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?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Book Review - "This Body of Death" by Elizabeth George

Inspector Lynley is back in this latest installment by Elizabeth George. The question is, is he back for good? The department is still without a superintendent, so Isabelle Ardery has been brought in as a possible candidate. Immediately she has to deal with a murder case. Recognizing that she could use someone to show her the ropes and help her establish trust among her subordinates, she pays a visit to DI Lynley, who agrees to come back to work.

A woman has been stabbed to death in a London cemetery. Who is she, and why would someone want to kill her? What's the connection to the New Forest in Hampshire, where Gordon Jossie is a thatcher and where ponies roam free on the common land? And how does the other story fit in, the one interspersed with the present-day action and typed up as if from a psychologist's report?

DS Barbara Havers and DS Winston Nkata are on the case in Hampshire while Lynley works with Isabelle in London. Barbara comes across potentially valuable information but can't follow up because Ardery has called them back. It's only one mistake Ardery makes. In fact, she mishandles the investigation in myriad ways, putting her career in jeopardy. She desperately wants the job and Lynley recognizes that she was thrown into it feet first with this huge case, but she may have gone too far. Tensions run high in the incident room, and the wrong man gets accused of murder.

Fan favorites Simon St. James and his wife Deborah make appearances in this book, as do Barbara's neighbors Taymullah Azhar and his daughter Hadiyyah. It's these characters and their history with the principal players who really make Elizabeth George's mysteries come alive. Havers and Lynley seem like real people, with lives outside of work and friendships and histories that span decades. This Body of Death is one of George's best as she shows Lynley still dealing with wife Helen's death, and as she introduces Isabelle Ardery and her story, and as she lets the mystery and investigation unfold. New readers may be a little lost and might want to go back and read at least a couple of the first books in the series to get somewhat caught up with the background story, but readers who have followed Lynley and Havers from the beginning will not be disappointed. Definitely get your hands on this book if you like Elizabeth George.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Citation Generators

For creating citations in various formats (MLA, APA, and Turabian/Chicago being the big ones), try these online generators:

Son of Citation Machine - On the left click the format you'll need, then the type of source. Online sources are included. You can also type in the ISBN and choose either MLA or APA, and the website will find the pertinent information and generate a citation you can copy and paste.

EasyBib - This site has an option for subscribing, but you can get basic citations for free. You have more source options than Son of Citation, and it tells you right on the bottom of the screen which editions of each format it supports.

BibMe - Says it's faster than EasyBib. That may or not be the case, but it does say it's free. You can either have the site search for your pertinent information or you can input it yourself. If you sign up, it will generate and save your bibliography for you.

EasyBib seems to have the most types of sources included. Son of Citation Machine is the least pretty, but it's still functional. It's really a matter of choice. You can also Google citation generator to find more websites. You might also Google your particular format to double-check that your bibliography and foot-/endnotes look correct.