#BookReview: Life As We Made It by Beth Shapiro

Solid History, Perhaps A Bit Too Optimistic On Future Tech. In showing the history of how humans have been using crude genetic engineering essentially since we first began interacting with the world – both plant and animal – and in showing how our more modern techniques – including CRSPR – came to be, Shapiro does a great job in showing just how much humans have *already* shaped the evolution of non-human life on this planet. In the ancient world, she uses a lot of her own experiences as a scientist in that exact field, and even in the more modern cases she is discussing techniques she mentions in the earlier sections as having used extensively. On these points, Shapiro is truly excellent.

Where she stumbles a bit – not enough for a star deduction, but enough for a bit of commentary – is that she is perhaps a bit too optimistic about how genetic tinkering will be used in the future. Yes, she discusses the various quandaries, but even in such discussions- *even when discussing the GMO humans created in China a couple of years ago* – Shapiro tends to just hand wave over the negative, darker sides of the technology even while acknowledging their potentially cataclysmic power. This is where a solid dose of science fiction is useful, showing that even when scientists such as Shapiro have the best of intentions… things may not always turn out the way they think, and thus caution truly is warranted. (Yes, I’m thinking of a specific book in this particular example, but the reveal that GMO is used within it is a *massive* spoiler, and thus I’m not naming it here. I *will* note that it is by the same author and indeed part of the spoiler is that it uses some of the same tech as described in HUNGER by Jeremy Robinson, which is another cautionary tale of the “benefits” of genetic modification.)

Still, for what it is and for what the description claims it sets out to do, this truly is a solid examination of the history and current state of the field, and for this it is very much recommended.

This review of Life As We Made It by Beth Shapiro was originally written on September 10, 2021.

#BookReview: To Rule The Waves by Bruce Jones

(Mostly) Solid Examination Of History And Current Events. This is a fairly well documented – nearly 100 pages of its 400 are bibliography, *in addition to* at least a few paragraphs of footnotes at the end of every chapter – examination of both the history and current events of why both commercial and military control of the oceans is so important to human advancement. Some of the facts presented are truly mind-boggling, such as the sheer size of the Maersk Madrid – a ship used as a recurring case study, where if its full load of possible shipping containers were transported in a standard 2-high rail configuration, the train just to load this singular ship would stretch for *78 miles*. Others are more “standard fare” for most anyone who knows anything about the history of ocean travel or oceanography. Still, the book is current through March 2021, which is remarkable considering that I acquired this ARC in early June 2021. A must-read on a wide variety of issues from the complexities of modern logistics to the root cause and practical implications of modern military struggles to even the loss of American manufacturing jobs and the rise of Donald Trump, this book shows how control of the oceans has impacted all of these topics and many, many more. Really the only more “YMMV” section is the emphasis on global warming/ global cooling / climate change/ whatever they’re calling it these days alarmism in the final section, but even here there are enough actual facts to warrant close examination. Very much recommended.

This review of To Rule The Waves by Bruce Jones was originally written on July 20, 2021.

#BookReview: Being You by Anil Seth

Intriguing Look At Evolving Science. Thirty years ago, if you asked someone to show you the scientific basis for consciousness – human or otherwise – they’d have laughed in your face because the concept was that much of a joke. Now, Seth is among the researchers actually pursuing the inquiry – and they’ve made some solid strides. In this text, Seth lays out what we now know via evidentiary science and can also posit via a range of philosophical approaches. He readily explains how both prongs of research feed off each other, and his explanations are sufficiently technically complicated to speak with some degree of precision… without being so technically complicated that you basically need to be working in his lab to understand a word of what he is saying. (Though don’t get me wrong, even as someone with a BS in Computer Science and who reads similar books on consciousness, cognition, and perception a few times a year… this one was still technical enough that I readily admit I don’t fully understand it, even now.) Absolutely a fascinating topic and a well written explanation of it from someone actively engaged in furthering the field, and it is very much recommended.

This review of Being You by Anil Seth was originally written on August 31, 2021.

#BookReview: The Last Monument by Michael C Grumley

Excellent Adventure Starter. For those who like their adventures to be Indiana Jones type – including both going into the jungle and facing down Nazis – well, have I got a book for you. This combines that basic style with Grumley’s usual science/ science fiction bent to produce much more nuanced characters who have much bigger personal stakes than his “breakthrough” series, to great effect in the closing moments. About the only negative is that the final confrontation… isn’t really there. At least not what could have been the *really* cool parts. Still, while I’m not as intrigued about this new series as I was in BREAKTHROUGH by the end of its first book, I definitely want to see where Grumley goes with this. Very much recommended.

This review of The Last Monument by Michael C Grumley was originally written on August 1, 2021.

#BookReview: What’s The Use by Ian Stewart

Beware The Mathivores. And Stewart’s Myopia. Ok, so the title of this review is a bit of a spoiler, as a “Mathivore” is a creature Stewart describes in the final chapter while summarizing the book. But it doesn’t *actually* give anything away, and it makes for an interesting title to the review. (One suspects it wouldn’t have worked as well for the title of the book, though I think it would have been awesome. :D) Beyond that, I also find it interesting that the only other review on Goodreads for this book at the time I am writing this one is from a historian with a bare knowledge of mathematics, and I am actually a mathematician (though nowhere near as degreed as Stewart, having just a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and lacking a handful of classes for separate Bachelor’s degrees in both Mathematics and Secondary Mathematics Education) with a fair knowledge of history. More than a “normal” person, likely much less – at least in some areas – than the other reviewer. ANYWAY, y’all care about what this book is about, not about me. ๐Ÿ˜€ But my background does play a bit into my own experience with the book, so I thought a brief summary was warranted.

With this book, Stewart *mostly* does a truly remarkable job of showing the history and current uses of math, in many ways many may not be aware of or at minimum fully aware of. With my background, I knew that there was *some* form of math in the background of most of the techs and issues Stewart discusses, but Stewart goes full-bore on the details, yes, quite often showing samples of the actual equations – or at least types of the actual equations – involved. And these are far beyond E=MC^2, y’all. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But still, Stewart’s explanations, at least to my own mathematically inclined brain, were straightforward enough, and there is enough humor (of the British variety) sprinkled throughout to make the overall text much more palatable to the average reader.

But there *are* a couple of weaknesses even from my own perspective, and they combined to knock the book down a star – neither by themselves was quite enough, but combined they are.

The first is that while Stewart does a remarkable job of showing how math is integral to so many fields from elections to medical scanning to photography to fingerprinting, he doesn’t do so well in showing how it shapes everyday life outside of the tech people use and the things going on around them. He doesn’t show how people actually *use* math every day, from calculating how much a trip will take to estimating their grocery bill or restaurant tab to deciding any of the numerous factors related to personal finance and building or maintaining any form of home. Perhaps a follow-on book could explain how these maths shape even more people’s lives.

The second is Stewart’s Myopia. By this, I mean those issues where the Professor. At several key points – likely not caught by someone less familiar with the mathematics of the fields – Stewart dismisses advances in mathematics that oppose his positions. In one, while there is indeed still much work to be done, Stewart’s disdain for autonomous cars belies the stunning advances made in mathematics related to the field. In the other big one, Stewart seems completely ignorant of the emerging mathematics showing the many varying holes in the current “Climate Change” “science” – including some written by a man who quite literally wrote one of the first textbooks on climate modeling with computers. Another, more obscure one, was where Stewart mentions numeracy and Bayesian statistics, but seems ignorant of Bernoulli’s Fallacy (or at minimum dismissive of those who pursue that line of mathematical thinking).

Overall, this *is* a strong book with quite a bit to be commended. It could simply have been a bit stronger. Very much recommended.

This review of What’s The Use by Ian Stewart was originally written on July 26, 2021.

#BookReview: When Did Sin Begin by Loren Haarsma

Intriguing Academic Examination. Let’s make this very clear up front: This is a book for academic types. This is FAR from casual reading. And yet, its premise is interesting enough that many may want to slog through it anyway – as I did. ๐Ÿ˜€ Just know up front that this *is* a very dense, very logically-detailed examination of its subject. That noted, this text does a phenomenal job of showing what the historical and current academic thinking is on its dual subjects of human evolution and Original Sin, and it does a similarly superb job of explaining in detail, in many cases point by point, exactly how the two might be reconciled. Indeed, particularly for the casual reader that Just. Wants. An. Answer!!!!!… this book probably won’t be what you’re looking for. It never really proffers one, instead acknowledging that there is still more research and thinking to do in both arenas before a definitive conclusion can truly be reached. Still, for what it actually is and for how it is actually written, this is truly a strong work of scholarship and contemplation, and within the space it is meant to occupy it could indeed be quite a standout. Very much recommended.

This review of When Did Sin Begin by Loren Haarsma was originally written on July 23, 2021.

#BookReview: Jungle by Patrick Roberts

Intriguing Premise. Fascinating Start. Back Half Marred By Politics And Questionable Scholarship. This book had an utterly fascinating premise, one I’ve read a couple of other books over the last year in the same arena – the history of wood and palm oil in those prior books. And y’all, the front half of this book, mostly concerned with prehistory, was *awesome*. Roberts tracks how the development of what we now call in English “jungle” began in the earliest geological eras of plant life, through the time of the dinosaurs, and into the evolution of humanity from our earliest barely-more-than-ape forebears to modern Homo Sapien Sapien.

But then we get into the first millennium ish AD and Roberts turns his focus to the native populations of the Americas – and blaming Columbus specifically and Europe generally for every ill to come since. Even while noting cases where conquest would not have been possible except that certain elements of the native populations betrayed other elements for their own personal power. Ok. Still has some solid points about the interrelationship between humans and jungle here, but even here the politics is quite heavy handed – though admittedly typical for elitist academics and perfectly in line with that level of thought.

Coming into much more recent times – within my lifetime ish, since the 1980s – Roberts goes deeper into the politics, even openly praising Greta Thunberg (a bit ironic, given Roberts’ own actual academic pedigree vs Thunberg’s lack of one). But worse than that, he actively gets a bit lax with his scholarship through this point, noting the spread of Ebola into the US during the 2014-2016 West Africa outbreak… without acknowledging that it was (mostly) active – and *safe* (as safe as anything *can* be with Ebola) – efforts by the US government to bring US nationals back to within the US for treatments. Instead, the implication from the author is that this was more direct results of lackadaisical regulations and rampant environmental destruction. He also (accurately) notes the 3,000 people killed by Hurricane Maria in 2017… without noting that Hurricane Irma had come through many of the same regions as an even stronger storm just two weeks prior, causing quite a bit of damage that ultimately led to a larger loss of life than normal when a second major hurricane (Maria) came through so soon after. (Disclaimer here: I moved to northern Florida in August 2017, barely a month before Irma and barely 6 weeks before Maria. I had a planned cruise in November 2017 to San Juan and St Maarten, among others, moved to Aruba and Curacao due to the combined effects of the two storms.)

Finally, in perhaps the most glaring questionable fact in the entire text, Roberts points to COVID-19 case counts “as of the end of July 2021”. Except that I’m writing this review on July 15, 2021, almost exactly halfway into the month down to the minute, and I’ve had this book in ARC form since May 12, 2021. (And I should note that this book appeared to be mostly completely print ready at that time, though the publisher and author may claim that there were indeed a few more edits since that point.) Even if one assumes that this particular line was placed in the book by say May 10, at the very latest stages before making it available on NetGalley (where I got it), and even if one assumes that the actual number at hand is accurate (I have no real reason to doubt it, though I personally stopped paying attention to these particular numbers over a year ago), wouldn’t it have been better scholarship to note that the case count was “as of the end of May 2021”? Or was the author projecting and hoping this either wasn’t noticed, that he would be proven correct prior to publication (still almost exactly two months away, as this book is currently shown to publish on September 14, 2021 at the time of writing this review), or that this particular fact could be updated prior to publication with the actual number? None of those three options point to the same level of scholarship of the beginning of the book, and indeed the fact of their existence brings into doubt all prior points and presumed merits. Thus, including that particular fact ultimately does more harm to the entire text than even the most blatant of political biases displayed earlier in the text.

Still, ultimately this was a very approachable text that even when taking into account its standard academic biases generally presents an intriguing look into the history and development of humanity, and it actually has a respectable bibliography, clocking in at around 26% of the text. Thus the book is still ultimately recommended for that alone. Just… make sure you read other competing books in the same area in addition to this one.

Post Script: While looking for the author’s website for the blog version of this review, I found out that the author is indeed a seeming expert *in prehistoric jungles*, having published several articles in peer reviewed journals over the last decade. But nearly every single article listed on his website deals with the prehistoric era, which perhaps explains the difference in how excellent this particular book was when it was discussing this particular era vs the problems that began mostly when he left it. Which is leaving me, for one, *very* interested in a follow up book expanding on the first half of this one with even more details, perhaps, of the environments, fauna, and flora of these prehistoric eras the author seems to know so well.

This review of Jungle by Patrick Roberts was originally written on July 15, 2021.

#BookReview: The End Of Trauma by George A Bonanno

Remarkable Examination of Trauma And Its Permanence. This is a truly eye opening book about the remarkable resilience of many, perhaps most, people – and how the science of trauma often gets the permanence of trauma wrong. Bonanno has spent his career researching these topics, and this is a solid look at his best findings to date. Told using some long-term case studies as a bit of a narrative structure (and certainly a recurrent theme), this book does a great job of showing how intensely personal trauma and resilience are, yet also using facts and studies to back up the case studies and show larger findings and trends. The bibliography here comes in at about 23% of the total text, which is within normal range – and would likely have been a bit more, without the focus on the case studies. Of note, the case studies are from an accidental spine injury – from a traffic accident – and from survivors of the 9/11 attacks, which helps to show the wide range of trauma. Though also of note, sexual traumas are not examined directly. While Bonanno makes the case for general applicability to all traumas for his findings of resilience and the factors that lead to it, one wonders whether more directly studying various types of traumas using Bonanno’s framework would truly show true general applicability? Still, that question would be an intriguing premise for a follow up book – but this book itself does in fact make a strong case for its premise and adds quite a bit to the overall discussion of trauma, PTSD, and resilience. Very much recommended.

This review of The End of Trauma by George A Bonanno was originally written on July 12, 2021.

#BookReview: Metabolical by Robert Lustig

Interesting Concept. Remarkable Honesty. Questionable Science. First, I gotta mention that the author intentionally left out the Bibliography, claiming it would run to 70 pages and add $5 to the cost of the book, so he instead put it on the website of the book. Which is an interesting idea, but part of his reasoning was also that this would allow users to click the links and see the sources directly… which eReader users can already do in an appropriately linked (re: fully publication-ready) bibliography. But he discusses this in the very introduction of the book, which sets the tone for how frankly he expresses his views throughout. Still, to this reader this was an attempt to obfuscate the sources at best, and was thus an automatic star reduction.

The other lost star comes from the at times questionable science. Rather than actually discussing various claims made by those with competing ideas, he simply claims massive conspiracies from Big Pharma, Big Food, Big Government, and whoever else he can try to conveniently scapegoat. And then he completely ignores the economic and social sciences in his recommendations for measures that would make Josef Stalin blanch at just how extreme this author wants to dictate to the masses.

Still, the ideas – while ultimately not truly novel and ultimately self serving as he *just happens* to run a nonprofit advocating these very positions – are interesting and explained in quite a bit of detail, from the chemical and cellular all the way up to the global. Making this a worthy text to read and consider… just don’t buy the farm based on just this one book, and make sure you seek out competing narratives to fill in the author’s inconsistencies. Recommended.

This review of Metabolical by Robert Lustig was originally written on June 20, 2021.

#BookReview: Ten Patterns That Explain The Universe by Brian Clegg

Fascinating And Short. To be such a compact tale – 220 pages or so – this volume puts in a fairly dense amount of information at a very high level (for its extremely advanced concepts anyway, some of which deal with literally the smallest entities known to mankind), which is even more remarkable when one considers the volume of space dedicated to the often stunning imagery included in even this months-prior-to-publication advanced reader copy. (For those unfamiliar with ARC work, actually getting to see most imagery referenced in a book is a rarity. :D) As to showing these ten patterns and roughly how they can all be seen to link up to explain the universe. Clegg definitely shows – again at a very high level – that links are there, often in ways not everyone would think to look. As to whether these fully explain the universe… that, is a much larger question that Clegg never really dives into too deeply, seemingly satisfied that they seem to explain the universe *as we currently understand it*. Which is a major concession, particularly in light of just how recent most of the developments Clegg details are in human history. (Quite a few within the last 150 years or so, vs the few thousand years of even recorded history.) Overall truly an interesting book and a quick ish read to boot, that doesn’t *completely* require a science related degree to understand (though having some degree of familiarity with STEM subjects will certainly help any reader here), and thus very much recommended.

This review of Ten Patterns That Explain The Universe by Brian Clegg was originally written on May 11, 2021.