Archives for the month of: November, 2012

Tonight, I’m going to start an orchestra. I’ve been meaning to do it for years. I’ve always thought it would be fun to find people to play chamber music with, but tonight I’m finally going to make it happen. It turns out that Alexander McCall Smith (the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books) stole my idea… way back in 1995. He was with some friends at a school orchestra concert and remembered how much fun it was to play music with other people. They looked around for a just-for-fun amateur orchestra and when they didn’t find one, they started the Really Terrible Orchestra. It’s about the joy of music without pretension.

I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends who used to play clarinet (or french horn or trumpet or…) but haven’t had any opportunities to play since high school. Starting tonight, I want to give them that opportunity. Does this describe you? Are you in Chicago? Feel free to drop by tonight at 8:30 and we’ll see what we can make happen.

And now, something completely different:

Once upon a time, I posted favorite poems here now and then and called it the poem of the week. I don’t think I ever made it by any sort of weekly deadline, but I’ll give it another go!

Here’s one by Roald Dahl, read by… some guy on youtube who’s been reading me poems for years. Roger Ebert introduced him to me ages ago.


Anyone who knows me knows that I want to learn everything. I’m seldom very
organized about it but lately I’ve been thinking about how to be more deliberate in this quest. This week, that’s taken me to a few fun places. Have you heard of Coursera? What a sweet idea! They set up internet based classes with teachers at prestigious universities for free. I’ve signed up for Cryptography, Astronomy, and “Think Again: How to reason and argue.” Want to join me in any of those? Don’t let the math in the Astronomy class daunt you — I can help you through it if you need it.

I’m coaching a dozen kids in this year’s science fair. We’re at the research paper stage, which means that I’ve been taking them all in pairs to the library. I *love* the library. I feel like I grew up there. I haven’t had a regular library habit in the last few years, but that’s going to change. Here are some of the books I’ve brought home over the last few days:

  • The instant physicist, by Richard Muller. A Physicist at Berkeley gives bite-sized lessons on physics, like: “You are radioactive, unless you’ve been dead for a very long time” and the fascinating tidbit that the ATF has a *minimum* radiation requirement for liquor. I think that in the future, I want to start the physics class with this book or something like it. I’d love for kids to catch the fun and magic in the ideas behind physics before we jump into the math.
  • The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world, by Michael Pollan. I loved the Omnivore’s Dilemma and I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while. Is the gardener’s relationship to plants fundamentally different than the honeybee’s? That is to say, have we really domesticated our veggies and flowers or do they have us trained?
  • What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young. I think that this book is going to change my life. I’ll write more about it later. It’s about learning to be more fully aware of the world around you.
  • Disasters : natural and man-made catastrophes through the centuries, by Brenda Z. Guiberson. One of my 12yos is doing a project on germs, and his paper will almost certainly be about the black plague. This was a book we pulled from the shelves that he rejected, but I thought looked like fun.
  • 1603 : the death of Queen Elizabeth, the return of the Black Plague, the rise of Shakespeare, Piracy, Witchcraft, and the Birth of the Stuart Era, by Christopher Lee. This book came up because there was plague that year. I really don’t know that much about history but I love stories. This one focuses in on England during that one year. Lee seems to say that traditional historians focus on the eras before and after this year but this transition year is interesting in it’s own right.
  • Faith and treason : the story of the Gunpowder Plot, by Antonia Frasier. Another student is doing explosions and his paper is on the story of the invention of gunpowder. Of course we found books about the gunpowder plot. That’s outside of the scope of a 3 page paper but not beyond the scope of “I want to learn everything.” I couldn’t resist. Front cover blurb: “Such a good yarn that one wonders why nobody has tried to popularize it before.” Really? No one remembers?
  • Minders of make-believe : idealists, entrepreneurs, and the shaping of American children’s literature, by Leonard Marcus. I don’t know that I’m really going to get to this one this time, but it’s interesting. Like the title says, it’s a history of American children’s lit. I’m interested in children’s books (in a parallel universe somewhere, I’m actually a children’s librarian) but I’m also really interested in studying the history of our culture’s attitude toward children and this will be a good book when I delve into that.
  • The miracle at Speedy Motors, by Alexander McCall Smith. I love McCall Smith. I haven’t read him in a few years and I don’t remember what I last read of the No. 1 Lady’s Detective Agency books. I thought I’d jump back in here.
  • The right attitude to rain, by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the third Isabel Dalhousie book. Have you read her? I love McCall Smith’s characters. Isabel is a bit, well, her neice calls her nosy, which helps her find and solve mysteries. She’s a philosopher by training, though, which makes her internal dialogue unique and wonderful.
  • The dog who came in from the cold, by Alexander McCall Smith. So… when I ditched the kids to run over to the fiction section, I only had 5 minutes. Mcall Smith is prolific and I’m years behind! This one was serialized in the Telegraph. I read the first book day by day as it came out. This is the second novel.
  • Your inner fish : a journey into the 3.5-billion-year history of the human body, by Neil Shubin. This is from the anatomy section. I haven’t spent much time with it but it seems explain human physiology in terms of similar physiology in other animals. I’ll let you know if I get to it and what I think of it.
  • The Isaac Newton school of driving : physics and your car, by Barry Parker. I haven’t read this one yet, either. I’m looking for diversions from the math-heavy physics textbook I’m teaching from.
  • The world is flat : a brief history of the twenty-first century, by Thomas L. Friedman. This  “brief” history is over 600 pages. It seems to be about how technology is changing our worldview faster than ever. I’ll give it a chance to see if he makes any interesting points, but I bet this one is going back.
  • Bodies in motion and at rest, by Thomas Lynch. Mr. Lynch is a 3rd generation undertaker. In a culture that I think really doesn’t know how to deal with death, Lynch grew up with death and other people’s grief and I remember thinking that he is much healthier and saner than most of us for it. It’s been years since I read these and I’ve wanted to reread them for a while now.

So, er, that’s what’s on my “out from the public library” shelf. I’ll let you know more as I spend more time with them. What are you reading?

P.S. Here’s a great video by one of my favorite youtubers on the future of education. He’s looking forward to more things like Coursera.