Archive for the ‘Revues from the Rev’ Category

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: The Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits.

Sunday, February 17th, 2013
A Sabre Toothed Cat skull from The Page Museum.

A Sabre-toothed Cat skull from The Page Museum.

This is a remarkable museum.  For one, it’s a beautiful (and beautifully organized) building.  For another, it has the distinction of sitting on top of the very deposits that have yielded the countless fossils that occupy the displays.

As you approach the museum you pass by a water-filled pond that was once a tar quarry.  There are life-sized replicas of a Columbia Mammoth family — one of whom has been “caught” in the tar hidden beneath the water.  This tableau is artifice, of course, but the sulfurous gasses that continue to bubble up into this still-active “asphalt seep” are the real deal, and provide a quietly stunning reminder of a still very active Earth.

Inside the circular museum, one walks past display after display of the mounted fossils that make up a rich catalog of extinct fauna that once roamed the Los Angeles area.  The tar pits (in their time) captured every kind of organism, from the truly stupendous Columbian Mammoth to delicate dragon flies.  All of the La Brea fossils show the distinctive chocolate patina of their time in the tar.  There are sloths, mastodons, condors, ancient buffalo, horses, sabre-toothed cats and dire wolves.  Lots and lots of dire wolves.

Did I mention there are lots of dire wolves?  One of the more stunning displays is a lighted wall made up of row after row of dire wolf skulls.  There could easily be a hundred of them, filling an entire wall, floor to ceiling.  (Watch the informational videos in the two museum theaters, and you’ll learn that these skulls are only a hint of the bounty of fossils that continue to come from ongoing excavations on the site).

There are not dinosaurs, of course.  The tar pits began their life-capturing career only forty-thousand years ago (which turns out to be an important time-span in the story of the extinction of much of North America’s megafauna).  And though there is likely a connection between the arrival of humans on the continent and the subsequent extinction of these large animals, there has only been one human fossil recovered from the pits: a woman from about ten thousand years ago.

I can’t say enough nice things about this museum.  It is a fine blend of location, collection and architecture.  Everything one could want in a museum experience.

The Page Museum is located in central Los Angeles, right next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (hint: if you’re planning to visit both, do The Page Museum first — LACMA is a vast and overwhelming campus of buildings and collections).

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New” by Peter Watson

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

GREAT_DIVIDE_COVERThis is a deeply interesting book.  It is both a meditation upon — and a survey of — all that we know about the similarities and differences between the populations of humans that developed their cultures and societies in isolation from each other in the “Old” and “New” worlds.

Soon after humans migrated across the “Bering land bridge” into North America, that overland route was cut off by rising sea levels.  And so the populations of North and South America were cut off from those of Europe, Asia and Africa for some 15,000 years (until the Spanish “discovered” the Americas).  In this impressive book, Peter Watson takes the time to cast a clear eye on the ways in which the different conditions in the two worlds influenced the development of human civilizations, and the differences are dramatic.

Some of this ground has been covered by other authors, to be sure, but the value of this book lies in the synthesis of recorded history with the latest discoveries (which have been numerous, especially regarding ancient cultures such as the Incas).  In short — the Old and New worlds were very different.  The “old” had a broad east-west configuration, allowing the rapid spread of peoples, technologies, crops and ideas.  They also had the horse, and a wide range of useful domseticable animals.  The “new” world ran north and south, with a wide range of elevations, from mountains to ocean beaches, across a broad range of latitude.  Domesticated plants, therefore, were limited in their range.  They also had the llama as their only work animal — no ox or horse to pull a plow or to ride from village to village.

But added into this mix is the remarkable fact that some 80 percent of the worlds hallucinogenic plants occur in the new world.  In addition, South America, especially, was subject to much more extreme weather and geologic events during this historic period: hurricanes, El Nino events, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  Put this all together and you have one world where the gods seemed to be perpetually angry, and another where they were somewhat benign.  The ramifications for ritual and society were dramatic.

I won’t spoil the end of the story, but it gives one a truly useful perspective on how human society has developed into the teeming, technologically astute and religious confederation we experience today.

This is a dense book — it took me some time to read it.  But it was worth the time for the knowledge it gave me.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

It was while watching the film “The Matrix” that I first began to realize that watching two undefeatable movie foes doing battle was, well, sort of pointless.  After all, if they are so powerful and, well, immortal (thinking now of demigods or vampires or whatever else Hollywood throws into the mix), any slugfest is going to end in a draw with the status quo unchanged.  Any supposed “victory” can only come when the film director decides the story must move on.

And so it also seems when Republicans and Democrats (conservatives and liberals) start shouting at each other.  None of the blows seem to land — and the result is frustration and impotent rage.  But liberals and conservatives aren’t supermen and women by any stretch — just normal, everyday folk.  The “other side” can’t really be pure evil — otherwise our world would be a much different place than it manages to be.  So why are human beings, similar in every way, so divided along political and ideological lines?

That is the question that “The Righteous Mind” seeks to answer.  And it does, I think, answer the question well.  Beginning with the fact that all of us — liberal or conservative – are born with a “righteous” mind — meaning we are predisposed to think in moral terms.  But the differences show up in the finer detail, in the range of “moral taste buds” that are more or less active in the brains we are born with.

Haidt is a psychologist who has developed (with others) the “Moral Foundations Theory” that has generated some press during the last two election cycles.  I found this theory to be a useful tool for understanding the “whys” of our shared (but differing) moral sensibilities.  The book also presents the broader picture of the “hows” and “whys” of our social interactions, from the most individualistic to the most “hive-like”.

“The Righteous Mind” is yet another example of good popular science writing, written by an author who has been involved in the evolution of the field he reports on, and is able to borrow from a solid background of supporting surveys and science research.  The book is also topical, taking time to apply the theory to our current political climate.  I may quibble with a detail or two of his primary metaphor about the relationship between our “head” and our “gut”, but that is a tiny, tiny thing compared to the value this book has in increasing our understanding of how humans make their moral decisions.

(Having read it I do wonder, however, about how we can convert the knowledge contained in “The Righteous Mind” into practical action.  After all, the Moral Foundations Theory is based on an evolutionary model, which will, I think, keep more than a few conservatives from giving it a fair consideration, which, in a way, seems to put the greater burden on the liberal to make an unequal move toward being more understanding — and appreciative — of conservatives.  But that is a question beyond my reach.  I can tell you that this book helped me better understand not only those I disagree with, but my own morality as well, and that kind of shift-in-consciousness outcome is a noble achievement for any writer!)

I think just about anyone would benefit from reading this book.  It is well written, and clearly organized in a way to make the absorption of the concepts presented as easy as possible.  A worthy, timely book from a knowledgeable source.  I can’t ask for better than that.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The End of Men, And The Rise of Women” by Hanna Rosin.

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Back in the deep, dark eighties, I read The Great Cosmic Mother, which was basically an early attempt to redress the exclusion of women’s contributions to human history.  I had just recently lost my (monotheistic) religion, and what I was after was a good accounting of our pre-Christian history.  “The Great Cosmic Mother” held the promise of giving me some useful data on the ways my ancestors lived and believed before Jesus came along.

It was a huge book, filled with page after page of Goddess propaganda and sweeping assertions, wrapped around some tantalizing data (roughly one-third “good stuff”, and two thirds “fluff”).  By the time I was done with it, I came to a conclusion:  “Some day”, I thought, “this field of research will mature, and someone will write a really good book on this subject”.  “The End of Men” is that book.

Hanna Rosin begins her book in a way that sounds like a rousing cheer for the state of affairs her title hints at: Women are finding themselves rising to the challenge of a shifting economy and workplace, freed to do so by birth control and gains in women’s rights, even as many men appear to be falling by the wayside, cast adrift in a world they are either unable or unwilling to adapt to.  The “macho man” is dying out, and the “super woman” is ascending.

But then the true nature of this book begins to appear.  This is not political broadside delighting in the demise of men (and tradition male culture), neither is it a “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” book that is actually criticizing women for becoming “bitches” in the workplace.  “The End of Men” is the serious, thoughtful, mature examination of women and culture that I hoped “The Great Cosmic Mother” would have been.

The two books deal in very different realms, true, but they are motivated by the same love of (and concern for) women and their issues.  But “The End of Men” is serious reportage.  The further I read the more I noticed how many of the author’s statements were arising out of reputable research papers, or from her own original interviews with women around the world.  This is not a feminist firebrand at work, but a serious reporter.

The title is dramatic and attention-grabbing, but it is not inaccurate.  For a lot of men (in industrialized economies, at least), a mode of being has passed into history.  Manufacturing jobs that once allowed men with low education to nevertheless work and support families (and thereby support their notion of themselves as the “head” of their families) are nearly gone.  And women have (one could argue) “had to” step up to feed their families and see to their own needs.

And so this is in many ways an economic story, and, as such, it has relevance not just to women, but very much to the men who are being “left behind” by history.

As a man who has grown up with the feminist movement as a constant companion, I welcome this kind of quality writing on a subject that impacts so many people’s most basic ideas of happiness and fulfillment.  I can’t think of anyone who would not benefit from reading it.  The author is nonjudgmental in her view point, but insightful and critical enough to dig beneath the surfaces of the lives her reporting brings her into contact with.

It remains to be seen how the hard-charging, eighty-hour-a-week professional working woman will fare when she finally breaks out into the very top tiers of corporate and political America (something that is becoming inevitable at this point).  In some ways she has become the template and signal for when the struggle for women’s equality is over.

Of course, this is not the whole story for women (any more than that small percentage of men at the top is the whole story for my own gender).  And women are also facing adaptive challenges as they lose their grip on their own familiar (if restrictive) social identities while rising up to outnumber men (as they now do) in many professional and academic fields.

For women, like any army claiming new territory, the ultimate challenge may be knowing when to declare “victory”.  Letting up too soon could allow gains to slip backwards.  Fighting too long prolongs needless suffering.  It’s something we’re all going to have to figure out eventually.

I highly recommend this book to men and women alike.  It tells us a great deal about the social and economic history that is happening to us right now.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Evolution in a Toxic World: How Life Responds to Chemical Threats” by Emily Monosson

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

“Evolution in a Toxic World” is, in some ways, a story of the evolution of one toxicologist’s personal and professional evolution in a field that is, by her account, at last merging with the insights available from the field of evolutionary studies.  For it turns out that toxicology has much more to concern itself with than the occasional dramatic case of humans being poisoned by their own chemical creations.  The emerging reality about the interactions of thousands upon thousands of “new” chemical compounds with the evolved biology of every living thing is an area that requires careful study and new ways of defining just what dangers might lurk in our present and future environments (as altered by human activity).

The reality is this: we industrious humans have liberated tons of heavy metals and naturally-occuring materials from the earth through our mining and burning and manufacturing.  Along the way we have invented chemical compounds that have never existed in nature.  It stands to reason that such an environment — changed as it is from the one we evolved in — might produce some surprises in our biology, and this is proving to be the case.

But this case is sometimes subtle and nuanced — not always a tale of deathly poisons, but often of chemicals whose molecular shapes resemble hormones, say, and that fool living cells into taking them up in ways that alters reproductive cycles or DNA.

This book is not alarmist, even if there are alarming revelations as the author takes us along on her own journey into our evolutionary past in order to better understand the task that is before scientists such as her (and humankind).  it is a well-written, cogent and enjoyable book to read, well worth your time if for no other reason than the fact that you have to live your life in this new chemical world we have created.

I highly recommend this book.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” by Keith Lowe

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

“Revenge or forgiveness.  Remembrance or oblivion.  These postwar challenges are never carried out according to heavenly justice: there will be more unjust vengeance and undeserved forgiveness.  Already the policies of remembrance and oblivion are not pursued in a way that will serve peace and stability.  The Serbs would like to forget exactly those things that the Croats or Bosniaks would like to remember, and vice versa.  If by chance any of the sides remember the same event, it is a crime for one and a heroic deed for the other”  — (Column in the Serbian newspaper Vreme, quoted in Savage Continent, P. 373)

This is a really good book, and it is just awful to read.

Keith Lowe takes on an heroic task: to cut through all of the self-serving exaggeration of every party to World War II (including the innocent victims) in order to reveal just what all these humans were really doing to each other in the months that followed the end of the war in Europe.

It turns out that many parts of that war didn’t really end when we think they did.  There is, of course, the familiar story of Communist Russia’s clamping down on the nations of Eastern Europe.  But lesser known are the political purges and ethnic cleansing of places like Poland, Greece and Italy.  Basically, any place where large concentrations of Allied troops were not present, a terrible chaos reigned.

But even in the zones of, say, U.S. protection, there was a sort of short-term liberty for reprisals against Nazis, Fascists and even civilians.  Such “revenge” is a major theme of this fine book, and it is explored with a clear-eyed understanding that manages to walk a fine line between justification and denial.  But denial is also a theme of this tale, as nation after nation faced the post-war reality of rebuilding their compromised identities in a new world.  And to this end, the myth-making and exaggeration (or denial) of wartime atrocities became a sort of national industry.  To the end that in many countries today the truth remains nearly impossible to find.

I respect this book for its bravery and commitment to evidence, but also for its humanity, even as it reveals to us the horrors we humans are able to inflict upon each other, be it foreigner or next-door neighbor.  Well written, this book is both easy, and difficult, to read.

I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “GRAVITY: How the Weakest Force in the Universe Shaped Our Lives” by Brian Clegg

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Having just read “The Story of Earth”, I happily snapped up “Gravity” when it showed up at our local library.  After all, who wouldn’t want to understand more about this “weak” force that nonetheless has had everything to do with the shape of my body and the way that I move about on this planet in that body.

The book begins in a pleasing, breezy style that promises good things to come.  But I would have to describe my experience of reading it to my experience of reading the Bible: it started out with some really exciting stories but then slowed WAY down when I hit the books of the “begets” and the “laws”,  which in the case of Gravity meant chapter after chapter delving into the minutiae of the theoretical mathematics of Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity, as well as quantum mechanics and string and loop theory and the like.  Yikes.  Don’t show me those dry mathematical formulations and expect me to gain any enlightenment from them!

I’ve obviously revealed myself as a math-o-phobe, so to the extent that you are not like me, you should add that many grains of salt to my review of this book.  But I think that a good popular science book should keep the poor general reader’s head at least an inch or two above the water (without excluding the value of an occasional “dunk” for shock value).  And on that score I think this book fails in its mission to impress an enlightening conceptual grasp of gravity upon a general reader.

I don’t feel that I gained a useful insight from this book (an idea re-enforced by the fact that I did not mark a single quote to transcribe for this review), though the author is clearly knowledgeable enough to discuss such mind-twisting matters.  It is another reminder that it is the rarest of scholars who can effectively communicate with the student or amateur enthusiast.  They do exist, to be sure, but they are uncommon.

On the other hand, there are some excellent science writers who, though not scientists themselves, can translate the essence of scientific discovery for the rest of us.

Unless you are into math with your physics, I’d say skip this book.  There are more informative and enjoyable science books to spend your time on.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev give is two and a half Dimetrodons!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, From Stardust to Living Planet” by Robert M. Hazen.

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

This has to be about the most coherent and readable book about the formation of our planet that I have read.  It made the processes that formed Earth make sense in ways that no other book has (and I’ve read some good ones).  But it also reads like a family album, or the biography of a beloved friend.  For those reasons alone I recommend it.

The bonus of the book (and the area most likely up for debate) is the fresh viewpoint that the author brings to the symbiotic connection between biological life and geology.  We all understand that without the basic elements that were gathered from the cosmos by the Earth, life could not have begun.  But it also appears that it was life itself that then began to alter “lifeless” geology, mainly in the form of minerals that then became the further building blocks of ever-evolving life forms.

Life exists in many forms and in many places on and in the earth.  We tend to think of the things that live and crawl on the surface, or swim in the sea, but the roots of living plants facilitate chemical reactions in rocks and soil to a degree that their actions must be considered a significant shaper of landscape — more so than erosion by wind and rain.

It is a way to see our planet that has an elegant and fascinating complexity to it.  Our life story is not one of life simply springing up on a watery planet that just happened to be the right distance from an energy-supplying sun, but of an interplay between chemistry, environment, time and chance that has played out over and over and over again through extinctions and near extinctions, changes in atmosphere and the chemical composition of the oceans as well as the surface of the planet to arrive at the biologically-rich world that we know today.

As one might expect, there is a final-chapter discussion of our current climate issue, but it is set firmly within a recognition of the dynamic nature of our planet:

“In the midst of these forces, our species has proved to be resilient, clever, and adaptable.  We have learned technological tricks to shape our world to our will: we mine and refine its metals, fertilize and cultivate its soils, divert and exploit its rivers, extract and burn its fossil fuels.  Our actions are not without consequences.  Every day, if we are attuned to the dynamic process of our planetary home, we can experience every facet of its intertwined creative forces.  And we can then understand how devastatingly changeable the world can be, and how utterly indifferent it is to our fleeting aspirations.”

I highly recommend this book both as a fine tale of our home planet, and as a reminder of how many important scientific discoveries about it have come in our lifetimes.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Some of My Best Friends Are Black” by Tanner Colby.

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

“But God’s Holy Bible is a funny thing.  For a supposedly sacred, infallible text, it reads a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.  Just flip through and pick whichever story line suits your needs.  While the slaveholders built their economy on Leviticus, the slaves found hope in Exodus.”  p. 227

This is a book I didn’t know I needed to read, but I did.  While watching hotel-room t.v. last month, I stumbled upon an interview with the author.  I made a mental note to look for his book when I got home, and last week there it was, looking right at me on the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library.

The author’s story is not mine: he’s younger than I am and was raised in the deep South.  And yet, his story is mine or, I should say, he is telling our story as a nation with a deep and historic racial divide.  It would seem that I have spent so much time reading about our natural history (or our political history) that I have failed to find out just what it is we’ve been doing about racial equality in America.  Well, thanks to this remarkable book, I now know.

Listening to the author being interviewed, I thought this book would be more a chronicle of his own journey of discovery as he cultivated new friends who were black.  It is not (though I think it was good to know that the author embarked on such a journey while I was reading the book).  Instead, it is a clear-eyed chronicle of the ways we have used legislation to first marginalize blacks and then (at least in theory) integrate them into white society.

The book is a sobering testimony to the persistence of racial distrust on both sides of the black/white divide, and the terrible cost of unintended (well, some of the time) consequences of legislated “equality”.  I struggle to find the right description to get you to read this book.  I can say that my eyes were opened in a rather remarkable way.  This is a very humane book that pulls no punches, but neither does it recycle any of the standard catchphrases or accusations, except to unpack them in the clear light of day.

I feel like my own part in all of this has also been made clear to me in a way that offers me the opportunity to change it.  That is no small feat for an author.  The book is also written with a sure hand, good humor and just enough bite to make it stick.

I can’t recommend it enough.  It’ll make you a better American.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” by Giulia Sissa (translated by George Staunton)

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

In some ways I’m still wondering why (or how) I read this book.  I can perhaps account for why I picked it up off the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library (it had the words “sex” and “ancient” in the title).  But as to how I stuck with it — when from the start it was clearly a dense and scholarly book more than a bit above my level of scholarship on the ancient Greeks and Romans — will have to remain a mystery.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m very glad that I read it, as this book turned out to be a window for me into our earliest philosophical conclusions about ourselves as sexual, emotional and social beings.  But it was a challenging read.

For those of you familiar with Greek, Roman and early Christian philosophy, much of this may be familiar territory (though the fact that the author’s central aim is to refute some long-established notions of what this group of thinkers actually said about sex may be of value even to you).  I can only tell you what I gained from this book.

For a start, I feel like I now have a workable familiarity with the different schools of Greek thought that started the ball rolling, as it were, on our views of sex, marriage, romance, learning and society.  And this is hugely important stuff, as the book clearly shows.  For this was the bedrock upon which later Roman and Christian thought was built.

Just as the stories of the Bible are echoes and re-tellings of previous myths of the fertile crescent, the answers that the (Greek-speaking) Apostle Paul gave to the Ephesians were informed by the Greek thought that permeated his own consciousness.

Seen in that way, this book is in some ways vital to an understanding of the way that I view sex, romance and marriage today.  For I (we) have grown up immersed in the unsettled stew of all of this thought that has come before.

And there is another angle that applies very much to our own time (and our current political climate) and that, perhaps oddly, gives me insight into the stubborn resistance to modern civilization exhibited by the Libertarian and TEA Party types:  and that is the view of these ancient philosophers that the process of civilization makes the hard, dry bodies of men turn soft — that the evolution of society is an essentially feminine (soft and moist) process, and that the challenge then becomes how to maintain a distinction between the sexes within civilized society.  (I think the TEA Party is rife with this “men are men and we don’t need your stinking help” sort of attitude).

“When humans were still living in the forest, Venus set about joining their bodies together through mutual attraction, male violence, or rudimentary forms of gifts.  It was therefore sexual pleasure that started to weaken humans, particularly men; this process of enfeeblement culminated in a taste for good food and for visiting spas, and resulted in the triumph of luxury.”  (P. 154)

I think these questions (and concerns) about how “civilization” changes us are valid.  And what this book tells me is that these questions have been on our minds for as long as we have been in a position to observe ourselves as a civilized species.

It’s a dense book (it took me almost a month to read it — not my usual single week).  But even knowing that I was reading a translation, I could feel the rather delightfully clear mind of the author, and came to love the way she viewed the world and that she chose to share her views with someone so far from her field of study as me.

The book cogently covers Greek, Roman and early Christian thought on sexuality, and it’s worth reading if only to discover just how influential the words of these thinkers of the past have been on the way we still see ourselves and society.

t.n.s.r. bob