Tag: non-fiction

Review – Everybody Lies

Posted January 26, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-DavidowitzEverybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies is an enthusiastic defence of the premise that “big data” — such as aggregate data from the kind of things people search in Google — might tell us things about humans that we wouldn’t admit even on an anonymous survey, and which things like implicit association tests hope to dig out. My main feeling going in was that I’d expect such a dataset to have its own drawbacks, and that I’d be very sceptical if the author pretended that it did not.

Well, though the author writes enthusiastically and persuasively about the subject, he does mention some cautionary tales and drawbacks, and he makes very good points about things like sexuality. Someone in the closet in a homophobic country doesn’t have much incentive to admit to being gay to an anonymous survey, but they might still search for gay porn (and indeed searches for gay porn match reasonably well across the world, showing that there’s a background rate of people who are at least interested in it in principle.

(His data actually just shows where men are interested in men having sex with men, not where men are gay, which is something he doesn’t really notice. Bisexual men don’t exist for the purposes of his discussion here, even though he’d be much better to just talk about same-sex attraction and include the possibility of both homosexuality and bisexuality.)

The book is full of interesting examples and applications, and a sprinkling of the author’s personality (as many pop-sci type books do). He’s excited about his work, but not too credulous, and it’s a reasonable introduction to the concept that has me… okay, not convinced that data science is actually necessarily going to produce the next great specialist in every subject (as he suggests), but hopeful that data from Google searches and other similar bodies of data can indeed teach us things about ourselves.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Buried

Posted January 22, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Buried by Alice RobertsBuried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain, Alice Roberts

Buried is a natural follow-up to Ancestors; I enjoyed the latter, but I enjoyed this one even more. Here it really is focused on burials in the UK, using mostly other burials in the UK as points of comparison, and Roberts chose some really fascinating sites to discuss.

My favourite chapter was one that I think some readers would find very difficult, discussing a cemetery of child burials — feotuses, neonates, and very young children, all buried together near the site of a villa, even some of them in a well-shaft. Roberts discusses why that may be with sympathy, pointing out that people of the period probably did care about their children; a lack of formal mourning in society does not, clearly, preclude the possibility of private grief. Burying children near the villa, instead of the cemeteries adults were interred in, may also be a sign of care — keeping the children close to the home, where children belonged, rather than sending them off alone to a place created for adults.

She also discusses cut marks on the bones of some of the tiny bodies. Often cut marks on bones are taken to mean cannibalism (usually on older bones than these, of course), but here she suggests it represents obstetric surgery, intended to help save a mother when a child was born in the breach position and nothing else could be done.

As in Ancestors, she also discusses the sexing of bodies, though I found it a bit hilarious that she talked about DNA evidence disagreeing with the physical examinations and then DNA evidence had to be brought into line with famously inaccurate — as she acknowledges — sexing based on things like the shape of the pelvis. I don’t quite understand how she can acknowledge that it’s hard to sex a skeleton, particularly a fragmentary skeleton, and then in the very same book talk about refining DNA evidence to ensure it 100% matches that. Surely the better course (and hopefully what really happened) was to look at cases where the two disagreed and re-test and look for clues about why they diverged, check for contamination, etc. The goal should not be — as stated — to have aDNA match a metric that’s famously inaccurate (and sometimes laughably self-serving).

The final chapter attempts to tackle a weighty subject, with mixed success: how much of changing trends through history was down to population replacement? She suggests a middle ground, which is fairly safe to say (extremes like “no population replacement” and “full population replacement” are easy to disprove) and didn’t, to my mind, offer up much to cut through the rhetoric.

Broadly speaking, though, I found this fascinating and absorbing.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The First Ghosts

Posted January 19, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The First Ghosts by Irving FinkelThe First Ghosts, Irving Finkel

This book is an incredibly detailed look at the written sources for some of the most ancient recorded beliefs about ghosts from Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria. It’s a little dense and difficult to read because it excerpts big translated portions (gaps in the text and all) before then explaining them at length — the context is needed to understand things fully, of course, but it feels pretty dry and academic, and (at the same time) it’s difficult to enter into his excitement about his theories because you have to rely on his word about the translations and the comparisons that can be drawn. Scholars in the field must have opinions on it, but the layperson can’t evaluate it — we’re only shown the evidence that supports Finkel’s conclusions.

A major quibble I have is with the author’s conclusion that if you don’t believe in ghosts, you clearly believe that either people who report ghost sightings are lying or mistaken about their own experiences, while the consistency of such reports and the frequency of them suggests that there must be something real there. I think he steps beyond his sources into personal speculation here, while leaning on all his amassed evidence as if it provides proof.

Try this explanation instead: something in the human brain pre-disposes us to have experiences which we interpret in this way. We can stimulate the human brain with electrical currents and magnets, creating sensations which aren’t there — and we know our own brains can produce waves of electrical currents in epilepsy and migraine. So there’s a potential mechanism for you: perhaps sometimes people see “ghosts” because particular experiences and physical states generate an electrical current in a certain part of the brain, producing sensations of things that aren’t really there. They’re then experienced as real and convincing (“I saw it with my own eyes!”), but aren’t.

We know migraine and epilepsy are not uncommon in the population, and we also know that they’re a matter of degree: they’re not on and off, but a spectrum of stimulation leading to a spectrum of presentations. So a large proportion of humanity could have some propensity toward that kind of thing (without having symptomatic epilepsy or migraine or restrict the group who can have these experiences to only people with clinical symptoms).

There. I’ve produced a potential explanation of why ghosts could be regularly reported which tallies with our knowledge of the human brain, which is more testable than Finkel’s hypothesis, and would explain the phenomenon. (It’s not perfect, it’s a little hand-wavy and I’m not actually a neurologist, it’s just an example of a line of investigation that could be taken up based on what we know about the human brain. And like I said, it’s testable.) I’m not saying it’s the truth; what I’m saying is that there are other hypotheses that don’t mean “everyone was lying or didn’t really have the experience they thought they had”. There are, in other words, possible explanations that mean they were all telling the truth and they did really have these convincing experiences that they could not tell apart from reality — they just misattributed the cause.

It feels ridiculous to have this big a pet peeve about it, but it’s very annoying to read a well-evidenced book, get to the end, and then the conclusion is “obviously, ghosts exist because people have always said so, there’s no other possible explanation!”.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Dinner in Rome

Posted January 12, 2023 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Dinner in Rome by Andreas ViestadDinner in Rome: A History of the World in One Meal, Andreas Viestad

For a history of the world, this falls a little short. The world looks very much like the Roman Empire here, except a couple of brief nods to prehistoric humans and what they ate. There are whole chapters that mention nothing but the lands previously included in the Roman Empire. I don’t necessarily blame the author for this — it’s his choice, of course, to pick a cuisine he knows, and to pick the particular dish he ate, but it’s quite possibly the publisher’s choice to give it a misleading title. “A history of Europe” might’ve been more accurate.

Which is not to say I disliked the book as a whole: I enjoy the idea of taking an ordinary, everyday thing — like a good meal in a restaurant in Rome — and digging into every aspect of it to find its history. Food is, as Viestad points out, absolutely essential to it, and many people and nationalities build identities around it. (Even erroneously, as he discusses in the case of pasta carbonara, which is not an ancestral Italian dish, but quite possibly a fusion of Mediterranean-style diets with the wants of American soldiers during World War II.) It’s an enjoyable endeavour, and I found reading it very soothing and enjoyable. I do like a good carbonara myself, and Viestad describes his beautifully.

I didn’t even find his autobiographical allusions annoying, because it is useful to see his experience of lemons in the context of his having farmed them and his nostalgia about the lemons on his little, commercially non-viable farm. It’s useful to get the flavour of the restaurant in general, the people, the way Italian diners behave — all of this is part of the picture he’s trying to build up, demonstrating the way food and how we treat food gets ingrained in us.

His sources are not explicitly referenced with numbered footnotes, but he does have a nice sources section (the temptation to call it “Sauces” passed him by) and in general I found it enjoyable: a relaxed history about everyday things.

Just… not a history of the world.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hidden Hands

Posted June 10, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hidden Hands by Mary WellesleyHidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers, Mary Wellesley

Hidden Hands is a book about manuscripts, and more than that, about the people behind the manuscripts. It’s not necessarily about the most beautiful or most impressive manuscripts, or the rarest, though it discusses manuscripts from all those categories. Wellesley isn’t just interested in the contents of the manuscripts, but also the people who composed the words, the scribes who wrote the actual script, the owners of the manuscript, and the potential readers of them.

I was familiar with most of the manuscripts mentioned, to the point where I’d have been interested in hearing more about the Pearl/Gawain manuscript or something for once, rather than the Beowulf manuscript yet a-fucking-gain. There were a couple of surprises too, though, like the discussion of the collection of letters from a particular family and how some of them were illiterate and thus the anxiety about the use of scribes. I’m not sure I’d normally count a collection of letters as a manuscript, but it was still an interesting section.

I also knew nothing about Gwerful Mechain, a medieval Welsh poet who wrote erotic poetry and protests against the misogynistic poetry circulating in her day. She was a definite and welcome surprise to me (as was the mention of a scholar who taught me, Katie Gramich).

All in all, I felt like there was so much to say that it would have merited a longer book, one which I would’ve read eagerly!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Wood for the Trees

Posted June 9, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Wood for the Trees by Richard ForteyThe Wood for the Trees, Richard Fortey

The Wood for the Trees is a ramble through the woods that Fortey owns and maintains (a small patch of woodland that once belonged to a large estate). With the curiosity of a lifetime’s work in science, he examines every little bit of the wood in all seasons of the year, lifting up rocks, turning over fallen branches, and digging around in the history of the woods.

I got it because he made geology really interesting in another book I read, though I find this book didn’t have quite the same touch — perhaps because it’s so wide-ranging, so unfocused. Instead of just looking at the geology or the biology, he digs into the archaeology as well, into literature and historical figures that touched upon the wood, into the way the wood used to be worked with.

His little cabinet of curiosity is interesting, and his enthusiasm for the wood admirable — but unlike his other books, this didn’t keep me picking the book up to pursue more of it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Laziness Does Not Exist

Posted June 3, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon PriceLaziness Does Not Exist, Devon Price

I found this an interesting read more because of what I had resistance to than because of what it said, almost. Much of it is well known to anyone who’s had a course of CBT (yes of course I should turn notifications off on my phone, and of course I don’t because I have unrealistic expectations of how much I should work)… but it’s quite provocative to come out and say it’s due to the “Laziness Lie”, and see every case of “laziness” as something non-lazy.

It’s an easy enough read, and brings together some good points, but it could seriously use fewer anecdotes and more research-based conclusions. It’s sometimes self-contradictory, saying that people are more productive when they take time to rest and then saying at the end that if you take time to rest, you’ll be less productive… which I think is mostly the author not quite connecting dots where they meant to point out that if you’re taking time to rest, you might just find some other priorities arise that you care about more than the work that made you exhausted in the first place.

There are some things it made me think about doing; of course, its conclusions are about the opposite of what I do every day working for an app that helps people commit to their goals, often involving productivity… But mostly I didn’t think it was wrong, just that there’s room for me to find a lot of satisfaction in my job and find some more time to rest. I think it bangs the drum a bit too hard about the joys of not working, and forgets that security is really key too.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Built

Posted June 2, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Built by Roma AgrawalBuilt, Roma Agrawal

I didn’t get into Built at first, since this is not one of my major interests, but once Agrawal began to describe the challenges of levelling the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, I was sucked in. The problems there of subsidence — and uneven subsidence at that — and the history being built on were fascinating to me, and from that point I was all on board.

Agrawal explains things well, and has included helpful images as well — especially useful for me, as someone who can’t imagine anything. I don’t care enormously about skyscrapers, or bridges, but once I entered into the spirit of thinking of them as problems to be solved, I got interested despite myself. Which is of course part of why I picked this up in the first place!

One quibble would be with the way the book is organised. The chapter titles aren’t very informative, and it all seems to skip around quite a bit — I didn’t see any underlying logic to the organisation of the book.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Why We Read

Posted May 17, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Why We Read by Josephine GreywoodeWhy We Read, ed. Josephine Greywoode

Received to review via Netgalley

This is a collection of 70 pieces of writing on the topic of reading non-fiction. Many of the writers chosen speak about reading quite broadly, and some seem outright confused about the assignment, talking largely about fiction. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised that the responses are largely predictable, with some authors discussing their personal need to read (often sounding ridiculously pretentious as they do so) and others talking about how reading elevates people, or even the entire human race. Some make sure to add a soupçon of contempt for those who don’t read, or at least hasten to make it clear that the illiterate are utterly impoverished, morally deficient, and overall doomed.

Why do I read non-fiction? I’m curious. That’s it. I don’t expect enlightenment, and I’m not seeking it. I just want to know things, and crave the moment where I can excitedly turn to someone else and share what I just read in tones of unbelief.

I suppose I also seek out non-fiction in specific moods, when I’m anxious or restless and I can’t bear to live in other people’s emotions too much. So I read non-fiction in much the same way as I read fiction, just in a different mood: to escape.

There. Now I’ve contributed.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The History of Magic

Posted January 31, 2022 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The History of Magic by Chris GosdenThe History of Magic, Chris Gosden

You know the joke about archaeology where, if they don’t know what something is, it’s obviously for ritual purposes? That’s kind of how I find this book. Everything in the past that we don’t understand, as far as Gosden’s concerned, was done for ritual purposes. If someone in the pre-literate past got tattooed with a tiger, then they were trying to blend themselves with the tiger or take on some of the tiger’s power or express that they were a tiger.

I’m sure people with Hello Kitty tattoos will be pleased to know that absent written intention, going to the effort of having ink stamped into their skin means they are trying to take on the power of Hello Kitty for themselves.

It’s difficult to look at paintings deep within caves and see anything other than magic, but that’s the problem. We have no idea at all what they meant by it. Maybe it was just thrill-seeking, going deep into the dark to do something time-absorbing and difficult that might get interrupted by a bear. Maybe it was a rite of passage thing, without having to be magical.

Humans have done a lot of things for spiritual and magical reasons throughout our history, and of course it makes no sense to think that that suddenly emerged when literary did, so there must have been magic/ritual/supernatural beliefs at that time. I’m just sceptical that we can assume what those were from the meagre scraps in the archaeological record, or even if we do identify something as being a magical practice, whether we can correctly understand its intent. I think Gosden goes a little too far into interpretation, resulting in pages on pages of “perhaps they believed… maybe they wanted to… we can imagine that…”

When he discusses the archaeology and some basic interpretations of it, it’s very interesting, but the more he tries to embroider on it the more I feel like I’m reading nothing more than a flight of fancy. On the other hand, I’m sure it would have been a dry read without any imagination — it’s just a difficult balance. I think in this case he says “maybe” and “perhaps” so often that they become invisible, and then there’s a risk of taking his suppositions to be fact because they’re served up alongside it.

I sound very critical, but I did enjoy the reading experience and find the archaeology he described absolutely fascinating. I was more sceptical of his thesis that we should stay open to magic as a relevant way of interacting with the world, not because I disagree, but because I think he ended up then suggesting that if we’d all just believe in magic and go back to ancient beliefs about oneness with other species, we’d fix climate change and change our consumer lifestyles and so on. The problem being that he contrasted that against science, as if scientific views and Linnaean species names are, well, the problem that led us here.

I don’t think there’s inherent moral value to either way of approaching the world, and there are plenty(!) of scientists who are very ready to change the world. It’s not, for the most part, scientists who are holding us back, but politicians and corporations. You’re not going to catch them believing in science or magic unless it benefits the bottom line.

Rating: 2/5

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