Tag Archives: science

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

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The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.

The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.

This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.

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Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth

Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)

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Image from Facts Just for Kids

Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.

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Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives

But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.

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Mesodma – image from Inverse

Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.

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Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki

Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.

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Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com

I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.

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Purgatorius – image from science News

I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.

Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!

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Eoconodon – image from The New York Times

Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.

From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.

Review posted – May 13, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile from Museum of the Earth

Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.

Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.

In your own words, what is your work about?

“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”

Interviews
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating

Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
—–Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation

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Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

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Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

System Error by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami,  Jeremy M. Weinstein,  

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Technologists have no unique skill in governing, weighing competing values, or assessing evidence. Their expertise is in designing and building technology. What they bring to expert rule is actually a set of values masquerading as expertise—values that emerge from the marriage of the optimization mindset and the profit motive.

Like a famine, the effects of technology on society are a man-made disaster: we create the technologies, we set the rules, and what happens is ultimately the result of our collective choices.

Yeah, but what if the choices are not being made collectively?

What’s the bottom line on the bottom line? The digital revolution has made many things in our lives better, but changes have come at considerable cost. There have been plenty of winners from the digitization of content, the spread of the internet, the growth of wireless communication, and the growth of AI. But there have been battlefields full of casualties as well. Unlike actual battlefields, like those at Gettysburg, many of the casualties in the battles of the digital revolution did not enlist, and did not have a chance to vote for or against those waging the war, a war that has been going on for decades. But we, citizens, do not get a say in how that war is waged, what goals are targeted, or how the spoils or the costs of that war are distributed.

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Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein – image from Stanford University

In 2018, the authors of System Error, all professors at Stanford, developed a considerable course on Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Many Technical and Engineering programs require that Ethics be taught in order to gain accreditation. But usually those are stand-alone classes, taught by non-techies. Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein wanted something more meaningful, more a part of the education of budding computer scientists than a ticking-off-the-box required course. They wanted the teaching of the ethics of programming to become a full part of their students’ experience at Stanford. That was the source for what became this book.

They look at the unintended consequences of technological innovation, focusing on the notions of optimization and agency. It is almost a religion in Silicon Valley, the worship of optimization uber alles. Faster, cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, lighter. But what is it that is being optimized? To what purpose? At what cost, to whom? Decided on by whom?

…there are times when inefficiency is preferable: putting speed bumps or speed limits onto roads near schools in order to protect children; encouraging juries to take ample time to deliberate before rendering a verdict; having the media hold off on calling an election until all the polls have closed…Everything depends on the goal or end result. The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question.

Often blind allegiance to the golden calf of optimization yields predictable results. One genius decided to optimize eating, so that people could spend more time at work, I guess. He came up with a product that delivered a range of needed nutrients, in a quickly digestible form, and expected to conquer the world. This laser focus managed to ignore vast swaths of human experience. Eating is not just about consuming needed nutrients. There are social aspects to eating that somehow escaped the guy’s notice. We do not all prefer to consume product at our desks, alone. Also, that eating should be pleasurable. This clueless individual used soy beans and lentils as the core ingredients of his concoction. You can guess what he named it. Needless to say, it was not exactly a marketing triumph, given the cultural associations with the name. And yes, they knew, and did it anyway.

There are many less entertaining examples to be found in the world. How about a social media giant programming its app to encourage the spread of the most controversial opinions, regardless of their basis in fact? The outcome is actual physical damage in the world, people dead as a result, democracy itself in jeopardy. And yet, there is no meaningful requirement that programmers adhere to a code of ethics. Optimization, in corporate America, is on profits. Everything else is secondary, and if there are negative results in the world as a result of this singular focus, not their problem.

How about optimization that relies on faulty (and self-serving) definitions. Do the things we measure actually measure the information we want? For example, there were some who measured happiness with their product by counting the number of minutes users spent on it. Was that really happiness being measured, or maybe addictiveness?

Algorithms are notorious for picking up the biases of their designers. In an example of a business using testing smartly, a major company sought to develop an algorithm it could use to evaluate employment candidates. They gave it a pretty good shot, too, making revision after revision. But no matter how they massaged the model the results were still hugely sexist. Thankfully they scrapped it and returned to a less automated system. One wonders, though, how many algorithmic projects were implemented when those in charge opted to ignore the down-side results.

So, what is to be done? There are a few layers here. Certainly, a professional code of ethics is called for. Other professions have them and have not collapsed into non-existence, doctors, lawyers, engineers, for example. Why not programmers? At present there is not a single, recognized organization, like the AMA, that could gain universal accedence to such a requirement. Organizations that accredit university computer science programs could demand more robust inclusion of ethical course material across course-work.

But the only real way we as a society have to hold companies accountable for the harm already inflicted, and the potential harm new products might cause, is via regulation. As individuals, we have virtually no power to influence major corporations. It is only when we join our voices together through democratic processes that there is any hope of reining in the worst excesses of the tech world, or working with technology companies to come to workable solutions to real-world problems. It is one thing for Facebook to set up a panel to review the ethics of this or that element of its offerings. But if the CEO can simply ignore the group’s findings, such panels are meaningless. I think we have all seen how effective review boards controlled by police departments have been. Self-regulation rarely works.

There need not be an oppositional relationship between tech corporations and government, despite the howling by CEOs that they will melt into puddles should the wet of regulation ever touch their precious selves. What a world: what a world! A model the authors cite is transportation. There needs to be some entity responsible for roads, for standardizing them, taking care of them, seeing that rules of the road are established and enforced. It is the role of government to make sure the space is safe for everyone. As our annual death rate on the roads attests, one can only aim for perfection without ever really expecting to achieve it. But, overall, it is a system in which the government has seen to the creation and maintenance of a relatively safe communal space. We should not leave to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter decisions about how much human and civic roadkill is acceptable on the Information Highway.

The authors offer some suggestions about what might be done. One I liked was the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We do not expect our elected representatives to be techies. But we should not put them into a position of having to rely on lobbyists for technical expertise on subjects under legislative consideration. The OTA provided that objective expertise for many years before Republicans killed it. This is doable and desirable. Another interesting notion:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say $50,000 worth of work in. factory, that income is taxed and you get an income tax, social security tax, all those things.
It a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Some of their advice, while not necessarily wrong, seems either bromitic or unlikely to have any chance of happening. This is a typical thing for books on social policy.

…democracies, which welcome a clash of competing interests and permit the revisiting and revising of questions of policy, will respond by updating rules when it is obvious that current conditions produce harm…

Have the authors ever actually visited America outside the walls of Stanford? In America, those being harmed are blamed for the damage, not the evil-doers who are actually foisting it on them.

What System Error will give you is a pretty good scan of the issues pertaining to tech vs the rest of us, and how to think about them. It offers a look at some of the ways in which the problems identified here might be addressed. Some entail government regulation. Many do not. You can find some guidance as to what questions to ask when algorithmic systems are being proposed, challenged, or implemented. And you can also get some historical context re how the major tech changes of the past impacted the wider society, and how they were wrangled.

The book does an excellent job of pointing out many of the ethical problems with the impact of high tech, on our individual agency and on our democracy. It correctly points out that decisions with global import are currently in the hands of CEOs of large corporations, and are not subject to limitation by democratic nations. Consider the single issue of allowing lies to be spread across social media, whether by enemies foreign or domestic, dark-minded individuals, profit-seekers, or lunatics. That needs to change. If reasonable limitations can be devised and implemented, then there may be hope for a brighter day ahead, else all may be lost, and our nation will descend into a Babel of screaming hatreds and kinetic carnage.

For Facebook, with more than 2.8 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg is the effective governor of the informational environment of a population nearly double the size of China, the largest country in the world.

Review posted – January 28, 2022

Publication date – September 21,2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Rob Reich’s (pronounced Reesh) Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Reich is a professor of Political science at Stanford, and co-director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics, and associate director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial intelligence

Links to Mehran Sahami’s Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Sahami is a Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and professor and associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science Department. Prior to Stanford he was a senior research scientist at Google. He conducts research in computer science education, AI and ethics.

Jeremy M. Weinstein’s Stanford profile

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Interviews
—–Computer History Museum – CHM Live | System Error: Rebooting Our Tech Future – with Marietje Schaake – 1:30:22
This is outstanding, in depth
—–Politics and Prose – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy Weinstein SYSTEM ERROR with Julián Castro with Julian Castro and Bradley Graham – video – 1:02:51

Items of Interest
—–Washington Post – Former Google scientist says the computers that run our lives exploit us — and he has a way to stop them
—–The Nation – Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom By Stephanie Wykstra
—–NY Times – Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It
—–Brookings Institution – It Is Time to Restore the US Office of Technology Assessment by Darrell M. West

Makes Me Think Of
—–Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
—–Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
—–Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Non-fiction, programming, Public policy

Fuzz by Mary Roach

book cover

…I…follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, and there’s a bear in the back seat earing popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”

Mary Roach is up to her old tricks. A science writer now publishing her seventh book, Roach has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, NY Times Magazine, and many more. She begins with a notion, then goes exploring. Roach tells Goodreads, in a book-recommendation piece, that she came across a potential story about cattle breeders staging deaths to commit insurance fraud. She even had a grand theft avocado story lined up, but the local Smokeys would not let her come along, which was a requisite. She shifted to wildlife.

I paid a visit to a woman at the National Wildlife Service forensics lab who had authored a paper on how to detect counterfeit “medicinal” tiger penises. – from the GR piece

Wait! What? (there is link to the study in EXTRA STUFF, of course) But again it was nogo accompanying the officers into the field. Really? Her presence would blow a National Wildlife Service raid on a market selling junk johnsons? It is pretty easy to come up with a descriptive for such unwarranted reticence. (Rhymes with sickish.) In any case, in her investigative travels, Mary came across a weird 1906 book about the prosecution and execution of animals and realized she had her hook. What if animals were the perpetrators of crimes instead of people? She breaks the book down into “criminal” categories, homicide, B&E, man-slaughter, larceny, even jaywalking, and off we go.

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Mary Roach – image from Lapham’s Quarterly

First, and foremost, I need to let you know straight away that you will be laughing out loud at least every few pages. This is not an experience I have with any other writer, and yet have had it consistently with Mary Roach, across the several books of hers that I have read. Ditto here. Well, fine, your sense of humor may not be like mine, but Mary has the key to my funny-bone.

Her intro offers a stunning representation of just how stupid people have been when attempting to enforce laws on animals over the course of history. Python-worthy material, totally side-splitting, and jaw-dropping. Really, they actually did that? Yes, gentle reader, they totally did.

On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province in northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars. The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from people’s gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court…Of course no caterpillars appeared at the appointed time, but the case went forward anyway.

It goes on. Would have been tough making a charge stick anyway. They would have just blamed each other. It was that caterpillar, not me. I was nowhere near that orchard. And even if they were jailed they would have just flown out anyway. The law may be a ass, far too often, but sometimes it truly boggles the mind.

As usual, Mary interviews experts in all the areas she investigates. She begins her contemporary explorations with a gathering of Canadian Conservation officers (in the USA) getting Wildlife Human Attack Response Training or WHART. They don’t, but you go right on ahead and call it what it is, CSI-Wildlife – DUUUUUM-DA-DUM! Mary brings plenty of funny to her reporting, but a lot of it is simply laying out the facts and letting them make you laugh themselves. For example, the test manikins are named for brands of beer. Good one, eh? And there is that quote at the top of the review. You will also learn some real-world intel like the significance of a round versus a more oval drop of blood at a crime scene.

As usual with Mary, you will find yourself learning a whole bunch of information you never knew you wanted to know, like how to tell the difference between a bear and a cougar kill. (No, not that sort of cougar, the one with fur and claws, a mountain lion, Geez! and no, no, no, not that sort of bear, creatures of the Ursus genus, not those other large hairy beasts. Stop that right now!) She considers issues with elephants, leopards, cougars, bears, macaques, gulls, vultures and other birds, rats and mice, trees, and beans. Come again?

The lines here get a bit vague. It is not just animals that are the focus but some non-critter-based elements of nature as well. Sticking with critters for the moment, there are considerable challenges in managing the interface between people and animals. For instance, the vig that farm mice seem to extract from farmers regardless of what is done to get rid of them can turn peaceable crop-growers homicidal. Mary looks at the control methods that have been tried, and explores a promising, more laid-back approach.

Rats in the Vatican (which is an outstanding name for a band, just sayin’) present the challenge of managing the property while taking seriously the lead of Saint Francis of Assisi, an animal rights figure of long-standing, and a major inspiration for Pope, ya know, Francis. Mary talks to the guy in charge of this problem (I could not help but imagine Father Guido Sarducci, sorry), the Vatican Director of Gardens and Garbage, Rafael Torning. The considerable Vatican rat population has a taste for wires, and damages a lot of machinery. VG&G does what they can, trying to avoid using nasty chemicals. But even so, aren’t there ethical concerns? So, she talks with the house bioethicist, Father Carlo. Let’s just say that if you could count the number of angels on the head of a pin, Father Carlo could very nicely twist all of them into pretzels with his words.

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A possible solution to half of the Vatican’s Gull-and-rats problem? – image from the Irish Sun

The Vatican has a considerable problem with herring gulls as well, thousands of ‘em. None of this Mary Poppins Feed the Birds nonsense. The feathered rabble that descend on Saint Peter’s seem more like the gathered horde in that Hitchcock movie. You will not come away from this book fond of gulls. I found her lapsed-Catholic’s tour of the Vatican to be worth many, many indulgences, rich as it was with fun details and ambience.

Chapters on elephants and leopards are particularly alarming.

…when a leopard stalks and kills more than three or four people, villagers consider it a demon. – [it, clearly, considers them takeout]

There was one historical case in which a single leopard killed over a hundred people. Mary travels with government and non-government people as they try to educate local populations in best practices for avoiding potential conflict. Not all leopard attacks are the same. You will learn the sorts. And not all attacking leopards are handled the same way. She looks at changes that have been at least partially implemented to try to reduce the carnage. (Indoor toilets, for example), and the challenges going forward in handling the problem, getting leopards to leave people alone.

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Leopard – image from Wild Cats India

When it comes to elephants, Mary Roach knows her shit, literally. She reports on a Smithsonian project that measured daily defecation by an Indian elephant. A poop scooper will not do. Maybe a poop plow? 400 pounds, give or take, per diem. Elephants loom large as a danger, laying waste to crops, trampling fields and bulldozing buildings. People are sometimes accidentally trampled. Sometimes it is no accident, as when one elephant did a headstand on someone. A bull elephant in an elevated period of breeding excitement, called musth, is particularly aggressive and a mortal peril. She can also tell you about the effectiveness of small arms against big pachyderms. Keep your powder dry. Most bullets do little or no damage. Even a bit of armor-piercing ordnance intended for tanks needs a follow up to get the job done.

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Indian elephant in musth – image from Wikipedia

Monkeys in India come in for a look. Macaques in particular, have made pests of themselves in urban areas, becoming aggressive thieves, to the point of violence, and even of extortion, as some will steal your phone, handing it back only when you pay the fee in food. Government officials struggle to come up with solutions, tough in a place where the monkey is a sacred animal. It is impossible to deliver directed doses of birth control without endangering other native wildlife, for example. Roach delivers a bleak portrait of official finger-pointing and inaction.

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Street Monkeys in India – image from Outlook

While reporting on the damage done to area farms and people, and the impact of wildlife in places populated with humans, Roach does point out that a lot (all) of these conflicts result from people expanding into the native territory of dangerous or potentially pestiferous, animals.

I was surprised that there were parts of the book dedicated to non-creature natural perils. The material is interesting, but thematically it felt a bit off the central topic.

There is much surprise information (well, for me anyway) about “danger trees,” those fully grown trees that have come to the end of their lives, at least in terms of growing. They still serve as useful woodland citizens by providing places in which creatures can nest, wood in which bugs can live, biomaterials that will be absorbed back into the woods. This is all good, but there is still one problem. The rotting tops of these gentle souls can come crashing down on passers-by, unaware of the peril. The approach that is taken, by woodland managers makes one wonder whether it is better to yell “Timber” or “Fire in the Hole!”

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Decay throughout this tree makes it too hazardous to fell with a saw. It was felled with one bundle of fireline explosives taped to the side of the tree – image and text from the US Forest Service

There is an element in this book that you should be aware of. The disposal of animals considered pests. This is of particular relevance in places where invasive species have arrived and laid waste to significant segments of the local fauna, and/or flora. Not all of these are the usual suspects, stowaway rats wiping out bird populations with their fondness for eggs, brown snakes, ditto and far too many others, often foolishly introduced by people attempting to counteract an earlier invasives problem. Some of the invaders are adorable and not on your likely list of things that MUST BE EXTERMINATED NOW. Mary looks at the techniques attempted (usually failed) and on the thought that goes into trying to make a creature’s passing as quick as possible. You might want to skip that chapter (14). Many of my daily companions are on that list and, although I did read it all, it was disquieting at times. Just lettin’ ya know. I hope this does not turn you off the book if you are otherwise interested.

She does focus on ways in which people can live in coexistence with nature. This includes a greater understanding of the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, and a workable approach for reducing roadway carnage.

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Deer in the headlights – image from Bryans Blog

I have issues with the titling of the book. The raised-patch addition to the hardcover jacket goes very nicely with the patches my wife and I picked up at many US National Parks. Mary might have called it Nature Gone Wild, but that was already taken. Naming it Fuzz, though, (maintaining the tradition of single-syllable Mary Roach book titles) does make it seem like it is about the police-type officials who are charged with coping when forces of nature interfere with people. Although there were indeed some badged officials in her stable of interviewees and guides through these fascinating worlds, she spoke as often with people who were researchers or administrators, and the stories were about the problems, not so much the law enforcers. Many may be related to parks here and there. Some were employed by wildlife services, but it just did not sit well with me. Her reporting is as much about a wider view of the issues as it is about the direct, Book-em, Danno “crimes” supposedly perpetrated on people by the furry or feathered set. So, I will not shy away from this. When it comes to actually describing what the book is about the title is decidedly fuzzy. There. I did it, and I am not sorry. Well, ok, maybe a little. Not that I can come up with anything better, just whining.

That done, it is clear that wherever Mary Roach shines her light there will be surprises, there will be new knowledge, and there will be smiles, lots and lots of smiles, covered with copious quantities of laughter. Follow along behind Mary as she opens some closed doors, peeks into some hidden corners, and pesters defenseless officials to find fascinating, wondrous real-world material. Even despite that one grim chapter, I found myself reacting as I always do to a Mary Roach book, laughing out loud, often, very, very often. There is a definite joy in trailing after Mary as she shines her very bright light into unseen corners and calls back “Hey guys, come see what I found!” If you have enjoyed her books before, this one should do quite nicely. There is nothing fuzzy about that at all.

Feeding animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict. The promise of food motivates normally human-shy animals to take a risk. The risk-taking is rewarded, and the behavior escalates. Shyness becomes fearlessness, and fearlessness becomes aggression. If you don’t hand over the food you are carrying, the monkey will grab it. If you try to hold onto it, or push the animal away…it may slap you. Or bite you. The Times of India put the number of monkey bites reported by Delhi hospitals in 2018 at 950. [When your teenager makes off with your car, just remember that it all began when they were small, and you made the mistake of offering them food]

Review posted – October 29, 2021

Publication date – September 21, 2021

I received this book from Barnes & Noble in return for cold, hard cash

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Interviews
—– Mary Roach Discusses Craft & Humor in Science Writing With the Northwest Science Writers Association with Hannah Weinberger and Ashley Braun of Northwest Science Writers Association – video – 1:05:08 – Covers her entire career
—–Commonwealth Club – Mary Roach’s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law – with Kara Platoni – audio – 1:04:44 – a lot of fascinating material in this one – more focused on this book
—–Bookpage – Mary Roach – Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws by Alice Cary
—–Goodreads – Mary Roach’s Highly Unusual True Crime Recommendations

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2013 – Gulp
—–2010 – Packing for Mars
—–2006 – Spook
—–2004 – Stiff

Items of Interest
—–National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – Distinguishing Real Vs Fake Tiger Penises – Where it all began for Mary re this book – You know you’re curious – yes, there are illustrations
—–The Guardian – Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town by Adam Gabbatt – Geez, talk about pests!
—–NY Times – Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand by Gardiner Harris

Songs/Music
—–Mary Poppins – Feed the Birds – Julie Andrews

Scrabble Words – from the book, to weaponize against family and friends in the game
–—-frass – insect excreta – white powder that appears on trees (Not a birch! Please do not lean there.)
—–kerf – space left by a saw-blade cut in a tree (not necessarily by a man wearing a leather mask)
—–kronism – the eating of one’s offspring (named for Saturn. Did not work out well for him, though)
—–musth – a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. (from Wiki) (aka Friday night?)

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

Being There – Being a human by Charles Foster

book cover

We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.


If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

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Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

GRIPES
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

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Genius Makers by Cade Metz

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[In 2016] Ed Boyton, a Princeton University professor who specialized in nascent technologies for sending information between machines and the human brain…told [a] private audience that scientists were approaching the point where they could create a complete map of the brain and then simulate it with a machine. The question was whether the machine, in addition to acting like a human, would actually feel what it was like to be human. This, they said, was the same question explored in Westworld.

AI, Artificial Intelligence, is a source of active concern in our culture. Tales abound in film, television, and written fiction about the potential for machines to exceed human capacities for learning, and ultimately gain self-awareness, which will lead to them enslaving humanity, or worse. There are hopes for AI as well. Language recognition is one area where there has been growth. However much we may roll our eyes at Siri or Alexa’s inability to, first, hear, the words we say properly, then interpret them accurately, it is worth bearing in mind that Siri was released a scant ten years ago, in 2011, Alexa following in 2014. We may not be there yet, but self-driving vehicles are another AI product that will change our lives. It can be unclear where AI begins and the use of advanced algorithms end in the handling of our on-line searching, and in how those with the means use AI to market endless products to us.

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Cade Metz – image from Wired

So what is AI? Where did it come from? What stage of development is it currently at and where might it take us? Cade Metz, late of Wired Magazine and currently a tech reporter with the New York Times, was interested in tracking the history of AI. There are two sides to the story of any scientific advance, the human and the technological. No chicken and egg problem to be resolved here, the people came first. In telling the tales of those, Metz focuses on the brightest lights in the history of AI development, tracking their progress from the 1950s to the present, leading us through the steps, and some mis-steps, that have brought us to where we are today, from a seminal conference in the late 1950s to Frank Rosenblatt’s Perceptron in 1958, from the Boltzmann Machine to the development of the first neural network, SNARC, cadged together from remnant parts of old B-24s by Marvin Minsky, from the AI winter of governmental disinvestment that began in 1971 to its resumption in the 1980s, from training machines to beat the most skilled humans at chess, and then Go, to training them to recognize faces, from gestating in universities to being hooked up to steroidal sources of computing power at the world’s largest corporations, from early attempts to mimic the operations of the human brain to shifting to the more achievable task of pattern recognition, from ignoring social elements to beginning to see how bias can flow through people into technology, from shunning military uses to allowing, if not entirely embracing them.

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This is one of 40 artificial neurons used in Marvin Minsky’s SPARC machine – image from The Scientist

Metz certainly has had a ringside seat for this, drawing from hundreds of interviews he conducted with the players in his reportorial day jobs, eight years at Wired and another two at the NY Times. He conducted another hundred or so interviews just for the book.

Some personalities shine through. We meet Geoffrey Hinton in the prologue, as he auctions his services (and the services of his two assistants) off to the highest corporate bidder, the ultimate figure a bit startling. Hinton is the central figure in this AI history, a Zelig-like-character who seems to pop up every time there is an advance in the technology. He is an interesting, complicated fellow, not just a leader in his field, but a creator of it and a mentor to many of the brightest minds who followed. It must have helped his recruiting that he had an actual sense of humor. He faced more than his share of challenges, suffering a back condition that made it virtually impossible for him to sit. Makes those cross country and trans-oceanic trips by train and plane just a wee bit of a problem. He suffered in other ways as well, losing two wives to cancer, providing a vast incentive for him to look at AI and neural networking as tools to help develop early diagnostic measures for diverse medical maladies.

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Marvin Minsky in a lab at M.I.T. in 1968.Credit…M.I.T. – image and caption from NY Times

Where there are big ideas there are big egos, and sometimes an absence of decency. At a 1966 conference, when a researcher presented a report that did not sit well with Marvin Minsky, he interrupted the proceedings from the floor at considerable personal volume.

“How can an intelligent young man like you,” he asked, “waste your time with something like this?”

This was not out of character for the guy, who enjoyed provoking controversy, and, clearly, pissing people off. He single-handedly short-circuited a promising direction in AI research with his strident opposition.

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Skynet’s Employee of the month

One of the developmental areas on which Metz focuses is deep learning, namely, feeding vast amounts of data to neural networks that are programmed to analyze the incomings for commonalities, in order to then be able to recognize unfamiliar material. For instance, examine hundreds of thousands of images of ducks and the system is pretty likely to be able to recognize a duck when it sees one. Frankly, it does not seem all that deep, but it is broad. Feeding a neural net vast quantities of data in order to train it to recognize particular things is the basis for a lot of facial recognition software in use today. Of course, the data being fed into the system reflects the biases of those doing the feeding. Say, for instance, that you are looking to identify faces, and most of the images that have been fed in are of white people, particularly white men. In 2015, when Google’s foto recognition app misidentified a black person as a gorilla, Google’s response was not to re-work its system ASAP, but to remove the word “gorilla” from its AI system. So, GIGO rules, fed by low representation by women and non-white techies. Metz addresses the existence of such inherent bias in the field, flowing from tech people in the data they use to feed neural net learning, but it is not a major focus of the book. He addresses it more directly in interviews.

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Frank Rosenblatt and his Perceptron – image from Cornell University

On the other hand, by feeding systems vast amounts of information, it may be possible, for example, to recognize early indicators of public health or environmental problems that narrower examination of data would never unearth, and might even be able to give individuals a heads up that something might merit looking into.

He gives a lot of coverage to the bouncings back and forth of this, that, and the other head honcho researcher from institution to institution, looking at why such changes were made. A few of these are of interest, like why Hinton crossed the Atlantic to work, or why he moved from the states to Canada, and then stayed where he was based once he settled, regardless of employer. But a lot of the personnel movement was there to illustrate how strongly individual corporations were committed to AI development. This sometimes leads to odd, but revealing, images, like researchers having been recruited by a major company, and finding when they get there that the equipment they were expected to use was laughably inadequate to the project they were working on. When researchers realized that running neural networks would require vast numbers of Graphics Processing Units, GPUs (comparable to the Central Processing Units (CPUs) that are at the heart of every computer, but dedicated to a narrower range of activities) some companies dove right in while others balked. This is the trench warfare that I found most interesting, the specific command decisions that led to or impeded progress.

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Rehoboam – the quantum supercomputer at the core of WestWorld – Image from The Sun

There are a lot of names in The Genius Makers. I would imagine that Metz and his editors pared quite a few out, but it can still be a bit daunting at times, trying to figure out which ones merit retaining, unless you already know that there is a manageable number of these folks. It can slow down reading. It would have been useful for Dutton to have provided a graphic of some sort, a timeline indicating this idea began here, that idea began then, and so on. It is indeed possible that such a welcome add-on is present in the final hardcover book. I was working from an e-ARE. Sometimes the jargon was just a bit too much. Overall, the book is definitely accessible for the general, non-technical, reader, if you are willing to skip over a phrase and a name here and there, or enjoy, as I do, looking up EVERYTHING.

The stories Metz tells of these pioneers, and their struggles are worth the price of admission, but you will also learn a bit about artificial intelligence (whatever that is) and the academic and corporate environments in which AI existed in the past, and is pursued today. You will not get a quick insight into what AI really is or how it works, but you will learn how what we call AI today began and evolved, and get a taste of how neural networking consumes vast volumes of data in a quest to amass enough knowledge to make AI at least somewhat…um…knowledgeable. Intelligence is a whole other thing, one of the dreams that has eluded developers and concerned the public. It is one of the ways in which AI has always been bedeviled by the curse of unrealistic expectations.

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(left to right) Yann LeCun, Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio – Image from Eyerys

Metz is a veteran reporter, so knows how to tell stories. It shows in his glee at telling us about this or that event. He includes a touch of humor here and there, a lightly sprinkled spice. Nothing that will make you shoot your coffee out your nose, but enough to make you smile. Here is an example.

…a colleague introduced [Geoff Hinton] at an academic conference as someone who had failed at physics, dropped out of psychology, and then joined a field with no standards at all: artificial intelligence. It was a story Hinton enjoyed repeating, with a caveat. “I didn’t fail at physics and drop out of psychology,” he would say. “I failed at psychology and dropped out of physics—which is far more reputable.”

The Genius Makers is a very readable bit of science history, aimed at a broad public, not the techie crowd, who would surely be demanding a lot more detail in the theoretical and implementation ends of decision-making and the construction of hardware and software. It will give you a clue as to what is going on in the AI world, and maybe open your mind a bit to what possibilities and perils we can all look forward to.

There are many elements involved in AI. But the one (promoted by Elon Musk) we tend to be most concerned about is that it will develop, frighteningly portrayed in many sci-fi films and TV series, as a dark, all-powerful entity driven to subjugate weak humans. This is called AGI, for Artificial General Intelligence and is something that we do not know how to achieve. Bottom line for that is pass the popcorn and enjoy the show. Skynet may take over in one fictional future, but it ain’t gonna happen in our real one any time soon.

Review first posted – April 16, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – March 16, 2021
———-Trade Paperback – February 15, 2022

I received an e-book ARE from Dutton in return for…I’m gonna need a lot more data before I can answer that accurately.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interview
—–C-Span2 – Genius Makers with Daniela Hernandez – video – 1:28:17 – this one is terrific

Other Reviews
—–Forbes – The Mavericks Who Brought AI to the World – Review of “Genius Makers” by Cade Metz by Calum Chace
—–Fair Observer – The Unbearable Shallowness of “Deep AI” By William Softky • Mar 31, 2021
—– Christian Science Monitor – Machines that learn: The origin story of artificial intelligence By Seth Stern

Items of Interest from the author
—–A list of Metz’s New York Times articles
—–A list of Metz’s Wired articles
—–excerpt
—–NY Times – Can Humans Be Replaced by Machines? by James Fallows

Items of Interest
—–Public Integrity – Are we ready for weapons to have a mind of their own? by Zachary Fryer-Biggs
—–Wiki on Geoffrey Hinton
—–Wiki for Demis Hassabis
—–Cornell Chronicle – Professor’s perceptron paved the way for AI – 60 years too soon by Melanie Lefkowitz
—–The Scientist – Machine, Learning, 1951 by Jef Akst

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Filed under AI, American history, Artificial Intelligence, business, computers, History, Non-fiction, programming

It’s Quiet, Too Quiet – The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore

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Except during the lockdown to slow the COVID-19 virus, cities drown us in sound. Buses grind gears, trucks beep, and street-corner preachers call down damnation on it all—what does this do to the human being, whose ears evolved as a warning system? In daylight, our eyes can warn us of danger in front of us. But our ears alert us to opportunity and danger twenty-four hours a day, from every direction, even through dense vegetation and total darkness.


When predators are on the prowl, birds and frogs, even insects, fall silent. No wonder humans are drawn to places where the birds feel safe enough to sing.

It’s quiet, too quiet. And it’s getting quieter.

There is a soundscape, a world of vibrations, wherever we are. I started reading this collection in a laundromat, pen and notebook at the ready. The wall-mounted TV blares The Goldbergs, an upgrade from the unspeakable Judge Judy, but still, noise that attempts to pierce my concentration, vying for attention. I sit on a bench at a table just inside a set of long, tall windows. A soft drink vending machine hums a steady note. Washing machines and dryers rumble. The irregular shmoosh-shmoosh of traffic passing on a wet street is muted by the window, higher tones intercepted by the glass. The only natural sound is a man with an operatic voice eager to engage on the subject of marriage as he folds newly-dry clothing on a table. While the urban orchestra may be largely comprised of mechanical instruments, it is not entirely so. The occasional dramatic crack and bang of nearby lightning are giant cymbals and following kettle drum, fading to a flutter-tongue trombone.

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Kathleen Dean Moore – image from her site

The sounds of nature we experience most are weather-related. The howl of a gale, the whistle of a sustained wind as it slips past constructed edges, the susurrus of wind-shuddered trees, the plik-plik-plik of hail, the long shushing notes of rain. The screech and hiss of cats fighting offers the sudden blare of a coronet and soft mallets on a high-hat. Aside from that, we do not hear mammals beyond, for the most part, neighborhood canines who make their presence felt when mail or packages are delivered or when someone approaches too close to their no-walk zone. I seriously doubt you have heard much from our fellow urbanites of the rodent family. Ground hogs save their conversation for underground, raccoons chitter on occasion when deciding among themselves which garbage can is most accessible. Roaches, ants, bedbugs and termites being notoriously quiet, the buzz of crickets and cicadas is the likeliest insectile sound we will experience, depending on whether you live in close proximity to a hive of bees, yellow-jackets, or hornets. And, of course, the occasional pestiferousness of a horsefly, or mosquitoes. Depends what part of the world you inhabit, of course.

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Gulls on Anacapa

Avian life probably offers the most sound from creatures in our natural aural canvas, the pik-o-wee of a red-winged blackbird, towee-oh-towee-ooh-towee-oh of a robin the hee-ah, hee-ah of the blue jay, the caws of covids, and gurgle of pigeons as they strut on an adjacent rooftop out of reach but within lunging distance of murderous pet felines safely contained behind windows, the rustle of feathers as a startled mourning dove launches. It is the sounds of avian life that receives the most coverage here.

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Great Blue in the Everglades

All this competes with the incessant onslaught of the television, 24/7, or so it seems, spewing news and noise into the world. City traffic also offers ongoing background noise. In my neighborhood there is the added joy of numberless hordes eager to blast car stereos at teeth-shattering volumes, as they pick up pizza next door. And there’s the hair place across the street that has proven resistant to civil pleas to lower the volume on the music they blast onto the sidewalk in hopes of attracting, I am guessing, the hearing-impaired. Silence is a rare event, and is unnerving because of that infrequency.

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Frigate Bird in the Dry Tortugas

I was living in Brooklyn when 911 happened. The sirens were ever-present, well, more ever-present than usual, masking the sudden absence of all air and most street traffic. Any city resident could tell from auditory clues alone that something very bad had happened. The soundscape changed, more than the hush created by a large snow. There was a different quality to it all, and it was unnerving, as if the quiet was in anticipation of another disaster. That was a sudden shift, and thus noticeable. The shift Kathleen Dean Moore writes of is a very different sort, more like the apocryphal frog in a pot of boiling water, which does not notice the gradual increase in heat until it is too late.

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Great Egret in Everglades

It is necessary to leave the larger cities (unless, of course, yours features sufficient acreage to allow one true aural relief from the urban) to have a chance at a more natural chamber orchestra. The sound of waves at oceanside, of burbling streams in the woods, or rushing rivers before they become major thoroughfares. In the absence of prowling predators, there is usually no such thing as woodland silence. Particularly at night the airwaves are alive with diverse calls and responses, come-ons and threats, warnings and conversations. But the rich chorus of the unpeopled world is being silenced, as member after member of that grand orchestra has been removed from their seat. Vivaldi incorporated the sounds of wildlife into his masterpiece, The Four Seasons. Let’s hope that critter-mimicking played-instruments or recordings are not all we have left of the sonic scape of the world of wildlife.

Green Heron - Butorides virescens  725Green Heron in the Everglades

It is, of course, not just creatures that Moore writes of. There are plenty of other sounds she celebrates, the song of dripping water in a luminous cave, the calming sounds of a singing mother soothing a squalling infant, the roar of the surf, the music of wind playing over cacti spines like a bow over strings, and plenty more. While a wide range of auditory experience is noted in this book, the largest representative of sounds that may be lost is the songs of birds.

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Anhinga in a tree – Everglades

I am no one’s idea of an outdoorsman, thus my very urban point-of-reference noted above. But neither have I been locked in a box. National Parks hold a magnetic attraction and I have been fortunate enough to have visited a bunch. Moore’s effervescent tale of a pika sitting on her son’s shoe while somewhere above the treeline, and squeaking out a warning when Moore happened to move about in the family camp downhill from her progeny reminded me of having seen a pika sitting atop a rock in Glacier National Park, and issuing the same squeak. There is an excellent chance that a few of the critters she mentions here might be found in whatever part of the states you live in, or similar creatures in places outside the states. That occasional direct connection adds to the enjoyment of reading about experiences she has shared with us.

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Tri-colored Heron – Everglades

In Earth’s Wild Music, Kathleen Dean Moore, has produced a cri du couer about the anthropo-screwing of our planet. She notes, in particular, the auditory element of our world, our experience of it, and the diminution of the actual evironment of sound on our planet as species go extinct.

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Juvenile White Ibis – Everglades

It is a book rich not only with a blaring call for recognition of what is taking place, for concern and action, but with notes of information, many of which will make you say to yourself, “Huh, I never knew that,” whether silently or aloud.

The calls of shorebirds, which evolved at the edge of the sea, have high frequencies, audible over the low rumble of surf. In the forest, birds have low-frequency voices because the long wavelength of the low tones are not as quickly scattered or absorbed by the tangle of leaves and moss.

or

The true gifts of the saguaro are the stiff spines set in clusters on the pleats of their trunks. When the wind blows across the spines, they sing like violin strings. Better yet, when you pluck a spine, it will sing its particular tone. If a person is patient in her plucking she can play music on a saguaro cactus.

It was a jaw-dropping read for me, not just for the content, but for the gift of poetic description that Moore brings to her mission. I experienced the same piercing joy in reading this book that is usually reserved for books by Ron Rash or Louise Erdrich.

The gifts of nature tell us there is a persistence to life that no measure of insolence or greed can destroy…the natural world holds us tight in its arms—calm as we tremble, patient as we mark the days “until this is over,” strong as we weaken. When the time comes, the natural world will embrace us as we die. It will never leave us. If we are lonely, Nature strokes our hair with light winds. If, frightened in the night, we wander outside to sit on a bench in the moonlight, it will come and sit beside us. If we are immobilized, having lost faith in the reliability of everything, still the Earth will carry us around the sun. If we feel abandoned, the Earth sings without ceasing—beautiful love songs in the voices of swallows and storms. This sheltering love calms me and makes me glad.

Moore has been at this for some time. This is her eleventh book, continuing her lifelong dedication to writing about the moral imperative for protecting the only planet we have.

I am two things, a philosophy professor and a natural history writer. They speak to the same thing, I think, which is developing a responsible relationship with a place, so that you can openly learn about it and it can openly inform you and you feel this moral urgency in protecting it. – from the NHI interview

It is not so much that this book should be read slowly, it MUST be read slowly, sips, not gulps, savoring the stunning beauty of her words, the appreciation of, the wonder at our world, the sorrow at what has already faded. It reads like a novel that does not link scenes through action, but through theme. Yet those scenes can be compelling. There are 32 essays. In a chapter set in Washington state, flooding had loosened the grip on the earth of a stand of huge cedars, sufficient so that biblical winds could push them over, into each other, causing a cascade of tree onto trailers, stoving them to ruin, across roads, requiring the liberal use of chainsaws to clear passage, with the residents holed up in a local tavern hoping for surcease like a science fiction town hoping for the best against an invading zombie army. In another, she comes face to face with a cougar in a cow field. There is the song of water dripping in a luminous, unsuspected cavern, more like glass than stone.

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Pelicans – Everglades

There are occasional moments of LOL humor, one telling of a pot luck gathering. The children line up beside the planks, studying the food as if they expect it to hatch. I am not saying that there is a lot of that in here, or that her humor will appeal to you as much as it does to me, but it does appear from time to time, and is most welcome.

Moore pleads with us not only to save what can still be salvaged, but to broaden our appreciation for what is all around us, to learn to listen, and to hear all the instruments of nature, the auditory environment of the world, particularly the natural world. If you just stop, and attend, you can pick out a wide range of sounds wherever you are, whether the sounds are urban or bucolic, indoor or outdoor, from people or with no people at all nearby.

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Singing cormorant in Brooklyn

Insets at the end of each chapter highlight news, usually dire, from the real world, relating to the chapter just ended. These bolster her argument that mass political action is needed in order to have any chance at stopping corporate looting of our common heritage. Individual actions are fine, but if one focuses only on that, the battle is already lost.

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Raccoon descending a tree – Florida

I started making a list of the many sounds, almost all human, that make it to my less-than-sensitive ears. Maybe a 24-hour slice might make someone more aware. Getting out to a more natural setting to listen there will have to wait a while, and will not likely include a full 24-hour sample, but it would be nice to be able to listen for a piece of day and a piece of night. Of course, it would certainly be a challenge to identify the noises heard in a sylvan setting, given my, and probably your, unfamiliarity with the songs of individual bird species. But listening is at least a beginning. Maybe you can settle in for what happens by in a back yard or visits a bird feeder, maybe spot and listen to visitors stopping off for a brief how’ya’doin’ on a window ledge or stoop. When I was still in Brooklyn, there was a fair range of avian traffic in Prospect Park, not too far from where we lived, and in Greenwood Cemetery, which was across the street. I did listen, a bit, but I wish now that I had paid closer attention. I did, however, get a pretty full dose of the cooing of the many pigeons that bred quite happily on our sixth-floor terrace. I doubt that particular sound is at much risk.


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Canada Geese in Brooklyn/Queens

Earth’s Wild Music is a contemplative read. Maybe the best way to take this one in is to keep it by your bedside and read a few pages, a notion, an observation or two, every night before going to sleep. It will both soothe you with the beauty of its writing and alarm you with the deep terror of its message.

The warning signs are all there, blaring like a chorus of trombones, like a host of angry drivers stuck behind an accident, leaning on their horns, like a pack of fenced dogs trying to scare away a passerby, if only you will listen.

Hope is not all we need. What we need. What we need is strength—strength in numbers and strength in moral conviction. What we need is shrieking, roaring courage.

Review posted – March 12, 2021

Publication dates
———-February 16, 2021 – hardcover
———-February 22, 2022 – trade paperback

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in return for a noisy review

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The critter shots in the review are all mine, and are clickable

The author’s personal site

Interviews
—–Catapult – A Conversation with Kathleen Dean Moore, Author of ‘Earth’s Wild Music’ by Lenora Todaro
—–PostCarbonInstitute – Kathleen Dean Moore | What Could Possibly Go Right? by Vicki Robin – video – 25:25 –
—–Natural History Institute – Reciprocal Healing: Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore, Ph.D. by Alan Wartes – video – 36:11

Songs/Music
—–WETA – Classical Breakdown – 3. The Four Seasons, how Vivaldi depicts the world in sound – Spring
—–West Side Story – Maria referenced in Chapter 3 – The Sound of Human Longing
—–Sound Design – 7/17/18 – Supernatural Cactus Creatures – the alien-sounding sounds of applying a bow to a saguaro
—–Oregon State University – Music to Save Earth’s Songs

Items of Interest
—–It’s quiet, too quiet – compilation
—–Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Home page – a huge source for bird images and sounds
—–Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Common Loon – noted in chapter 3
—–Nature – Why dissonant music strikes the wrong chord in the brain by Philip Ball
—— The One Square Inch Project – referenced in Chapter 22, Silence Like Scouring Sand
—–New York Times – How Does That Song Go? This Bird Couldn’t Say by Mike Ives – on how endangered birds are failing to learn the songs they need for courtship, which could lead to their extinction
——Poets.Org – Vanishing by Brittney Corrigan
—–New York Times – This ‘Shazam’ for Birds Could Help Save Them by Margaret Renkl — On the Merlin app that helps identify birds by their songs

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Life’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

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…the question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river… More than 150 years later, despite all that biologists have learned about living things, they still cannot agree on the definition of life.

I have had the pleasure of driving up a mountain through mist and cloud, and of walking in London through pea soup fog. Where exactly did the clear air end and the more particulate air begin? It is not entirely…um…clear. Sure, there is a difference between standing, or driving in air that one cannot visually penetrate and looking through a wide outdoor expanse on a cloud-free, crystalline winter day. But it is not a barrier drawn with a straight edge. Thus it appears with the line between living and not-living. With the examples detailed in Life’s Edge, it is clearer than ever that there are more things under heaven and earth than had been dreamed of in our philosophies. There are those, certainly, who proclaim that this or that specific location is where the thing called life begins. Rules have been drawn up to plant markers, to draw lines. But like an outdoor crime-scene police-tape, the fog of what lies within and without wanders freely past those lines, with no regard for the designs or preferences of humans.

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Carl Zimmer – image from The Psychology Podcast

New York Times science columnist and multiple-award-winning science-writer Carl Zimmer’s fourteenth book takes readers on an exploration to that amorphous borderland between the living and the non-living. It is a journey that raises a lot more questions than it answers. Zimmer employs a tried and true approach, each chapter moving on to the next lab, the next researcher, the next wild bit of research, and filling in with nice chunks of science history, as he circles around the question.

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Alysson Muotri – image from The Stem Cell Podcast

Many of the things Zimmer reports on are fascinating. Some, however, will disturb your sleep. For an example of the latter, Alysson Muotri, at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, takes skin samples and reprograms them into neurons to study neurological diseases and possible treatments. They are grown into miniature organs called organoids, and are allowed to reproduce, up to a point. When he started growing these things, he assumed that they could never become conscious. “Now I’m not so sure, he confessed.” Zimmer tells, also, of a researcher, a very long time ago, who was notorious for experimenting on living animals.

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Cerebral organoid – image from European Research Council

Clearly a significant concern for our culture is where “life” begins, and further, where “human life” begins. It all comes down to definitions. Is Thomas Aquinas’s notion of the “ensoulment” of human embryos the same as defining when life becomes human life? There have been other notions employed in the history of Christianity. Zimmer looks at how legal definitions of life, for purposes including supporting abortion laws, and concerning a widening spectrum of medical and legal issues, fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny.

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”It’s Alive!” (or is it?) – from Frankenstein – image from Buzzfeed

The concern here is not just what is life, but how can we tell when something actually is alive? He looks at how humans perceive life and react to it. We have a sense of life being present or absent, an intuition that is not unique to our species. Ravens hold what can only be seen as funerals for dead flock members. Chimps engage in group laments for late members, as do many other creatures.

To be alive is to not be dead…Humanity did not come to this realization through logic and deduction. Our understanding of death is not like Darwin’s theory of evolution or Thompson’s discovery of the electron. It has its origins in ancient intuitions.

Zimmer looks at metabolic rate. In the 17th century, there was a widespread fear of being afflicted with a death-like state that might leave its victims without detectable breath or heartbeat, thus generating a rampant terror of being buried alive. This concern inspired a well-known short story.

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Zimmer reports on a woman who was pronounced dead, twice. (third time’s the charm?) Where is the line between brain death and true, no backsies, total death? Can a person meet the criteria for brain death one day, and later not meet it?

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From The Night of the Living Dead – image from Wikipedia

But what constitutes life? How about adding some ingredients to agar, leaving it alone for a few hours and then finding a thriving slime mold, one with remarkable survival skills. What about spores, some of which can survive in space? Are spores alive? Or only potentially alive, or an ingredient in a recipe for making life?

Scientists have been arguing over whether viruses are alive for about a century, ever since the pathogens came to light. Writing last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, two microbiologists (Hugh Harris and Colin Hill) at University College Cork took stock of the debate. They could see no end to it. “The scientific community will never fully agree on the living nature of viruses,” they declared. – from Zimmer’s Secret Life piece in the NY Times

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“I vunder vut it vood be like to be really dead” – image from The Indy Channel

Whether you prefer your undead to be of the vampiric, zombie, or reanimated sort, or are more inclined to unicellular spore candidates, or maybe pre-conscious organoids, there are plenty of candidates for entities on the fringes of life.

In addition to providing readers with a better handle on the attempt to delineate the line between life and not-life, there are plenty of interesting questions raised and fun facts to be gleaned. We learn, for example, that Erwin Schrödinger was set up by the government at Trinity College. (But he may have simultaneously both been there and not, depending on whether any students saw him give a lecture.) We also learn that when Vitamin C was discovered, the discoverer wanted to name it “Godnose.” And how about meteorites as a possible source of Terran life? Or maybe they contributed one or more of the ingredients necessary for the recipe? I particularly enjoy when science writers imbue their work with a sense of humor. That is mostly lacking here, which is disappointing. But there is plenty of material to keep your brain cells flashing on and off.

Who decides on a definition of life? In an ideal world, science should lead on matters that are subject to physical investigation and repeatable experimentation. And yet…

It may be enough for you to align with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, when it came time to issue a ruling pertaining to pornography, said that he knows it when he sees it. We as a species tend to think that we know life when we see it. But it would be a good thing to recognize that all extant definitions of life are squishy, relying on philosophy or religion for their support. So I would appreciate it if no one would use their definition to tell me or anyone who does not share their perspective what they can or cannot do. Because when it comes to folks twisting science to political ends, I know it when I see it.

Life’s Edge may not provide a definitive guide to the line between living and nonliving. Such a line does not really exist in biology. But it does point out where the arguments lie about where those lines might be drawn, or, at least, where they might be investigated. It raises the larger question, though, of whether that line can, at least from a scientific perspective, be drawn at all.

Life is what the scientific establishment (probably after some healthy disagreement) will accept as life.

Review first posted – March 19, 2021

Publication dates
———-March 9, 2021 – hardcover
———-March 8, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an e-book ARE if Life’s Edge from Dutton in exchange for an honest review, and some of those interesting things that have been growing, unasked, in my basement.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, PInterest, and Twitter pages

I heartily recommend you check out Siddhartha Mukherjee’s amazing NY Times review What Does It Mean to Be a Living Thing?

Items of Interest from the author
—–What is Life – audio – A series of live conversations between writer Carl Zimmer and eight leading thinkers on the question of what it means to be alive.
—–Slate – excerpt – What on Earth are These Things? – on organoids
—–NY Times – The Secret Life of a Coronavirus – is it alive?

Songs/Music
—–From Sondheim’s CompanyBeing Alive
—–Aerosmith – Livin’ On the Edge
—–Opening of Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive
—–Madonna – Borderline
—–GaGa – Edge of Glory
—–Shruti Haasan – Edge
—–Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Every Sperm is Sacred

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, Science and Nature

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

book cover

There are many words a woman in love longs to hear. “I’ll love you forever, darling,” and “Will it be a diamond this year?” are two fine examples. But young lovers take note: above all else, the phrase every girl truly wants to hear is, “Hi, this is Amy from Science Support; I’m dropping off some heads.”

You have all seen The Producers, right? The version with Zero or Nathan, in the cinema, on TV, on the stage, whatever. Those of you who have not…well…tsk, tsk, tsk, for shame, for shame. Well, there is one scene that pops to mind apropos this book. In the film, the producers of the title have put together a show that is designed to fail. The surprise is on them, though, when their engineered disaster turns out to be a hit. During intermission of the opening performance, to Max and Leo’s absolute horror, they overhear a man saying to his wife, “Honey, I never in a million years thought I’d ever love a show called Springtime For Hitler. One might be forgiven for having similar thoughts about Caitlin Doughty’s sparkling romp through the joys of mortuary science, Smoke Gets in your Eyes. If you were expecting a lifeless look at what most of us consider a dark subject, well, surprise, surprise.

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Yes we are, and dead-ender Caitlin is happy to help with the cleanup

Caitlin Doughty has cooked up a book that is part memoir, part guidebook through the world of what lies beyond, well, the earth-bound part, at least, and part advocacy for new ways of dealing with our remains. Doughty, a Hawaiian native, is a 6-foot Amazon pixie, bubbling over (like some of her clients?) with enthusiasm for the work of seeing people off on their final journey. Her glee is infectious, in a good way. The bulk of the tale is based on her experience working at WestWind Cremation and Burial in Oakland, California, her first gig in the field. She was 23, had had a fascination with death since she was a kid and this seemed a perfectly reasonable place in which to begin what she believed would be her career. Turned out she was right.

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Caitlin Doughty from her site

Smoke Gets in your Eyes is rich with information not only about contemporary mortuary practices, but on practices in other cultures and on how death was handled in the past. For example, embalming did not come into use in the USA until the Civil War, when the delay in getting the recently deceased from battlefield to home in a non-putrid form presented considerable difficulties. She also looks at the practice of seeing people off at home as opposed to institutional settings. There is a rich lode of intel in here about the origin of church and churchyard burials. I imagine churchgoers of the eras when such practices were still fresh might have been praying for a good stiff wind.

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No Kibby, no smoke monsters here

Doughty worked primarily in the cremation end of the biz, and offers many juicy details about this increasingly popular exit strategy. But mixing the factual material with her personal experience turns the burners up a notch.

The first time I peeked in on a cremating body felt outrageously transgressive, even though it was required by Westwind’s protocol. No matter how many heavy-metal album covers you’ve seen, how many Hieronymous Bosch prints of the tortures of Hell, or even the scene in Indiana Jones where the Nazi’s face melts off, you cannot be prepared to view a body being cremated. Seeing a flaming human skull is intense beyond your wildest flights of imagination.

Beyond her paying gig, Doughty has, for some time, been undertaking to run a blog on mortuary practice, The Order of the Good Death, with a focus on greener ways of returning our elements back to the source. (Would it be wrong to think of those who make use of green self disposal as the dearly de-potted?) One tidbit from this stream was meeting with a lady who has devised a death suit with mushroom spores, the better to extract toxins from a decomposing body. I was drooling over the potential for Troma films that might be made from this notion.

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No, not pizza

One of life’s great joys is to learn something new while being thoroughly entertained. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes offers a unique compendium of fascinating information about how death is handled, mostly in America. Doughty’s sense of humor is right up my alley. The book is LOL funny and not just occasionally. You may want to make sure you have swallowed your coffee before reading, lest it come flying out your nose. I was very much reminded of the infectious humor of Mary Roach or Margee Kerr . Doughty is also TED-talk smart. She takes on some very real issues in both the science and economics of death-dealing, offers well-informed critiques of how we handle death today, and suggests some alternatives.

If the last face you see is Caitlin Doughty’s something is very, very wrong. The face itself is lovely, but usually by the time she gets her mitts on you you should be seeing the pearly gates, that renowned steambath, or nothing at all. Preferably you can see Doughty in one of the many nifty short vids available on her site. You will learn something while being thoroughly charmed. Reading this book won’t kill you, even with laughter, but it will begin to prepare you to look at that event that lies out there, somewhere in the distance for all of us, and point you in a direction that is care and not fear based. If you enjoy learning and laughing Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is dead on.

Review posted – 12/11/15

Publication date – 10/15/2014 (hc) – 9/28/15 – TP

I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Well, not really. I mean they specifically said that there was no obligation to produce a review, so there is no quid pro quo involved, but it does seem the right thing to do, don’tchya think?

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

You MUST CHECK OUT vids on her site. My favorite is The Foreskin Wedding Ring of St Catherine . All right, I’m gonna stop you right there. Go ahead. I know you wanna ask. No? Fine. I’ll do it for you, but you know this is what you were asking yourself. “If she rubs it does it become a bracelet?” Ok? Are ya happy now? Sheesh!

If you are uncertain about making a final commitment to reading this book you might want a taste of the product first (That sounds sooooo wrong) Here is an article Doughty wrote about her first experience with death as a kid, from Fortnightjournal.com . There are several other Doughty articles on this site as well.

Another book sample can be found here , in The Atlantic

Doughty offers a nifty list of sites to use for dealing with death, your own (presumably, you know, before) or others.

Interview in Wired

You might want to check out one or more of the following
—–The Loved One
—–The American Way of Death
—– The American Way of Death Revisited
—–Six Feet Under

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Public Health, Reviews

Eels by James Prosek

book coverYeah I know, there are two reactions to the notion of eels. First there is fear when one thinks of large, oceanic moray eels popping up out of some hidden coral niche to snatch a chunk out of your leg as you swim by. Second is “eeewww.” This is for the slippery guys who inhabit rivers, streams and extreme restaurants. Get over it.

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James Prosek – from NPR

James Prosek’s Eels is a fascinating look at an unappreciated creature. Did you know that scads of eels migrate from freshwater streams and rivers to mid-ocean to spawn? The location of the Pacific spawning ground is still unknown, (or at least unrevealed) but they head for the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic. The author attempted to keep eels once, but their wanderlust resulted in them damaging themselves trying to escape. The urge to get back to the sea can also result in the major YouTube wet dream of giant eel balls (no, Beavis, not oversized fish nads, but masses of intertwined critters, cavorting in a movable orgy) rolling their way over dry land to get to the ocean. It is probably a good idea to step aside.

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from fishermensvoice.com

Prosek offers wonderful profiles of people for whom the eel is a major part of their lives, scientists, eelers, eco-warriers, South Sea Islanders. Ray Turner is a back-woods sort in Pennsylvania who makes a living as an eeler from a year’s worth of work and a few nights of harvest. A large part of the book looks at the significance of the eel in Maori culture. This is quite eye-opening. Think buffalo and Plains Indians. He writes also of how the Japanese regard the eel and manages to find a flight to the very remote Micronesian island of Pohnpei, mentioned to him by a few of the people he interviewed for the book. It is a place of great significance in eel legend. Eels are reputed to be able to make sounds like barking dogs and crying babies, and are ascribed magical powers beyond that. Way cool. He also looks at the activities of conservationists who are trying to spare these remarkable creatures from extinction.

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a Moray eel from howstuffworks.com – not just another pretty face

Catches of eels are plummeting worldwide, the result of dams, overfishing, and the usual human fouling of natural waterways, increasing the need for information about the eel life-cycle so that this important fish (yes, eels are fish) can be preserved.

Prosek’s book is, in short, great fun. By the time I finished I could honestly say, “I’ve been slimed,” but in a good way. This book was released in 2009. It is definitely worth your while trying to locate a copy and when you do, don’t let your chance to learn about these fascinating creatures slip away.

Review posted on GR in June 2010 – updated December 2013

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Prosek’s web site

There is a video on PBS featuring Prosek, The Mystery of Eels that is definitely worth a look, although it is refreshing to see that there is something that this renaissance man, (yeah, he plays music too, in addition to being an accomplished artist and scientist) is not great at, voice-overs. The content and visuals more than make up for Prosek’s stolid delivery.

12/3/13 – Gillian Anderson, in full eel attire, promoting conservation – must see

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature