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review 2018-03-14 06:41
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness - Peter Godfrey-Smith
Other Minds - Peter Godfrey-Smith

I don't know quite how to rate this one, so I went for 4 stars.  This is likely to be more a collection of disparate thoughts rather than a cohesive review of any kind.


Most people are not going to find Other Minds a 'popular' science book.  It's not dry, but it is dense.  The author merges what is currently known in evolutionary science with philosophy, and has written what is largely a thought experiment on the concept of consciousness and it's origins, and not just for the octopus; this covers all life.  Octopuses get more page time than other creatures, but still only make up about ... 40%, maybe 50%?  Not quite what I was expecting, but I was willing to go with it.


I listened to the audiobook, although I have the hardcover as well.  The narrator, Peter Noble, does an excellent job with the narration; his voice is crisp and clear and he reads it as though he has a thorough grasp of the material. 


But ... I don't know if it was me or if the title of the book was too open to interpretation, but I did not realise how deeply philosophical the material was - this made the audiobook very challenging for me; I'm not a fan of other people's thought experiments in general, so I really struggled with a wandering mind as I listened to this book.  I understood the general concepts he covered, but whole sections of the narration would just wash right over me before I'd realise my consciousness checked out.  


Conclusion: I'd have been better off reading the physical edition, I think.  It's a very well written book, but it's heavy material for someone like me, for whom listening requires a conscience effort.  I'll likely re-read my hardcover sometime soon, so I can determine how much I missed, and give my mind a chance to reinforce some of the points I found most interesting.

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review 2018-03-13 00:41
I Contain Multitudes
I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong

I wasn't sure what I was going to get when I started this book; obviously microbes, but was it going to be dry and academic, or worse, evangelical 'omg-microbes-are-the-answer-to-everything!'?


Luckily I got neither.  Instead Yong's book was, from start to finish, utterly fascinating; never too arcane and never to simplistic, he found the sweet spot of science writing, creating an engaging narrative that never talks down to the reader.  Anyone with an average vocabulary and an interest in the symbiotic world can pick up this book without feeling intimidated.  


Microbes (bacteria, viruses, etc.) are everywhere.  Everywhere.  And bad news for the germaphobes:  this is a good and necessary thing.  Life on Earth simply could not exist without these microscopic machines.  Plants and animals depend on bacteria for nutrients they can't get from food on their own, for turning on specific and necessary genes in the DNA, even for protecting them from other bacteria gone rogue.  


Yong starts at the beginning of humans' awareness that there is life we cannot see.  Typically these beginning chapters are the deadliest for me, as I get bored with the 'background' and impatient to get to the 'good stuff', but Yong made sure even the boring background was the 'good stuff'.  I was never bored reading this book.


Left to my own devices, this review would go on forever, because there's just so much worth discussing, so I'm going to short-circuit myself and say this:  I Contain Multitudes is a great book for learning how microbes help make all life possible; it's a 50/50 split, more or less, of information on microbe/human and microbes/other flora and fauna symbioses.  It's easy to read, it's entertaining, and for at least myself, it was laugh out loud funny in one part.  I finished with a much better understanding of the microbial world and my own digestive system (for now, I'm going to resist the temptation of probiotic supplements).


A very worth-while read and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone with an interest.



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review 2018-02-14 22:05
Blowfish's Oceanopedia
Blowfish's Oceanopedia: 291 Extraordinary Things You Didn't Know About the Sea - Tom Hird

First thing's first:  Take a moment to check out that cover.  That's Huggins!  With star billing right at the top, how could I not buy this book when I saw it at the shops?


Hird is a marine biologist trying to spread his love of the ocean without sounding dull or dry.  That's not hard to do when you're talking about the ocean because you don't have to go far to find weird and wonderful and freaky life that defies dullness.  (Grouper are dull.  Delicious, but dull.  Grouper do not make an appearance in this book.)


The Chapters are broken down by the distinctions used by marine biologists:  Shore, Coastal Seas, Coral Reef, Open Ocean, Deep Ocean, Frozen Seas, and a final chapter I like to call "How mankind if f*cking it all up" but he more tactfully names Threats to the Ocean.  In each chapter he choses a variety of life found in these areas and talks about their weirdness and wonderfulness and contribution to the chain of life.  


Some of the animals in the ocean are far beyond weird and blaze right on into 'omg that's freaky'.  I knew this on a certain level already, but it turns out that was just the top of the iceberg.  So to speak.  Many, many of the entries got read out loud.  MT was particularly amused by the arctic bird that pukes on its predators (northern fulmar).  I spent a lot of time on google images; there's a center section of full color photographs in the hard cover edition, and they're gorgeous, but no where near comprehensive enough.  


I liked his writing style, and needless to say, I learned heaps; I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone who's interested in the oceans.  But there was just some small thing missing that kept me from really loving it; something ephemeral that I can't point to. It's a very good read and worth the time; just not awesome.  


Although, bonus points for Huggins!!

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review 2018-02-06 04:54
Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language
Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language - Emma Byrne

I've been waiting months for this to come out; I swear like a sailor and my love of etymology and words in general draw me to books like these.  This one was excellent.  


In the introduction Byrne sets the expectations for the reader; not all the chapters are focused on swearing specifically - or how swearing is good for you, but all the topics she discusses are topical to swearing, and all of them contribute to our understanding of why swearing can be fun, powerful, and offensive - often all at once! 


There is a lot of science here, written by a woman who is a scientist first and a writer second, and a lot of studies make up a good portion of the narrative, with humor to keep the reading easy. Even when the chapters aren't geared directly at the benefits of swearing, they are fascinating.  In a slim volume of under 200 pages, she covers the interrelationship of pain and swearing, Tourette's Syndrome (a tragic, eye-opening chapter that she describes as 'the chapter that should not be in this book'), swearing in the workplace, other primates that swear (so good!), gender and swearing, and finally, swearing for the multi-lingual.  All fully cited and fascinating.  With citations/notes, a bibliography, and an index in the back. 


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and should have saved it as a suggestion for The Flat Book Society, dammit!  Though I was never going to be able to wait that long to start reading it; luckily it was good enough to re-read someday soon, so perhaps it will find it's way to the voting list anyway.

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review 2018-01-22 01:08
When the Earth was Flat: All the bits of science we got wrong
When the Earth Was Flat: All the Bits of Science We Got Wrong - Graeme Donald

In my review of The Accidental Scientist, I raved about how much I enjoyed the book, but that I had reservations about the way the author's style, no matter how entertaining it was.  Turns out those reservations are well founded.  In When the Earth was Flat, his penchant for pedantry and generalisations are so broad as to be misleading.  


The book is broken up into chapters that each cover a "scientific" theory believed to be fact at some point in history.  Flat Earth, Hollow Earth, Phrenology, Hysteria, etc.  Each includes a basic description of the belief and the effect it had on humanity both at the time, and sometimes, up to the present day.


Most of these are, I believe, pretty well researched, and they are well written; I learned a lot, and while I won't take any of it as gospel truth without some additional fact-checking, I have a level of confidence that the book is generally sound.  I'm agog at the implications of certain medical "advancements" of the 1920's and their possible links to HIV.  


But where he loses ground is in his breakout boxes that list "Popular Scientific Ideas Debunked".  These are just bullet point statements refuting what are widely believed to be scientific facts.  Most of them are gimmes; anyone who has read any similar book would recognise them as myths rather than facts.  But a number of them are - while factually correct if your pedantic - irresponsibly phrased.  For example:


Heat does not rise but disperses itself equally and evenly throughout its environment. 


Yes, but no.  Or not immediately.  A gas that is heated up will have less mass and more volume, and therefore will rise up through a colder gas until the heat is dispersed equally and evenly throughout.   That's how weather works.  Anyone who has ever seen a thunderstorm form, especially a microcell, has seen the hotter air rising up through the atmosphere (really, the colder air is sinking, but anyway...).  This is nature's way of re-establishing equilibrium, or as close as it can get before the sun comes back out.


The same applies to water (until water hits the freezing point); cold water is denser than warm water, so the colder water sinks to the bottom and the warmer water rises to the top, until the temperature is equal throughout.  We're lucky that that equilibrium is never achieved in our oceans, else life on Earth would become rather untenable. 


So while his statement is factualit's oversimplified to the point of being wrong, and since he does not trouble himself, or the reader, to explain beyond these casual, throw-way refutations, I find them incredibly irresponsible.   This is why there are so many ignorant people who cannot see that they are ignorant: they read things like this and think themselves informed... and then run for political office.  Simplification, like everything else in life, should only be practiced in moderation.


To sum up, it's not a bad read; I believe 90% of the information can be relied upon and for the reader who is new to science or just enjoys fun facts, this is entertainingly written. But, as in any non-fiction book, the reader should be cautious of single sentence statements of facts.  It's rarely that simple.

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