Archive for the ‘Revues from the Rev’ Category

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “A Tour of the Senses: How Your Brain Interprets the World” by John M. Henshaw.

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

John Henshaw is chair of the Department of Engineering at the University of Tulsa, but clearly he is more interested than the average engineer in the workings of his own sensory systems.  And in “A Tour of the Senses” he takes us on a pleasant journey through the various types and flavors of stimulus, sensation and perception: the three necessary parts of every bit of our experience of life.

I kept thinking as I read this book “He had to do a lot of work outside of his field to write this!” (this is pure conjecture on my part and a reflection of my own bias after working and socializing with so many engineers over the years)!  But the subject of this book is something of deep interest to me, and, I believe, of deep value to any of my fellow humans that has the least interest in seeing the world (and themselves) as clearly as possible.

The book is organized into three sections (the above-referenced Stimulus, Sensation and Perception), which are further broken down into their component (and related) parts.  The book gives a very workable overview of just how our parts have evolved to do the remarkable job they do of taking everything that comes our way and turning it into electrical signals that the brain then makes sense of.  It was reading about this last part the process that made the biggest impression on me: namely the insights into the plasticity of the brain (as revealed by stories from those that have suffered damage to vital areas of the brain, for example, only to recover lost function when other areas of the brain then took up the task).

I’d call this a pleasant and informative read.  The writing is congenial, the author personable (and clearly fascinated by his subject), and there is a lot of truly fascinating information here.  I’m curious how a mechanical engineer from Tulsa gets a book on neurobiology published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (seeing that imprint is what gave me the nudge to give the book a shot), but I’m rather glad he did.

If you would like to get better acquainted with your own eyes and brain and nerves and sensors (and learn why our eyeballs perceive only the visible light spectrum) give this book a read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it three out of four Dimetrodons!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet” by Barry A. Vann

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

“The notion that humans are somehow killing the planet is absurd, although we can kill ourselves and some other fellow occupants.  As apex predators, we have the capacity to manipulate earth’s resources in ways that no other life-form can.  While on the one hand playing with fire may cause the player to get burned, he nevertheless must burn energy to survive.  Exploiting resources is a part of life.  It is how we use them that must be done with care because the earth is not fragile; we are.  From looking at environmental history, one fact rises equally from the volcanic ashes of great eruptions and the slippery slope of advancing glaciers: climate and weather are products of a complex energy system that neither sees nor knows us.  They have no consciousness or need for sacrifice on our part.  They cannot be bought off by repentance.  Moreover, climate is capricious and because it is that way, we face a future that is likely to change.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in facing the real prospect of climate change, which will happen with or without our assistance, is to shed ourselves of overly romantic and even geopious notions of perceiving weather and climate as anything more than mindless forces of nature.”  — Barry A. Vann in “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet”.

I often pick up a book based on whatever particular hole in my knowledge I want to plug with information that week.  I found this book (like I have many others) on my wonderful local library’s “New Non Fiction” shelf.

I was intrigued by the idea of getting an overview of just how we humans have met our environments over the generations.  But the first chapter read like a graduate thesis: dry and distant, and I wondered if I would just take this book back and find another, more readable one.  But I stuck with it for another chapter (ready to drop it an any time), and then another and then I found myself reading the parts where the author really hit his stride as, it turns out, a superlative storyteller.

If you’re like me, you’ll sort of endure the pages of arcane nomenclature the field (of geography) employs for the different human viewpoints on the forces of nature, which essentially boil down to the ways we have viewed natural disasters as actions of an angry god (or, more recently, of an angry and aggrieved planet).  Some of this early stuff is indeed dry, but it is still good stuff.  But then the author takes several long side-trips into vivid descriptions of several of the most dramatic convulsions that nature has visited upon us humans, and it is in these stories that the writing becomes beautiful, irresistible, sublime.  This writer may be an artist in scientist’s clothing.

Taken as a whole, I did get a deeply satisfying overview of the actual “why” of where humans have chosen to build their camps, villages and cities, and settled humanity’s experience of natural disasters:  In short, we like to live in places where bad things can — and do — happen (on low-lying shorelines of rivers and oceans, on beautiful islands created by volcanoes, on vast, fertile farmlands in “Tornado Alley”, etc.).  The author sees all of this through his perspective as a geographer, which means he sees worse on the horizon (as our populations in these areas continue to increase).  These are good truths to have in mind.

There is frequent reference to climate change and global warming in “Forces of Nature”, but not in the way you might expect.  The author is looking at the larger picture of just when (not if) our next ice age may come, and he seems to think that a bit of global warming now might just help forestall this much larger disaster coming down the tracks.  I’m not sure how to think of that idea.  (I guess I’ll need to find yet another book to lessen my ignorance on that particular proposition).

This is a very worthwhile book that will definitely expand your perspective on humans and their interactions with their environment.  Even if you skip the “dry” chapters, I’d hate for you to miss the description of the greatest earthquake known to strike the (populated) United State which hit, if you can believe it, the Mississippi valley in the early 1800’s.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism” Edited by Andrew J. Petto and Laurie R. Godfrey.

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

This book is a collection of essays from scientists, each speaking to his or her field of study and thereby confronting the challenges to science mounted by the proponents of Intelligent Design and Creationism.

Intelligent Design is the current brand name of religious creationism, which holds that life was created by a divine being (generally said to be God).  In the essays in this book, we learn about the different schools of thought in the creationist movement and the divisions between, say, “Young Earth Creationists” (that hold to a literal interpretation of the story of creation as told in the book of Genesis), and the “Intelligent Design” folks, who, while granting some aspects of evolution and geology, still hold that God is behind it all.

There is a nice overlap between the essays in this book so that no gaps are left in the discussion of the range of scientific understandings under assault by the religiously motivated.  So we have essays on genetics, the ways in which we’ve learned to determine the age of rocks, physics, the scientific method, the definition of just what a scientific “theory” is, and the process (and evidence for) evolution.

Included are detailed critiques of the shabby pseudo-science of the leading minds of the “Creation Science” movement, as well as a thorough history of this social and religious phenomenon.

The essays are all rather formally written (and heavily referenced), though clearly meant to be read by a popular audience.  This is a book put together by serious scientists who have set aside their research to uncharacteristically confront an alarming social movement that threatens to weaken the very foundations of science and science education.  The fact that this book needed to be written is disturbing enough.  Reading the thing will only add to that alarm.

The good news is that “Scientific Creationism” in any and all of its forms is shown to be nothing but good old fashioned pseudo science.  The bad news is that it remains a very real threat to our future as informed citizens.

It’s worth a read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth” by Chris Stringer

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

It’s a good question: “Why us?”  And it’s a question that’s bound to come up at a certain point in the contemplation of our natural origins.  After all, we bandy about truths such as “99% of all species that have ever lived on earth are extinct” without getting that chill up our spine that reminds us that we could very easily have been just one more extinct species.  And the unsettling truth is that there were many others of our species — or, at the least, closely related human species — that did, in fact, go extinct.

But the fact that we are still standing protects us from any sense of our true vulnerability and damn good luck in the game of evolution.  “Lone Survivors” tells us our story as we understand it today.  And today’s understanding is very different from what we knew only forty years ago.  It is a story that is continually unfolding.  But in this book we get the benefit of the first-hand experience and accumulated wisdom of Chris Stringer “one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists“.

This is a well written and well organized book.  I’ve read enough on the subject to sense what particular “camp” (or “school of thought”) the author is partial to, but one of the quietly wonderful parts of this book is how the author tracks the progression of his own ideas as they have been challenged by new evidence (significant parts of it from his own discoveries and research).  This is one of those uncommon (but, thankfully, not scarce) books written by the scientist actually doing the research he describes.  Add to that the detail that the scientist in question is writing from the back side of a forty-year career that seasons his conclusions and you get a fine, fine book.

The thing I notice about reading current science books is that many of them include last-minute additions, written as the books were “going to press”.  But, then, this is the inherent challenge of reporting science: authors must state what they know today, always understanding that somewhere, someone is finding out something new that will add new dimension to their current understanding of the world.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of human evolution.  Though we had no hominid fossils at all when Darwin correctly predicted that humans had evolved in Africa, we still don’t have an exhaustive collection of our ancestry.  And so this remains an area where each new discovery has a tremendous impact on our knowledge.  But “Lone Survivors” does a tremendous job of telling our story up to now.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry A. Coyne.

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

“The process is remarkably simple.  It requires only that individuals of a species vary genetically in their ability to survive and reproduce in their environment.  Given this, natural selection — and evolution — are inevitable.”  — Author Jerry A Coyne in “Why Evolution is True”, page 11.

Any book that has the endorsement of both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens has my interest.  But I’d also read references to Jerry A. Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” in another science book I was reading, so I sought it out.

What a great book!  First off, let me say that the title of this book tells you exactly what you will find inside.  This is a fine primer on the actual evidence for evolution, along with a solid description of what the theory does and does not say.

The subtitle to this book could easily be “and why Intelligent design if false”.

Upon reflection, it is a sad commentary that a writer and scientist of this caliber has to spend an entire book working to refute a religious claim that continues (and with some real success) to pass itself off as a valid, competing scientific theory on the origins of life on earth.  But that is the reality we live with.  In the United States, fully 40% of those surveyed believe that God created the earth and all that is in it pretty much according to the account in Genesis.  And believers in creationism are vocal in classrooms across this country, forcing the false notion that both “theories” deserve equal treatment.

But, of course, there are not two theories at all: there is one scientific theory (proven to a point to be considered “fact”), and a religious notion with no supporting scientific evidence at all.  Those are not propositions deserving of equal treatment.  It is akin to (as Richard Dawkins points out in The Greatest Show on Earth — reviewed this blog)  a student in a history class claiming that ancient Rome never existed, but was made up by historians for their own purposes.

Read this book and be a soldier for reality.  We need all of those that we can get.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Neal deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Colbert. (Unfortunately, I cannot find who to credit for this photo. My apologies to the photographer)

This is an outstanding experience.  For one thing, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most impassioned champion for science.  He is inspiring.  For another, Stephen Colbert turns out to be the best of interviewers.  He is funny, yes, but what comes out most is his sincere interest and humanity.  And underneath all of the great information is the sight of two smart, interesting people truly enjoying each other and the subjects they discuss.  It’s a long video, and the audio is a bit distracting for the first part, but stick with it.  You’ll be glad you did!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “How To Think Like a Neandertal” by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

“In How to Think Like a Neandertal, archaeologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick L. Coolidge team up to provide a brilliant account of the mental life of Neandertals, drawing on the most recent fossil and archaeological remains”. (From the publisher’s website)

There’s no getting around it: there are a lot of things we simply cannot know about the past.  We have to make inferences based on material evidence, but have no eyewitnesses to tell us if we’ve gotten it right or not (though, having read as much as I have of late about the unreliability of human perception, I’m not sure that we’re not better off without their testimony).  We find a bit of scraped bone, a flint spear point, some evidence of a small fire and we naturally try to imagine the scene — a particular moment in time.

The fact is that we can do this by using our knowledge of how modern peoples of all kinds behave (as well as comparisons with our primate cousins).  But there is always going to be a bit of fancy in the flights of our imagination.

Having said all of that (whew), the authors of How to Think Like a Neandertal are, at the least, well qualified to do some imagining for us about just what Neandertals were really like.  As people like us, but not quite like us.

Neandertals and we modern humans share a common ancestor a long, long time ago.  Neandertals moved into Europe and Asia out of Africa, and seem to have lived in those areas for quite a while before we showed up.  Of course, we had some more evolving to do (while still in Africa) in order to take our modern form, but having done that it seems very likely that — once we reached those northern latitudes — we had a lot to do with hastening the extinction of the powerful (though technologically and — according to the authors — cognitively inferior) Neandertals.

This is a fascinating and transparent look at what we actually know about our extinct cousins (kissing cousins, one might say, as we now have evidence that at least a little Neandertal DNA worked its way into some modern human populations, but not vice-versa).  I say “transparent” because the authors do a fine job of systematically laying out the latest evidence from archeology alongside studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies and chimpanzees (as well as other primates).  But then they are also quite up-front about when the flight of fancy departs the runway.

To be sure the imagination is here given more reign than the evidence can confidently support, but the signal achievement of this book is the creation in the reader of a living, breathing, vivid sense of what a Neandertal was actually like.  This is a remarkable achievement for a couple of scientists writing for a popular audience.  And, naturally, understanding Neandertals provides, by contrast, a deeper understanding of our own evolved humanity.

This is the kind of science writing that welcomes this previously (overly) strange and exotic “other” humanoid back into the fold of the actual family of cousins that we all are (well, were).  The mind-blowing fact is that we modern humans were occupying the same landscape as Neandertals as recently as 30,000 years ago.

The final chapter is a quietly moving guess at how the final Neandertals drifted into extinction.  Reading it, I was reminded of the tale of Ishi, the last surviving man of the Yahi tribe in California that walked out of the mountains one day (shortly after the turn of the 19th century) and was taken in by a scientist who took care of him and tried to learn all he could about his about-to-become extinct culture.  For the Neandertals — like the Yahi — there came a point where their remaining groups were simply too small to replace themselves, and one day, those many years ago, the last Neandertal died, alone.

This is a good book — and a pleasurable, often fun read.  I highly recommend it.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” by Richard Dawkins.

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Actually, I’ve already reviewed this book on this blog.  But I felt it was time to read it again, and I’m glad I did.  I noticed so many things I don’t remember noticing the first time.  Plus, it was a nice reminder of how much I enjoy good old Richard Dawkins.  He gets so much criticism for being imperious, snobby and vicious.  Of course, he’s none of those things.  He simply lacks an empathetic patience for anyone who obstinately ignores actual evidence.  I kind of like that about him.

Regardless, this is a fine book for laying out just why Darwin’s theory of evolution is not simply a competing idea on the level of intelligent design (or Biblical creationism).  Dawkins confronts those folks head-on, and the book is packed with useful and accessible metaphors and descriptions about just how the natural world works, and how we can know what we know.

So pick this one up (I bought the hardcover to have around for re-readings just such as this).  It’s an entertaining, informative and mind-blowing read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “You are not a gadget” by Jaron Lanier

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

“By 2008, some of the leading lights of the open culture movement started to acknowledge the obvious. which is that not everyone has benefited from the movement.  A decade ago we all assumed, or at least hoped, that the net would bring so many benefits to so many people that those unfortunates who weren’t being paid for what they used to do would end up doing even better by finding new ways to get paid.  You still hear that argument being made, as if people lived forever and can afford to wait an eternity to have the new source of wealth revealed to them.”  — Jaron Lanier in “You are not a gadget”.

This quote sums up what this book by my former Las Cruces High School classmate Jaron Lanier has done for me: it has explained to me why it felt like the promises of the internet (at least to producers of creative content like myself) were hollow.  After reading this book I understand that the internet is sort of a global version of the “It will look good in your portfolio” argument that every young artist hears (from the clients that want “something for nothing”).

The truth is, there are times in any professional’s career where the mere opportunity to do real work (that can become those first entries on a resume’ or in a portfolio) are, indeed, worth more than cash-in-hand.  But they are worth doing for free because of the potential for those free jobs turning into paying jobs in the foreseeable future.  And when I was starting out in the business (some thirty years ago, now), that was, indeed, the case: I had to give some work away, especially when it was something that I hadn’t attempted before.  And into my portfolio and resume it went and, guess what?  I started to get paying jobs and full-time professional positions.  And pretty soon I didn’t need to give my work away (unless I wanted to).

Clearly, this is a transitional phase every professional goes through.  The problem with the nexus of the creative professional and the internet is that the internet has been demanding our content for free for 15 years now, and there seems to be no end of the rip-off in sight.  Why?  Because WE want everything for free as well, not matter the actual cost to our overall economy.

You may not be a writer or artist, but as a citizen living in this economy you should care about this, just like I should care about the shenanigans on Wall Street whether or not I have an investment portfolio.

Jaron Lanier has been called the “father” of virtual reality, and has been living in the heart of the digital revolution from its beginnings.  He is, therefore, well placed to be the humanist philosopher embedded among the throngs of digital engineers that have created the internet as we know it.

He is a thoughtful, poetic and humane writer, given to flights of imaginative fancy that may or may not appeal to the average reader.  He is a bit of an intellectual outcast in the digital community for expressing concerns about issues of human dignity and the worth of the individual that others among his peers are all too quick to dismiss as irrelevant.

Lanier pulls the pants down around the ankles of the technological monster that he both loves and criticizes not just for his own amusement or agenda, but for all of our sake.  His is a perspective that we all must understand because all of us are living, now and for the foreseeable future, in the digital world.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: Dinosaur tracks at Clayton Lakes State Park.

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Some of the quietly amazing fossil trackways at Clayton Lakes State Park.

This site is, admittedly, out of the way.  Unless, that is, you decide to drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Hugoton, Kansas on Highway 56.  Located about 12 miles north of Clayton, New Mexico, these multiple dinosaur trackways eroded out of the bare rock that was scraped clean to make a spillway for the damn that created this reservoir.

To get to the trackways you have to head north from the main intersection in Clayton and hang a right at the Dollar Store.  From there the signs will guide you to the lake and a parking lot from where you can make the relatively short hike to the trackways (this is a State Park fee area).

At first, the trackways don’t look like much.  But they are worth giving a little time to emerge.  I would also encourage reading all of the descriptive signs.  In my case it was as if my eyes needed time to adjust to the landscape (helped, no doubt, by the sun that was getting a little low in the late-afternoon sky).

There are some rather quietly amazing things recorded in this ancient mud flat, including an interesting variety of animal prints, as well as the patterns of ancient cracked mud and rippled beach sand.  Of the more interesting trace fossils is a hadrosaur track that shows the animal pausing, rocking back on its hind legs, and then continuing on.  Another shows the place where a similar creature seemed to be struggling for its balance in the mud and used its large tail to stabilize itself, leaving a distinctive tail-drag mark in the mud.  This was the one that got to me.  Suddenly I was connected as one living animal living out a  moment in time with a long-extinct fellow creature experiencing his or her moment of stepping through the mud along the coast of the ancient interior seaway.

For me it was worth the drive into the far northeastern corner of New Mexico.  If you’re up that way, give it a look.  I found it deeply moving.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!