Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

Well-written and well-spoken, this series of five lectures explores the diverse cultures around the globe with an emphasis on the importance and beauty of unique cultures. Davis reminds us that “of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half may disappear in our lifetimes.” Like a good cultural anthropologist, Davis provides detailed descriptions about the practices of various cultures without being judgemental about their truth. But, like a bad cultural anthropologist, he ends up neglecting this duty far too often by forgetting the important qualifiers. For instance, he will say that through a particular practice “these people to connect with the divine” when he should say “these people believe they connect with the divine.” Although he repeatedly said he goal was not to evaluate the truth of the various practice/beliefs he describes, by consisting neglecting his important role as objective reporter, the lectures became annoying and unreliable. Similarly, all too often Davis seemed to have “noble savage” lens through which he viewed these fascinating cultures. Additionally, there were a couple things he said which just sounded completely inaccurate (i.e., in one tribe, the speech/language can be learned by youths without any actual speaking practice).
Davis is correct that regardless of truth, one’s beliefs will be what impact their behaviour. If one is concerned about environmental impact, then whether mountains are just rock to be mined or inhabited by gods is an important factor.

"Cultural is a warm-blanket with which we interpret" and confront the world, and the cultures and abilities of different peoples are fascinating topics to explore, I just wish Davis had done so in a more objective manner.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day by Peter J. Bentley

This is a great book (with an unfortunate name) that I would recommend for anyone seeking an overview of the science of everyday life. The author presents an amusing narrative of someone having one of the worst days ever and then takes each negative event as a launching pad to explore and explain the science of how and why it happened. Although all the science is mostly a high school level, because there is so much of it there is likely something new for everyone (and especially those less scientifically literate).

The presentation is entertaining and light-hearted and most chapters end with brief, helpful tips on how to avoid or ameliorate the negative event/situation.
A minor criticism is that there was no summary or conclusion; a few paragraphs recapping the scientific method and its useful application would have been desirable.

The book has 39 chapters which are described generally by a reviewer (to which I’ve added a few supplementary explanations in parentheses so you can understand how the content is presented):
1) sleeping through the alarm – (the nature of sleep)
2) slipping on soap – (cleansers and lubricants)
3) cutting yourself shaving – (cuts and blood)
4) toast on fire – (metals conducting electricity/heat)
5) exploding liquids – (heating of liquids)
6) milk gone bad – (milk processing)
7) wet mp3 player
8) bird droppings
9) forgotten bag – (memory)
10) skidding on the road – (different braking systems)
11) diesel instead of gas - (diesel versus petroleum cars)
12) tripping on the curb
13) chewing gum in hair
14) rain soaked clothing
15) being lost – (migration)
16) bee sting
17) sticking yourself with superglue - (superglue/adhesive)
18) electromagnetic interference from phone – (cell-phones)
19) puncture
20) leaking pens
21) mistaken identity – (psychological disorder, Capgras)
22) torn clothing – (fabric strength)
23) opening an e-mail virus
24) jammed finger
25) computer hard disk failure
26) broken finger
27) dropping keys down the drain
28) pulled muscle
29) sparking microwave – (how a microwave works)
30) broken glass
31) stains – (cloth)
32) chilli pepper in the eye
33) food on the floor – (eating small debris)
34) lightning kills the tv - (lightning)
35) burns and blisters
36) scratched cd – (cds)
37) broken tooth – (teeth)
38) stubbed toe – (pain receptors)
39) overflowing bath – (buoyancy)

Sounds interesting, right? Check it out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Amnesty International)

Released by Amnesty International, Freedom would be a good book for those looking to be exposed to the content of, and injustices against, the universal declaration of human rights (UDHR), in the form of short fiction from the viewpoint of a diversity of writers, each of whom takes one of the 30 articles of the UDHR as inspiration. Alternatively, if you already have exposure to such injustices, you may find this work unnecessarily depressing. It probably depends on what you are seeking.
Personally, I did like the diversity of styles and approaches, especially the ones that examined an article tangentially where the reader had to infer more what was happening in the situation. Freedom also helped familiarize the UDHR… but I cannot say I enjoyed this book. I realize that one is probably not supposed to ‘enjoy’ it, as the likely purpose was to inform, educate, humanize the suffering of others and have the reader identify with them or be outraged at their circumstances. As I think about the suffering of the world a little too often each day, it didn’t do me much good to be reminded of it while reading fiction (and I’m even having trouble getting into light fiction).
Additionally, I only found about half of the stories to be worthwhile, with probably only 25% being well-written (as defined that I would actually suggest others read them). Further, because it was an anthology, it was as if I was in a variable reinforcement experiment where I wouldn’t know if the next story would be better or worse than the last, or if it end up frustrating and saddening me. Usually, after reading something good one would want to read more, but in this case sometimes the next one wouldn’t be as good, so then I wouldn’t want to read more in either case.
All in all, best for neophytes or those looking to explore and learn from the suffering of the world.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

An excellent book that was informative, endearing and entertaining – what one comes to expect from Bill Bryson. This anti-biography describes what we know about the famous playwright and actor, but mainly what we do not, why that is and how difficult it is to be certain of much at all. While I thoroughly enjoyed the entire work, the part that will stay with me the most is Bryson’s careful analysis and refutation of the claims that Shakespeare was not himself, but another (or others); there is simply no evidence to back this claim and good reason to doubt it.
Living in modern times, one gets the (specious?) feeling of accessibility and permanence of information. Consequently, it was interesting to reflect that most of the little knowledge the does exist, and in fact all of the great plays, only exist because someone just happened to write them down. One cannot help but think of what has been lost from all those centuries past. By the way if you happen to listen to the audio version of this book, you get a bonus interview at the end.
Highly recommended.
Interesting tidbits:

  • Of the nearly 1 million words attributed to Shakespeare there are only 14 written by his actual hand. 12 of which are his name, spelled differently every time – and none of which were the current spelling.
  • Regarding Shakespeare’s image, there is very little known. Of three images, two are poorly done and the other good one might not even be him.
  • In Elizabethan England, dark clothes indicated wealth as that much dye cost more.
    Similarly, people would have beer at breakfast, tobacco was thought to be a healing agent (boys were punished if they didn’t have their daily dose) and sugar was very popular.
  • Sugar was so popular that it turned teeth black. But not everyone could afford such quantities, so some would artificially blacken their teeth to appear as if they could. The desire for status seems timeless.
  • Aside from plays, people were entertained by animal baiting – where animals would be forced to fight each other to the death. Apparently, an interesting one was a chimp on a horse being attacked by dogs (maybe American Idol isn’t so bad?).
  • Various scholars have compiled the number of commas, colons, question marks and various phrases used in the Shakespearean cannon.
  • The main four documents that locate William in space and time are those of his baptism, marriage and the birth of his two children.
  • Shakespeare did not actually publish his own works in his lifetime, so we are ver fortunate indeed that a folio was published by John Hemminge and Henry Condell.
  • Before Elizabethan plays, there were no soliloquies and no asides. Further, by putting comedic parts into dramatic stories, they ‘invented’ comic relief.
  • Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as extensive as often thought, but he did contribute to the language enormously, both in singular words as well as phrases.

Other Shakespeares?
Bryson tells us that there are over 50 candidates who some think were the ‘real’ Shakespeare, the most prominent of which are Bacon and Marlow. The people who pursue this idea are known as “Anti-Stratfordian” and all assume that William was not good enough. Yet, his father was mayor of a prominent town and William did borrow liberally from other works at the time. No one has good evidence to suggest that it was Bacon or others. Some woman, also with the name Bacon (but unrelated), first took to the cause and other big names supported her (Emerson, Carlye).Modern linguistic techniques can analyze your personal style of writing (word frequencies, pairings, imagery and the like) and Shakespeare’s style does not match with Bacon or Marlow or any others. It seems unbelievable that another person could completely alter their own, consistently, over many years. Further, it would have to be a massive conspiracy to have fooled everyone in their own lifetimes and still 400 years later.
I believe that Bryson provided both positive and negative reasons/evidence why Shakespeare was himself and not others, and as such I consider the matter resolved unless startling new evidence is discovered.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

Flashforward was a good work of science fiction that explores what happens when people get a 2 minute glimpse of their future 20 years from now and then try to grapple with the fallout (e.g., Are you still with your spouse? Did you ever make it as a writer? Are you alive?).
Like most science fiction, the ideas explored are quite interesting, and Sawyer deserves some credit for coming up with a great idea, but character development and prose are not remarkable.
I found the 2nd half of the book better, probably because there were more discussions of free will, quantum theory and consciousness. Alternatively, the parts about consciousness didn’t make that much sense and there could have been more on the paradoxes of time travel.
I appreciated that Sawyer worked in interesting bits of Canadiana and history, but sometimes it was awkward, so it almost seemed like: Here is where I demonstrate some historical knowledge; here is where I mention something about Canada; and here is where I live out the fan-boy dream of being with a Japanese girl.

In all, it was enjoyable, lighter fair, with more scientific/philosophical exploration in the latter half - which is what I wanted.

Spoiler below:
Probably my favourite part was the 3rd flashforward with Lloyd travelling into the future thousands and then millions if not billions of years. I like thinking about the topics of how the Earth might be turned into a information processing system, and then if it and the Moon might be mined for raw materials to make a Dyson sphere for the sun, and galaxies colliding and immortality. There was also a good amount of tension surrounding the Theo subplot.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel

The Value of Nothing examines how we value goods, why prices are what they are and presses the reader to consider our market system. It was written by the intelligent, academic and widely experience Raj Patel, highly endorsed by Naomi Klein, and personally anticipated through my watching and listening to interviews… Yet, it was, in a word, disappointing. (Heck, the title is based from an Oscar Wilde line, which raised expectations even more… And I think I’m even slightly disappointed by the disappointment.)

Patel discusses how most goods that we buy are so cheap because the corporations and manufacturers externalize various costs (i.e., they treat the environment poorly). If we had fairer wages, fairer trade and environmental responsibility, then things like hamburgers might cost $200. Patel then questions what exactly we mean by value and how we come to value goods, arguing that prices are not equivalent to value. The second half of the book attempts to call into question our market system and provides reasons for why we need to change it.

That all sounds good, but the execution was not what I’d hoped – and I generally agree with him. I don’t know if I was seeking something more academic, but I was definitely looking for something more sophisticated. Using the aforementioned descriptions as examples: the externalized costs could have had a much fuller examination, with greater detail at every step; the exploration of how we define value was one of the highlights, but it seemed cursory in nature; and, finally, the last part about how we need to change our market system seemed a bit disjointed and could have had more rigour.
A problematic general theme is that Patel has some interesting ideas and some interesting facts but he presents them only superficially before moving on to the next topic and one feels that it might all be leading up to something greater… but it isn’t.

Going (somewhat) chronologically:
The initial chapters are a review of the recent financial collapse, some basic economic principles and a brief exploration of behavioural economics (which indicates orthodox economic thinking is flawed).
Subsequently, Patel does a decent exploration of the idea of the “commons” and argues for a reversal of the popular interpretation, stating that people are generally fine managing their usage of resources with others, the problem being the large corporations that know no such boundaries. I hadn’t heard that stance before so I would have liked more details. Additionally, it did seem like Patel was buying into the spurious notion of the Nobel Savage.

Some of the people, communities and actions he describes are worthwhile and sufficiently angering that one cannot help but think the world unjust (Patel’s goal I imagine). For example, tomato pickers in Florida work long hours for little wages and they had to lobby for 4 years just to get an increase of a penny per pound. Of course, they couldn’t lobby their actual employers because they are private companies so they do not care about shareholders and public image the same way a public company would. Consequently, they targeted McDonald’s and Taco Bell and others and eventually won the minor concession. More absurd is that some of the workers are treated like slaves with drugs supplied to keep them under the power of the owners.
It often does seem like there are two worlds: the comfy one in which you read this off your laptop and the absurd one that involves daily physical toil, poor health and near criminal injustice.

Another highlight was the thought experiment on page 112 (from philosopher Jerry Cohen) so I shall paraphrase it: Imagine you live in a world where tickets are distributed randomly. On the tickets are rights – the right to visit a sick friend, the right to live somewhere, the right to eat a steak. You don’t have to do these things; they simply limit what you can do. If you try to go beyond the constraints of your tickets, the law would intervene. The more tickets you have the freer you are. The point? Money is just like the tickets. Money constrains what you can and cannot do. Those without money are as unfree as those without tickets. “In other words, under capitalism, money is the right to have rights.”

The final chapters seem like a collection of thoughts and wishes for the world, and while I’m very sympathetic to his mission as I tend towards idealism, I did not find such conjectures overtly inspiring and anecdotal tales, though interesting and stirring, are not that convincing.
A good book raised questions, but I think a better book answers and raises questions. Problematically, this book supplies more questions than answers.

This would be a decent book for someone who has had little exposure to the ideas of behavioural economics, the problematic nature of corporations or the injustices of the world trade and food systems, but for those with some exposure there isn’t too much here.