Field trip to the Namib Desert – April 2021

The Namib Sand Sea

The Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, where I currently work, has an annual trip to the Namib Desert for sampling purposes and, while it didn’t happen last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was part of this year’s team. It was my first visit to both Namibia and the Namib Desert as well as my first field work since my SANBI internship many years ago.

Gobabeb and the Namib Desert

After flying in and spending one night in Walvis Bay, we were based at Gobabeb-Namib Research Station. It’s small research institution which has been running for several decades and hosts visitors from all over the world who wish to study the desert and its organisms. I found the accommodation there to be comfortable, the food tasty (and plentiful) and the staff very friendly. The only negative was the lack of a decent internet connection, meaning that I essentially spent my time there off the grid.

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Final books of 2020

I actually finished Darwin’s Ghosts two or three months ago but I didn’t want to write about it alone. Unfortunately my reading took a dip in the latter months of the year and it’s only in the last week or so that I finished the other two books. Now I am happy to make the last additions to my 2020 Book List.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search Of The First Evolutionists (2012) by Rebecca Stott

Darwin had been worried about being accused of plagiarism and, to try and appease his critics, began listing previous scientists who had had even remotely similar ideas. In some ways this is a continuation of his work. Stott follows up on some of the key people involved in the development of evolutionary thought and describes their lives and work.

I found myself torn over her writing. It’s easy enough to read but I felt that it became so narrative that parts must have been made up, e.g. describing how, when someone went into a bookshop over a century ago, the books were arranged and the glances between the people. I know it’s just flavour but there’s a lot of it and it felt forced to me. One thing that came out in both the flavour and the facts is how scientific progress has been repeatedly suppressed by religion. One can’t help but wonder how much more we could’ve progressed were it not for the various churches and supernatural beliefs in the world.

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Reference managers: Migrating from Mendeley to Zotero

Today is Software Freedom Day and I thought it would be the perfect time to talk about a software migration I am currently making. I started using Mendeley back in my honours year and was happy enough with it to make a very positive blog post about it in 2012. I was less happy when it joined with Elsevier but continued to use it nonetheless. Now, I am switching to use Zotero as my reference manager in the future. Why?

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Pure, clean nature

The newest additions to my 2020 Book List.

Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach

COVER2The title and cover of this caught my eye in the bookshop and the blurb, stating that Northern California, Oregon and Washington had seceded from the United States to make a new nation with a vision of sustainability, sealed the deal. It’s part novel, part thought experiment narrated by the first American journalist to visit Ecotopia since its secession. The story is told through either diary entries, which tell his personal story, or dispatches to Washington, which detail the functioning of the new country.

Ecotopia itself is intriguing and there’s reasonably detailed descriptions of how it has been restructured to be sustainable with a huge emphasis on biology. Callenbach describes how they have short work weeks, fewer products available but make up with leisure and human contact – often literally as Ecotopians are sexually liberated. It also doesn’t pretend to describe a perfect society, there are issues that have not been solved and, while sexual equality has mostly been achieved, there are still lingering racial tensions. This is all woven into Weston’s own story of culture shock and love as he comes to terms with the differences between Ecotopia and America and considers which one he prefers.

It’s not particularly realistic; there are liberties taken in the science but also in the amount of change that such a large section of a country can undergo in merely 20 years. That said, many aspects do hold up well and there are, I think, many good lessons for how society could be structured. It’s not a perfect world there, nor does it take into account personal computers and the internet which were in their infancy when it was written, but it’s well worth reading to see how some things could be done.

The Hippopotamus (1994) by Stephen Fry

COVER1How can you not like Stephen Fry? He’s a wonderful, pink, fluffy marshmallow of a person! Whether he’s valeting in Jeeves & Wooster, fooling around in A Bit of Fry & Laurie or hosting QI, he’s an absolute delight. I had previously enjoyed reading one of his autobiographies which I had borrowed from one of my aunts who later gave me this book.

Similar to Ecotopia, The Hippopotamus is mostly told through letters and journal entries but, instead of a re-imagined California, it takes place across the pond in an English great house. Ted Wallace, the main character, has been employed by his god-daughter to stay at Swafford Hall and, rather vague instructions, investigate something. Since there is a mystery and it is even a mystery what the mystery is, I will say no more about the plot.

I will say that the book is highly enjoyable and full of surprises; one scene in particular was quite unexpected. Originally, I was surprised at where I thought Fry was taking the story and then I was simultaneously surprised and not surprised when he turned it all around again. Quite an enjoyable read that will keep you guessing.

What begins with A? Animals and Areopagitica.

Additions to my 2020 Book List.

The Unexpected Truth About Animals (2016) by Lucy Cooke

9781784161903Where most books just talk about what we know about a particular animal, Cooke tells us what we used to think about them and then corrects those, sometimes astoundingly wrong, misconceptions. So when we learn about the migration of Storks, we get to marvel that Charles Morton used to think they flew to the moon and back. Sometimes the process of learning about animals is brutal as when the, fairly sadistic, Italian priest Lazzaro Spallanzani tried to learn the secrets of bats’ echolocation by, among other mutilations, cutting out their eyes.

One thing that certainly stands out, is that nearly all the chapters have an emphasis on the animal’s sex. This can be amusing, like how hunters used to believe that beavers would bite off their own scrotum to rid themselves of the valuable castoreum (which doesn’t even come from the scrotum); just strange such as the testosterone fuelled hyena females whose external genitalia is nearly identical to the males’ and who can even achieve an erection; to the disturbing stories from a 1915 paper of penguins engaged in masturbation, homosexuality, paedophilia and necrophilia which were so shocking that the Natural History Museum of London refused to publish it and which was only rediscovered in 2009.

Through all of it, the one constant is its excellence. Lucy Cooke was educated at Oxford and tutored by Richard Dawkins. Whether coincidence or not, she displays the same impressive breadth of knowledge and writing talent as him. No matter what you want, this book has it; animals, sex, science, history, comedy. I can easily say that this has been one of the most interesting and entertaining reads in recent memory and highly recommend it.

Areopagitica (1644) by John Milton

COVER2Areopagitica is the text of a speech presented to the parliament of England to argue against the proposed law that books should be licenced before publication. I decided to read this as it was recommended by Christopher Hitchens in brilliant speech from 2006. In it, he said that the three important texts that anyone should read if they wanted to discuss freedom of speech were John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which I read in 2017, the introduction to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (only a single paragraph) and John Milton’s Areopagitica. Now I have read these formative texts.

There are several points that Milton makes from history, theology and philosophy. There are practical matters, such as whether the censors are capable of the task set out for them and, even if they are, the important question of who can judge the censors are doing the right job. And, if the books are so corrupting, wouldn’t the censors would be the most corrupted? Other points include the limits it would pose to the spread of truth and Milton makes the point that to the pure mind, all things are pure. Even the worst book would only serve as a warning or guide on what to avoid.

Much of the book, particularly the start and ending, are difficult to read due to the archaic structure but, when it comes to the actual arguments, it becomes a bit easier to follow. There are certainly a number of good points and, although I do not think it is nearly as good as On Liberty, the message is still vital in our present times. I find myself in full agreement with Milton when he says, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Books that smell of wet fur

Additions to the 2020 Book List.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper (2020) by AJ Fitzwater

COVER1This is a brand-new book by a New Zealand author about a dapper, lesbian, capybara pirate. Instead of being one continuous story, it is made up of seven short stories that are loosely connected. It sounded like it should be fairly exciting, and it did have its moments, but I came away with far more mixed feelings about it.

I was rather disappointed that it shies away from what you would expect from a traditional pirate story. Although, perhaps expecting something traditional from it was a mistake. Instead of swashbuckling adventure, it’s a far more calm, exploration of a magical world. While it does conjure up some very nice mental imagery in places, it all felt a bit empty. It was like a literary equivalent of the video game The First Tree. It has the same calm, dreamy feel – which is nice enough – but it always feels like something is missing.

Looking back, there’s an aspect which makes it contrast with the next book I read. There was a lot of emphasis in it on Cinrak being a polyamarous lesbian and the many other LGBT characters, a contrast to most media, but it actually had little relevance to most of the stories. In contrast, a large part of Black Angel’s story is motivated by the main character’s conflicted sexuality (or, more accurately, asexuality) but without it being pushed so hard.

Black Angel (2016) by Kyell Gold

COVER2This is the third and final book in the Dangerous Spirits trilogy. While they are slightly related and share characters, it’s not really necessary to read them in order to follow each individual story. This isn’t the first Kyell Gold book mentioned here, I also reviewed The Time He Desires last year, but, although I read the earlier books, this is the first of this trilogy that I am reviewing here.

The story in Black Angel is focussed on an otter girl, Meg, who is unsure of many things including what she will do in the future and her own sexuality. She isn’t one to believe in the supernatural and is sceptical of her roommates’ (the protagonists of the previous books) accounts of spirits getting involved in their lives. She begins to have her doubts as she finds herself compelled to draw a comic with voodoo spirits set in the past and has vivid dreams of a techno-theocratic future where the subject of her dreams, dreams of her. Is she being visited by spirits or is it all hallucinations brought on by the combined stress of her best friends moving away, trying to understand her sexuality and coming off the anti-depressants she’s been on since a suicide attempt in high school?

At first, I found parts of the narrative frustrating, as it jumps between the three separate story lines, but, when they all start to come together in the climax, it just became hard to decide which one I wanted the story to focus on more. As with all of Kyell Gold’s work that I’ve read, Black Angel is extremely well-written. The characters all have their unique personalities and he puts effort into researching his subject matter. (There is a small explanation at the end of the book about the difference between Vodou and Voodoo.) I would definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in furry fantasy or alternative sexualities.

Lineage OS and the importance of free software

Almost all of us carry phones with us, often smart phones that contain a lot of sensitive data. It can be very difficult to keep that data secure because phones often give up a lot of our information without our knowledge or, sometimes, consent. Your phone can be sending data every two seconds. So what can you do about it?

Lineage OS

PIC1Several years ago, I was struggling with an old phone and, as a way to prolong its life, installed CyanogenMod. That was an alternative operating system to Android which solved some of my performance issues, although it did cause some of its own issues. But it introduced me to the world of custom ROMs and all of my current devices are running the successor project, Lineage OS. Since I just recently re-installed Lineage OS on my phone, I thought I should briefly talk about it. Continue reading

Books from the young and old

Additions to the 2020 Book List.

No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference (2019) by Greta Thunberg

COVER1This is barely a book; it is a short collection of Thunberg’s various speeches. They are all very similar and at times have whole sections repeated nearly verbatim. But that is to be expected when you are trying to give the same message to different audiences. But they are worth reading to get a sense of the desperation and urgency of the climate crisis; something which is not conveyed by most politicians.

I have a huge amount of respect for Greta Thunberg and I think it is terrible the way she has been treated and attacked by various people. She actually has the courage and conviction to stand up for her beliefs. This is in stark contrast to most politicians who are careful not to say anything too controversial with the public that will lose them support. And in contrast with many businessmen whose only interest seems to be how the economy is doing in the present. We need people like Thunberg who are not only focussed on the present but considering how our actions here today will affect the future. And, for those that would dismiss her just because she is a child, she is merely repeating what climate scientists are saying and have been saying for a while now. If we would listen to the scientists in the first place, we wouldn’t need a child to come and tell us what needs to be done.

Having finished this book just recently, I couldn’t help but comparing the way two different crises are being covered. Thunberg says how strange it was first learning about climate change because “if it was really happening we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you turn on the TV everything would be about that. Headlines, radio, newspapers, you would never read or hear about anything else.” That’s how the corona virus is being covered! It’s strange that this one virus is getting all this attention while climate change is hardly covered in comparison. Is it just the speed? Frankly the media needs to drastically step up how it covers climate change if we are going to make the required progress.

Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide (2019) by Richard Dawkins

COVER2Outgrowing God is divided into two sections, the first of which directly addresses religion and The Bible. It’s the same arguments that always come up but in a simplified form. Although I knew most of what was discussed, there were a few interesting surprises, particularly the section on the non-canonical gospels and the stories they told about Jesus’ (alleged) early life.

The second section of the book is devoted to evolution and how it removes the need for a god in explaining the apparent design and diversity of life. From time to time, I found some new and interesting information but I felt the section was let down by being oversimplified and labouring each point to death.

Aside from one book (which has been sitting on my shelf for the past two or three years), I have read every single one of Dawkins’ books. This is not one of my favourites. Nearly everything has been covered before, and much better, in his previous books. The two sections also feel quite disjointed and could’ve been better integrated. While I really enjoyed the pacing and crescendo of the final chapter, the book as a whole felt lacking. That said, I am not the target audience and perhaps those that are less familiar with the topics will benefit from it more.