Tag: non-fiction

Review – The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Posted 6 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar HendersonThe Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.

One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).

I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.

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Review – Natural-Born Cyborgs

Posted 1 February, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Andy Clark's Natural-Born CyborgsNatural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark

Most people who know me are probably aware that I am very pro-cyborgs. (I even wrote a four-page comic featuring my terrible art and a woman made into a cyborg for my Comics & Graphic Novels class.) The idea fascinates me and given half a chance I’d probably volunteer myself to get wired up. So this book caught my interest immediately, though how exactly Amazon knew to promote it at me, I’m not sure I want to know.

It was published in 2004, so in terms of the technology, it’s a little behind. It talks, for example, about the clunkiness of then-current e-reading technology. I read it on my little Kobo with its e-ink screen — you know, the little device that I actually bought for £24. But in terms of concerns about technology, we haven’t moved much past it. Some of them I was less convinced by (alienation, disembodiment), while others remain a concern, like the “digital divide”.

The main thrust of the book, however, is the theory that we’re already cyborgs, in a sense. Human beings are tool users; we’re not the only ones, but we’re the most sophisticated ones we know of. We’ve had a form of external memory for thousands of years — writing. Though most of us can’t hold numbers in our heads for complicated equations, given a piece of paper, we can work through it and produce the answer. (Given a piece of paper and appropriate time, even I can calculate the heritability of a certain gene in the population, for example, and yet I struggle with remembering how to calculate percentages.) And now, there’s the internet, information at our fingertips. When you grow up with these things, you learn to use them as semi-consciously as you do your own hands: I don’t consciously calculate where the keys are as I’m typing this any more than I consciously calculate how far to lift my hand to turn a door handle.

This aspect of the book hasn’t dated badly. I found it interesting and convincing, and while I don’t share all the author’s ideas about where the links between biology and technology are going, I do agree that the lines are blurring. Perhaps one day we’ll be indistinguishable — after all, our mitochondria began as separate to the cells that were our ancestors.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 29 January, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, by Simon Baker, which was okay but not wondrous. And before that, Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, which is wondrous and a joy to read — it distracted me from work, a lot (or made work easier to handle).

What are you currently reading?
Slow Fall to Dawn, by Stephen Leigh. It’s one of the books I found in Belgium that I’d never heard of before. Apparently it’s from the 80s, but it doesn’t seem too dated, probably because the author sensibly decided to set it after a civilisation crash (and rebuild). I’m enjoying it: at times, the writing seems a little clunky (like introducing a tiny detail and then two pages later, in the next chapter, bashing you over the head with the This Is Plot Relevant mallet).

Aaand Black Dog, by Rachel Neumeier. I’m taking my time with it, really. I’m quite enjoying that it doesn’t feel like YA, aside from in having adolescent protagonists — the characters aren’t instantly falling in love, they’re wary around each other, things aren’t easy, sibling bonds are more important than most other things… Rachel Neumeier’s blog tour swings by my blog tomorrow, so look out for that if you’re interested. There’s a giveaway as well.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, so far this year I’ve followed a fairly steady pattern of working on books I’ve already got started while reading one new, recently bought book that I obviously thought was shiny, while it’s fresh in my mind. So after Slow Fall to Dawn, I’ll probably read the two sequels, and after that… I might get round to Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen.

As for finishing books I’ve already got started, I think Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis and Gillian Bradshaw’s Render Unto Caesar are my next targets.

And I’d like to note that I haven’t bought any books since the Jo Walton, yet. I’m expecting an ARC and I won a LibraryThing giveaway, but I’ve been restrained.

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Review – Through the Language Glass

Posted 25 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Through the Language Glas by Guy DeutscherThrough the Language Glass, Guy Deutscher

I can understand people who feel that Through the Language Glass didn’t quite fulfill its promise. The subtitle might be more accurately, “does the world look different in other languages?” And the answer is yes, but in a limited way that won’t be satisfying to those who want the answer to be an unequivocal yes. People feel that the world is different (for them) in different languages, and even that they are different in other languages, but there just isn’t the scientific data to back those feelings up.

(For me, and this is a brief digression, I do suspect that those who “feel different” when they speak other languages aren’t taking into account context. For example, say you speak Hebrew with your family and English in school. You are a different person in those two contexts, but not because of the language you speak. You’re adapting yourself to the situation, including the language. I suspect that even years after that division is so clear, where you might speak Hebrew to someone in the workplace, the associations remain.)

Anyway, I found the book itself a bit dense and prone to repetition, but overall, very interesting. I loved the discussion of the issue of colour in Homer’s work, as it’s something that inevitably came up when discussing his epithets in class. Why “wine-dark sea”? How could the sea look like wine? And this book has the answer.

It’s fairly conservative in its conclusions, not going beyond the available data — and mocking rather people who did go beyond their data — and explaining everything at some length rather than packing in various new ideas. It does include a lot of examples and interesting facts about various languages, like languages which don’t use egocentric directions but always geographical ones. I would’ve been interested in a bit more on gendered language, but it doesn’t seem as if the work has been done there, yet. It also gives some credit for ideas that were ahead of their time, even if they were founded on shaky principles, which was interesting.

Ultimately, Deutscher explains why early assumptions that language affects the way we perceive the world were wrong — but then goes on to explain that that instinctive feeling isn’t wrong in itself.

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Review – Why Evolution is True

Posted 10 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 18 Comments

Cover of Why is Evolution True by Jerry CoyneWhy Evolution is True, Jerry A. Coyne

This is a suggested book related to one of my current classes on Coursera, so I decided to pick it up. I already believe in evolution, so I can’t judge on whether it’s convincing — I already know that evolution by natural selection is mathematically inevitable, and I know of a lot of the supporting evidence.

Still, this is the kind of book that produces all sorts of titbits that you didn’t know before, and which lays things out so clearly it helps you understand how to explain it to other people (which, to my mind, means a deeper understanding of the theory — if you can explain it, there are fewer grey areas).

Overall, it’s clearly written, with lots of supporting diagrams and so on where it’s useful, and a good set of footnotes and suggestions for further reading. I found it interesting, too; perhaps not for a person with a science background to begin with, but for me (humanities background, science interest) it was easy but not boringly so.

Interestingly, he also touches a little on why people find it hard to accept evolution, and answers some of those objections, too — for example, why our behaviour isn’t fully dictated by our genes, why morality and ethics aren’t dismantled in any way by evolution.

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Review – What Do You Mean You’re Not Interested In Sex?

Posted 26 October, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of What Do You Mean You're Not Interested in Sex? by Amanda LeeWhat Do You Mean You’re Not Interested In Sex?, Amanda Lee

Full disclosure: I know the author and was a proofreader for this. It’s available free on Smashwords, so if it interests you, I do recommend it. Considering the number of people I’ve come across who identify as asexual, it’s amazing that there isn’t more commentary available on it.

Amanda Lee’s paper is a personal and academic exploration of the phenomenon, and covers a lot of the things people don’t understand about it. It’s not at all difficult to read, and it’s not reserved for academics either — the style is plain and accessible. It defines the terms it’s using early on, so there’s no problems there.

Normally I would feel that it isn’t anyone’s business, but it can be pretty isolating, so I guess this is a version of coming out: I’m ace (i.e. asexual) myself. Human bodies can be aesthetically pleasing but if I think too much about it, blech. Please do not remind me that Chris Evans (Captain America) has internal organs; if I think about that too much, I might lose my tiny crush on him.

If right now you’re feeling the urge to say things like, “Are you like that because you were abused or something?”, “you’re using that word wrong” or “you just haven’t met the right person yet”, please follow the link earlier in the review: you’ll find your answers right there, and there are helpful headings in the essay itself to direct you at exactly what you want to know.

Review on Goodreads.

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