Reviews

Nature reviews Henry Gee’s “Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates”

July 9, 2018
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Nature reviews Henry Gee’s “Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates”

The story of the evolution of life on earth is an incomplete one, with many ellipses in the narrative of how simple organisms, some of which seem like little more than spontaneous experiments in organic chemistry, somehow grew to become the massively complex organisms that we see around us today. Interestingly, one of the gaps that has both confounded and fascinated scientists the most is the origin of the vertebrates—the origins of us. Over the past few decades there has been an abundance of research done on the subject, so much so that distilling it into a clear picture of our current understanding of the subject could be a daunting task.  Though daunting it may be, there is perhaps no one more suited to it than paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Henry Gee, whose new book, Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates draws on his many years as senior editor at Nature to comb through the research to help us to see how far the field has come in crossing the invertebrate-to-vertebrate divide—and how far we still have to go. But you don’t have to take our word for it. A recent review penned by one of Gee’s . . .

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Review: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

March 26, 2018
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Review: How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut

  It has generally been assumed that the process that could transform this: into this: was a drawn-out evolutionary slog, taking many generations of human-canid interaction to achieve. But as Tim Flannery notes in a recent review of several new titles on the subject for The New York Review of Books, Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution offers a fascinating look at the groundbreaking discovery that revealed that the process of domestication, once thought to have taken thousands of years, could be compressed into decades: “Profound insights into how dogs evolved from wolves come from a remarkable, multidecade experiment on foxes that was carried out under the supervision of the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev from the 1950s onward. … Belyaev’s experimental method was simple in the extreme. Out of the thousands of silver foxes held at a fur farm, he simply selected for ones that were calmer than normal in the presence of humans. After just a few generations of selective breeding, some offspring of these slightly tamer foxes started to seek out human company. Breeding these individuals produced foxes that showed changes . . .

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WSJ reviews Christopher Kemp’s “The Lost Species”

February 25, 2018
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WSJ reviews Christopher Kemp’s “The Lost Species”

Tales of expeditions to the farthest reaches of the globe by intrepid scientists and explorers in search of undiscovered species that inhabit it have always captivated the public’s imagination. Take, for example, the apparent popularity of the David Attenborough-themed raves currently taking the UK by storm, featuring episodes of Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II set to samples of the 90-year-old biologist’s narration (as well as some of today’s hottest dance tracks). But while the BBC’s premier nature documentaries might make the work of today’s biologists seem like a neverending jungle adventure, as a recent Wall Street Journal review of Christopher Kemp’s new book The Lost Species points out, in recent years some of the most fascinating new biological discoveries were actually made by researchers working behind the scenes, sorting through vast collections of zoological specimens stored in the the drawers and cavernous basements of natural history museums. As Kemp’s book explains, for decades after their collection, specimens housed in museum archives can remain incorrectly categorized, or not categorized at all–not only due to the sheer size of some of these collections, but also the complex detective work that must go into proper taxonomic classification. David MacNeal writes for . . .

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Tis’ the season for a list of gift books for the holidays!

December 7, 2017
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Tis’ the season for a list of gift books for the holidays!

So, once again ’tis the season for a post about holiday gift books, at least judging by the recent appearance of an abundance of similarly themed articles from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. First off, we have press authors Laura Dassow Walls and Alice Kaplan with their recent biographies of Henry David Thoreau and Albert Camus respectively taking two of the top fifty nonfiction slots in a recent article, “100 Notable Books of 2017”  from the editors of The New York Times Book Review. The Times editors write of Walls’ book, “This new life of Thoreau, in time for his 200th birthday, paints a moving portrait of a brilliant, complex man.” And of Kaplan’s Looking for The Stanger, “Impressive research illuminates the context and history of Camus’s classic novel.” Not sure who has the time or the money to travel with all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, but wouldn’t you like to escape it all for a minute or two? Well, maybe you can at least fantasize about actually getting a little R&R over your holiday break with some of the recommendations in this recent NYT article on travel books that included some very . . .

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David Ferry’s The Aeneid: “perhaps, almost—the thing itself”

November 16, 2017
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Poet David Ferry has long been known as one of the foremost translators of classical literature from the Latin. And with much-praised translations of Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics among his expansive oeuvre of translated works, his specific talent for channeling the world’s most revered Roman poet has been well documented. Now, at nearly twice the age of the author when The Aeneid was first drafted, the nonagenarian poet has now completed his translations of Virgil’s major works. And as April Bernard (also an accomplished poet in her own right and currently a Professor of English at Skidmore) writes for the New York Review of Books, Ferry’s Aeneid has captured the essence of Virgil’s original like no other English edition available today: Ferry’s previous outings with Virgil, in his matchless Eclogues and Georgics, had already convinced me that he has some sort of uncanny connection to the great poet. Especially when reading the Eclogues, one hears a new-old voice, as if Virgil had miraculously learned English and decided it might do as well as Latin. This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is . . .

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Review: Pamela Bannos’ “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife”

November 8, 2017
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Review: Pamela Bannos’ “Vivian Maier: A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife”

(Photograph from the Ron Slattery negative collection. Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Maier, copyright 2017 The Estate of Vivian Maier. All rights reserved.) During her lifetime Vivian Maier was unknown. A social recluse with a day job as a nanny and a habit of wandering about with her Rolleiflex, snapping photographs of the daily goings-on of the various places she inhabited throughout her life, including France, New York, L. A., and of course Chicago, where she lived for most of her life. She died in 2009, at the age of 82, the bulk of her photographic work filed away or abandoned in storage lockers, perhaps never to be seen again, were it not for its discovery by a cadre of lucky collectors who stumbled upon her work at auction. Soon after, the thousands of images she had created over her long photographic career went viral, and her work has since been lauded as some of the most iconic street photography of the twentieth century. Since her ouvre’s discovery and popularization, however, a particular narrative has developed surrounding her life and work, as Parul Sehgal notes in a recent article for the New York Times: “Stories—like snapshots—are shaped by people, and . . .

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The Soviet Union’s secret maps – of Chicago!

October 26, 2017
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The Soviet Union’s secret maps – of Chicago!

Lately, Russia seems to be soft-pedaling their attempts at world domination, choosing to use ads on Facebook or Youtube clickbait to exert their influence over global politics rather than overt threats of nuclear annihilation. But, of course, this wasn’t always the case. As well as providing a fascinating look at perhaps one of the most comprehensive pre-Google Maps mapping endeavors ever, John Davies and Alexander J. Kent’s The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World is a surefire way to reignite those bygone feelings of Cold War paranoia by demonstrating just how serious the Soviets may have been about invading a town near you, or your actual town, as the case might have been for many of America’s larger metropolises. Including, as the maps below illustrate, Chicago. As a review of the book in a recent issue of National Geographic notes, the detailed Russian maps–some of which were only smuggled out of the country within the last decade–were compiled from a variety of sources, including information borrowed from contemporary USGS maps, which the Soviet maps seem to mimic extensively. But other specifics, like detailed depictions of depths and channels around rivers and harbors, including the Soviet-era map . . .

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Interview with Harvard Professor of Education Daniel Koretz on “The Testing Charade”

October 18, 2017
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As a recent Washington Post article featuring an interview with Harvard Professor of Education Daniel Koretz notes, over the past decades the American public and its political officials have sought to reform the public educational system by holding teachers, educational methods, and education officials, accountable for the performance of their students. One increasingly common way to enforce this accountability is by holding the various constituents of our public educational system responsible for student performance on standardized tests. Beginning perhaps most visibly with the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, and again augmented under the Obama administration with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, standardized test scores have become the holy grail of educational achievement at the K-12 level and beyond.

But in his new book The Testing Charade Koretz puts forth a strong critique of the efficacy of high-stakes testing in evaluating the performance and utility of public education strategies and its practitioners. He illuminates among other problems, the extent to which test scores, taken out of context, miss the mark in demonstrating the value of less traditional educational programs, and the extent to which standardized tests lend themselves to manipulation, and in some cases, downright cheating. From the interview:

“Used appropriately, standardized tests are a valuable source of information, sometimes an irreplaceable one. …

But in our educational system, the use of tests has been anything but appropriate. Policymakers have ignored the fact that tests capture only some of what we want students to accomplish and even less of what we want schools to do. And they created perverse incentives that led educators to cut corners and inflate scores. Ironically, this made test scores less valuable than they would have been. Inflated scores don’t provide a trustworthy indicator of what students actually learn.

For well over 60 years, testing experts have warned educators that pressure to raise scores would cause score inflation and that test scores by themselves are not sufficient to evaluate schools. Over 40 years ago, in one of the most cited papers in the social sciences, Don Campbell repeated the warning about score inflation and the corruption of instruction. As I note in “Charade,” studies documenting bad test prep and score inflation in response to high-stakes testing started appearing almost 30 years ago, and the first study documenting more severe score inflation among disadvantaged students — and, hence, illusory improvements in achievement gaps — was published more than 15 years ago. And very consistent evidence of these problems continued to accumulate over the years.

So … why did people persist with this approach despite all of those warnings and all of the evidence? Just based on my own experience, I think it was for several reasons. Some policymakers simply didn’t know; most don’t read social science; and many had no experts on hand to warn them.”

Fortunately, with Koretz’s The Testing Charade now we do.

Continue reading the interview on the Washington Post website where they have also posted several excerpts from the book.

For more on Koretz and his critique of  American educational policy check out a video of a recent discussion between Koretz and Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. Or see another interview with Koretz on a special video edition of the Harvard EdCast.

You thought that by coming here you were going to escape all the Russia news, didn’t you?

July 23, 2017
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You thought that by coming here you were going to escape all the Russia news, didn’t you?

Well, define “news.” Because what we have to offer is nearly a century old–but it’s also little known. Over at Aeon, Julia Mickenberg has written a piece drawing on her book American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream about the almost unknown stories of the many American women who moved to the young Soviet Union in the early part of the twentieth century in search of a better life. Most of these were ordinary women, tempted by promises of greater freedom, more equality, and a broader spectrum of rights than they could have in the United States at the time. But a few were famous–including dancer Isadora Duncan; you can read about her Soviet years in  an excerpt from the book at Lapham’s Quarterly. See? Nary a word about secret meetings, dodgy dossiers, or anything contemporary. It’s okay sometimes to live in the past–especially when that past reminds you of long-forgotten (if ultimately tragic) dreams of the future. . . .

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Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves

May 17, 2017
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Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves

Below: an excerpt from the NYRB review of Marie Jenkins Schwartz’s Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves. *** In 1794, a year after her husband John Todd died, Dolley Payne Todd married James Madison. She had grown up in a modest, slave-owning family in Virginia, though her Quaker parents liberated their five slaves while she was in her teens. But when Dolley and her young son Payne Todd moved to Montpelier, Madison’s Virginia estate, where more than a hundred slaves worked, she took to the part of plantation mistress as though she had been born to it. Fully engaged in running her household, she supervised the domestic slaves and even monitored some who toiled outside—field workers and artisans. Not least, like all other plantation mistresses, she was the “keeper of the keys,” a position, Schwartz notes, founded on the premise that slaves would steal anything they could if given the chance. For that infraction, Dolley once resorted to temporarily banishing her maid Sukey from the mansion. Years later, Madison expressed sympathy for the arduous tasks performed by women like his wife. According to the English writer Harriet Martineau, who visited Montpelier in 1835, the former president said, with an obtuseness . . .

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