Ready to Do Something About White Supremacy?

It’s long past time we stomped white supremacy out. And when I say “we,” I mean me and my fellow white folks.

White supremacy is our societal ill to fix. It’s not up to people of color to do this work. We’re the ones who benefit from the assumption that pale skin is best. We’re the ones whose subconscious racism, whose insistence on being “colorblind,” whose apathy and inaction allow systems set up by unapologetic racists to continue on virtually unchanged. We’re the ones who too often can ignore what’s wrong because it doesn’t affect us, or even benefits us.

What can we do? March in protests. Donate to causes. Listen to non-white voices and amplify them. All of these things are important. But there’s more to it than that, and many of us haven’t done the work we need to do within ourselves.

So for a start, I’m going to ask you to buy or borrow this book.

Image shows book cover
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F Saad

It’s on sale for Kindle today for $2.99. you can read it on any device with the Kindle app.

We’re going to be working through this book together over the next several weeks. I think it’s going to be deeply uncomfortable, even painful at times – growth often is. I doubt it will be easy or fun. But it’s necessary.

I know you’re not a white supremacist yourself. You’re probably not overtly racist, either, or you wouldn’t be here. But most of us were raised in societies that were created by white people, for white people, on the backs of brown people. We had, and still have, racist family members, coworkers, and friends. We’re not able to see a lot of the ways our societies are built to benefit white people, because it’s not something that adversely impacts us. We may even think white privilege isn’t a thing, because we personally may not think we’re particularly privileged. But just as society is still mostly set up to benefit men at the expense of women, straight people at the expense of LGBTQ people, and religious people at the expense of the non-religious, it still benefits white people at the expense of non-white people. And it will keep harming them until we dismantle those structures and rebuild them fairly.

We can’t confront what we can’t see. We can’t change things we don’t even realize exist. That’s why books like this are important, and why we’re going to spend quite a bit of time working through this one.

I’m hoping that by the time we’re done, we’ll be better equipped to confront our own biases, stand against racism in our social circles, and create a far more equitable society.

There is no better time than now. Let’s do this.

Ready to Do Something About White Supremacy?

A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning deserves far more recognition than she gets. So, on the occasion of her 221st birthday, let me share with you a book that does her justice.

Shelley Emling traces the story of Mary’s life from before her birth to after her death. We are shown just how unlikely it was that a girl born in poverty, who was literally struck by lightning as a toddler(!!), should grow up to become one of the most renowned fossil hunters of her age.

Her story is absolutely amazing, and at several points heartbreaking. She lost her dad when she was a little girl. Only one of her siblings lived to adulthood. Her family was desperately poor. She never got the education she deserved. Because she was female, and science very much a male clubhouse, she often saw others taking credit for her discoveries and insights. She lost her dog to a landslide, and her life at a relatively young age to breast cancer. Shelley shies away from none of the bad stuff.

But the book can be summed up by a joyous “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Continue reading “A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter”

A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter

Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Book cover shows a knob of volcanic rock looming over the Scottish countryside.
Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Let me admit from the start: I have a complicated relationship with Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland.

Continue reading “Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland”

Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing

Heyo. I hope things are well for you, or at least as well as can be expected in pandemic times. Who would have guessed we’d be living 1918 2.0 when we rang in this new year?

It’s been quiet round the blogs, I know. I’m lucky enough to be an essential worker – my day job is doing tech support for a company that has contracts with several hospitals. Yep, hospitals at the center of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the US. And my partner works in a grocery store. Nerves definitely wracked. It’s been hard to brain over the last six weeks. But Washington State has a sensible Democratic governor who listened to experts and took sensible steps early on, so on the whole we’re faring pretty well. We might even get to spend some time in the parks come summer.

Once my brain was able to switch from survival mode, we’d laid in adequate supplies for surviving quarantine if we got sick, and new routines had been established, I got to reading. And I’m even getting round to book reviews! You can expect some good stuff forthcoming.

Since most of us are still social distancing until May, I wanted to let you know about a few (okay, many) books on sale in the Kindle Store this month that might help you while away the time. I’ll be reviewing them in depth later, but get them now while they’re on sale if they strike your fancy.

Continue reading “Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing”

Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing

Geology of the Pacific Northwest

Cover of Geology of the Pacific Northwest

I’ve had my eye on this one for quite a while, and when my nephew came to visit, I decided to go for it. Cynthia Light Brown’s Geology of the Pacific Northwest is everything I hoped for. It covers a fair chunk of territory: Northern California to Alaska (excluding Canada, alas) and east to the Rockies. I love the scope of it. There is a huge amount of intriguing geology in these areas, and it’s great to have a book kids can take with them on visits to the national parks throughout the region.
She writes with a refreshing enthusiasm. You can tell she loves her subject, and she uses a lot of energetic words to convey the excitement, beauty, and grandeur of her subject.

Kids who are just starting to get interested in how these lovely landscapes form and how we study them will find everything clearly explained. Cynthia starts by defining geology and geography as sciences, then dives into the biggest theory in geology and the most important shaper of the PNW: plate tectonics. She has an absolutely delicious experiment at the end, using a candy bar to demonstrate some of the mechanisms. In fact, every chapter ends with an activity or two, some tastier than others.

From there, she explores mountain ranges, their rainshadows, and glaciers. Some of the differences in the various ranges are explored. Then we get to know volcanoes and earthquakes. (Alas, here is where we learn this book was published just ahead of the solving of the Mima Mounds mystery. She seemed to find earthquakes to be the most plausible cause, but twas gophers all along. It’s still a fun way to get kids to generate and test hypotheses, though!)

We get to explore the Columbia River Basalts in the Basin and Plateaus chapter. I love that she recognizes them as emerging from volcanoes: some authors don’t realize that fissures actually are volcanoes. And then she does a pretty great job explaining the Missoula Floods and Channeled Scablands. My only quibble here was talking about how the ice dam broke without mentioning that Glacial Lake Missoula repeatedly got deep enough to float its ice dam. That’s one of my favorite details about the floods, and I wish it had been included here! But we get a good section on J Harlan Bretz and how he proved his theory to skeptical colleagues, which is a great way of showing kids how science gets done. And there’s an excellent discussion of the Snake River Plain that makes me want to go there very, very badly. Then we get an activity where we’re making “basalt” columns out of a non-Newtonian fluid, which is about the best thing ever and something I need to do next time Nephew is up. Is there much of anything more fun for kids than playing around with non-Newtonian fluids?

The next chapter does an admirable job of explaining climate and weather, including some of our weird winds like the Chinook and the Pineapple Express. That chapter segues nicely into Rivers, which includes a bit on the plans to remove the dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Since that’s now been done, a fun extra for kids would be having them investigate how the area has changed now that the river’s flowing freely. The activities for this chapter include making your own river bed, which I also want to do.

We next learn about ecosystems, which has a lot of potential to blow kids’ minds repeatedly, what with the temperate rainforests, the epiphytes, and the 2,224 acre fungi colony.

The chapter on The Coast teaches wonderfully well about ocean currents, food webs, and fractals. It’s a mini-oceanography course and I’m here for it.

Throughout the book, proper scientific terms are presented in hexagonal boxes reminiscent of the tops of basalt columns. Light-Brown often asks kids to ponder the reasons why things might be the way they are, and come up with their own answers. I love the way information is presented and critical thought encouraged.

Really, the only real quibble I have with this book is the drawings: Eric Baker’s illustrations are often so stylized they’re confusing. His diagrams of mountain belts are especially counter-productive. But his sea otters are cute. Yay?

Overall, despite the failings of the illustrations, this is a really solid book. I recommend it for any kid who’s interested in the PNW’s geology and animals. It’s a pretty great introduction. I can’t wait to investigate other books in the series!

Geology of the Pacific Northwest

Geology (Let’s Explore Science): Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Cover of Geology (Let's Explore Science) by Tim Clifford
Geology (Let’s Explore Science) by Tim Clifford

If you’re looking for a simple, inexpensive book to introduce geology to young readers, Geology (Let’s Explore Science) by Tim Clifford is a quite decent choice. It was like the freshest summer breeze after the two duds I’d read before it, for sure.

It packs a lot of information into its short length! Readers are introduced to geology, the earth’s layers, and soil, which is a subject I haven’t seen covered in other earth science books for kids. Soil scientists will love that! Then the book explores plate tectonics, rock types, how land forms, the rock cycle, fossils, and the age of the earth. (No worries on that last bit: there’s not a young earth creationist in sight.)

The photos are absolutely breathtaking and do a great job showing what the author is describing. There’s an especially good one that shows a selection of sedimentary layers that includes a mouthwatering bed of river cobbles. That photo alone justifies the purchase price! It’s suitable for framing.

Like with any children’s book, topics are simplified, sometimes to the point of inaccuracy (the rock cycle description implies metamorphic rocks melt to become igneous rocks only, rather than sometimes being uplifted and eroded to form sedimentary rock). But overall, the information is accurate and well-presented in a way that won’t leave kids confused.

The most glaring flaw is when the author claims coal is a mineral. This is the only time a mistake was that groan-worthy, though, and it’s less egregious than saying pumice forms in water, so I’ll forgive it.

You’ll want to have some tape handy, as the binding won’t hold up to rough treatment. It’s worth the extra effort, since it’s much better written and more factual than other books in its category. This is one you can feel good about giving to the young proto-geologist in your life.

Geology (Let’s Explore Science): Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Always Check the Copyright Date: Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth

Cover of Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth
Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth by Herman and Nina Schneider

I done screwed up.

I was looking for good geology books for my young nephew, who is 8 and currently enjoys investigating rocks. Ya’ll, I was SO EXCITED when I found this book on Amazon. It seemed so perfect. It explored a wonderful variety of geologic topics. It promised to explain how mountains form and fall, the hydrologic cycle, soil formation and erosion, minerals, the rock cycle, and why ocean sediments end up in weird places like the top of mountains. Fantastic!

And the Amazon page said it had been published in 2014, so it would be pretty current. Double fantastic!

Thankfully, I read books before passing them along. It turns out this book is not current at all. It’s over 60 dang years out of date. The bloody thing was published in 1952. And this isn’t a revised or updated version of the original – it is the original.

I hadn’t thought to look closely at the copyright page before I dove in, unfortunately. And since so many kids’ books oversimplify things to the point of inaccuracy, the little hints that something wasn’t quite right didn’t ping my radar at first. The language was a bit too flowery, but again, lots of kids books are like that. The basic information about the hydrogeologic cycle was generally okay. So I read on … and then it got weird.

In their suggested experiments, the authors didn’t seem to have heard of plastic bottles. And they appeared to assume milk still comes in glass bottles, which often freeze. Strange. Still, too many adults come across as woefully antiquated when writing for children, so no big.

Then I reached the end of the “Mountains Unmade” chapter, and got smacked in the face by oblivious racism.

Just think of what that apple may have been before it became part of you! Once it may have been in the autumn leaves that fell and crumbled into the soil near the trunk of the apple tree. Years before it may have been in the shell of a robin’s egg. And once it may have been part of a stalactite in some dark underground cavern. Perhaps for a short while it sailed high over the earth in a butterfly’s wing. Long ago, it may have been in a kernel of corn planted by an Indian.


Look, you really shouldn’t be calling Native Americans “Indians” in anything, much less a childrens book. And what the bloody heck is up with implying they haven’t planted corn for a long time?! The authors make it sound like Native Americans no longer exist! I guaran-dang-tee you First Nations farmers still exist, and still plant corn. My Navajo neighbors, in fact, planted lots of corn, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop when I moved away.

I almost gave up on the book right there. I don’t want to give my nephew casually racist stuff. But I decided to give it a chance – if this was the only real, glaring problem, we could always have a discussion about casual racism and colonialism.

The chapter on the ocean nearly ended me. It’s not until literally the last paagraph, after spending the whole chapter talking about how the ocean is filling up with various sediments, that they acknowledge the ocean won’t fill completely up. They never mention new seafloor being created. They don’t talk about subduction. They seem to think the oceans are just passive basins! But it’s okay, I thought. Maybe they’re saving that talk for the next chapter.

Hahaha nope.

As I read on, and they talked about rocks formed in the ocean ending upon mountaintops, a very bizarre thing happened: the authors assumed that if you were in a classroom, you had a real slate blackboard and actual chalk right therein front of you.

Look, I’m old, okay? By a child’s measure, I grew up in the damned Stone Age, back when we had to actually call places for directions and used ditto machines to make our worksheets. We did Mousercise, for crying out loud. And even then, we didn’t have slate blackboards! We had greenboards with yellow “chalk,” which wasn’t even made from chalk (it was probably gypsum). The few blackboards my school had were just wood painted matte black. And by the time I got to high school, those had been replaced by markerboards. Yes, even in Bumfucksville, Arizona. So no kid in the modern Us of A is likely to have a bit of the ocean at the front of their classroom in the form of a slate chalkboard!

Besides, slate is metamorphic, anyway. They talked about it like it’s sedimentary. Harf?

A short while later, they’re talking like the only way a building can be heated is with fossil fuels, and how we don’t know how oil (petroleum) forms. But … wind? Solar? Hydroelectric? Geothermal? And … we kinda do actually know how oil happens …? What the everloving hecknuggets is going on here?!

So that’s where I flipped to the copyright page and discovered that this book was written before the theory of plate tectonics came along and did for geology what the theory of evolution did for biology. That was it. No way I’m giving this book to an eight year-old who doesn’t yet have a solid grounding in modern geology.

But, of course, that means this book is a hoot for anyone who wants to know how we explained seashells on mountaintops in the early 1950s. So I read on.

Warning: you will die.

Their first hypothesis is that the Earth is shrinking as volcanoes erupt, getting all wrinkly like a baked apple. Shrinking. I mean, did we have any actual measurements to back that up? I think not.

Their second hypothesis is slightly more plausible: that since rock under enough pressure is ductile, it will be squeezed up as more sediment is deposited on the ocean floor, like toothpaste being smooshed into the end of its tube. It’s still quite wrong, but not as wrong as a shrinking Earth. After all, we do know that the mantle deforms, and the crust depresses under heavy things like big sediment loads or huge mountains.

In this world, giant mountain ranges like the Rockies aren’t formed by the pressure of great plates colliding, but by magma rising and pushing the overlying sedimentary layers up. Which, yeah, sometimes happens, but doesn’t account for the thrust faults and overturned strata we see in such ranges.

According to the authors, magma moves only because of pressure, not convection, and volcanoes are towers of lava with a hollow tube up the middle. No side vents here, nossir. At least they do acknowledge fissure volcanoes are a thing. And it appears this book was finished while Parícutin was still erupting, so that’s quite fun!

Some of the writing is beautiful. I really love this paragraph:

All the boiling, bubbling, and burning sounds as if volcanoes are altogether destructive things. But magma, when it pours out of the earth, brings important gifts. Many of the good and lovely things of the earth are the work of volcanoes.

Yes, thank you!

Unfortunately, their explanation of how gemstones form is frankly disasterous, even for the 1950s. They believe diamonds form right from lava instead of being carried to the surface by it – I’m pretty sure we knew even then that pure carbon and enormous heat and pressure were required! They don’t seem to know hydrothermal fluids exist, implying gemstones and precious metals are deposited directly from lava as it cools.

Another disaster is their section on earthquakes. All earthquakes are caused by magma. The ground either rises or falls. It doesn’t ever just move horizontally- sorry, San Andreas!

Metamorphic rock is only formed by magma, not the enormous heat and pressure at the roots of great mountain ranges, because of course there’s magma at the center of those mountains. Magma does it all. Do we ever find out where magma comes from, though? Nope.

Despite these limitations and errors, the book ends strong, tying geology into the journey of water, the soil, our buildings and our bodies, including the trees we build with and the teeth we use to chew. I absolutely love the conclusion. It’s marvelous, and would translate well to any geology book written today.

This was quite the time capsule. It’s incredible how much geology changed in the course of just a couple of decades. Our understanding went from rudimentary and fragmental to advanced and unified with breathtaking speed, leaving this poor book wallowing in suddenly outdated ideas. The basic shape and sentiment of it is so good though. If the publishers had bothered to update it, I could have recommended it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, as it is, I can only recommend it to those who are interested in the history of earth science education.

Always Check the Copyright Date: Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth

Geology Genius: Igneous Rocks is Terribly Misnamed

Cover of Geology Genius: Igneous Rocks, showing a rough basalt flow
A very inaptly named book

You know what? Don’t bother.

This is a tiny, 24 page book. Now, some books pack a lot of information in 24 pages! But not this book. Chapter 1 has 153 words in it – if you count words like the and and. There’s an average of 25.5 words per page. They’re not inspiring words. They’re dryly informative. They’re too complex for little kids, and there are too few of them for not-so-little kids.

But I wouldn’t have minded so much, cuz at least the pictures are nice. Then I came across their explanation of pumice:

Why does pumice have holes in it? Lava comes into contact with cold water. Rapid cooling creates gas bubbles. The holes are left behind.

Look. I did not pay $6.99 for a book to be that spectacularly wrong! Pumice floats in water, but it sure as heck doesn’t form in it! Rapid cooling doesn’t form the vesicles! Criminy. Listen: We’re talking about a rock that forms from very gassy magma. The gasses are there to begin with; they don’t come from the outside. While basalt magmas can sometimes trap enough gas to erupt as pumice, it’s much more usual for thick, sticky magmas like dacite or rhyolite:

This rock is a trap to volcanic gases that tried to escape from magma but were unable to do it because they simply could not break out and formed many gas-filled vesicules instead. Trapped gases occupy much larger volume than they did when dissolved in magma. Hence, it is perhaps needless to say that it forms as a result of explosive volcanic eruptions.

Nota bene: this is not bloody happening because magma is being erupted into cold water! There are other forms of lava rock that result from that, such as pillows and hyaloclastites.

There’s a grand total of maybe 41 facts in this book. You’d think the editors could have managed not to miss one, but here we are today. Faboo.

If you want to pay $6.99 for a handful of correct but rather blandly-presented facts and about 20 Shutterstock photos, this is the book for you. Otherwise, skip it. Kids deserve better, and so does your wallet.

Geology Genius: Igneous Rocks is Terribly Misnamed

One Heck of a Ride: Church of Lies by Flora Jessop

Cover of Church of Lies
Click image for Amazon book page.

Let me preface this review by saying that reading books had been something of a struggle for me over the last two years, and I’d been lucky to manage a chapter or two a night. So when this book came, I thought it would last me a good while.

Ha ha ha nope. I read it in one night.

This is a fast read; that does not make it an easy read. There are graphic descriptions of child abuse, child sexual assault, and child rape. There is truly horrific religious abuse, and infant death, and a suicide attempt, and forced medical procedures. There is an appalling unwillingness on the part of authorities to do anything about the above. Triggers abound. And Flora Jessop pulls not a single punch. Kid gloves are absolutely never worn. So be gentle with yourself, and probably skip big parts of this book if you’ve suffered the above abuses. And consider that paragraph the content warning for this review.

Continue reading “One Heck of a Ride: Church of Lies by Flora Jessop”

One Heck of a Ride: Church of Lies by Flora Jessop

Fireworks, Horror, and a Few Glimmers of Hope

Agent Orange busily goes about turning America into a cheap tin dictatorship, complete with totalitarian military parades for a holiday that’s supposed to be about liberty from tyranny. America isn’t great right now (unless you think kids in cages and treating homeless people like vermin is great, which apparently evangelical Christians and white supremacists do).

It’s hard to celebrate. It’s hard to do anything but stare in horror at the ever-worsening news.

But I’ve got an article about the geology of fireworks here, and some pretty fireworks photos, so let us have something a little bright to keep the despair company.

Green, blue, and red fireworks burst over a river at night
Colin Knowles (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For all those “America is a Christian nation!” screamers you’re likely to encounter over this holiday, I’ve got the perfect counterpoint. America, you see, can easily be shown to actually have been founded on Islamic values. Look:

The fundamentalist Christians have entered the Declaration of Independence into evidence. That means it’s fair game to further examine this document for clues. In fact, let’s take another look at that second sentence, specifically:

…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Unalienable Rights”. That’s an interesting concept. Where did it come from? The phrase is more commonly referred to as “inalienable rights”, about which Wikipedia says:

The idea that certain rights are inalienable was found in early Islamic law and jurisprudence, which denied a ruler “the right to take away from his subjects certain rights which inhere in his or her person as a human being.” [emphasis added]

That’s right. This most basic of concepts, declared as “self-evident” in our founding document, is based on Islamic law!

A pastel band of fireworks explodes in a dark sky, looking like a balloon bouquet
Anna-Louise (Pexels)

Heads are absolutely going to explode. You will have enormous fun.

It turns out Portland cops are liars and antifa are not putting cement in milkshakes. The lie may actually backfire on the people perpetuating it for once. This definitely calls for a celebration.

Magenta, cyan, and orange fireworks explode in a dark-blue cloudy sky. Silhouettes of two women celebrate on a slope.
Max Pixel

And keep some fireworks handy for Friday, because it looks like this federal judge is about to unload some righteous fury in court due to Agent Orange’s impulsive decision to spit in the court’s face over the census:

U.S. District Judge George Hazel is now giving the administration until Friday to decide whether it will enter into a written agreement that confirms it will no longer pursue including a citizenship question on census forms, plaintiffs’ attorneys Denise Hulett of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Shankar Duraiswamy of Covington & Burling tell NPR. If the administration does not enter the agreement, the judge is prepared to start reconsidering recently resurrected discrimination and conspiracy allegations against the administration’s decision to add the question.

Remember: this country was founded by imperfect assholes, but they gave us a strong framework to build on, and we can and will fight back against this outrageous encroachment on democracy and human decency. We still have courts, a Constitution, a ballot box, and a lot of irate leftist citizens who’ve studied resistance movements worldwide. Gather your strength and resist in any and every way you can.

Fireworks, Horror, and a Few Glimmers of Hope