Tag: non-fiction


Review – Science and the City

Posted 28 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Science and the City by Laurie WinklessScience and the City, Laurie Winkless

I expected to enjoy this a lot — I typically do like the Bloomsbury Sigma books, even if they tend to take on quite a chatty tone. But this one just felt boring: partly that was because I wasn’t learning anything, because everything seemed obvious, and partly because I wasn’t interested in the flippant remarks, etc. It felt like it was pitched to someone who knows less about this sort of thing than I do, but also someone who is rather more interested in the ins and outs of the science applied to the city, if that makes sense.

Whatever, in the end it didn’t work for me and I was, in fact, deadly bored.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Brain Supremacy

Posted 26 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Brain Supremacy by Kathleen TaylorThe Brain Supremacy, Kathleen Taylor

There’s a lot of research going on into neuroscience, and it can lead us some pretty tricky places — morally and socially, as well as in terms of the science itself. Taylor’s book is very much a warning note, sometimes verging on the melodramatic, about the kinds of technologies which might be on the horizon. It’s worth noting though that the book came out in 2012, and I haven’t seem much in the way of the kind of exponential progress she envisages.

At times her style is a little dry, but it’s mostly readable and the warning note is worth sounding — and the technology itself is fascinating.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Kin

Posted 23 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Kin by John IngrahamKin, John Ingraham

Kin is a book about microbes and how they’re related to us, and the surprisingly close ties between microbes and humans. It does a lot of digging into the origin of life in general, really; I didn’t find it as interesting as Nick Lane’s The Vital Question, and ultimately I was also surprised by how bad some of the editing was — it was just careless, typos and missing words, etc.

If you’re looking for a book about where life came from, I probably recommend Nick Lane’s book; I’ll have to have a think for some others which present alternative ideas. Ingraham’s book is easy enough to read, but it didn’t feel quite worth the time for me. Bearing in mind, of course, that I’m finishing up my biology degree at the moment with a dissertation on one particular microbe, so I guess I’m not really the target audience here.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Little History of Archaeology

Posted 20 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

A Little History of Archaeology, Brian Fagan

I love archaeology, and I must confess I really love the kind of general books that do a bit more of a survey — like Cline’s Three Stones Make a Wall, for example. This looked like it was going to be good in that line, and it wasn’t bad; there’s definitely a lot of info in it and stuff I want to research more, but overall it’s a bit too brief for me. It’s definitely a little history, just a little; there’s so much more to be said about so many of the people and sites that Fagan skims past in giving an overview.

Which is not exactly the fault of the book, but sometimes I feel that the history of archaeology would’ve been better followed through fewer key sites or key archaeologists, rather than a general mix of the two, which ended up feeling unfocused.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns

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

Cover of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them PronounsA Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them, Archie Bongiovanni, Tristan Jimerson

Received to review via Netgalley

A lot of people now use gender-neutral pronouns, and singular ‘they’ is one of the more universal and (to my mind) easy to adjust to choices. Not that I object to zie/hir on principle (though some people do because those pronouns sound like gendered pronouns in their own language; this is not a personal bother of mine, but I keep it in mind), but ‘they’ is already something we know how to use, and they doesn’t always have to mean plural (despite what people say). This is basically a guide focused on how to respect the pronoun choices of people who identify as non-binary… or just want to use neutral pronouns for reasons of their own. It’s an easy and simple read, though I find myself wondering if the people who could really use the education would ever bother to read it.

It’s also… not 100% right. There’s a whole bit about how saying “preferred pronouns” is disrespectful. I totally understand that argument — most people don’t prefer to be called she/her, they are a she/her — but I hesitate about it too because people to whom it doesn’t apply tend to take that too far. I’ve been scolded for saying I personally have preferred pronouns, even though that’s the case. I use they/them in some contexts, and refer to them as my “preferred” pronouns, because they are. However, nobody who meets me in real life is ever going to think there’s any grounds for ambiguity, and I don’t mind it in that context; it’s all about context for me and what’s comfortable in a given place/time. Often online I just let people make whatever assumption they want: it doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t usually have strong feelings either way (unless someone is being sexist or something). But still: at the end of it, they/them/their are my preferred pronouns by default.

So yeah, don’t go thinking this book is the bible of gender-neutral pronouns and can’t be wrong. But otherwise, it’s a good resource for explaining to someone willing to learn. The art it nothing special, but the expressions, etc, add some humour and flavour to it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Templars

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

Cover of The Templars by Piers Paul ReadThe Templars, Piers Paul Read

This is a rather exhaustive account not only of the Templars, but of the Crusades and the interactions between Popes and Kings during that period. That’s not a bad thing, though I had expected something a little more focused on the Templars as a group, and maybe more discussion of individual Templars as examples. Instead, there was a lot about individual kings and their reactions — fair enough, there’s probably more material available on them, but I still found it a little disappointing.

Still, it’s kind of fun reading it as someone who has played Assassin’s Creed, and playing spot-the-name-I-know and spot-who-got-assassinated-by-Altair.

I think it was a bit stodgy in places, but informative. And dude, you totally protested too much in the other direction that Templars weren’t ever gay. Let’s be real: the reality is that some of the Templars will have been gay, some bi, many straight, and some will have remained celibate while others won’t have done so.

Rating: 3/5 

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Review – Against Empathy

Posted 14 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Against Empathy by Paul BloomAgainst Empathy, Paul Bloom

“Against empathy? How could anyone be against empathy?”

That was probably my first reaction too, because I and the people around me are all focused on being good to other people, and empathy seems to offer a way to do that. It seems to offer us insight, so we know the right things to say and do. But Paul Bloom’s contention is that empathy doesn’t always lead us in the right direction: he reminds the reader that empathy is what makes us focus on one sick child whose name and face we know, even if we don’t actually know the child is even real, over tens or hundreds of other sick children. Empathy can focus us powerfully on feeling how a single other person “must” be feeling — and therein lies the problem. It’s hard, if not impossible, to empathise with everyone in a whole crowd, and our instincts aren’t always accurate in guessing how other people feel. If they were, then we’d never say exactly the wrong thing when we want to comfort someone who is sad — we’d know what to say.

What Bloom isn’t against is compassion: he speaks admiringly of the Buddhist ideal of compassion without attachment, for instance. Compassion linked with reason can indeed guide us to do good, to do the moral thing, to ensure he hurt the least number of people. But empathy — pure “I feel what you feel” emotional attachment leads us astray, and Bloom argues that point well.

To empathise is a human emotion that many of us share, and Bloom isn’t claiming it’s inherently a bad thing. That would be to misread the book entirely. Honestly, despite often thinking that empathy is a virtue and people can do more of it, I find it difficult to disagree with Bloom’s conclusions. Part of that is that he writes really clearly, which makes it easy to knee-jerk believe that he’s right, but I think I’ll still be thinking about (and agreeing with) this in a few days, weeks, months.

Time to look up Effective Altruism again, and do something with the information this time.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu

Posted 8 June, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie EnglishThe Book Smugglers of Timbuktu, Charlie English

This story is, in general, more impressive until you get to the bit at the end where doubt is cast on the veracity of some of the modern stories. It feels really cheap to get to the end and read this critique that suggests things presented as fact never occurred, and the things that do appear to have been true may be rather overexaggerated. It feels dishonest in a way that it wouldn’t have done if these critiques were presented side by side with the accounts, and it makes me wonder about the author’s integrity in the other parts of the book as well.

I mean, reading it credulously, it’s a heck of a story and these people are heroes. And surely, surely, you think, the author must have done his research to verify these accounts as far as possible. And then you find out, well, he did, but he didn’t feel like saying so at the time.

Tell the story, by all means. It’s a heck of a story after all, and it remains absorbing even if you know there are questions about it — but if you only know that at the end and look back, well, it all seems a bit of a sham, and can you really trust the author to tell the ancient story straight?

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

Posted 28 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Meetings With Remarkable ManuscriptsMeetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, Christopher de Hamel

Most of us will never get to handle the real copies of the Hengwrt Chaucer or the Book of Hours made for Jeanne of Navarre, but this book gets you pretty close, with Christopher de Hamel describing how each book looks and feels (though smell, on reflection, is lacking), and even how they’re stored and the reading rooms he visited to handle them. He describes where each manuscript has been, too, and what’s brought it to wherever it now lives. There’s a lot of detail, much of it focusing on the brilliant illuminations of some of these manuscripts (meaning that manuscripts without illuminations that nonetheless have great literary value are missed out), with a lot of black and white reproductions, and a few glossy full colour inserts.

I found it fascinating: it probably depends on whether this is something you’re interested in. I found it one of those restful reads where I could let a lot of the information wash over me: interesting at the time, but I don’t need to know it. (Unlike, say, specific examples of post-mating, prezygotic reproductive barriers. Did you know that various species of North American field crickets are reproductively isolated with each other because, though they can mate, the sperm fails to fertilise the eggs in heterospecific pairs? Now you know, or at least, it’s washed over you. I need to know it until the 11th June.)

Anyway, the point is, I really enjoyed it, though I doubt I’ve retained even half of the information. It can be a bit dense if this isn’t your interest, though.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Keeping Their Marbles

Posted 22 May, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Keeping Their Marbles by Tiffany JenkinsKeeping Their Marbles, Tiffany Jenkins

Argh, this book gives me such mixed feelings. Tiffany Jenkins is an unabashed supporter of keeping the Elgin Marbles, and many other items in collections like that of the British Museum which come from other countries. She lays out several arguments for this, including the fact that some of these items would have been destroyed if they weren’t in the UK, either now or when they were first collected. She also argues that no contemporary culture can really claim direct descent from the people whose artefacts and remains are now displayed, and that the British Museum (or insert other museum with a comparable collection here) is an ideal place to study and understand these artefacts. The British Museum, she points out, allows you to see objects in their historical context, and make connections between them.

She also argues that some of these items were legitimately bought or obtained originally, so that should still hold now — even if those sales were forced by the poverty of the people in question, by colonial pressure, etc, etc. That’s such a weak argument, I just dismissed it straight away: how can we know those choices were really free choices, now? Best to assume they were not, and accept whatever moral obligation that puts us under. We’ll be right more than half the time, I would guess.

Jenkins is notably particularly against returning bodies to their putative modern equivalent cultures, because of the loss of scientific data that entails — that, she argues, is more important than the fate of bodies whose former owners surely don’t care about it now! I find this a callous and dismissive point of view, because it demands that everyone else see the world the way she does, and ascribe no value to physical remains. She wants to totally disregard what people may have intended in having their bodies interred in particular ways: science is all. And I’m not with her on that; personally, I don’t think it’ll matter to me what happens to my body once I’m dead, but I’d fight you if you wanted to exhume my grandfather without my family’s permission for an indefinite period of time, even for science, and even more so if you wanted to display his remains. They’re human remains: I think we lose something of our respect for the living when we fail to remember that the dead were once alive and had their own wishes.

I don’t disagree with some of the goods Jenkins ascribes to museum collections, though. There is a scientific value in the remains and artefacts from long ago, and particularly in fields I’m very interested in myself, genetics and the history of disease. In the end, is that worth more than people? Not to me — but I feel that me and Jenkins would be at an impasse on this anyway, since I’m sure she would argue no disrespect is intended, no judgement of worth inherent in the decision.

I love museums, I do. I’m glad I’ve seen the real Rosetta stone, the real statues of dead kings, the actual cups or plates or coins that someone used long ago. Replicas and facsimiles aren’t the same in terms of their emotional impact. But still… there are people who are closer kin to the long-dead artisans and craftsmen who made all those items or were buried with them, and they deserve a chance to have that feeling too, in Greece or wherever else.

So I come to no conclusion on repatriation. Probably it’s something that should be considered on an individual basis, with careful evaluation of all the facts, with one exchange not necessarily setting precedent for another. These are discussions we need to have.

(Don’t ask me about the exhibition of dead bodies of whatever degree of antiquity, unless you want an impassioned and incoherent rant. I’m profoundly uncomfortable at the display of people who died in pain and confusion, such as the casts of bodies from Pompeii; to me, it’s an intrusion, and tourism a sick excuse.)

All in all, this is an interesting read: I don’t agree with Jenkins, and I feel that some of her arguments tend to the insensitive (just as probably some people think that my concern for people of other cultures in the face of scientific facts is just my bleeding heart liberalism speaking), but it’s worth reading even if you expect to disagree. Honestly, I went in wanting her to convince me we should keep the Elgin Marbles and everything else, for selfish reasons, but left the book feeling that it really would just be selfishness, with no better reasons winning out.

Rating: 3/5

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