Tag: non-fiction

Review – In The Land of Invented Languages

Posted 1 November, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika OkrentIn the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent

I’m not much of a linguist in the technical sense, though I do enjoy learning languages (and especially doing translation), so I wasn’t sure if reading a book about invented languages might be too technical. Luckily, it isn’t: In the Land of Invented Languages is actually a really easy read, with a more personal than professional analysis of the languages discussed — although it does go into some details about how each one works, why it’s effective or not, how much it’s used, etc.

Better, Okrent actually participates or participated in some events based around these languages, like Klingon and Esperanto, so she has an insider view (to some extent, anyway). It’s kind of fun reading about how she got hooked on learning Klingon, and her mixed feelings about hanging round with the other Klingon speakers. While she mostly talks about why these invented languages aren’t really successful, she does so with sympathy and an eye to how they create communities and cultures, and also a deep appreciation for the coolness of conlangs and the communities around them. (Even if that coolness is a very geeky, linguistic coolness, obviously.)

It’s an absorbing and entertaining read, which is also pretty informative, and I found myself wanting to share it immediately. For those with a bit more knowledge, I think you might want more detail about the technical workings of some languages, but as a survey of invented languages and their communities, I think it’s pretty awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Dinosaurs Without Bones

Posted 31 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Dinosaurs Without Bones by Anthony MartinDinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony J. Martin

This book takes the rather refreshing view that the most interesting things we know about the dinosaurs are to be gleaned not from their skeletons — impressive as they are, they are mute; we don’t even have whole skeletons in many cases, or even know exactly how the parts that we do have go together. Cue trace fossils: footprints, nests, all the ways the dinosaurs impacted their landscapes and left signs of their passing (not to mention their eating, breeding, and — hold on, sorry, in the spirit of this book I have to do this — their passing of various waste products).

From that parentheses you will have gathered than Martin takes delight in being down to earth about things. He makes no bones (ha) about the fact that a lot of useful information can be gained from traces like coprolites and urolites — and that he hopes that someone will find other traces, like those of dinosaur mating rituals and even the act itself. There’s so much that we don’t know, and which bones can’t tell us, but if we find some kind of fossil trace of dinosaur flatulence, we’ll have support for the idea that they had bacterial microbiomes to help them digest food (since it seems reasonably clear that many of them didn’t have the expected gastroliths).

Despite that, and a healthy enjoyment of jokes and light asides, this is a really informative and fascinating book which gives you an idea of the scope for investigation in trace fossils, even those which don’t preserve more than a tiny fragment of dinosaur life. It also looks at how we can use modern equivalents (e.g. in the same ecological niche, or with similar physiology) to get an idea of what we’re even looking for in the fossil record.

Where I would normally quibble is Martin’s fictional reconstructions, but I think he’s very clear that they are fiction, and that he’s using them to illustrate a point, so I won’t dock him any marks for that.

The mark of really good non-fiction for me is that it makes me want to steer my career in the direction indicated, in this case paleontology. Now, a lot of it sounds like too much work outdoors for me, but all the same, I feel the fascination.

(It’s okay, Mum. I’m sticking with doing-something-with-biology as a vague direction for now. I promise you’ll have me out of your hair bank account one of these days.)

Rating: 5/5

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Review – A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England

Posted 28 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian MortimerA Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Flashback Friday review from 1st April, 2013 (but unfortunately it wasn’t a joke)

As a history book, this is an interesting format and it’s reasonably engaging, though by the end I was starting to get worn down by the sheer level of detail. But what bothered me was that apparently, if you want to time travel, you’d better be male: there’s some lip service paid to actually discussing women’s role in society, with some references to the kind of work women did (mostly: make ale, I gather), and quite a lot of reference to the kind of clothes women wore, and how likely women were to be assaulted and raped, but. We hear about monks and not about nuns, about merchants and not about their wives, about farmers and not their daughters.

And don’t give me the excuse about that not being interesting to read about: nor is intricate detail about what a monk can eat on which days, for most people.

In summary: to time travel, apparently you have to be male. And only men are interesting. Slightly disappointed I paid for this book right now.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Oxygen: The Molecule That Made The World

Posted 27 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick LaneOxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, Nick Lane

I’ve tried twice to read this in full, and found that though at the beginning it’s engaging and interesting, the sheer level of detail starts to wear on me. This time, I was well served by having the first year of a BSc behind me: it’s easier to understand what the by-products of photosynthesis are when you have a good grasp of how photosynthesis works, and why it generates highly reactive intermediates. Despite Lane’s aim at the general reader, then, perhaps it’s worth noting that at least some knowledge of chemistry is very helpful in understanding what Lane is saying.

The problem with his theories is that he includes so much speculative material, and when I went looking for some corroboration, this review in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine is pretty damning:

These are generalities, and the identification of more specific points of reservations and disagreement in the text will depend on the particular interests and expertise of the individual reader. Various statements that are questionable, perverse or just wrong will be picked up by medical readers.

And indeed, I have to admit that despite my lack of specialist knowledge, on the topic of genetics I could see some flaws. It’s well enough known now, I think, that so-called “junk DNA” is in large part no such thing; damage by radiation to any part of the DNA can be damaging (though “junk” may not be involved in that point in an organism’s lifecycle, may have repetitions which ameliorate the effect of the damage, etc). I know this book is from 2002, and that view of “junk DNA” is relatively new (enough that Nessa Carey’s book on it wasn’t unnecessary!), so perhaps I shouldn’t judge too harshly. But it’s definitely shaky ground, and if I can see that as a layman, I don’t know how much to trust in his expertise in other areas (though it’s worth noting he is a biochemist).

The subject is interesting; Nick Lane’s introduction to it piques the interest. But I don’t think he follows through on his promises, and if you do read it, I would do so with caution.

Rating: 2/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 25 October, 2016 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a Halloween freebie. Horror and such isn’t my genre, so instead my list is focused on things that really scare me — and they should probably scare you too.

  1. The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo. If the Stanford prison experiment doesn’t scare the pants off you, I don’t know what will. Stanley Milgram’s experiments are honestly less shocking to me, having read about the actual experimental design and the way it was reported. But the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment knew exactly what was happening at all times, and yet they were still manipulated by the situation into acting like monsters, or enabling monsters. Even the guy nominally in charge of the experiment, Zimbardo himself, did not realise what was going on until an outsider asked him what the hell he was playing at.
  2. Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. The idea that inflammation in your brain can reproduce the symptoms of mental disorders and make your case seem entirely baffling and hopeless… Our brains are so ridiculously fragile, as Cahalan’s case proves.
  3. Panic Attacks, by Christine Ingham. This is actually a book about learning to cope with panic attacks, which I found somewhat helpful. But the fact remains that panic is terrifying, and hard to get a handle on, and just the idea of being as anxious as I was when I needed this book scares me rather a lot.
  4. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. First, on the superficial level, it’s Dawkins and I’m both terrified of his smug sense of superiority and that I might ever be like him. But also let this book stand for the fear of not knowing — of things, perhaps, being unknowable. And then worse, that people say, claim, believe that this could mean condemnation after death? Erk. Scary thought. I don’t even know where I stand on that.
  5. Spillover, by David Quammen. If you’re not terrified of the idea of a pandemic, you’re kidding yourself. We’re destroying habitats and bringing ourselves into closer and closer contact with reservoirs of disease like Ebola, AIDs, SARS, Hendra… We may be lucky. We’ve been lucky. Will that continue?
  6. A Mind of its Own, by Cordelia Fine. Or a number of other books on similar topics — the way our brains lie to us, as a result of the way they function. It’s actually alarming the things you can ignore, given the right combination of factors.
  7. Why Evolution is True, by Jerry A. Coyne. I find it a little frightening that the general public is often ignorant of evolution and the fact that it is completely proven, and in fact a mathematically necessary conclusion. So the fact that this book exists is half reassuring — because you can learn about evolution — and half terrifying, because oh, how we need it.
  8. The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris. This is slightly tongue in cheek, but Harris’ views of morality are definitely not mine, and I find his way of thinking alien.
  9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The book is amazing. It also terrified me because, guys, there are immortal lines of cancer cells just propagating in labs right now. Right now. And also probably cells undergoing deleterious mutations in our own bodies. And also, the medical establishment is not infallibly moral. Everything about this is scary (though the latter part is, I admit, obvious — if you need this book to tell you that humans are fallible, well).
  10. Missing Microbes, by Martin J. Blaser. We are screwing up millennia of co-evolution by killing off microbes that have existed within the human body and adapted to us, and we don’t even really know what the consequences will be. And you know, that whole problem with antibiotic resistance. (Which in itself proves what I said in #7 about evolution, by the way. If evolution isn’t happening right now, why are microbes developing antibiotic resistance?)

So yeah, hope you’re all good and terrified now! I am. Just a little. Mostly healthy fear.

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Review – The Technological Singularity

Posted 19 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Technological Singularity by Murray ShanahanThe Technological Singularity, Murray Shanahan

It seems odd to me that Shanahan says that science fiction doesn’t examine the issues of the singularity deeply, and yet I feel that several spec-fic books have done so much more than this non-fiction book. He does as much work in imagining, glancing at the possibilities for general AI and what they might mean, and though he tries to discuss them intellectually, I feel that other authors writing fiction have made me engage much more with the issues.

It’s informative enough, but I found it relatively simplistic: it stuck as closely as possible to what can be imagined using our modern technology, which I think is kind of not the point of the whole singularity idea, which should be an advance that leaves behind humans as we currently are. I think it might better be explored in fiction; at least then, it can give us an illusion of otherness, which is undermined by the matter of fact discussions of how something could come about.

If you’re interested in AI, but know basically nothing, this is a decent primer. If you’re a science fiction fan, stick to novels: they’re more imaginative and more interesting, and I say that as someone who does enjoy non-fiction a lot. If you’re curious based on the title, why not? But if you’re looking for something in depth and philosophical, no, this holds nothing new.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Epigenetics

Posted 17 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Epigenetics audiobook by Richard FrancisEpigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance, Richard C. Francis, read by Kurt Elftmann

Epigenetics is one area of science that just delights me — even the fact that it really irritates people because of potentially Lamarckian interpretations kind of amuses me. It’s based on solid research about the large scale effect observed from the ‘Dutch Hunger Winter’, and the impact it had on the gene expression of not only children of those who went through it, but grandchildren as well. Given the solidity of that research, it always weirds me out when people want to claim epigenetics is just the latest fad, like it’s not valid. It explains a lot, and we know its mechanisms and can predict its effects: isn’t that enough?

This book is a reasonable introduction to the subject, simple enough for a complete layman to understand. In fact, at times it almost detours away from science into literary criticism, discussing the portrayal of PTSD in different characters in a particular movie. It’s relevant as an example, but there’s so much space spent on it, it was a bit irritating — especially if you know nothing of the movie. It also covers pretty basic science, explaining not only how epigenetics works (in a very basic sense), but also how genetics works.

I actually listened to this as an audiobook, while crocheting, and though I have no specific complaints to make of the narrator, neither did he fill me with any kind of enthusiasm. I’m not sure if that’s how I’ll universally feel about non-fiction audiobooks, since of course, the reader doesn’t need to act. Still, he’s saying these awesome things about how our bodies work, and he sounds like he’s reading out a recipe for bread. It feels weird!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Surgeon of Crowthorne

Posted 12 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon WinchesterThe Surgeon of Crowthorne, Simon Winchester

It sounds pretty sensational: a known murderer worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — a murder who was known to be insane and who was kept at Broadmoor for the entire time he was assisting. The book isn’t quite so sensational in outlook; it does describe the murder, but it also treats the man who did it — Dr Minor — with sympathy and respect. It’s surprisingly far-ranging, touching on Minor’s involvement in the American Civil War as well as the work of Dr Murray on the Oxford English Dictionary, and the whole context of both endeavours.

In the end, in fact, it seems to deal so sympathetically with Dr Minor — who without a doubt was suffering from some serious delusions for most of his life — that I didn’t find it sensational at all. It seemed to be as much about the dictionary and about the friendship between Dr Minor and Dr Murray as about the sensationalism of it, which I quite liked. Ultimately, it’s rather ambivalent about the actual subject: is it Minor, or is it the dictionary? But nonetheless, I found it pretty interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Owain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales

Posted 8 October, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Owain Glyndŵr by Terry BrevertonOwain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales, Terry Breverton

For a Welsh person, I used to know sadly little about Owain Glyndŵr. I knew he was a national hero, and I knew a tiny little bit about the history surrounding his revolts. He was mentioned, briefly, in one of my high school history textbooks, as a violent and dangerous criminal; the rest I sort of absorbed by osmosis, or from brief appearances in fiction like Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper).

Well, now I ‘know’ a lot more facts and figures, though I’m not sure how well they’re going to stick. While the style itself is readable, it felt like a long list of facts from the beginning, with the lightning-quick tour of English-Welsh history prior to Glyndŵr’s time. It didn’t really get much better once talking about Owain himself. And the bias is — well, I’m not against pointing out all the things the English (speaking abstractly, not of any one person, government, time period, etc) have done to the Welsh over time; there’s been a lot of really terrible behaviour. But there was something blinkered about this — calling Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne a victory for Wales seems a little off, and I highly doubt that it was ever just the English being savage when it came to war and contested borders.

I don’t know how you can manage to make your facts dry and unmemorable, without much commentary, yet also give such a strong impression of only considering one side of the story. I’m not sure I’d recommend this as a biography of Glyndŵr, though unfortunately I don’t know of a better one.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Off The Map

Posted 26 September, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Off the Map by Alastair BonnettOff The Map, Alastair Bonnett

This was something of an impulsive purchase, and it turned out to be lighter reading than I expected. Each section is very short, sometimes just three pages long, and it leaves you wondering why he included such-and-such a place if there was so little to say about it. After all, the point of this book is to highlight interesting stuff about places that don’t exist (that either never have, or no longer do, or can’t officially, or…), so surely it’s worth spending some time on each one. Instead, a lot of the sections come across as perfunctory, included more out of a sense that they fit the theme than because they’re interesting.

There are some interesting facts in here, and I do enjoy the way Bonnett cross-references with fiction — when he talks about St Petersburg/Leningrad, he mentions China Miéville’s The City & The City, for example. But it was too much of a grab bag of not-always-interesting facts, and sometimes it also came across as rather preachy. Not that I disagree with Bonnett on many of these things, but still, the tone is offputting.

Rating: 2/5

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