Tag: non-fiction


Review – Delusions of Gender

Posted 19 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Delusions of Gender by Cordelia FineDelusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

The main takeaway from this book is never to trust what people think studies say. Always read the study and look at the data yourself if you really want your opinion to be based on fact. Once you dig into it, you’ll find people making the weirdest assumptions or failing to account for their own bias. Fine mentions study after study that have been overinterpreted and misinterpreted due to faulty premises in the whole experimental set-up. I wouldn’t suggest that you take Fine’s word for it: even though she points out some fallacies, no doubt she falls into some of her own. That’s the nature of humans, and that’s why peer-reviewed and replicated science is so important.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff discussed and she makes her points clearly. It mostly accords with what I understand about differences between sexes, and overall I found myself nodding a lot (probably a sign you should also treat anything I say about gender difference with caution — I have strong pre-formed opinions that are already fairly in line with Fine’s). I found her entertaining, as well as clear, which is always a plus in a pop-science book as long as it doesn’t go too far.

If nothing else, if you want to dig into the topic this book is good for context, and has a wealth of notes and sources you can follow up. If you do believe that there’s an in-built difference between the sexes for biological reasons, you might find Fine a bit too stringently against the evidence on your side, which she spends a lot of time dismantling. That might be a bit infuriating for you, so if you’re just looking for the facts, go straight to the source.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Think Again

Posted 18 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Again: How To Reason And Argue by Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongThink Again: How To Reason and Argue, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

I always meant to take the Coursera class this is based on, but I never quite got round to it, so when I saw it’d been made into a book, well, that seemed likely to be a format that would work for me (and wait for me to get round to it, though as it happened, it didn’t have to wait long). I think it does have some good suggestions and some good analysis of ways to argue, but there are a couple of things I find difficult.

One is the claim that the world is increasingly polarised and things were better, people were more polite, in ye olde days of yore. Sure, it’s very clear that the discourse has changed, and Sinnott-Armstrong does have the receipts to show that we are more polarised in terms of our political view. On the other hand, I have a hard job seeing that as just a symbol of our current times: countries have been split by civil war before. People haven’t always been more polite or known how to argue or how to disagree civilly, and maybe the less-polarised times he’s holding up as a better time had their own problems (like people feeling unable to express their opinions, perhaps even feeling unsafe to do so, in the cases of a lot of minorities).

The other thing is the way Sinnott-Armstrong pushes always being civil, always giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, it feels like the right thing — I would love more civility in debates. But there are some views which are legitimised by being engaged with, and there are some things that are indefensible. Now it’s true that he does say that it’s not always the time to argue, but it really wasn’t clear to me that he understood the position his insistence on civility and hearing both sides would put some people in: debating with someone who believes that it’s simply a fact that they and everyone like them should be cleansed from the world, and asking them why, charitably reframing their argument… Ew. No. It comes across as very “good people on both sides”, and it’s not true.

Perhaps it’s a fault of it being a rather short book and limited space, but given he’s constantly framing the issue in terms of the political divide in the US, I wonder. I don’t feel that he quite gets out of it by simply stating that sometimes it isn’t the right time to argue. Maybe it’s just a matter of saying that you just can’t argue productively with some people/views, and he’s automatically discounting those right away. It didn’t feel like it, though, with some of his examples.

The book did make me want to try debating more instead of constantly either passing arguments by or dismissing people as too biased to bother. I do think it could be pretty useful when both parties are willing to argue in good faith. I doubt it’ll be an antidote to political polarisation right now, though, for most people — I think for many people, the other side (whichever that is) just isn’t willing to talk anymore. There’s too much at stake, and it’s too exhausting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Think Like An Anthropologist

Posted 17 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Think Like An Anthropologist by Matthew EngelkeThink Like An Anthropologist, Matthew Engelke

This book is less “how to think like an anthropologist” and more “how do some anthropologists think, and what do other anthropologists think about that”, and so on. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it goes into the history of anthropology and various examples and at times it just seems to get lost a bit. If the primary aim is to give a bit of context around anthropology and suggest how it’s relevant to everyday life, I think it succeeds in some ways, but it’s not always clear what exactly it is trying to do. At times it seems like it’s going to avoid anecdotes like “x culture thinks y” and what anthropology thinks about those, and the next it delves right in.

It’s not without interest, but I couldn’t keep my mind on following the thread at times. Possibly that means something’s wrong with my mind (or at least the way I in particular think), but history shows I’m generally pretty good at following a well put-together argument through a book, so maybe it’s the book. Regardless, while I had fun with some aspects of it, I don’t think it’s a great book.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Swearing is Good For You

Posted 13 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Swearing is Good For You by Emma ByrneSwearing is Good for You, Emma Byrne

Yes, really, and this really is a serious book, referring to studies and discussing them in a sober and mostly non-profane fashion. At times the casual swearing seemed a little much (a bit of a gimmick, rather than me feeling bad about swearing at all), but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in here. There’s a chapter on Tourette’s, for example: although Byrne explains that it doesn’t really belong in a book about swearing being good for you, because in the case of Tourette’s it ends up being alienating and awful, but it goes into what causes people with Tourette’s to swear, and a little bit about what that tells us about swearing in general.

There’s also a really horrifying (to me) discussion of the fact that women with cancer who swear (due to their cancer but not necessarily about their cancer) tend to lose the support of the people around them, even their close female friends. They’re dealing with something fucking horrifying, they’re probably in pain and exhausted, but they’ve got to watch their language too? I hope Byrne’s hypothesis that this effect will fade with more recent generations is correct.

There’s also discussion of swearing and gender, and my favourite bit, the discussion of swearing in toilet trained chimps. (Teach a chimp that poop is dirty and it will see it as such, act ashamed if caught pooping somewhere it shouldn’t, and start using dirtiness as an insult!)

It’s all pretty fascinating, and while I’m not a major swearer unless I’m doing the final missions in Mass Effect, at which point the brain to mouth filter drops out of the picture, I’m glad to acknowledge that sometimes, it turns out it really is good for you — helping you to bear pain and stress, bonding you with teammates, etc, etc.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Civilization of Angkor

Posted 10 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Civilization of Angkor by Charles HighamThe Civilization of Angkor, Charles Higham

I love reading books on archaeology. A lot of the information doesn’t sink in — the names and dates and precise contents of tombs — but the interpretations that come out of it do, and I have a great time reliving my childhood dreams of being an archaeologist. (Blame Time Team.) In the case of this book, it’s mostly based on inscriptions and ruins actually found standing, rather than excavations, and I ended up tiring of the succession of names and vague facts, and of being told over and over again what a linga is (it’s a giant stone penis). There’s definitely magic in the ruins of Angkor Wat, and I did enjoy some of the understanding I gleaned of how that society worked… but it got pretty repetitive, just lists and lists of who was related to whom, the gods they venerated and the piles of treasure and groups of workers they supplied for temples.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important stuff to know in the interpretation of the site, but it’s a little… bloodless. It all seemed to be summed up rather neatly in the final 20-page chapter, which was the bit where most of the analysis came in.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Voices Within

Posted 7 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Voices Within by Charles FernyhoughThe Voices Within, Charles Fernyhough

Ever heard voices? A surprising number of people have, and this book delves into the way we think and how that influences the phenomenon of hearing voices. He’s careful not to stigmatise people who do hear voices, while still indicating what happens for most people and what’s different for people who do hear voices. I’d always heard the idea that schizophrenics hear voices because they’re actually misattributing their own thought processes, but Fernyhough really goes into the pros and cons of that interpretation, and some other alternative understandings.

It’s not just about schizophrenics, though. A lot of it is about the way the average person thinks. What percentage of the time do you actually think in words? How long does it take you to complete a thought? What language do you think in, if you’re bilingual? The book goes into all those ideas and discusses some interesting experiments that do their best to capture the objective facts from experiences which are subjective by their very definition.

It’s really fascinating stuff, and it helps that it’s super easy to read. I polished it off in no time.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Subliminal

Posted 5 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Subliminal by Leonard MlodinowSubliminal: The New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us, Leonard Mlodinow

This book was a bit of a disappointment. It covers basically the same ground as dozens of other books which purport to explain the irrationality of the human brain, including the same experiments discussed with more or less the same conclusions. I’m wary of the way Mlodinow decides that certain anatomical areas of the brain are solely and uncomplicatedly involved in specific emotions. For example, he identifies the “ventromedial pre-frontal cortex” as being all there is to it when it comes to preferring Coke over Pepsi because of the brand-name. This isn’t my area (alas) so I’m not going to say he’s definitively wrong, but I’ve read around enough to be cautious when someone decides that a bit of brain anatomy means x or y universally. It smacks of going for a simple, catchy answer instead of acknowledging the actual complexity of the brain.

Anyway, it’s probably a good read if you haven’t read one of the dozens of other books covering the same topic, and in its favour I did find myself snorting in amusement at some of Mlodinow’s commentary. It’s nothing new, though.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Planet Factory

Posted 2 August, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Planet Factory by Elizabeth TaskerThe Planet Factory, Elizabeth Tasker

If you’re interested in planets outside our solar system, this is obviously going to be for you. It explains how planets form and the different ecosystems (of a sort) that different types of planets form in. Like the other Bloomsbury Sigma books, it’s readable and fairly light in tone. I think it could actually have used some more diagrams: sometimes, Tasker explained something and my brain just couldn’t grab hold because I couldn’t do the imagining she was suggesting. (If you start with “imagine an ellipse”, I’m afraid I fall at that first hurdle, so I’m a bit of an outlier here — but I still think some more diagrams could have clarified the more technical stuff.)

I do also have some issues with terminology, although this isn’t Tasker’s fault so much as an issue with astronomy in general: hot Jupiters and super Earths and so on all start to blur together for me. Once you say “it’s like Jupiter only x and y and z and a and b” then I don’t know why you’re still calling it a Jupiter-like object. Some of the hot Jupiters are pretty close to Jupiter, of course, but… I don’t know, it felt like a meaningless phrase that got in the way of me actually following what sort of planets were being discussed. “A gas giant on a close solar orbit” seems more informative…

Anyway, that’s probably mostly down to personal taste. It’s an informative book with which I have no scientific quibbles.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Zoo

Posted 31 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Zoo by Isobel CharmanThe Zoo, Isobel Charman

The cover promises the “wild and wonderful” tale of the founding of the London Zoo, but it isn’t really very wild, though you might decide it’s still wonderful in its way. It certainly was a heck of a task, and the fact that the London Zoo still exists is amazing considering some of the difficulties they had. The style is rather fictionalised — mentioning exactly what Charman imagines the protagonists of the story think and feel — and it doesn’t always stick very closely to the founding of the zoo itself. For example, there’s a whole chapter on Darwin, at least as long as the others, and yet of all of them he has almost nothing to do with the actual business of the zoo.

It’s not all about the zoo, then, but the story it tells is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the stories of men that might have been left out of the story in another time — the first vet, the keepers, etc. The people who did the day to day work on the ground, not just the people who designed the buildings or paid for things.

A little slow, really; it was a bit too fictional to give me the sort of details I want in my non-fiction, but too dry for my tastes as a work of fiction.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Gorgon

Posted 27 July, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Gorgon by Peter D WardGorgon, Peter D. Ward

If you’re looking for information on the gorgonopsids and their world, this book is rather thin on that. Instead, it’s mostly about Ward’s career and some of his excavations and initiatives. Admittedly, much of that is in the service of getting information about the gorgonopsids, but the book is rather thin on what was actually found. There is some interesting stuff on pinning down that mass extinction and figuring out how fast it happened, but the gorgonopsids in life — how they lived, what they did — are absent.

So pretty interesting in terms of understanding Ward’s career as a palaeontologist, with the appropriate set pieces about how hot it was and how difficult, etc, etc, but low on actual pre-dinosaurian monsters ruling the Earth.

Rating: 3/5

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