this phrase.

One of my hobbies is cross-stitching. It is an impractical thing to do. I spend hours and hours fiddling with a little needle and tangly thread to make images out of little colored Xs. What a waste of time, right?

You could say the same thing of any work of fiction every written (though satires might get a pass for being not-really-fiction-because-they're-actually-ABOUT-real-things-but-only-in-a-roundabout-way), every work of art ever created... if you take away the "useless" and "impractical" things that were only created because "someone had too much time on their hands," you have a really boring world that belongs in some sort of horrible dystopia in one of those novels that would no longer exist.

So yes, a lot of weird, silly, impractical things exist in the world. Sometimes people spend hours, days, weeks, years, decades creating these things. And while you may not see their value, there is someone who does, even if it's sometimes only the person who created it.

What does this have to do with this week? Well, the same kind of people who would use that phrase would probably think that Randall Munroe "thought too hard" about these hypothetical questions. But even if there were no practical value to his thought processes and answers (but there totally is, because I learned a lot from this book) it's entertaining. He enjoys writing it, I enjoy reading it... there's at least two people in the world who got something out of it. And I say that's enough of a reason to do anything.

Even making little Xs in fabric for hours and hours.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Favorite xkcd Comic

Since we're reading What If? this week, authored by Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd, what better favorite for the week than to share our favorite from his strip?

It just makes me giggle every time, because an argument about the word literally and its usage is completely something I'd get into.  (My vendetta is actually the phrase "same difference."  If it's the same, it can't be different.)  I just like the poignant, 'IT DOESN'T MATTER' message going on.  Even the ghost is over it.

Cat Proximity
I love a good graph-based joke. I also love cats. This is the perfect comic for me. Because of this comic, which I read years before I got my cat Gimli, I often greet him with "You're a kitty!" A mark of great writing (regardless of medium) is that it sticks with you in everyday life, and this really did.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Local Authors

Local authors can be really cool things because, well, they're people you recognize and support your community and basically you're really proud of them for being published.

What's more, a lot of local authors can actually be WAY more famous than you think that they are.  Our author this week, Randall Munroe, is actually a local author for Alex and I.  He went to college with both of us, and Alex actually knew him (he was the roommate of a boyfriend of one of our friends.)  Though he no longer lives in the area, Christopher Newport is where he got his start.

David Baldacci has written a ton of books that pretty much always land on the NYTimes best seller list.  He writes about a book a year and he lives in Northern, VA!  Which is why, every time he has a new book out, my Barnes & Noble is the first stop on his signing tour!  He's been in the store a bunch of times and is very active in the community.

Kwame Alexander is a local author.  Who is Kwame Alexander you might ask?  Well, he is this year's Newbery Award winner!  And he lives just a hop skip and a jump away from the Barnes & Noble store.  The name of his book is The Crossover, a basketball book written in verse.  He is currently residing in the Reston, VA area.

Who are some local authors in your area?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Author Bio: Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe's self portrait

Randall Munroe is the creator of the popular webcomic xkcd (no, you don't pronounce that, you spell it). It's simple in that it is typically comprised of stick figures, and complex in that it is usually about advanced sciences.

Personally, my favorite fact about this week's author is that Cassy and I went to the same college as him at the same time as him. One of my roommates dated one of his roommates, so I have that weirdly specific and totally tenuous connection to him. (Actually, when we met him at New York Comic Con last October, he remembered her after we reminded him of that fact, albeit a little vaguely. Either that or he's great at faking memory and very polite.)

He wrote What If? (and was interviewed by Stephen Colbert about it shortly before "The Colbert Report" ended) and it is something very unique. You'll hear more about it when we review it, but he took crazy questions from xkcd readers and answered them with a heaping pile of science, peppered with his style of illustrations. I can't wait to tell you more about it on Friday!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Review Me Twice - Gulp by Mary Roach

Ok, so here is the thing about this book.  I really like Mary Roach.  I liked this book.  It was interesting and informative and it wasn't super boring.  Roach gets REALLY interested in whatever it is she's researching, and she always researches the things that no one really thinks about.  She researches and talks about the things that kind of gross people out.  Stiff was all about cadavers and how we die and what happens to our bodies.

Gulp is along the same squicky vein.  It starts out innocently enough:  it's all about taste buds and what we eat and why we eat it and where it goes and what we taste when we eat it and the nutrients we get in our mouths and what our teeth do, not to mention, she always finds the coolest stories about it.  I mean, some of the medical things that are going on are just awesome.

That being said, three fourths of this book are about poop and your butt.  I mean, I learned more about the colon than I honestly probably ever needed, or wanted to know about.  Not to say it wasn't interesting (apparently, Elvis died due to an over-sized colon and his own waste product finally exploding within him and killing him.  Not the the drug overdose as is believed), but let's face it.  It's a lot of a book about poop.

So if you don't really want to read about how we poop and how our bodies make waste... then this might not be the book for you.

I loved this book! The focus on poop and whatnot didn't really bother me, because I help my husband study for med school all the time.

My favorite parts were the chapters about taste, and how it relates to culture and personal preference and how all of that works. And, of course, every time Mary Roach said something funny, which was really often. This was a really funny book and, at the same time, a really informative one. I had a great time reading it and I'm so glad Cassy suggested it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

RIP Terry Pratchett

It was just a moment ago announced via Terry Pratchett's Facebook page that he has passed away. I know this is completely off-topic for this week, but he is a great author that we haven't really addressed here on the blog, and I thought his passing merited a little attention (especially since I had not yet written my post for today).

He wrote the Discworld series, which is enormous and daunting and someday I'm going to spend a whole year reading it. (There are, as of right now, based on my understanding, 40 novels (with one that is intended to be published this summer/fall), plus a whirlwind of additional material, including short stories, maps, science books (explaining the way science works in the novels), diaries, etc. He also co-authored one of my favorite books with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

A little over 7 years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's. He continued writing all this time, using a speech-recognition software and sometimes dictating to his assistant. His cause of death was complications from Alzheimer's.

He will be sorely missed, and even though we have almost the entire year of 2015 planned out on this blog, I'm going to find a place to put one of his books for us to review.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Favorite Gross Book

I really like Scott Sigler.  He writes some awesome alien books, let me tell you, and the Infected series is awesome.

However, it is not for the feint of heart.  Sigler... as much as I like the man and his writing, I kind of feel like he's gross for the sake of being gross sometimes.  Sometimes not, and I will conceded that there is a point to the gross in the first one.  Our main character, Perry Dawsey, basically has an inferiority complex and feels that he can't show any weakness ever, so he doesn't do things like go to the doctor when little blue triangles show up on his skin and start talking to him.

Instead he rips them out of his own body by doing things like like burning his own arm on his stove.  You heard me.  He slams his arm down on a scalding hot stove burner, then grabs the head of the alien and RIPS it out of his body (by the way, this aliens embed themselves into your body and use hooks to stay there.  And he just ripped it out.)

The story line is amazing, and the concept great, but you really can not read this if you don't do well with gross things, and even if you do, I wouldn't recommend reading it on your lunch break.

When I tried to think of a "gross" book that I like, the first thing I thought of is that I love a good gory scene. So I redefined "gross book" to "gory book" in my head and had a lot of books to pick from. As we've discussed before, I had a pretty decent Stephen King phase (and there's all sorts of gore in Desperation, The Regulators, The Long Walk... the list goes on) plus there's quite a bit of gore in some of my favorite YA books like Ashes and parts of Unwind, and books like World War Z and I Am Legend. But I had to go with The Running Man for one simple reason. Have you ever thought about what it would feel like to hold your own intestines in your hands? Neither had I, until I read this book. And say whatever you want about Stephen King and his writing, but the scene I'm talking about is incredible. It's desperate, it's heart-breaking, and it's sick... and I love it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Let's Learn A Little Anatomy

This week, we're reading Gulp by Mary Roach.  And while we do want you to go read the book and learn all about the digestive system, I'm thinking just a little bit of background might be for the best in this case.

Do you remember that song about the bones you learned as a kid?  You know, "the toe bones connected to the foot bone."  No?  Well, here's a little reminder.

The digestive systems is kind of the same way.  Your mouth is connected to your throat, which is connected to your stomach, on to your small intestines, large intestines, down to the colon where it all comes out.

Now, of course, it gets a lot more complicated.  There are nutrients being pulled out along the way so that your body can power itself and the food is being broken down so that you can push it out the other side.  You also have tons of taste buds so that you put something in your mouth to begin with.  If food was nasty, we wouldn't really want to nourish ourselves.

So why is our digestive system to important that Roach felt the need to write a whole book on it?  Well, we started out as the digestive system.  We started eating and wasting before we started walking and talking as a species.  Evolution decided that if we were going to be eating, we should have a way to go find that food.

So brush up a bit on your digestive system before diving into our book this week.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Author Bio - Mary Roach

Reading about Mary Roach's life, I basically just want to be her.  She grew up in New Hampshire, and eventually, she ended up working for the Zoological Society in San Francisco, writing press releases.  It's really what got her interested in the science portion of her life.

From 1996 - 2005 she worked for "The Grotto", a community and project of writers and filmmakers.  It was them who inevitably pushed her to writer her first book, Stiff.

Roach has done everything from travel to Antarctica, to taste test food, to have sex in an MRI machine while researching her books.  Her travels have taken her far and wide, exposing her to all sorts of interesting people and places.  Often, then need volunteers for their studies and Roach is quick to do so.

She says she never set out to write science books, but when she had to cover stories, the science ones were always the most interesting.

Roach is currently living in Oakland, CA with her husband.  She also has two step-daughters.  You can find all of the information you need about her and her books at her website.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review Me Twice - A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

I was actually glad that Alex picked this book.  It was a short book, so I figured I'd get through it pretty quickly, I like stars and space and astronomy, so I figured I would enjoy it, and Stephen Hawking is supposed to be pretty funny, so I thought that would translate into the book.

None of these things happened.  Yes, it was a short book, but it was so dry, that it took me way longer than it should have to finish.  I do like astronomy, but the book was filled with a lot of technical jargon, making it hard to follow.  That's not to say that I didn't learn ANYTHING from the book, I did, but it was really hard to follow SO MUCH of this book, and if you didn't understand what he was talking about, he referenced back to things a lot later in the book.  I often found him referencing things I hadn't understood earlier in the book to explain things later in the book, making me then not understand them because I had grasped the earlier concept.

He also didn't let his supposed humor really show through in this book.  I felt like it was filled with hubris more than anything else.  A Brief History of Time is supposed to be the common man's version of physics, the stupid man's physics if you will, and I had a really hard time grasping some of it, which makes me wonder what the smart version is like.

This is a book that you need to read two or three times to really get a firm grasp of what he's trying to tell you, but it's such a dense book, I'm not sure I could get through it again.

I started off really liking this book. I thought it was pretty funny, in the way British humor (which I love) is funny. Later on, it got a little denser, like Cassy said, but I still enjoyed it. It's not something I would pick up for fun usually, or read over and over, but it was still interesting.

I definitely learned things, but there were also things that went over my head, which I fully expected. It was easy to start, harder to finish, but interesting all around. I'm glad I finally read it (it has been on my "someday" list for a few years). If you like physics/cosmology, but aren't a physicist/cosmologist, I would highly recommend this book.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Science Is Important

I'm pretty sure I've said this on the blog before, but I'm not a big fan of kids. No offense, kids, I'm just not good at interacting with kids. But you know what I really love about kids? Their curiosity.

I wasn't the type of kid to question everything outwardly, but a lot of kids want to know everything about everything. And that's awesome. It can be annoying when you're the adult fielding all their seemingly stupid questions, but it's really important to be patient with kids' questions about the world around them. If you dismiss their questions with "because that's the way it is" all the time, they lose interest in what things are, how they work, and why things happen. And that's science.

Science is why we have medicine, and technology, and all sorts of other awesome things. If we don't have kids who are curious about the world, curious enough to explore it and try to figure out the answers to some of the bigger questions they have about it, we won't have progress.

People like Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye work hard to share their love of science with non-scientists in an attempt to (1) groom new generations of scientists, and (2) foster a hobbyist's interest in science among non-scientists so that we recognize how important science is and appreciate it for how awesome it is.

So I hope you're excited to celebrate science with us this month!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Favorite Non-Fiction book

We've read a surprising amount of non-fiction on this blog, and I've ended up liking a lot of it.  And science we just talked about our favorite since book, we're talking about our favorite non-fiction book this week.

I don't think I have ever talked about this book on this blog before, which is a tragedy, because it's actually an amazing book.  Stepakoff is a writer for a ton of Hollywood shows, most notably, Dawson's Creek.  Basically, it was his idea to have Joey and Dawson kiss (at least... I think that's the kiss that saved the show.  It might I have been Joey and Pacey now that I think about it.  It's been awhile since I've read the book and I never watched the show.)  Anyway, the point is, he talks about all the things that go on in a TV show writing room, how intense writing for a show can be, and really is just open an honest about the industry.

It's a FUNNY book too.  You so rarely find funny and insightful memoirs these days, and I really felt like his was.  I didn't feel like he was trying to preach anything to me or make me think anything.  He was just telling me about his life, about his experiences.

The best part was is that I picked this book up on a whim at a discount book sale.  I think I paid a big old $2 for a hardback copy.  What's more, when I read it, and LOVED it, I went back to the book sale months later and bought another copy for Alex.

Outside of children's non-fiction and elementary and middle school textbooks, this may well have been the first non-fiction book I read cover to cover. It was assigned in my eighth grade English class and it was one of those instances where we were told to read, say, Chapters 1-3, before next class, and I read the whole book in two days.
This was the book that taught me that I like to be horrified by books. I don't, by any means, think the Holocaust is there for my entertainment, but I appreciate the way Elie Wiesel conveys the horrible things that happened in his life through the written word. I feel more connected to the events than I do when I read, for instance, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl.
I learned a lot from this book, and it sparked my interest in Holocaust and WWII autobiographies and memoirs. I might never have picked up Maus if I didn't peruse the WWII section of the public library's non-fiction collection every once in a while, hoping to find another autobiography on par with this one.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Speed Reading

If you haven't already guessed, Alex and I don't fall desperately in love with every book we read on this blog.  In fact, for me personally, I'd say that I fall in love with about 10%, hate about 10% and the other 80% fall on a scale somewhere between "pretty good but probably won't read again" to "Well, it's not as bad as Twilight."

For those books that fall on the lower half of that scale, and for the books I just down right end up hating (I'm looking at you, Wuthering Heights), I speed read.

Really, Speed reading is about the easiest skill you can learn.  What slows you down when you read is that your eyes keep popping backwards, forwards and even to the lines above and below the line that you're trying to read.  Speed reading just stops your eyes from moving around and forces them to focus only on the words you want to read.

When you're first learning to do this, the best way is to take indez cards and cover up the lines above, below and around where you're trying to read, only letting a few words be visible.  As you get faster and more comfortable with this, eventually, you won't even need the index cards.  All you'll need is your finger.  Your eyes will continually focus on your moving finger, forcing your eyes onto the words they should be focusing on.  You'll read things quicker and absorb them faster then you would otherwise.

So next time you're trying to plow your way through something a little dull, see if speed reading it works for you.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Author Bio: Stephen Hawking

I sincerely hope that you have at least a vague idea of who Stephen Hawking is. He's kind of a big deal.

At the most basic, he's a scientist. To be a little more specific, he's a theoretical physicist and a cosmologist. So he's a space scientist. I could list a bunch of scientific things he's discovered or created or sorted out, but are you going to read the whole list? And if you did, would you understand half of it? And if you could understand it, don't you think you probably already know quite a bit about the man who did it all? Yeah, that's what I thought. So let's list a bunch of other accomplishments and fun facts instead...

He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor.

This week's review book, A Brief History of Time, stayed on the British Sunday Times best-seller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks. A more timely fact here is that Leonard Nimoy (RIP) found out at the release party for the home video version of Brief History of Time that Hawking wanted to appear on Star Trek, and Nimoy made it happen.

Speaking about his acting, he has done a fair amount of it. He had cartoon appearances on The Simpsons and Futurama, and has appeared in person on Star Trek: TNG and The Big Bang Theory, among many other shows.

If you're curious about that machine that allows him to speak, it is operated by a single cheek muscle. He has a rare form of ALS.

He has co-written (with his daughter Lucy) three children's books, starting with 2007's George's Secret Key to the Universe.

And with that, this great scientist and great many-other-things will kick off our month of scientific non-fiction!