Rocks, (metaphorical) souls and His Dark Materials

Additions to my 2021 Book List.

Life at Rock Surfaces (2021) edited by Burkhard Büdel and Thomas Friedl

This is quite different to the other books I’ve been reading, both because it’s aimed at academics and because it’s not mine. I was lent a copy of the book by Pedro, my friend and colleague, who was an author of one of the chapters. Each chapter focusses on a different aspect of life, mostly microbial, at rock surfaces. Some of the chapters make for interesting reading on organisms living in quite an extreme habitat and some, like a taxonomy guide, are not chapters that lend themselves to normal reading.

As it’s aimed at an academic audience, it’s not really accessible unless you have a fair bit of familiarity with the field. Each chapter is written by a different set of authors and so the quality and style of writing varies wildly from chapter-to-chapter. The best chapters are fairly easy to read and follow but others are a slog. Part of this is due to the content of the chapters but, often, it is poor academic writing that is opaque or unnecessarily stilted. For example, there was one chapter written by a single author that repeatedly used phrases such as “The author hypothesises …” instead of “I think …” The former isn’t a more scientific way of writing; it’s stilted, it’s awkward and is the sort of thing that leads to multiple articles about why scientific writing needs to change.

Science in the Soul (2017) by Richard Dawkins

This is a collection of Dawkin’s essays and speeches from across the years. There is a lot of good content with a wide range of subjects, including science, religion, politics, humour and even a few eulogies. I had read probably about four of them before but that didn’t matter because it was still worthwhile reading them again. Out of the whole collection, there only a handful which I did not enjoy, which is a pleasant return to normality after Outgrowing God.

Despite the breadth of topics, there is an impressive depth of insight which one only gets from spending decades immersed in science. Dawkins’ clarity when writing and the knowledge beneath his writing is a welcome change from so much of the shallow and misguided thinking which is commonly seen today. Indeed, several chapters touch on issues which are still debated, even though they probably should’ve been settled many years ago. Dawkins is probably the best modern science writer and I can highly recommend this book.

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass (2000) by Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass is the final book of the His Dark Materials trilogy and it is a great conclusion. I won’t say I am entirely happy with the way that everything ended, but I can see why it ended that way. I won’t say much of what happens to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it is a brilliant story, set in vivid worlds and overflowing with imagination.

I really enjoyed seeing some scientific musings in this book. During the story, the characters travel between different worlds and, in one of them, evolution followed a very different path. It’s not in any way a scientific book but it did a really cool job of pondering a different path of evolution and showing the interplay between different organisms as well as their environment. That was really cool.

The entire trilogy was well-written but I have to be clear how addictive and easy-to-read it is. There are good books that I’ve enjoyed reading but, when I finished a chapter, I was ready to stop. All of the His Dark Materials books are those wonderful sort where, after I finished a chapter, I just wanted to keep going. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and think I might need to look into the BBC series to see how it compares.

Science is universal

I’ve seen some rather disturbing reports recently that New Zealand is aiming to insert indigenous Mātauranga Māori beliefs into science classes. While there are, no doubt, many important bits of knowledge, there are also many superstitions such as the belief that “Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears.” This is hardly the first time that unscientific, indigenous knowledge has been pushed in this way nor the first time that science has been, incorrectly, criticised as Western, white or European. In 2016, an infamous video did the rounds, showing a “ScienceMustFall” student at the University of Cape Town claiming that some people could use witchcraft to strike others with lightning. Mythical origin stories which claim that certain groups have always caused problems for those studying human migration in both North America and Australia. Many of these criticisms appear to be rooted in the negative way these communities have historically been treated. What becomes frustrating is that there are many legitimate concerns in those criticisms but the push-back becomes an over-correction which now demands an equal place for unscientific mythology which does not belong in a science classroom.

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2021 Book List

This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.

2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

14/12/2021 Added Life at Rock Surfaces, Science in the Soul and The Amber Spyglass.
31/12/2021 Added The Sheltering Desert and Why Vegan?

Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.

My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.

I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.

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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.

2020 Book List

This is the fourth year I’m doing this (2019, 2018, 2017) and I’m hoping to read two books per month. It’s a challenge but certainly not impossible; I just need to make the time and do it. I think making these lists has already helped me keep reading.

10/03/2020 Added No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference and Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide.

29/05/2020 Added The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper and Black Angel.

4/07/2020 Added The Unexpected Truth about Animals and Areopagitica.

15/08/2020 Added Ecotopia and The Hippopotamus.

38/12/2020 Added Darwin’s Ghosts, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde And Other Stories and Furries Among Us 2.

Permanent Record (2019) by Edward Snowden

This was a Christmas gift and something I’d been eager to read. Edward Snowden was the one who leaked the existence of PRISM and that the democratic societies in the world were willing to trample on the rights of their citizens just as much as the dictatorships and autocracies they ostensibly opposed. Since then we’ve heard time and time again how both nation states and large corporations have disregarded the rights and interests of people for their own benefit.

The book itself is fascinating, both as an autobiography of one of the heroes of our generation and also to get a glimpse into the secretive world of government espionage. It’s interesting to see how Snowden grew up and what events influenced him. I do wonder how much of it really transpired that way and how much has changed in the process of looking back with new insights. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. It’s entertaining, informative, inspiring and worth reading for everyone.

Ultimately, saying that you don’t care abut privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe. Just because this or that freedom might not have meaning to you today doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or won’t have meaning tomorrow, to you, or to your neighbour—or to the crowds of principled dissident I was following on my phone who were protesting halfway across the planet, hoping to gain just a fraction of the freedoms that my country was busily dismantling.

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Books about fantasy and reality

Two new books, one dealing with fantasy and the other with reality, added to my 2019 Book List.

Cover1Black Leopard Red Wolf (2019) by Marlon James

I originally heard of Black Leopard Red Wolf from a list of books to read in 2019. It sounded pretty cool; a fantasy story with an African setting, magic, shape-shifting and all that good stuff. It delivered in some respects but not in others and there were many odd things about it. It’s the first book in a trilogy but I am still conflicted over whether I will read the later books or not.

The best part of the book is that it’s familiar enough as a fantasy to easily get into it but different enough that it’s always interesting. It draws a lot from various African mythologies and I recognise some of the influences but not others. There are neither elves nor dwarfs but weird creatures that I haven’t seen before; like the impundulu, an anthropomorphic, lightning-shooting, vampiric bird, and omoluzu, strange creatures which attack from the ceilings of buildings.

The most negative part of the book is the way that it is written. I assume it’s a stylistic choice but it’s not one that really works for me. There is little explanation of unfamiliar terms and coarse vulgarity, often for little reason. Beyond that, the grammar is broken in many instances and, more often than not, detracts from, rather than adds to, the narrative. While I can think of many reasons why one would write in such a way, few of them seem to apply here and it takes a lot of getting used to.

cover2The Four Horsemen: The Conversation That Started An Atheist Revolution (2019) by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris & Christopher Hitchens

Although published now in 2019, with a foreword by Stephan Fry and short introductory pieces by the remaining Horsemen, this is merely a transcript of the the only conversation that all four of these minds shared, which took place in 2007. There isn’t much more to it than that.

It is not as deep as any of their books but will at least serve as a reminder of the whole atheism debate and the questions it raised after the events of 11 September 2001 tragically reminded the world that religion could, and still continues, to inspire people to kill for their beliefs. In the conversation, The Horsemen cover questions such as how the universe was created, is there any value to faith, why is evidence important and are some religions simply worse than others.

Other than a reminder, there is little new to be gained here. However, I think it is a great addition to anyone’s library for its historical value. As Penn Jillette’s quote on the back of the book says, “This conversation is as good a place as any to mark the start of the Atheist revolution.” That said, I would recommend watching and listening to the conversation rather than reading it.

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

Updates and Quick Links

I do have plans for a proper post soon but I was hoping to receive an email in connection with it. In the meantime here are a few little things to keep you occupied.

In August I described the violence in Burma that left 90 people dead and forced a further 100 000 from their homes. A few days ago I noticed the country was back in the news with another 22 000, mostly Muslims, displaced in fresh violence. Continue reading