Monday, December 27, 2010

College Information

Recently I got two emails from webmasters telling me about their sites. I've looked them over, and they do seem useful. Check them out for yourself.

The first one is Zen College Life. Right on the front page you can search for programs, see a list of top-ranked schools by subject, and browse colleges by state. They have basic career guides for a wide range of jobs, reviews of a select list of schools, and some grant information. The focus seems to be online programs.

The second website is Masters in Education. It's a comprehensive list of colleges and universities that have M.Ed. programs, either online or at physical locations. Use the links provided to request information directly from each school. The bottom of the front page has a list by state.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book Review - "The Last Page" by Anthony Huso

The Last Page is a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction. You have magic and a secret book on one hand, and zeppelins and something approaching electricity on the other. Author Anthony Huso is also a video game designer, and his vivid imagination translates well from computer screen to printed page.

Caliph Howl is in college when he meets Sena, a beguiling woman who seduces him...or is it something more? She graduates before him, and they lose touch for a while. Then he graduates and becomes High King. Immediately Isca plunges into civil war with Caliph doing everything he can to keep his country intact.

Sena reappears, having found the Cisrym Ta, the book she's been hunting for all during her college years. Its lock is held with a powerful spell, and she must decide how desperately she wants to open it. Once she does, who knows what horrible, wonderful things will be released?

There is some court intrigue in The Last Page and several horrid, filthy beasts, which make for a few suspenseful scenes, but I was not necessarily on the edge of my seat the whole time. Rather, it was the overwhelming odds against Caliph and Sena that kept me turning the pages. Life in this book is dirty, messy, and very bloody. Huso writes of war, betrayal, murder, and sex. He has created a lavishly detailed history in the style of high fantasy, but there is plenty to satisfy sci fi fans as well with his chemiostatic swords and a system of magic that involves numbers and equations. The magic is not explained well, but the results of equations cast are fascinating.

No matter where you fall on the fantasy/sci fi spectrum, give this one a chance. Even if you don't necessarily like either of those genres, if you like clever wordplay, you might enjoy The Last Page. Huso likes to turn nouns into verbs and use them in unexpected ways. He also has an unfortunate tendency to write in sentence fragments, which makes for a disrupting reading experience, but hopefully you can soon adjust to his cadence and not get jolted out of the story. Also, don't be afraid of the huge words. I couldn't tell if Huso has a really big vocabulary or if he just likes being a wordsmith, but in either case a high level of intelligence is quite evident.

Overall, The Last Page is an interesting read.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2010 Census

The first part of the 2010 census was released today. Check out the website: 2010 Census. Data for individual locations is not yet available, but state populations are. The Census Bureau has to publish this information by December 31 so Congress knows how to apportion its seats in the House of Representatives. Click the Data tab and check out the map to see whether your state has gained or lost any seats.

For what it's worth the US has officially reached 300,000,000 residents.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Opt Out from Prescreened Credit Offers

The other day I came across another website where you can enter your name and address and get off mailing lists for prescreened credit offers. It's another way to protect your credit and lessen your paper trail and junk mail.

The website is It's a secure site run by the credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, Innovis, and TransUnion) and gives consumers the choice of whether they want their information made available to credit card and insurance companies. You can opt in, opt out for five years, or opt out permanently. No matter what you decide, you can later go back to the site and change your mind.

Check out their About Us page for more information and their list of Frequently Asked Questions.

Don't forget that you should also check your credit report annually from the only official website approved by the major credit reporting companies,

Monday, December 13, 2010

Twitter's Year in Review

Twitter's lists of popular topics is being released in installments. So far they have Who's New and Top Trends.

Who's New includes famous people who joined Twitter in the last year. Check out the feeds for Conan O'Brien, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, Tinkerbell, and Victoria Beckham.

Top Trends is broken into categories, with hashtags having a category of their own. Perhaps the average age of Twitter users accounts for the fact that Prince William's engagement and Kate Middleton have risen so quickly onto the top ten lists, since that news just broke a couple of weeks ago.

Twitter is planning three more lists, so check back to find out what they are.

Google's Search Zeitgeist 2010

Google has released its Zeitgeist 2010. It's not exactly a list of the most popular searches, but rather it's the fastest rising topics. Things that captured people's interest during this past year include Chatroulette, Justin Bieber, the World Cup, Nicki Minaj (who?), the ash cloud over Iceland, and the iPad. Yes, Kim Kardashian is on the list of fastest rising people.

The health concerns are interesting: McDonald's nutrition, Asperger's, vitamin D deficiency, whooping cough. People must be paying attention to the news and their own health. Maybe finding out the nutrition value--or lack thereof--in McDonald's food will help with the obesity epidemic in the Unites States. Okay, maybe not.

Compare this zeitgeist with Yahoo's searches and with Bing's.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review - "The Confession" by John Grisham

John Grisham's newest book, The Confession, is good but not as good as his earliest ones. It feels more like an extended outline than a fleshed-out narrative. However, if you like page-turners this might work.

There are a couple of confessions in play. Nine years ago, Donte Drumm was coerced into a confession by a cop just doing his job. By answering leading questions, he confessed that he kidnapped, raped, and murdered a high school classmate named Nicole. Oh yeah, Donte is black and the victim was white.

The book opens with another confession. Travis Boyette walks into Reverend Keith Schroeder's office and after some beating around the bush, admits that he actually killed Nicole. He's feeling guilty because Donte's execution is days away and because he himself is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor that could kill him in a matter of weeks. Therefore, he has little to lose by going public since he probably won't be alive by the time the wheels of justice turn in his direction. In light of this startling information, what can Keith do to make sure Texas doesn't execute the wrong man?

On the face, this is a compelling story. There's the race against time: Keith and Boyette are in Kansas, about a twelve-hour drive from the town in Texas where Donte is from. Can the two of them get there in time, and can they then convince anyone that Boyette is really Nicole's murderer? Can Donte's lawyer Robbie Flak file his petitions in time to stop the execution? There's the decisions that Keith must constantly make in determining just how far he will go to help Boyette, a convicted sex offender in four states. There's the possibility of race riots in Donte's town if the execution goes through. Grisham knows how to build suspense and keep the reader engaged. However, his storytelling ability seems to have gotten lost.

Grisham has concocted a dilemma for his characters which will keep the reader interested, but he relies on telling the story and not showing it. We get a lot of up-front descriptions of characters instead of dropping details as the story unfolds. He puts in some details that bring his locations to life but not as many as in his first books. Reading The Confession feels a bit like he made things up as he went and didn't spend much time planning how to craft his tale. He's also heavy-handed on the anti-death penalty idea. Authors writing out of their own beliefs is nothing new, but this time the author beats his readers over the head.

About halfway through I was moved to get out my paperback copy of A Time to Kill, Grisham's first novel and one of my all-time favorites. I've felt for a while now that he's lost his touch in his quest to churn out as many books as possible, and I wanted to know if his early ones were as good as I remembered. I'm only chapters in, but already the quality of writing is different. Sure, A Time to Kill is a bit rough (even now Grisham has a rather jarring tendency to abruptly shift viewpoints, something a good editor should be able to point out), but the time he spent in shaping his story is evident. We get background information when necessary, details are doled out through the action and narrative, and it feels like he planned his story in advance. By contrast, The Confession seems slapped together like maybe Grisham was hoping the high suspense would keep the reader from noticing the lack of a good yarn.

Grisham fans wanting to read a story akin to the early ones that made them fall in love with the author will be disappointed. His previous book, The Associate, had been heading in the right direction, but with this latest one he has gone off track again. Let's hope he finds his way before writing whatever comes next.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Santa's Coming!

Christmas is less than three weeks away, and Santa is preparing for his journey around the world, delivering gifts to the good girls and boys on the night of December 24. You can track his sleigh and reindeer online at

Right now there is just a countdown, but on December 24 you can track his path online or on your mobile phone. Here's what NORAD partner Google says:

Starting at 2 a.m. EST on December 24, you’ll be able to track him in real-time on Google Maps from your computer or phone as well as on Google Earth with the plug-in by searching for [santa].
In the meantime, you can play games and watch videos.

Have fun!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yahoo's Top Searches of 2010

Yahoo has released its list of top searches for 2010. It has a separate list for mobile searches. (There's a neat graphic at that link.)

Yahoo searchers were more interested in news stories than Bing's searchers, who pretty much just looked up celebrities, though it does have its share--Kim Kardashian made both lists. Yahoo also has specialized lists, such as song lyrics, gadgets, coupons, and includes the top misspellings. Justin Bieber was definitely on many people's minds in 2010.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bing's Most Popular Searches of 2010

Bing has released their list of the top ten searches of this year. Nearly every one is a celebrity. Here's the list:

  • Kim Kardashian
  • Sandra Bullock
  • Tiger Woods
  • Lady Gaga
  • Barack Obama
  • Hairstyles
  • Kate Gosselin
  • Walmart
  • Justin Bieber
  • free
Perhaps certain ladies on the list inspired the "hairstyles" searches, and with the economy still not fully recovered it's no surprise Walmart and "free" are also top in people's minds.

Kim Kardashian didn't make Bing's list last year, but she was on Yahoo's. Yahoo, Google, and Twitter haven't released their 2010 lists yet. Anyone want to guess how similar or different they will be from Bing?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review - "This Must Be the Place" by Kate Racculia

Arthur Rook's wife Amy is killed while at work because of a freak, horrible accident, and he sprirals into debilitating grief. He ransacks their apartment, looking for anything he can of hers to hold onto, something that is purely Amy. What he finds--an unsent postcard dated sixteen years ago in a pink shoebox filled with trinkets and memorabilia--leads him to the tiny town of Ruby Falls in upstate New York. There he meets Mona, Amy's childhood friend, and Mona's daughter, Oneida.

Arthur and Mona knew Amy at different stages of her life: Mona up until age sixteen, when the two girls ran off to Ocean City one summer (and only one of them returned to Ruby Falls), and Arthur in Los Angeles, where Amy had established herself as a creator of monsters on movie sets. Mona did not know the adult Amy and Arthur did not know the child Amy, and so when Arthur takes rooms in Mona's boardinghouse, the two have several weeks to reconcile their versions of the same person. Mostly that means Mona has to share the secret she's kept since that life-changing summer in Ocean City, one that involves Oneida.

Honestly, I'm not sure what to think about this book. It's a debut novel with an intriguing premise and well-written scenes, but I found myself not caring about the characters all that much. Author Kate Racculia tells the story from Mona and Arthur's perspectives and throws in Oneida for good measure. Actually, Oneida's part in the tale makes sense, as Mona and Amy's big secret concerns her too. But then why does Racculia spend so much time on Eugene "Wendy" Wendell, the class screw-up and Oneida's first boyfriend? There's a whole side story surrounding Oneida and her crush, Andrew Lu, and Andrew and Wendy fighting over Oneida. Perhaps it's the result that matters: bringing Arthur and Mona together because of Oneida. In any case, I found myself not terribly interested in Wendy's wacko family or in his feelings about Oneida.

I figured out Mona's secret pretty early on and spent the rest of the book looking for clues that I was right. Losing the suspense didn't detract from the story, however, as I still wanted to find out how Mona would tell Arthur and how Arthur would react.

I was less happy about the epilogue, "Eight Years Later." Things get wrapped up in a way that seems to actually weaken the story. Stopping one chapter earlier leaves things a little unsettled but heading in a good direction. The reader gets to decide whether the ending is bittersweet or happy, and it makes the characters more real. Life is full of people who come and go, who change you in some way, and then vanish. Racculia spells out what happens to Mona and Arthur, Oneida and Wendy, and I found it rather unnecessary.

So I don't give this book a blanket thumbs-up, but if you like your chick lit to be on the serious side, give this book a try. If you go in knowing its flaws, perhaps you can enjoy the story even if the characters don't grab you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

College and Career Information

I got the following links in an email. is a collection of original content aimed at teens and adults looking for colleges, scholarships, or job advice. 

For Teens and College Age Users

10 scholarships for high school seniors and university students
Scholarships range from $500-$1,000 in ten different subject matters. Eligibility requirements, applications, and previous winners can be found on each individual scholarship page.

‘Best of’ Free OpenCourseWare from America’s Top Universities
Education Portal has meticulously reviewed and compiled the best free OpenCourseWare from America’s top universities including Yale, MIT, and Cal Berkeley on a variety of topics from best free math courses to best free literature courses. Our complete ‘Best of’ selection can be seen here to help students learn what subject matters are really like before enrolling.

University Admissions Reviews by State:
Admission reviews for several of the top colleges in every state

For Adults and Job Seekers

Career Counseling and Job Search - Video Center
Free videos from a 20+ year career counseling veteran on important topics such as researching the job market, conducting informational interviews, and how to get your resume noticed.

There isn't anything wrong with the above sites. In fact, they may give you a place to start as web searching for scholarships, etc. can be overwhelming. However, there are also some other sites that may give you more options.

  • - Join for free and get matched up with scholarships. They'll send new ones to your email. You can also search for jobs and/or internships, and see if they military might be right for you. The site is geared toward students, but there's a section for parents as well.
  • US News & World Report Rankings - Everything they rank is here, including hospitals and vacations, so head for the college and grad school sections. The lists can be controversial, but if you're looking to specialize, say in engineering or medicine, you'll get some useful information.
  • Peterson's - From the publishers of the college guides comes this comprehensive site. Sort lists of schools by location or major, get test prep help, find scholarships, get advice on admissions, and more. Includes trade schools plus undergraduate and graduate programs.
  • - This site is from the federal government, but it's much more than just searching for federal jobs (look for those at USAJOBS). Find your state job bank here, figure out what kind of training you might need in order to change jobs, get help writing resumes, brush up on your interviewing skills, take a self-assessment to see what jobs might be right for you. It's really a one-stop website for everything career-related.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review - "The Tale of Halcyon Crane" by Wendy Webb

Hallie James gets an envelope in the mail from a lawyer representing her mother. Inside is a letter from her mother plus a notice that she has died recently. The only thing is, Hallie thought her mother died thirty years ago. Hallie's world and everything she has known are about to be turned upside down.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane is Wendy Webb's first novel, and it's a pretty good one. I'm not a big fan of ghost stories, mostly because the images stay in my head and keep me awake at night, but this book isn't heavy on the supernatural. It's definitely there, with Hallie seeing ghostly girls and having the ability to see into photographs and become part of the event being recorded, but it's not overwhelmingly mind-blowing. This is more a story of suspense: What happened to cause Hallie's dad to take her away from her home when she was five? What really childhood friend Julie to fall from the third-story window to her death? Why does Hallie keep seeing a girl in a white dress with a ribbon in her hair?

This is also a family saga. A visit to a healer--or witch, as the townspeople call her--opens Hannah's womb a century earlier, and certain abilities or "gifts" are then passed to her children and to their children, including Hallie. Each generation has tragedy visited upon it because of these gifts, and the shadows of those terrible events still echo in the house left to Hallie by her mother. The strange housekeeper Iris, as creepy as Mrs. Danvers from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, is also the storyteller of this family, and it is her duty to explain to Hallie her own gift and how to use it. Naturally Iris isn't quite what she seems, but then Hallie comes to realize that several people on this Michigan island have secrets.

Halloween isn't too far off, and this is a good book to get you in that spooky mood, should you want to. It's rather tame as ghost stories go, so you don't have to worry about lots of blood or violence. The supernatural element is stronger than in Carol Goodman's books, but her fans will find something to like here as well. Make yourself a cup of something hot, curl up under a blanket, and enjoy the journey into another place.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Best Free Reference Websites

The Reference and User Service Association puts out an annual list of best websites, and they just released the 2010 list. Most I have not heard of, but they do sound useful. There's fun stuff, like the Baby Name Wizard, and serious stuff, like The LIFE Photo Archive is one I want to look at. There are several government sites on the list as well as some that would be good for school reports. Take a look. You might find a new favorite.

Brush Up On Your Typing Skills

I wanted to pass on this article from Mashable: 5 Free Ways to Improve Your Typing Skills Online. I've seen TypeRacer before, but these other ones look good too. Beginners as well as advanced typists should find something useful, from learning the keyboard to increasing speed to using the number pad. Check them out!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Internet Safety

A post on Google's blog announcing their new Family Safety Center got me thinking about other places to go to learn how to stay safe on the Internet. Google's Center focuses on their own products, which is fine, but how can you stay safe when using other websites?

WiredSafety has gotten some awards and touts from other websites. It's hard to tell if it's still being updated as some of the posts are from 2009, but as far as I can tell the information is relevant. If you're looking for a community to join where you can chat with other people who share your concerns, WiredSafety is a good place to go. has sections for parents, kids, and teens, with games and information that reach users on their level. It's full of fun graphics, activities, and videos.

A couple of other websites have games and quizzes that kids might enjoy. Welcome to the Web starts off with how the Internet works and moves into navigating websites, using email, watching videos, and more. The Girls Scouts have a bunch of Online Safety Topics, from recognizing cyberbullying to using social networking sites and mobile devices. The Girl Scout logo doesn't encroach on the site (although girls are featured throughout), so boys may not find the site odious. The information certainly is pertinent to all kids.

What should you do if you or your child has been contacted by an online predator? First, notify your local police. Second, if you wish, you can fill out a form on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children website. Include as much information as you can.

Do you know how to recognize phishing and spam emails? Take this quiz from SonicWALL and see how you do. Basically, even companies that you do online business with will not contact you and ask for account information, so be extremely cautious about emails you get asking for personal details. (Thanks to the Swiss Army Librarian for the link.)

Some other privacy tips:
  • Periodically check social network settings, like Facebook. Realize that even if you have your settings set to the highest level, anyone with permission to read text or view pictures can repost your information elsewhere. Teachers, prospective employers, college admissions staff, and friends and foes alike can all potentially see anything you post anywhere on the Internet. If you wouldn't share something with the entire world, think twice before posting it.
  • A corollary to that first tip is to read privacy policies to find out how sites use your info. Sometimes companies you purchase merchandise from will share your email with other websites. You can usually opt out of these emails, either at the time of purchase or when you get an email. Some websites, like Facebook, may not share your information with the outside world but they do use keywords in your profile and postings to serve up related ads.
  • Be careful about which sites you give your credit card or bank account info to. Ones that have a physical store presence should be safe as well as large online retailers. Reputable companies use encryption to encode sensitive information, which often shows up as "https" at some point in the URL box on your browser. (The "s" stands for "secure.") These companies also might have privacy or safety statements or an anti-hacking logo. For example, look for sites with the VeriSign Identity Protection logo.
So now you know how to keep your identity safe online, but what about your computer? Read this article from the Librarian in Black about free software you should have: Security Recommendations for Computers, Wifi, and Smart Phones. Even if you want to purchase software, make sure you have three types: an anti-virus system, a firewall, and anti-spyware. If they don't update and/or run automatically, make it a point to do so manually at least once a week. And even if you have one running in the background, it's not a bad idea to do manual updates and scans if possible.

While some freeware is safe, such as the ones mentioned above, much of it may not be. Check out this TechCrunch post: Want to Stay Safe on the Web? Stop Looking for Free Stuff. Using a browser to search for freeware can lead you to unsafe sites so stick to ones that are reputable, like C-NET or Tucows. But even sites like YouTube may have unsafe ads, or people may post malicious links in the comments. If you suspect your computer has an infection, run your anti-virus and anti-spyware software.

After all this, don't be scared of using the Internet. Just as you should be aware of your surroundings when walking alone or shred sensitive mail, use common sense to safeguard your identity on the web and keep your protective software up to date on your computer. If you know how to recognize and get out of questionable situations, the Internet can be a fun, informative place.

Thanks to rob macneice for the photo.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review - "Juliet" by Anne Fortier

Julie's Aunt Rose dies and leaves the house to Julie's twin sister, Janice. Julie gets a note and a key and is sent off to Siena, Italy, to find a treasure left by her mother. She thinks Janice got the better end of the deal, but she is curious to find out about her family's past and so she follows her aunt's instructions.

Julie, born Giulietta, has always been fascinated by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and she wonders if this trip means she will meet her Romeo. She feels connected to events that happened six hundred years earlier; will history repeat itself?

Author Anne Fortier has re-imagined the story of Romeo and Juliet, which actually has basis in fact. They lived a couple hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his play and resided in Siena. Fortier allows their tale to unfold along with Julie's, making for spell-binding reading. There is a sense of events coming full circle. A curse uttered in the fourteenth century has to be undone in the twenty-first. It's hard to explain much of the plot without giving anything away, but suffice it to say that things--and people--aren't always what they seem.

I posted a while ago on a trio of books set in Italy in convents. Juliet would appeal to readers who liked those ones, even though the setting and circumstances are different. Juliet also has the element of the present day for those who like some suspense and some romance. Fortier has written a well-plotted, well-researched, well-written story. It's action-packed yet full of details that make you think you really are in Siena in 1340, participating in the annual horse race. Julie has clues to follow, knowing she is looking for a grave and a statue but not sure where to find them. Once you pick up this book, you won't want to put it down.

Another author that readers might like is Carol Goodman, specifically her book The Sonnet Lover. Shakespeare and Italy also figure in that story, but her books in general have classical references along with suspense. Also check out Luanne Rice's The Deep Blue Sea for Beginners, which is set on Capri and features a young girl trying to reconnect with her past.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Many people are now bypassing their television and the TV schedule in favor of watching their favorite shows online. But with every channel having its own website plus Hulu and Netflix, how do you know where to go? Enter Search or browse, and Clicker will tell you where you can see your show as well as noting whether the website is free or not. Here's how Clicker describes themselves:

To make it fast and easy to find a show you want to watch right now, Clicker is one part directory, one part search engine, one part wiki, one part entertainment guide, and one part DVR. At the heart of it all is a massive database that looks like this:

Clicker contains more than 750,000 episodes, from over 12,000 shows, from over 2,500 networks, 30,000 movies, and 90,000 music videos from 20,000 artists.

Staying on top of what programs are available online and offline, organizing them for you, and recommending gems for you to discover is what Clicker is all about.

You can create an account and make playlists, but it's not necessary for searching and browsing. Clicker also offers similar information for movies and music.

It looks like a handy tool. Give it a try!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Free e-Books

Check out these lists of websites from that let you download e-books for free:

Part I
Part II

I'm not sure any of them will have the latest best-sellers, but with all those choices you can probably find something you like just as well. You might even find some new favorites.

Thanks to Stephen's Lighthouse for the links.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book Review - "Still Missing" by Chevy Stevens

Still Missing is a disturbing book. First-time author Chevy Stevens must have had to dig deep into dark places of her psyche to create such a creepy character as the kidnapper is. Victim Annie dubs him The Freak, and he certainly puts her though a wide range of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual. It's no wonder she sleeps in the closet when she returns home. Everything he does to her is manipulative, and fighting him only makes it worse. Annie becomes so tortured she doesn't know how she'll hang on.

Annie is a thirty-something Realtor, packing up her signs at the end of a hot summer day after an open house. She's almost finished when a charming man comes by and asks her if she'd mind showing him around. As she's taking him through the house, he pulls a gun and forces her into his van. He takes her to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, where Annie is forced to rely on her wits to survive through a horrific year. She quickly finds out the abduction wasn't random. He knows too many things about her and has prepared the cabin just for her. In order to zone out and keep some sanity, Annie becomes an obsessive counter: tiles, ceiling holes, bricks, water drops, anything to take her focus off her situation.

Annie tells her story in sessions with her psychiatrist, so the reader knows she gets away. Exactly how that comes about is part of the suspense. Annie also relates what life has been like for her since her return. She deals with reporters, Hollywood agents, her former boyfriend, her narcissistic mother, and the demons in her own mind. Her story is riveting. It's like watching a car crash--you are helpless to do anything about it, but you can't bring yourself to leave the scene.

In a sense Annie's troubles only begin once she returns home. Her story of getting her life back is profoundly shattered when events take a turn into a place she never imagined they would go. Her nightmare may be over, but what brought it about is just as terrible.

So Still Missing is disturbing. Annie's year in the cabin is so well-written you won't be able to stop thinking about it even after you close the book. Her struggle to fit in after her return, her dealings with her family and friends is also realistic. What weakens the story a little for me is the part about what precipitated her kidnapping. I was enthralled and sickened by the actions of Annie's abuser--Stevens really gets into his head--and I was anxious to see how she'd deal with life back home, all of which were suspenseful enough. But then the investigation into who The Freak really was and how he got involved is settled in a slightly predictable yet convoluted way. The story was captivating before becoming something of a whodunit, and I wasn't entirely excited to follow that path.

However, I still highly recommend the book. For lovers of psychological thrillers, suspense novels, character studies, or mysteries, this will consume your days and nights. You won't be able to put it down, and once you do manage to let the cover close, you'll still be turning it over in your mind. You'll find yourself looking over your shoulder, wondering if what happened to Annie could happen to you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What the Internet Has Done to My Brain

I just finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I also read his Atlantic article when it came out a couple of years ago, entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Both pieces resonated with me, and it's nice to know I'm not alone.

I've long noticed my inability to read an article online word for word. I find much too easy to scroll or mouse down the page and have to physically take my hand off the keyboard or mouse in order to force myself to read and not skim. I am apt to scroll all the way to the bottom if I'm searching for information for a patron because I want to make sure I haven't missed anything that will help them, but often that patron will have noticed something and is anxious for me to click on a link immediately. However, if I've found something of interest for myself, I'd rather print out a few pages than read the whole thing online. I check a national newspaper everyday, but if an article goes to a second, or heaven forbid a third, page, I probably won't click to continue reading. My attention span isn't that long, and my physical ability to absorb information online is small.

I used to think it was because I came of age before the Internet became commonplace, that I hadn't grown up doing research online and was used to books and print material, that maybe it was a matter of preference for me. But after reading Carr's article I decided it wasn't just me. It was that I had fallen prey to the ephemeral nature of the Web and had embraced its seductive ease of navigation. Now that I'm aware of this, I've found myself trying to read more deeply online and have made more of an effort to concentrate better when reading books.

I've always been a big reader. I have to have at least one book going at any given time, and I switch between fiction and nonfiction, although I'm more drawn to fiction. My tastes have changed over the years, but I still gravitate towards mysteries and suspense, though lately I find myself reading character studies or stories with true-to-life situations. I want a world where I can get lost, where I can put myself into someone else's shoes and wonder what I would do in the same place. I read for escape, though I also read to learn. If I don't get enough fiction, if I don't let my mind wander along with the characters, I get restless. I have to have that outlet to unwind.

It saddens me to hear about kids and teens who don't know how to entertain themselves. What happened to playing outside, making up games and pretending? Where are these youngsters' imaginations? As a librarian, I struggle to help students who don't know how to research. They are unwilling--and probably unable--to take notes, to use multiple sources and synthesize an answer to a complex question. They want something quick, easy, and short. Is that the fault of them, a product of their own natural laziness (which is really the laziness of most humans)? Is it the teachers' fault for not explaining the research process and demanding well-written, well-documented papers? It seems to easy to blame the Internet for these shortcomings, but maybe Nicholas Carr is onto something. Kids are used to instant gratification. Need song lyrics? Google the song title. Why memorize dates when you can look up events in Wikipedia  (or even the Britannica and other online reference sources)? They can post their intimate or mundane thoughts on Facebook or Twitter and get immediate feedback from friends who are also logged on. No one has to wait for any bit of information anymore.

The Shallows doesn't offer solutions, but reading it made me re-evaluate my approach to in-depth reference questions. It's challenged me to find alternative ways of helping students with their research. I need to learn patience, I need to learn how to train them to use the sources available, whether in print or online (because the Internet as well as propriety sources are valuable tools), and I need to learn how to explain the research process.

I think every educator in all areas should read Carr's book, or at least his article, and decide how best to combat this loss of the ability to read deeply and to absorb and internalize information. We should be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet and be conscious of its effects. We need to learn how to use the Internet and our computers without sacrificing what makes us human and therefore different from the machines we've become addicted to: our ability to think.

How has the Internet changed your brain? Leave your experiences in the comments.

Book Review - "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr has written an incredible book. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains actually started out as an article in Atlantic. Indeed, most if not all of the article is in the book (so definitely read the article if you don't have the attention span to read the book), but then Carr expands on the process of how our thinking has already changed due to technological advances throughout history. He explains his own struggle with deep reading, realizing after years of heavy Internet use that he no longer was able to spend much time with a book or detailed article before being distracted. Often he was following links in an attempt for learn more, but sometimes he lost concentration. The article and then the book try to figure out why he found it so hard to read and could only skim.

Carr asserts, with citations to studies and experiments as proof, that the nature of the Web demands quick reading with the ease of scrolling instead of turning pages and the abundance of links that give us easy access to more related information. It's so easy to be connected--and as social creatures humans have a need to feel connected--with email alerts and RSS feeds and Twitter notifications that we don't want to unplug and unwind. We stimulate our brains to oversaturation in the quest for "more" and don't take the time to read deeply and study fully ideas, arguments, or even fictional stories.

Written alphabets, the printing press, and typewriters have all changed the way humans think. The Internet is no different. It's just another communication tool, and like its predecessors, it has affected how we think and how we get our ideas across. The difference this time is that we seem to have regressed in our ability to synthesize information. We don't seem to have the same ability to internalize knowledge. The medium of the Web makes it too easy to breeze through paragraphs and pick up on keywords without understanding the  connection of those keywords. We're good at getting the gist of something, but we might not be able to expound on a writer's thesis and determine whether that thesis is right or wrong.

Then there are the images and sounds that intrude on our reading. Our brains use different sections to process different kinds of information, and when a person forces theirs to multitask by feeding it images, videos, text, and more all at once, its ability to digest any of it well diminishes.

Carr discusses his need to unplug from the Internet in order to write the book (because his powers of concentration had shrunk so small that he couldn't write coherently for long stretches of time), but he confesses that he has since rewired himself. He doesn't say we should chuck the Internet and computers because they are detrimental to society, but he hasn't completely embraced them as he once did either. He takes a middle ground, showing how the Internet has changed our thinking processes and warning us that we should evaluate our own usage and how our personal patterns may have changed. He leaves it up to the individual to determine whether those changes are good or bad and what each person might do about it.

Anyone who spends time online should read this book. Anyone who has children or who works with students should read this book. Anyone who finds himself unable to read deeply, whether online or in print, should read this book. Even if it takes months to finish it, the time will be well spent. It will make you think and consider your own habits. You might end up disagreeing with Nicholas Carr, but he won't mind. It'll mean you found the time and ability to read deeply and to evaluate his thesis and his evidence and to determine for yourself if he's right. It'll mean you had to think, and that's all he wants.

What has the Internet done to my brain?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

E-book News

Recently has been in the news because of its e-books. First comes the announcement that the rate at which its e-books outsells hardcovers is increasing. Of course, print in general is still king, both in numbers of sales and dollar amounts, but the Amazon Kindle is definitely helping the e-book market grow exponentially.

Second is the news that Swedish author Steig Larsson has become the first to have a million downloads on the Kindle. His Millennium Trilogy (the final installment being The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest) has grabbed the imaginations of readers world-wide, though sadly he passed away before having any idea his books would become an international phenomenon.

So with Amazon doing such great sales of Kindles and e-books, you'd think electronic texts would be all the rage. That isn't necessarily the case, however. According to a Mashable poll, their readers prefer print. The results are actually pretty close:

With 41.9% of the tallies (898 votes), the printed book was the clear favorite over the e-book’s 23.24% of the ballot (498 votes). Interesting enough, a lot of you voted that you like both formats for reading your favorite novel; 34.86% of you (747 votes) said that it was a tie between the e-book and the print book.
(They have a nice little graph if you click the link above, for you visual learners.)

How would you answer Mashable's poll? What is your preferred format for reading? Does it matter if you're reading for pleasure or not (say, textbooks for class versus the latest thriller)? How about books versus magazines or newspapers? If you do read e-books, what device do you prefer (something similar to a book like a Kindle or iPad even, or your smartphone)? Please leave your answers--with reasons--in the comments.

Personally, I prefer print. I have a hard time digesting information from a screen, although I do read the news and sometimes magazine articles online. But for pleasure reading and for in-depth absorption of information, I need a paper-and-ink book. It's portable and doesn't strain my eyes; I can leave a bookmark in it, take notes in the margins, and flip ahead or back as needed; it's free at the library and I can return it when I'm finished; and if I forget it somewhere, it's only one book to replace instead of many plus the device.

Updated 7/30/10: In an interview with USA Today, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos predicted that e-books will surpass paperbacks within a year and the combined total of paperbacks and hardbacks shortly thereafter. Read the rest of the interview.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review - "The Birth of Love" by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna juggles three storylines across three periods of time, and somehow manages to make them intersect. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is in a mental institution in nineteenth-century Vienna because he proposed the idea that doctors should wash their hands after performing autopsies and before assisting in childbirth. Brigid Hayes, in present-day London, tries to go about her normal routine of caring for her young son even as labor pains begin. Over a century in the future, on an Earth that regulates birth and has reduced familial terms to scientific ones, two people have been taken prisoner for assisting a pregnant woman and witnessing the birth.

Each story is written in a different style, and some read more easily than others. Even without the connecting threads, they would be compelling. One almost wished Kavenna had written three separate novels in order to flesh out the worlds more, although she probably would have had to use a different style in order to keep the reader's attention through a book-length story.

Childbirth is the most elemental fact of life, well, along with death. Everyone is born and everyone dies, and everyone is touched by birth, including infertile couples, who struggle with the knowledge that they can't participate in that elemental fact of life. In Kavenna's book, some of the characters are not mothers, yet they are impacted by childbirth all the same. Kavenna also explores the relationship between mothers and children, more specifically sons. Pick up this book if you like literary novels or books that take risks stylistically. Feel free to skim--or even skip altogether--the sections that don't pique your interest, but realize you may be missing a fresh take on the subject of birth and motherhood.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Finding Electronics Reviews

You're in the market for a new piece of equipment of some kind. You probably have a budget, you may know some brands you're interested in and possibly even some specs, but how do you know you're getting the best deal? Try some of these websites for up-to-date reviews.

Consumer Reports is the standard when it comes to testing, reporting, and evaluating. You can see articles on what to look for when buying and some suggestions of good brands, but if you want the famous CR ratings and in-depth reviews, you'll have to become a subscriber.

So where else can you go for free?

Wired magazine is known for picking out cutting-edge gadgets and quirky tools, but their website also has reviews of everyday electronics. Click "Reviews" (kind of in the center of the page), then browse for what you want. You can narrow by price or manufacturer or possibly by other features depending on the product. Reviews are basic, but pros and cons are spelled out at the end.

PCMag brings its print information to the web. Click the "Reviews" tab and browse for your electronic item. You can narrow or sort by price, or sort by rating or date. Compare products to see which one suits your needs the best. You can also keep up with technology news and read shopping guides. Reviews here are more in-depth than at Wired, and the pros and cons are listed first. You might even be able to buy your product from sellers listed in the review.

CNET is probably the biggest and best known review website. Click the "Reviews" tab, then browse by category. You can also catch up with tech news and find all sorts of useful software downloads. The neat thing about CNET is its compare feature. Instead of checking off items, as you click to view products, that list you end up generating is saved for you--look for the "Recently Viewed Items" button at the bottom of the screen.

Each website is similar in its bottom line of offering tech reviews, buying guides, and news, but the presentation differs. Check out a couple the next time you're in the market for a gadget and see which site  you like best.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review - "The Rebellion of Jane Clarke" by Sally Gunning

It's 1769, and twenty-two-year-old Jane Clarke isn't sure what she wants. She knows she's not interested in Joseph Woollen. Her father wants her to marry Phinnie Paine, who will also take over her father's mill, but when attempting to engage Phinnie in a discussion over events in Boston and getting only noncommittal replies, Jane isn't sure she wants Phinnie either. She does enjoy nursing, so when her father gets angry because she's spurned his chosen one and sends her to tend to Aunt Gill in Boston, Jane decides to make the most of the opportunity.

She journeys by boat from her home in Cape Cod to the town of Boston, which is fast becoming the center of tension between the King's soldiers and many of the colonists who are starting to think of themselves as Americans and not as Englishmen. Aunt Gill's household includes Martha and Prince, who seem like they have something to hide, but Jane does her best to protect her aunt from whatever schemes they're concocting. She also meets Henry Knox at the bookshop where Aunt Gill gets her writing paper. A deep friendship blossoms, and Jane begins observing relationships and marriages and tries to figure out what she would like for herself.

Jane is thrust into the swirl of public opinion when she unwittingly becomes an observer of the set-to soon known as the Boston Massacre. What she witnessed is not exactly like the rumors going around town, and she is pressed to give testimony. She does so in court, and in the process she comes into herself as an adult with a mind of her own and not as a child still under her father's thumb.

Lovers of historical fiction will find much here to enjoy. The reader is immersed in life in Colonial America, with all the mud and slop and hard kitchen work, but also with the ideas of freedom and self-rule taking hold. Marriage is a running theme, from Jane's father and stepmother to patriot James Otis and his loyal wife to Jane's grandparents, Lyddie and Eben Freeman. The definition of home also pops up, with the patriots turning their backs on a land they have never seen and with Jane needing to find her place in the world.

Jane herself comes across as something of an indecisive wimp, but then she is also a woman a little ahead of her time. She is definitely of marrying age, but she wants more than just a marriage of convenience. She wants a man who loves her and who will engage her as a person with a mind of her own. She wants independence and a useful occupation, so at least she does have her nursing. She feels pulled in different directions by the men in her life, such as her patriot brother, but in the end she does what is right for her.

Pick up this book if you like historical fiction or if you like your female characters empowered but not overpowering.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Mashable recently blogged about the new and improved MapQuest. They include screenshots if you want to take a quick look. If you want to try it out for yourself, head over to the new MapQuest Maps.

 I used to use MapQuest all the time, but at some point it became easier to use Google Maps, probably because I was using Google for searching anyway. The new MapQuest looks a lot like Google Maps with a few tweaks. You type your address into the box on the left, then the map on the right shows you where you're going. You can see a satellite view or a 360-degree view (if it's available for that area). You can email the map or post it to Facebook or Twitter.

One neat thing is the menu of options at the top of the map. Choose from icons such as hotels, parking garages, dry cleaners, ATMs, shopping centers, and lots more. Each one you select then becomes a tab above the searching area for easy management.

Give it a try!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Reading on a Screen versus in Print

I saw this Mashable post recently: Kindle and iPad Books Take Longer to Read than Print [STUDY]. Jakob Nielson conducted a study that found reading speed decreases for electronic devices when compared to print. That is, it takes longer to read something on a device - in this case, either a Kindle or and iPad - than it does a book, anywhere from 6 to 10 percent longer. However, user satisfaction with those devices when compared to a book is about the same.

Personally, I have a harder time reading on a screen, which is one reason why I'm not anxious to get an e-reader. But maybe that's just my age and the time I grew up in, or maybe it's my fondness for physical pages. What about you? Do you have a preference of one format over another? Please feel free to explain in the comments.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mobile Websites

From Mashable: 6 Brilliantly Designed Mobile Sites.

Some of the best websites also put a lot of effort into their mobile sites. Which ones do you like on your mobile device? Leave a comment and share.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review - "The Language of Secrets" by Dianne Dixon

Dianne Dixon has written an admirable first novel about love and how it sustains us even through the worst times in life. Love takes many forms: between husband and wife, between college friends and lasting a lifetime, from mother to son, from father to daughter. Love can also be destructive, especially when secrets are necessary, either shared or unshared.

Justin has arrived back in the United States after some years away, and his wife wants their baby son to know his grandparents. Justin has always been evasive when talking about his family, but at the urging of Amy he takes them to the house where he was born. A stranger answers the door and ends up sending him on a journey to find not only his parents but his sisters too...and ultimately himself.

The Language of Secrets is told in sections, many from Justin's point of view but also from that of his parents, especially his other Caroline. We jump back in time and see Caroline as a young mother devoted to her husband but also still carrying torches for her two college friends, Mitch and Barton. Caroline's husband Robert is deeply in love with her, but one mistake leads to crime, and the secrets between Caroline and Robert fester and nearly explode the longer they stay silent.

Meanwhile, Justin struggles with holes in his memory while Amy struggles to please her overbearing father. She is caught between wanting to be the wife Justin needs her to be and wanting her dad to be the protector he always was. The two men do not get along, and Amy must choose one over the other in order to keep her sanity.

Justin's story starts and ends in California with stops in New England and London along the way. No life is unaffected through the thirty-plus years during which this novel unfolds, although all the characters may not realize just how much they have changed. There is a game-changing twist right at the end, shedding new light on all that came before.

This isn't exactly a suspense story, but it's also deeper than just a family saga. It's a page-turner with insights into relationships that make it a satisfying read.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Five Historical Fiction Books About Nineteenth-Century Authors

Novelists Louisa May Alcott, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens all created vivid, beloved worlds. Their stories have lasted up until today, the twenty-first century, and will probably continue for another hundred years. Poets Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning let us into their deepest thoughts with their timeless art. What might their lives have been like? Where did their talent come from? The following books speculate about these famous authors.

Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold
This book isn't completely about Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine, though they were the inspiration. Author Arnold changed their names but kept many of the circumstances the same. Charles married above himself and fathered lots of children with his wife, but what do we know about Catherine's side of the story? Why was their marriage troubled and unhappy? To get a feel for what might have gone on between Charles and Catherine, peer inside the similar relationship between Alfred and Dorothea as imagined by Gaynor Arnold.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn
Charyn is a prolific author, well-versed in the few facts and poetry of one of America's first female poets. He writes from Emily's point of view, mimicking her voice and sometimes her odd spelling. His narrative doesn't flow continuously; rather, he creates vignettes highlighting certain events in Emily's life. None of her poetry appears in the book, which is a shame, but it is mentioned several times. The reader can still see how Emily's upbringing and experiences shaped her poetry, and for a hermit-like spinster, she sure does fall in love a lot. It might be handy to have a book of her poetry at hand to dip into while reading Charyn's book.

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees
Louisa May Alcott was quite the woman. A spinster doted on by her father, she wrote many novels and stories, some under assumed names (and some which have only recently been attributed to her). She also traveled and worked as a nurse during the Civil War. McNees imagines a period in Alcott's life that isn't well-documented, when Louisa, as a young woman, moves with her family from Boston to a small town in New Hampshire. Louisa falls in love but refuses to admit it because she can't reconcile marriage with the independent life she wishes to lead. This book may be a beach read and not for serious study, especially since it's speculative, but it does capture the spirit of life in pre-war America.

Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes by Jude Morgan
Two sisters in a family of six are the focus of this book. Their brother Branwell also shares the spotlight, with Anne and two older sisters making appearances. None of the siblings lived past 40, but they did write a handful of novels among them. They all lived secluded lives under the influence of their minister father in Victorian England. Why did they choose to remain separated from the world, and how could they have such fertile imaginations for people with such limited experiences? Morgan addresses these questions while deftly portraying the culture in which her subjects lived.

How Do I Love Thee? by Nancy Moser
Moser recreates the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from her invalid days to her marriage to and subsequent life with Robert Browning. Though she is often too sickly to venture outside her father's house, Elizabeth reaches out with letters to learned men of her day in Victorian England. She corresponds with a number of intellectuals and publishes some poems. Robert Browning was a fan of her work and wrote a letter telling her so. A mutual acquaintance arranged for them to meet and thereby set in motion one of the great love stories, a true love story that also makes for a good novel.

As a bonus, if you Bronte fans just can't get enough of Emily and Charlotte, pick up these two titles for even more speculation on your favorite authors:

Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael
Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne published novels under assumed names, pretending to be the brothers Bell. Charlotte's Jane Eyre becomes popular, and when she faces a marriage proposal, she must decide whether to embrace the kind of love she wrote about in her novel or to continue living in isolation, taking care of her family. Some of Charlotte's letters are included in this book, which sticks to facts and is almost biographical.

Emily's Ghost by Denise Giardina
Emily was the youngest of the Bronte sisters and the author of Wuthering Heights. In this novel, Giardina imagines a scenario in which Emily, Charlotte, and Anne fall in love with the same man. Which one, if any, will prevail? Though the set-up is fiction, the feel of Victorian England and other details of the girls' lives are historical.

photo from Flickr

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

US Politics on Facebook

Facebook users can now keep abreast of what US politicians are doing. The page is open to the public, but in order to leave questions and comments on the wall, you have to sign in. It's a neat way to engage with fellow citizens and to see what the politicians are up to. Click the Info tab for more government-related Facebook pages.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Handmade Goods Online

You might have heard of Etsy, the website that connects buyers and sellers of handmade items. Mashable recently had a post on 10 Great Sites to Buy Handmade Goods. They do include Etsy, but I thought I'd share a sample of the others.

Some of the websites mentioned on Mashable are outside the US, so take a look at shipping policies before buying. There are some really neat items available, so happy browsing!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review - "The Solitude of Prime Numbers" by Paolo Giordano

Tragedy early in life scars Alice and Mattia forever. Their families never address the issues, preferring to sidestep and ignore, and eventually it seems as if everyone has forgotten the reasons behind those tragedies and simply plays the roles they have created for themselves. Alice, crippled in a skiing accident, becomes anorexic, and Mattia, who may or may not be slightly autistic to start with, loses his twin sister and becomes a cutter. In high school these two social outcasts are literally thrust together by the lead mean girl. Both are loners, prime numbers in Mattia's mathematically inclined mind, and they recognize that quality in each other. However close their friendship might or might not be, they can never quite seem to tear down the walls they have built around themselves--or can they?

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a debut effort by Paolo Giordano, a young Italian physicist, and has been translated into several languages. Even though the reader can assume a lot of the vocabulary and style are the work of the translator, one must also imagine the high quality of the original text. The story may be set in another country and the characters wear slightly unfamiliar names, but the truths of teen angst, loneliness, and disfunctional families are universal. This slim book is quick and easy to read, yet in order to fully appreciate the talent of its author, the reader should instead proceed slowly, digesting each section, maybe even putting the book down for a while in order to let the story percolate in the brain.

This novel not exactly a beach read, although one could certainly finish it during a week's vacation. It requires more engagement by the reader. It's a little depressing and may hit very close to home for a lot of people, but the end does have a glimmer of hope. Alice takes up photography, and Mattia moves away to teach at a university and to work on his math research. They lose contact for a few years, but one unexpected meeting shows them how far they have come in life and how far they can still go. Prime numbers may be unique and alone, but as Mattia discovers, they also often occur in near pairs, and the two primes of Alice and Mattia learn how to, if not embrace their uniqueness, then to accept it. We all can learn from their painful experiences. Pick up this book and prepare to be challenged.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More Online Education Sites

I've been compiling a few more websites to check out that offer online classes or lectures. Some of them require registration, but as far as I can tell they are all free, or at least have free components.

  • Open Culture
  • iTunes U (scroll down to see the list of subjects)
  • Udemy - Academy of You (in beta, but it looks like they offer quite a bit)
  • Grockit - Test Prep (for students studying for SATs, ACTs, etc.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ten Civil War Books: Fiction and Nonfiction

Whether you're a huge Civil War buff or you just like a well-written book to sink your teeth into, give these ten books a try.


Look Away and Until the End by Harold Coyle
These two books are about brothers, James and Kevin Bannon from New Jersey. They end up fighting on opposite sides of the war and cross paths at the Battle of Gettysburg. These two books illustrate the life of a soldier and the various reasons why individuals might enter into bloody conflict.

CSA--Confederate States of America by Howard Means
What if the South had won the Civil War? What would the mid-twentieth century look like? In this alternate history, there isn't really a "North" left, the nation's capital is Richmond, Virginia, and the two houses of Congress are completely segregated with one being all white and one being all black. How can the white president and his black vice president keep the country intact yet racially divided, and prevent it from exploding into violence again? There are some interesting things to think about here.

Manassas by James Reasoner
Reasoner has written a ten-book series, of which this is the first. The five Brannon brothers and their sister Cordelia find themselves in the midst of a war they may or may not believe in. They are from Virginia, but they don't necessarily all want to defend the institution of slavery, they simply want to protect their home. From the beginning in Manassas to the end at Appomattox, this series spans the entire war.

Freedom by William Safire
He doesn't cover the entire Civil War, only the first two years or so, stopping at what he sees as a turning point. The neat thing about this book is Safire's ability to write from so many different viewpoints. From Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan to Edwin Stanton and Salmon P. Chase, from John Breckenridge to an unnamed Negro, all angles are covered here. Interspersed among the chapters are entries from the diary of John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries. This book is dense but worth the effort.

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The bulk of the action takes place over only three days, but more detail is packed into these pages than in most books covering longer time periods. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863, and Shaara takes his reader right into the planning and the fighting. The major players are all here, but the central figure may be Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, whose Maine regiment helped hold the line and turn the tide toward a Union victory.


The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton
Catton wrote this trilogy for the centennial anniversary of the start of the Civil War. It's a classic work, written in readable narrative form.

Brady's Civil War by Webb Garrison
Mathew Brady was a photographer who captured thousands of images of the war. This book includes many iconic pictures, accompanied by short explanatory entries.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Lincoln appointed several men to his Cabinet who had been rivals in his race for the presidency. Goodwin explains how he managed to convince these men to join him--and each other--in leading the country through its most troubling time.

The Approaching Fury and The Whirlwind of War by Stephen B. Oates
The first book explains the national climate in the decades before the Civil War, and the second book concentrates on the war itself. Both are subtitled Voices of the Storm, and Oates certainly lets his characters speak. He uses the first-person viewpoint, taking actual words from speeches and letters to allow each person to explain events. It is a unique device but one that works. The reader really gets a feel for the personalities behind the actions.

With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates
Oates is a prolific historian, and with this book he turns his attention to Lincoln. There is a little bit here on Lincoln's early life, but quickly it turns to his political life. His election to the presidency occurs almost halfway through the book, when his four-plus years in office and his actions during the Civil War become the focus. This is a detailed account of Lincoln's life in Washington, but it's fairly easy to read.

photo courtesy of Flickr

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

US Congressional Proceedings

To find out what Congress is up to or had been up to in the past, you'll want to look at the Congressional Record. Since 1873, the US has kept a daily transcript of Congressional sessions, and you can access recent records from two places: the Government Printing Office (GPO) and THOMAS from the Library of Congress.

THOMAS goes back a little farther than the GPO (1989 versus 1994), but every report may not be accessible within those timeframes. The GPO is a bit easier to browse, but both allow searching. Both sites also advocate finding a federal depository library, which you will need if you want an older Congressional Record issue. Once you find a depository library near you, you'll have to contact it to see what records they have.

Neither website is particular difficult to use, but spend some time reading the "About" sections and any "Help" sections. It may take some hunting to find what you are looking for, but a little persistence should pay off.

Another website useful for keeping tabs on the current session of Congress is OpenCongress. You can create an account, but you can also gets lots of information without doing so. Keep track of bills and issues on the floors of the House and the Senate, find out who your representatives are and what the committees are doing, and see who gets money from where. OpenCongress makes wide use of social networking services, so do sign up for those if you want to stay up to the minute on your government in action.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review - "Deliver Us From Evil" by David Baldacci

Mysterious Shaw is back. Is he a hitman? a covert operator? Does he work for the government, either officially or unofficially? Who knows, but David Baldacci spins a second tale around this guy and adds a female counterpart, a young Brit named Reggie. Both are after the same man but for different reasons. Shaw knows him as Evan Waller, a ruthless businessman who traffics young women and who recently has gotten into the nuclear arms game. Reggie knows him as Fedir Kuchin, a former KGB member who carried out thousands of horrible deaths. Reggie's mission is to kill him; Shaw only wants to capture him and make him spill the beans on the terrorists who want the weapons he can supply. Waller/Kuchin is planning a vacation to Provence, where Shaw and Reggie intend to pounce. Who will get to him first?

None of Baldacci's books can be described as deep, but they usually involve a plot-heavy, twisty tale, good for a wild adventure. This one is no exception, although the ride screeches to a near-halt about halfway through. There's a lot of buildup to Reggie's planned execution of her quarry and Baldacci spells out details of Shaw's orders, but things go terribly wrong. The rest of the book is about Shaw and Reggie sizing each other up and deciding whether they can trust one another in order to hunt down Waller/Kuchin together. Shaw also agonizes over his feelings for his dead lover Anna and for Katie James, who was in the previous book and who makes an appearance here, and he doesn't seem like his usual kick-ass self. Reggie goes from being a confident Nazi hunter to an insecure hitman (hitwoman?), and the result of all this angst leads to a weak second half of the book.

This isn't a bad book by any means. It's still good for a plane ride or a week at the beach. It reads like Baldacci was trying to stretch himself, to add a twist that no one would ever expect. The problem is, suspense fiction generally has a huge climax right near the end of the book, which keeps the reader turning pages like mad to find out what happens and how the good guys take down the bad guys. The climax of this book is in the middle, leaving a lot of pages left without the same level of buildup. Reggie has an interesting back story and Shaw has unresolved feelings for a former flame, so those side details will keep you going if you're into them. There's also a graphic torture scene, which may or may not turn you off depending on your comfort level with violence (but don't let that stop you from picking up the book; just skip those pages and get back to the story). If you're a big Baldacci fan and read all of his books, then you'll probably like this one. However, don't feel bad if you decide to forgo it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Science Websites

Mashable had a recent post on 6 Free Websites for Learning and Teaching Science that was interesting. I thought I'd pass on their suggestions.
I might have to remember these for myself.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Finding Doctors Online

Recently published an article on a new service that lets you check out your doctor online. That new service is Doctor Finder from Insider Pages. Nearly 1 million doctors and dentists are included. The information comes from HealthGrades, which itself can be a good source for finding a doctor. Indeed, if you want more information on any doctor or dentist, Doctor Finder takes you to HealthGrades, where you can purchase a report. Doctor Finder also allows for comments, which can be helpful in deciding on a new doctor.

You can specify as much or as little information as you like in your search, including specialty or insurance accepted. Results seem to be sorted by number of stars (out of five) and number of reviews. There doesn't seem to be a way to input a name, so if you're looking for someone in particular, you'll have to do the basic search and scroll through the results.

Another source for looking up doctors is the DoctorFinder from the American Medical Association. (Type the two words offered, click the graphic for patients, then click the DoctorFinder link. You can begin your search after accepting the Terms and Conditions.)

The AMA's DoctorFinder lets you put in a name or search by specialty (dentists are not included). Even if your doctor isn't an AMA member, you can still see their information. There is no additional information offered aside from the basics, so if you need something more comprehensive, either choose Insider Pages' Doctor Finder and follow the links to HealthGrades, or just go to HealthGrades in the first place and purchase a report.

Another source for finding doctors and dentists is your insurance company's website, where at least you know those physicians listed will accept your insurance. But for patient reviews or to check on AMA membership, choose one of the doctor finder resources.

Changes to Google Search

You may have seen some changes to the results screen when you do a Google search. See this blog post from Google explaining why they made those changes. You probably have seen the links on the top of the screen for things like images, maps, news, and more. Now, when you do a search, those same options appear but on the left side of the screen. It's similar to a Bing search with related searches and more information appearing on the left. Try out those left-side links. What do you think?