Category Archives: Books

Remarkable in the NYT Again

So, since the readers of this blog are, like, totally cultured and stuff, I’m sure you all spent Sunday poring over the New York Times Book Review. But, if you did not read the whole thing — presumably because the paper burst into flames when exposed to the searing heat of your intelligence — you might have missed the big ol’ ad Penguin placed there encouraging you to purchase some of their books this holiday season.


Six excellent books for the young person (say, 7ish to maybe 13ish) in your life who still needs a present, especially if you’re the weird, misunderstood, intellectual-but-still-cool aunt and/or uncle. Of particular note is the book in the upper right corner, Remarkable, by Lizzie K. Foley, who is renowned not only as a middle-grade author, but as the wife of Lost in Transcription blogger Jon Wilkins.

Read 8 Books, win one copy of Remarkable

So, kids, what are you doing this summer? Reading? Good for you!

Every year, Barnes & Noble runs a program to encourage kids to read (and, presumably, to purchase books from Barnes & Noble). Here’s how it works, you pick up (or print out) a copy of their summer reading kit (available here), which includes a summer reading journal. You read eight books of your own choosing over the summer (which may or may not have been purchased from Barnes & Noble). Then you write down what you read, whom you would recommend each book to, and why. (Yes, kids, that’s “whom.”)

Then, you return your completed summer reading journal to a Barnes & Noble store before September 3, and they’ll give you a FREE BOOK. Not ANY free book. For instance, you can’t choose Leonardo da Vinci’s 30.8 million dollar Codex Leicester. No, you have to select your free book from the following book list:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 10.51.00 PM

So why am I shilling for Barnes & Noble here? Because one of the books you can select as your free book is Remarkable, by Elizabeth “Lizzie K.” Foley, which, as discussed previously, is the single greatest novel in the history of the English language.

Do not be distracted by the My Little Pony: Meet the Ponies of Ponyville. The ponies can wait. Read your eight (8) books, and then run, don’t walk (but stop and look both ways before crossing any streets — also, take a responsible adult with you) to your nearest Barnes & Noble and pick up your free (FREE!) copy of Remarkable.

What a Remarkable Paperback!!

So, guess what came in the mail yesterday? That’s right! It’s the paperback edition of Remarkable, by Lizzie K. Foley. The hardback came out last April under the Dial imprint of Penguin. The paperback is through Puffin (also part of Penguin), and has a completely new cover. Here’s a stack of them:

Foreground: The nineteen best books ever written. Background: Our new kitchen wall color.

And here’s a close-up of the cover, so that you can really see the awesome cover art by Fernando Juarez, which has a bit of a Dr. Seuss-ey vibe:

Pictured: Jane, The Pirate Ship Mozart Kugeln, Lucky the Lake Monster, The Mansion at the Top of Remarkable Hill, the Bell Tower (under construction). Not pictured: the nefariously identical Grimlet Twins, Melissa and Eddie, Remarkable’s School for the Remarkably Gifted, Ebb, Jeb, Flotsam, Madame Gladiola, Penelope Hope Adelaide Catalina, Anderson Brigby Bright Doe III, Lucinda Wilhelmina Hinojosa, Mad Captain Penzing the Horrific, and more.

That means that, yes, you can now get this excellent book in paperback form, which is both more affordable and more bendable than the original!

Should you buy it? Yes! Why? Let me tell you!

Here are the pull quotes from just a few of the positive reviews Remarkable has received:

From the New York Times:

A lot of outlandish entertainment.

From Booklist:

A remarkable middle-grade gem.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A rich, unforgettable story that’s quite simply — amazing.

The story centers on the town of Remarkable, where all of the residents are gifted, talented, and extraordinary. Everyone in the town is a world-class musician, or writer, or architect . . .

Except for Jane.

In fact, she is the only student in the entire town who attends the public school, rather than Remarkable’s School for the Remarkably Gifted. But everything changes when the Grimlet Twins join her class and pirates arrive in town. Plus, there’s a weather machine, a psychic pizza lady, a shy lake monster, and dentistry.

The book is both funny and thoughtful. You can enjoy it as a goofy adventure full of wacky characters and wordplay. It’s for ages eight and up, but if you’re an grown up who likes kids’ books at all, you’ll find that there is a lot here to engage the adult reader.

Speaking of which, you can also read it as a subversive commentary on a culture that pushes children towards excellence rather than kindness and happiness. As Jane’s Grandpa John says near the end of the book:

The world is a wonderfully rich place, especially when you aren’t trapped by thinking that you’re only as worthwhile as your best attribute. . . . It’s the problem with Remarkable, you know. . . . Everyone is so busy being talented, or special, or gifted, or wonderful at something that sometimes they forget to be happy.

Now, I know, you’re thinking to yourself that you should take my endorsement with a grain of salt. After all, Lizzie Foley is my wife, and I can’t be trusted to provide an honest, unbiased assessment of her book . . .

Or can I?

I’m gonna give you some straight talk on correlation versus causation. You might assume that I like this book because I’m married to the person who wrote it. You would not be more wrong. In fact, if I did not know Lizzie Foley, and I read this book, I would track her down and marry her.

So, yes, you should run out right now and get yourself a copy of this book. You should give it to your ten year old, or you should read it with your eight year old, or you should just curl up with it yourself. Just remember, she’s already married. I’m looking at you, Ryan Gosling!

Remarkable: Pulp-o-mized!

So, you already know that my wife, Lizzie K. Foley, wrote a book called Remarkable, which was published in 2012 and is, quite probably, the greatest middle-grade novel ever written. If you are a kid aged 8 and up, or if you know a kid aged 8 and up, you should buy it.

This is not what the cover looks like, but this is what the cover would look like if it had been published in the pulp era of science fiction magazines.

This was created using the PULP-O-MIZER, which I encourage you to waste the next several hours playing with.

For completeness, and to facilitate your resharing needs, here’s that cover rendered in square, “facebook-friendly” format (which avoids the weird cropping thing that happens when you post tall images there).

The Genetical Book Review: The Mapmaker and the Ghost

So, remember when not all kids books were about teenage wizards and sexy vampires? Well, it turns out that, if you know where to look, you can still find books like that. Enter The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash.

[Disclaimer: Sarv is a friend of my wife’s. They got to know each other through the fact that both are in the New York area, and both had their debut middle-grade novels come out this year. If you are concerned that this may color the objectivity of this review, may I refer you to the Genetical Book Review’s premise and guidelines.]

The Mapmaker and the Ghost is a story that I would say is of the same general flavor as something like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The setting is very much our world, and the adventure is on a human scale. In the Mixed-Up Files, a girl and her younger brother run off to the museum, and get caught up in a quest to discover the provenance of a statue. In Mapmaker, a girl (Goldenrod) and her younger brother (Birch) find adventure in the woods at the edge of town, and get caught up in a quest to find a legendary blue rose.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash. Want to buy it already?
Settle down there, sparky! Purchase links will be available at the bottom of the post.

For kids, I think, the human scale makes the story directly relatable to their own lives. At least, that seems to be one of the things that our kid loved about the book. (He was nine at the time he first read it, and has reread it multiple times.) The concerns that the characters have, about curfews and money and permission to go past a certain point in the street, etc., seem to resonate with the experience of childhood in a way that very few authors pull off.

Of course, as in any good adventure, there are exciting things that happen that go well beyond what most children actually experience. But those events have an emotional impact that derives from the realism of the novel. I mean, saving the world from the most evil villain of all time is, of course, exciting, but evading the gaze of a security guard can actually be even more emotionally tense and exhilarating, because it is a situation that a young reader can really embody.

Also, there’s a gang of semi-feral kids with names like “spitbubble” and “snotshot,” a mysterious old lady, a secret lair, and, of course, a ghost.

The book is appropriate for ages 7 through probably about 12. The main character is a girl, but the novel is strongly gendered, and will be engaging for boys and girls. (If you have a son who thinks that they should not read a book like this because it is about a girl, you should definitely buy it, thump him over the head with it, and then watch him enjoy it anyway.)

Now, on with the science!

As I mentioned, the central quest in the novel is the search for a blue rose that blooms in the woods at the edge of town once every fifty years. This is a big deal, because, you know, roses aren’t blue. When you find a rose that is actually blue, it’s blue because it has been dyed blue.

A few years ago, a Japanese company called Suntory made news when they produced the world’s first non-dyed blue rose. They managed this through genetic engineering, taking a gene from a pansy and inserting it into a rose. [Insert juvenile and inappropriate joke here.]

Now, you’re probably looking at this rose and thinking that you have to be pretty colorblind (or have a job in Suntory’s marketing division) to call this “blue.” Fair enough, but, that’s the state of the art at the moment.

Suntory’s “blue” rose, which, while lilac a best, is still pretty cool. As an aside, we could also interpret this as an example of what linguists call “collocational restriction,” where the term “blue” has an idiomatic meaning in the specific context of the phrase “blue rose.” In this case, it might be interpreted as “bluer than a rose normally is,” much as “white coffee” is not actually white, but is at the white end of the distribution of coffee colors. (Image via Wired)

Here is Figure 1 from the publication of Suntory’s work, which shows the biosynthetic pathways responsible for plant color. You don’t find blue roses in nature because roses lack an enzyme in the pathway on the far right, which means that they lack any delphinidin-based anthocyanins.

Anthocyanins are the primary chemicals responsible for 

The gene that the researchers inserted into the rose is the one indicated by F3’5’H in the figure. This enzyme (flavonoid 3′,5′-hydroxylase) is normally absent from roses, which is why they lack the bluish pigments.

Although only one blue rose cultivar has been brought to market (The Suntory “Applause” pictured above), they actually did the transformation with a bunch of different cultivars. Here are a few examples (from the same paper).

In each panel, the flowers on the left are without the F3’5’H gene, and the ones on the right are with it.

If you read Japanese (or trust Google Translate), you can check out more information at Suntory’s dedicated blue-rose webpage, which features topics such as “Legend,” “Brand Concept,” and “Applause Wedding” (new!).

The authors note that there are various things one could imagine doing to make roses even bluer, including tinkering with the pH, getting other pigments in there, etc. How easy these next steps are going to be is less clear, though. It’s hard to tinker without breaking stuff. Perhaps genuinely blue roses will continue to be the symbol of unattainability, and limited to great kids’ books.

Katsumoto, Y., Fukuchi-Mizutani, M., Fukui, Y., Burgliera, F., Holton, T. A., Karan, M., Nakamura, N., Yonekura-Sakakibara, K., Togami, J., Pigeaire, A., Tao, G.-Q., Nehra, N. S., Lu, C.-Y., Dyson, B. K., Tsuda, S., Ashikari, T., Kusumi, T., Mason, J. G., & Tanaka, Y. (2007). Engineering of the Rose Flavonoid Biosynthetic Pathway Successfully Generated Blue-Hued Flowers Accumulating Delphinidin Plant Cell Physiol., 48 (11), 1589-1600 DOI: 10.1093/pcp/pcm131


Buy it now!!

What’s that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Mapmaker and the Ghost now through:


Barnes and Nobleicon



Book Review Upgrade: Links!!

So, one of the features here at Lost in Transcription is the Genetical Book Review, where I review books . . . genetically! I cover both fiction and nonfiction. When reviewing fiction, I focus less on the book itself, and more on some interesting science related to the book. (Although I will try to give you a sense of what the book is like, so that you can decide if it seems like something you want to read.)

As of today, the reviews also feature links, where you can buy a copy of the book and support your favorite New-Jersey-based evolutionary-biology-and-poetry blog at the same time.

What? No, not that blog. This blog.

You’ll find four links at the bottom of each review: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, indiebound, and Alibris. That means that you can indulge your own bookstore preferences, at least as long as your preferred online bookstore is Amazon, Barnes and Noble, indiebound, or Alibris.

Here are the reviews that I have posted to date. More are in the pipeline, and will be coming out soon!

Posts from The Genetical Book Review:


Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

White Cat, by Holly Black.

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary.

The Mapmaker and the Ghost, by Sarvenaz Tash.


The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson.

The Half-Life of Facts, by Samuel Arbesman.

The Genetical Book Review: The Half-Life of Facts

So, today, Thursday, September 27, is the day that the book you’ve all been waiting for finally hits bookstores! What? No, not J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I mean Sam Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts.

[Disclaimer: Sam is a friend and colleague. In particular, he has been a great supporter of the Ronin Institute. So, to be completely honest, if I had hated the book, I probably would not tell you. On the other hand, as per the general policy of the Genetical Book Review, if I had not enjoyed it, I would not have finished it, and would not have written about it at all.]

The Half-Life of Facts owes its inception to this article in the Boston Globe in which Sam introduced the concept of the “mesofact”:

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.  

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Mesofacts are the facts that disorient us. We do okay with fast-changing facts, which we expect to be different from day to day or from week to week. We also do okay with those facts that are stable enough that whatever we learned in elementary school is still true when we are picking up our grandchildren from elementary school. Mesofacts are the ones that are stable enough that we commit them to our long-term memory and then quit thinking about them. Then, years later, we are surprised when the “facts” we thought we knew turn out to be wrong.

The mesofact concept plays an important role in The Half-Life of Facts, but the book’s scope is actually much broader. It covers a host of topics related to how and why facts change. We learn, for instance, that (in contrast with the opening of the mesofacts article quoted above) the height of Mount Everest does change. Its actual height changes every year due to the uplift of the Himalayas, the melting of glaciers, etc. Also, our knowledge of its height has changed over time as measurement techniques have been improved.

We also learn about some of the science that studies how scientific knowledge changes over time. This field, called “scientometrics,”is one that the author has worked in, and the book includes first-hand accounts of a number of interesting studies.

[As an aside, doesn’t it seem like this field should have been called “scientology”? I think I’ll start referring to people who work in this area as “scientologists.” I sure hope that doesn’t cause any confusion.]

As Sam emphasizes in the book, individual changes in facts tend to be random, depending on serendipity of invention or discovery. However, if we zoom out a bit, we find that many facts change at regular rates, which can be empirically determined. You’ve probably heard of Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles about every two years. Sam shows that analogous laws exist for all sorts of things, ranging from Roomba technology to the number of neurons from which it is possible to record simultaneously.

There are discussions of how facts spread through human populations and how our cognitive biases can prevent us from assimilating new facts. There are accounts of cutting-edge research on creativity in cities and historical accounts of scientific innovations, like when Francis Galton “ushered in the Statistical Enlightenment” by doing things like introducing fingerprinting to Scotland Yard and constructing “a map of beauty in the British Isles, based on how many pretty women he encountered in various locations.”

One such historical account is of the time that John Wilkins (no recent relation) invented the metric system. While I, as a red-blooded American, bear no truck with the metric system, which was clearly designed as a gateway to socialism, I do celebrate the achievements of all Jo(h)ns Wilkins.

So, now you’re asking yourself, “Is this the book for me?” The writing is very informal and accessible. For the most part, technical terms are eschewed entirely. Those few that are in there are defined clearly. So, the bar for entry is quite low. If you have an interest in how the world changes — and how our understanding of the world changes — you needn’t worry that the book will be over your head.

If you have an existing interest in these sorts of things, you will probably find that you are already familiar with a number of the book’s topics. However, you will also find a lot of things you probably did not know (like that there’s a Moore’s Law of average distance of daily travel in France!), as well as interesting tidbits about things you did know (like that Gordon Moore originally proposed his law on the basis of just four data points).

Perhaps the most salient thing that you will find in terms of the style of the book is Sam’s unrelenting and infectious enthusiasm. If you’re not a scientist, he does a great job of conveying why doing science is so cool. If you are a scientist, he will help to remind you why you loved science so much before years of dealing with funding and bureaucracy broke your spirit.

Personally, the thing that I loved about the book is the way that it presents science as a living, breathing, evolving thing, defined more by a process and a mode of discovery than by the collection of stale “facts” that you had to memorize for your high-school classes. Internalizing this vision of science is a large part of what graduate school is about. You spend years unlearning all of the stuff you spent the previous years learning. You learn that the correct, “scientific” answer to yes-or-no questions is almost always “yes, but . . .” or “no, but . . .” It is problematic in my view that we continue often to present science as black and white and finished both to lay audiences and to young scientists.

Maybe if enough people read this book, that fact will change.

Buy it now!!

What’s that? You say you want to buy this book? And you want to support Lost in Transcription at the same time? Well, for you, sir and/or madam, I present these links.

Buy The Half-Life of Facts now through:


Barnes and Noble icon



Remarkable comes out in three days!!!

So, it is now three days until Remarkable, the middle-grade novel by my wife, Lizzie K. Foley, officially comes out. She got a nice surprise this weekend when she found a review in the Sunday Book Review of the New York Times. You can find the review online here.

Also, out today is an interview about the book with Jennie Bailey, who was a classmate of Lizzie’s at USC film school. She talks about the book, and about writing in general. It’s a great interview, and if you leave a comment, you’ll get a chance to win a free copy of the book, which will free up funds for you to buy a copy of the book as a gift for someone else!

This book will have you remarking on how excellent it is. For ages 8 and up.

For those of you who have not already read my spiels about the book, the setting is the town of Remarkable, where everyone has extraordinary talents, except for the protagonist, Jane. Jane is, among other things, the only student at the public school, since every other kid in town attends Remarkable’s School for the Remarkably Gifted. Her life is extraordinarily boring, at least until the criminally gifted Grimlet Twins get expelled and join her in the public school. Add in pirates, a psychic, a lake monster, dentists, and a mysterious howling, and you have the literary equivalent of a seven-scoop ice-cream sundae topped with chocolate awesome.

The book will be out this Thursday, April 12. The local bookstore here, Watchung Booksellers, is going to be hosting a launch party on Saturday, April 14 at 1 pm, so if you’re in the Montclair, NJ area, stop on by!