A literary return to the Namib Desert

I managed to finish off two more books for my 2021 Book List. It’s still fewer than I had hoped for this year but it’s better than nothing.

The Sheltering Desert (1956, translated 1957) by Henno Martin

This is a memoir which recounts the story of two German geologists stationed in South West Africa, now Namibia, which I bought during my trip to the Namib Desert. When WWII broke out, they wanted no part in it, nor did they wish to be interned by the police, so they resolved to hide out in the Namib Desert until it was all over. The pair of scientists and their dog travelled into the desert and remained there for two years until malnutrition forced them to abandon their plan.

Along with the descriptions of life in the desert are several philosophical musings on human society, evolution and the nature of man. A lot of it feels quite dated but I really enjoyed the discussions on the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Even back then, many people living in cities and towns had little actual contact with wild, or even tame, animals; meaning no familiarity. Martin observed that, after time in the desert, with only the wild animals as their neighbours, they began to see the complexity in their behaviour and recognise the animals as being as unique as other people.

As the pair are scientists, the story is more than just a tale of survival. Scientific curiosity is evident in many observations and trips which include one to investigate why the rocks of a distant mountain were so white. If you’re at all interested in outdoor activities or the Namib, I think it will make for a great read.

Why Vegan? (2020) by Peter Singer

Why Vegan? is a collection of essays by the controversial, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I had already read his classic book Animal Liberation but only after already becoming a vegetarian. These essays also revolve around the topic of animals and diet and span several decades, the earliest from 1973 and the most-recent from 2020. It’s a quick read, with some essays being incredibly short, but a very important topic.

Singer’s ethical approach is about avoiding causing unnecessary suffering, so several essays discuss cruelty in farming. In his introduction he does note that several practices documented in older works, such as Animal Liberation, have now been outlawed but not all problems have been fixed. In an essay from 2006 on chicken farming, he describes how many chickens are still kept in cramped conditions, standing in their own filth, where some starve to death and many others are boiled, alive and conscious, due to failures of the stunning system and manual oversight. These are things we ought to know if we are to be informed consumers.

If someone has never thought much about the practice of eating animals, because it is usually an unquestioned aspect of human society, then this collection will serve as a good introduction to the topic. This collection doesn’t go deep into details (I would recommend something like A Plea for the Animals to expand on the topic.) but it raises many of the questions and concerns which everyone should keep in mind. Regardless of the answers we eventually settle on, this is a pressing topic which we must think hard about and not allow the suffering of our fellow creatures to be hidden behind the veils of tradition and ignorance.

Updating my blogroll

The blogroll is on the main page of my blog and links to various other sites that I consider worth reading. The sites which were on there were from many years ago and included several which I no longer read. When I noticed that, I saw that it was time to update it. Here’s a new list of blogs which are worth reading. Go check them out.

Animal Emotions

Animal Emotions is written by Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, United States and co-founder of the Jane Goodall Institute of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (ethology being the study of animal behaviour). The blog deals with various aspects of animal behaviour, welfare and ethics.

The Bowman Lab

This is the blog for the laboratory of Jeff Bowman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US. This is a blog that I started following more recently to get a wider view of microbial ecology. The Bowman lab works on different aspects of microbial ecology with many posts focussing on analytical tools as well as marine and polar microbial ecology.

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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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Animals – both fictional and real

It’s been a while since I posted here. I better correct that by adding a short review of the last two books I read for my 2019 Book List.

Dissident Signals (2018) edited by NightEyes DaySpring and Slip Wolf

COVER1This is not a single novel but a collection of short stories; all set in a post-apocalyptic world and involving anthropomorphic (or furry) characters. Altogether, there are sixteen stories by various authors who approach the subject matter in wildly different ways. This makes it difficult to say anything which applies to the collection as a whole.

I can say that I enjoyed very many of the stories and the quality is extremely high. It’s also worth reading them to see how various scenarios could play out. While some stories are fantastical or only deal with the world after society collapses, others describe what happened to cause the dystopias. Some occurred because of all-powerful AIs, others due to environmental collapse and still others reflect what happens when our politics becomes callous and uncaring. These are all fears which society has today and potential worst-case scenarios which we want to avoid.

One of the nice things about fiction is while the worlds are not real, they often can say something about our current situation. There are stories which address very pressing and real concerns in our current societies but without the judgement that comes from talking about specific people or groups. It would be good for more people to read collections like this, take the lessons to heart and then think about the way in which they conduct themselves and how they would be portrayed in a novel.

A Plea For The Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, And Evolutionary Imperative To Treat All Beings With Compassion (2014, translation 2016) by Matthieu Ricard

COVER2This book is by a French author who studied molecular genetics but later became a Buddhist monk. I picked it up when I was visiting Paris with my sister. One of my aunts had already been in Paris for a few weeks and took us to an English book store near Notre Dame. This book turned out to be a great choice; not only does it address the topic of human-animal relationships well but it does so mainly referencing French authors and with a slightly Buddhist approach, both of which are fairly alien to me. In some senses it is similar to Dominion, which was written from a Christian perspective and led to my becoming a vegetarian, but I would say that this is the superior book.

Ricard examines the treatment of animals from a wide range of perspectives and over a long period of human history. He talks about the Romans and Greeks as well as Seaworld and Zoos and discusses the religious, philosophical and scientific aspects of various arguments for and against the use of animals. While there are some areas that I was curious about but couldn’t easily find references for, most of the book is well referenced and supported by extensive quotations. Particularly refreshing is that Ricard speaks and lives his convictions. He says how things are and how it deviates from an ideal world, even if some people do not want to hear that.

I loved the book and think it is perhaps the best on the topic that I have read. I prefer Ricard’s conviction to the watered down conclusion at the end of Dominion and A Plea For The Animals is more recent and up-to-date than Animal Liberation. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in animals to read it but, more importantly, those that do not generally think of animals should read it and consider how their lives affect other living beings.

2019 Book List

A new year means a new set of books. As in 2017 and 2018, I am recording the books that I read; partly for my own record and partly that it might help someone else find a book that sounds interesting.

24/03/2019 Added Black Leopard Red Wolf and The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution.

06/05/2019 Added In A Dog’s World and The Time He Desires.

27/05/2019 Added And Yet… and The Communist Manifesto.

27/09/2019 Added Dissident Signals and A Plea For The Animals

28/12/2019 Added On Anarchism and Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide

21 Lessons For The 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari

Book1I got this one for Christmas. It’s a collection of essays, written by an Israeli historian, covering various topics, including truth, religion, terrorism, equality, war and education. Nearly all of the essays are interesting and raise many questions worth pondering. It’s a lot shorter on answers than questions but it certainly stimulates the mind.

One of the major topics that bothers him is what will happen when big data/AI and biotech combine. He sees the merger of the fields as likely creating an inequality that can’t easily be overcome. He fears that the wealth concentrated in the hands of a few will allow them to modify their biology to be superior while AI and robots will mean that workers are unnecessary making the masses functionally and politically irrelevant. Aside from that there are many other great essays on important topics, such as how the current rise of nationalism is fundamentally incapable of tackling issues like climate change which affect many and require a widespread, co-ordinated response. Continue reading

Schönbrunn Tiergarten

A few weeks ago, some members of my lab planned a trip to the Schönbrunn Tiergarten (Schönbrunn Zoo) in Vienna, the oldest zoo in the world, and I went with them. In this post I’ll just share some of the better photos from the day. I should also note that I have not forgotten that zoos are seldom ideal. I take some solace in that, according to Wikipedia:

Today, Tiergarten Schönbrunn is considered and regards itself as a scientifically administered zoo which sees its main purpose as a centre for species conservation and general nature conservation as well as in the fulfillment of the education mandate given to it by the legislation.

Regarding that, I did, from time to time, keep an eye out for environmental enrichments. Obviously a brief visit is not going to give a great overview but I did see enrichment in some enclosures, so I assume that such considerations are taken into account. Continue reading

Quicklinks: Animals and religion

You might recall that, last year, I spoke about some free on-line educational tools I was dabbling with. I now want to recommend that anyone who has some sort of contact with animals, whether through work, having a pet or just eating meat, take the Animal Behaviour and Welfare course offered by The University of Edinburgh. I found it to be very engaging and an excellent introduction into a subject which affects most of us. It’s a welfare approach so sometimes it has its flaws, seeking to maximise welfare when one might rather stop the practice altogether, but it is science-based and doesn’t push a specific view. For example, they mention that cats kept indoors will be safer and have medical care but have welfare concerns about boredom and lack of choice. Stray animals benefit from free choices but have welfare challenges like being attacked by humans. In addition, there is a lot of extra information available. I didn’t have the time to go through it all but aside from the standard lectures there are extra recorded interviews and Google Hangouts as well as links to books and scientific articles which could be of interest.

At the end of last year, I stopped following Pharyngula, which had been one of my original inspirations for blogging, because I no longer considered PZ Myers to be a good model for rational thought. I felt kinda satisfied to now read that Atheist Ireland has (more symbolically than anything else) publicly dissociated from him. Their complaint is largely based on his “hurtful and dehumanising, hateful and violent, unjust and defamatory rhetoric.” It’s hard to fault them there. He always was less polite than many other writers but there are times when that can be justified and other times when it’s extraneous. His usage was mostly belonged to the latter category.

Lastly, a member of Mensa South Africa posted a link to this infographic on the group’s Facebook feed. It lists 439 topics where Bible verses contradict one another. In places it will no doubt be argued that it’s just semantics and interpretation but others are clear-cut contradictions. For example, regarding the death of Judas, Matthew 27:5 says:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

While Acts 1:18 says:

With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.

Quicklinks: crows, climate and computers

There’s an interesting story about crows from the BBC (found via io9) about a girl who regularly feeds crows. That wouldn’t be so remarkable if the crows weren’t now giving her gifts in return. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised. Crows are highly intelligent and have long term memory of people. There are wild animals that can think and feel and reciprocate a person’s gifts. If people had more interactions with animals we would probably hear more such stories. At the moment they tend to be limited to pets.

One of my recent quicklink posts (well… December) mentioned both the need to reduce consumption of meat to reduce (drastically) our impact on climate change and the strong opposition that meets such proposals. In a heartening, though non-binding, move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have released their 2015 scientific report to the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services which explicitly mention reducing consumption of meat due to the effect on climate change. This is covered in Slate.

In the world of computing it seems like we are gradually winning the fight against unnecessary and invasive internet surveillance. Not necessarily because everyone has been convinced but because the people fighting surveillance are a cohesive movement. And then there’s also an interesting piece on how discussion about security vulnerabilities in code can be prevented laws. The main feeling of the article is frustration at how laws prevent important ethical discussions.