2014年4月28日 星期一

"The God Species" by Mark Lynas (2011)

"For easy reference, here are the planetary boundaries in summary, presented in the same order as chapters in this book and with those already crossed highlighted."

Earth system process
Control variable
Latest data
Chapter 2: Biodiversity loss
Extinction rate, number of species per million per year
Chapter 3: Climate change
Atmospheric CO2 concentration, parts per million
Chapter 4: Nitrogen cycle
Amount of N2, removed from the atmosphere, millions of tonnes per year
Chapter 5: Land system change
Percentage of global land-cover converted to cropland, (millions of hectares)
Chapter 6: Global freshwater use
Consumptive use of public runoff, cubic centimeters per year
Chapter 7: Chemical pollution Not yet quantified
Chapter 8: Atmospheric aerosol loading Not yet quantified
Chapter 9: Ocean acidification
Global oceanic aragonite saturation ratio
Chapter 10: Stratospheric ozone depletion
Stratospheric 02 concentration, Dobson units
Source: Data from J. Rockstrom et al, 2009: “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”, Ecology and Society, 14,2, 32, Appendix 1, table S2, except where stated.

Global warming has become one of the dominant themes of our age.  As each day dawns, the world wakes to the presence of yet more souls, and all of the pressures and potentialities that these souls engender upon a world that is only so large, only so rich, and only so able to compensate for all the needs and desires spawned within it.  As many scientists would have it, we are now in the midst of the Athropocene, or the Age of Man, and our actions as both individuals and groups often carry a frightening import for the world in which we find ourselves, the world in which more and more of us find ourselves - each day.  Global warming is but one part of this problem.

But beyond the usual hyperbole, beyond the usual side-taking and leave-taking, what are we to make of global warming?  What are we to make of our increasingly volatile role in the natural world?  Do we resign ourselves to despair?  Or do we take hope and seek to change the seemingly inevitable?  I could understand the despair, but I - perhaps like you - am trying to take hope as well.

The good thing about "The God Species" is that it does indeed offer this kind of hope.  Yet - as Spider-man is apt to say - "With great power comes great responsibility."  At this point in time we have the power to alter our world in irreparable ways, just as we have the power to change it for the better.  It only remains for us to decide what kind of role we wish to play in the climate change debate.  Are we going to roll up our sleeves and forge alliances for the betterment of this planet?  For the betterment of our own environment?  For our own betterment?  Or are we going to continue belaboring the obvious?  It isn't, after all, too late to set the clock back, and it isn't too late to reverse much of the damage we have already caused.  All that is wanting is a more open-minded approach to the problem of climate change, and less of a partisan perspective on the matter.

Much of "The God Species" reflects the author's understanding of "planetary boundaries," or thresholds that we as a species would wish to observe in order to preserve the integrity of our global environment.  He does not rail against capitalism, he does not play favorites, and his only targets are those who would seek to further other interests at the expense of real, measurable environmental progress.  He points out mistakes made by both big business and environmental groups alike, and shows how both sides of this debate are often equally misinformed.

I would encourage you to read this book.  It offers a fresh perspective on environmental policy, and it is also delightfully iconoclastic.  The author employs some odd sentence structures, and some of his arguments could have been presented with fuller evidence, but I think this is the kind of book that more people need to read, on a subject of paramount importance.

2014年4月25日 星期五

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

For more context on this film, you are welcome to read my Review of Every Marvel and DC Superhero Movie from 1951 to the Present

1. The Story

Peter Parker comes into his own as Spider-Man, though a troubled relationship with Gwen Stacy looms in the background.  After Spider-man saves Max Dillon from a speeding truck, Max falls into a pot of genetically altered electric eels and becomes Electro.  Electro and Spider-Man face off in Times Square, and Electro is later apprehended by Oscorp.  

In the meantime, Harry Osbourne returns from Europe to take over his father's company, and Harry learns that he is dying from the same genetic disorder that killed his father.  Desperate to find a cure, Harry seeks out Spider-man in the hope of using his blood to find a cure.  Spider-man refuses, and Harry later takes revenge by releasing Electro from his captivity and using venom taken from one of the genetically altered spiders to cure his affliction.  

Electro, desiring revenge, confronts Spider-man in a climactic battle, and Harry, now transformed into the Green Goblin, threatens Spider-man - whom he now recognizes as Peter Parker - by abducting Gwen Stacy.  During the course of their subsequent battle Gwen is killed as Peter tries to save her, and her funeral follows.  

Peter, having given up hope after Gwen's death, draws renewed strength from a recording of Gwen's valedictorian speech, and then confronts the Rhino in downtown New York.

2. How It Compares to the First Amazing Spider-Man and the original Spider-man trilogy

This movie has some pacing issues, and my biggest complaint is the over-the-top CGI.  Nevertheless, I think it was better than the first Amazing Spider-man.  The human relationships in this film give it a greater depth, and the villains display very clear-cut motivations for what they do.

Sam Raimi's "Spider-man 2" is still one of the best superhero movies ever made, and I don't think that this film is as good as that one.  Even so, it is much better than either the first or third films in that trilogy.

3. Trivia

You can see both the Vulture's wings and Dr. Octopus's tentacles in the basement of the Oscorp tower.  Harry's assistant, who is referred to as "Felicia," is also the same Felicia who doubles as longtime Spider-man associate the Black Cat.

4. What's Coming Next

Sony has already announced plans to make "The Amazing Spider-Man 3," which will appear in 2016, and "The Amazing Spider-Man 4," which will appear in 2018.  Films for Venom and the Sinister Six are also in the works.

5. The Best Idea Ever

Dear Marvel Studios: just put Andrew Garfield into five seconds of the next Avengers film.  Really.  You wouldn't even need to refer to him by name.  People would go mental over that.

2014年4月23日 星期三

"Yellow Dog" by Martin Amis (2003)

"It was Jeff Strite who spoke.  'The Case of the Walthamstow Wanker,' he intoned.  'And I don't mean the Walthamstow Reader.  It's an interesting story.  And it ties in with our Death to Paedophiles campaign.  There's this public swimming-pool, right?  With a gallery?  He's up there alone watching a school party of nine-year-olds.  Then this old dear, you know, Mrs. Mop appears.  The geezer does a runner, falls down the stairs and smashes his head in.  For why?  His trousers are down around his ankles.'

"'Because he was having a... ?'

"'Exactly.  Good heading too: Pervs Him Right.'"

Martin Amis is a British author whom I was not previously familiar with.  I might have bought this book thinking he was Kingsley Amis.  Reading the blurbs on the back of the book, all lacking any clue to the book's contents, I can't think of any other reason why I would have purchased it.

Which isn't to say that "Yellow Dog" is terrible.  It's not all that bad.  It was much easier to get through than the last novel I read, Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift."  Compared to Bellow's wordy, crushingly pretentious offering, "Yellow Dog" was a nice change of pace.  Just the same, I can't say that I'll be seeking out any of Martin Amis's books in the future.

The plot revolves around author/thespian Xan Meo's head injury, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his attack.  There are also the goings-on at a mythical London newspaper, The Morning Lark, an airplane crash caused by a dead man, power struggles within California's pornography industry, and many discussions concerning pedophilia.

Throughout all of this "Yellow Dog" tries very hard to be funny, but the theme of pedophilia mediates against this aim.  Pedophilia is just icky, and inserting any kind of joke after several pages of father-daughter incest just seems crass.  Some of the scenes involving Xan and his older daughter are particularly disturbing, and as a result the tone of the book wavers between light-hearted romp and dark, brooding meditation on carnal desires.  As a whole it just doesn't work.

Martin Amis has an impressive vocabulary at his disposal, but "Yellow Dog" suffers from some serious flaws.  The author has probably written better books, but I have no clue as to what they are.  As it is, I would not recommend "Yellow Dog."

2014年4月16日 星期三

"The Crusades" by Thomas Asbridge (2010)

"The long months of stalemate were not solely the domain of grim-eyed exchanges and frenetic preparation.  The winter afforded the first opportunities for fraternisation and the blossoming of a familiarity that would remain an undercurrent of the campaign.  One of the last Latin ships to arrive in 1189 had carried a different breed of reinforcement: '300 lovely Frankish women, full of youth and beauty, assembled from beyond the sea [to offer] themselves for sin.'  Saladin's secretary, Imad al-Din, took a certain scandalised pleasure in describing how these prostitutes, having set up shop outside Acre, 'brought their silver anklets up to touch their golden earrings [and] made themselves targets for men's darts', but noted with evident disgust that some Muslims also 'slipped away' to partake of their charms."

Despite the fact that I was once just 5 credits short of a degree in Medieval History, this is the first book I've read on the Crusades.  I can recall reading several firsthand accounts of the Crusades, and also several accounts of battles between Muslim armies and Byzantium, but this is the first book I've read that focuses on the Crusades to the exclusion of larger events in western or eastern Europe.

The subtitle of this book is "The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land," and I would not dispute the veracity of this appellation.  There may well be better books on the Crusades, but I haven't read them.  The author seems to advance from a rather pragmatic point of view, and I lack the scholarship to refute any of the arguments in this book.  I have a stronger background in Medieval theology and attitudes toward heresy, and the author's ventures into that territory all make sense to me.

Aside from any cautions expressed above, "The Crusades" is a relatively straightforward affair, uncomplicated by academic asides and speculation.  Asbridge begins with the First Crusade and ends with the Ninth (or Eighth, by some approximations), and there is a short chapter at the end discussing the Crusades in the context of modern political, economic, and cultural developments.

I liked this book, but you'd have to be a fan of Medieval History to wade though its 600+ pages.  I wouldn't say that it's written for a general audience, and this book isn't going to convert the uninitiated into the study of this time period.  Taken from another angle, this is one of the book's strengths.  The author, instead of condescending to notions of accessibility, sets out to describe the Crusades in the clearest terms possible.

By the way, while searching for images of this book I came across this amusing, semicoherent review of its contents.  If you are the kind of person who enjoys conspiracy theories and theorists, it's worth a look.  Let us not, after all, forget that the Templars were born during this convoluted interaction between East and West.  And we all know about the Templars, the Illuminati, and the extraterrestrials... don't we?

2014年4月5日 星期六

"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow (1975)

"It was no use arguing.  Tolstoi?  Tolstoi was last week's conversation.  Humboldt's big intelligent disordered face was white and hot with turbulent occult emotions and brainstorms.  I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun.  Large minds abutting too close on swelling souls.  And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world.  Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world."

Bellow was an American author, born in Canada.  In his lifetime he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and several other prizes and medals.  His first novel appeared in 1944, and Humboldt's Gift is his eighth novel out of fourteen.  He passed away in 2005.

This novel centers around the novelist Charles Citrine, a somewhat neurotic Chicagoan entangled in a messy divorce, obsessed with a younger mistress, and distracted by an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Western civilization.  Charles' best friend/nemesis dies early on in the book, and much of the narrative involves his coming to terms with the loss of this influential companion.

I really wanted to like this book, but it was a real chore to get through.  If you thought War and Peace wasn't philosophical enough, if you thought Crime and Punishment didn't brood enough, then this is the book for you.  There are pages and pages of this novel wherein absolutely nothing happens, and where one is instead forced to wade through Charles' reflections on art, religion, philosophy, and whatever else has captured his fancy at the moment.  In the end it becomes difficult to separate Charles' intellectual vanity from the author's.

I suppose it was this vanity that won him so many awards, but in this day and age the long-winded nature of Bellow's prose is nothing if not exhausting.  There are many who criticize Bellow for attempting to resurrect the 19th century novel, and I think this criticism is entirely valid.  But maybe, in saying this, I'm being unfair to 19th century novels.  Compared to Humboldt's Gift, books like David Copperfield, War and Peace, and Sense and Sensibility don't seem all that long.

In tone, Bellow's fiction reminds me a lot of Philip Roth.  This isn't only because both authors happen to be American Jews writing at a certain time of life, but also because they seem fixated on many of the same themes - older men and younger women, aging, modernity, and feelings of obsolescence.  But where Roth is all brooding darkness, Bellow displays a lighter touch.  His characters have a better sense of their own absurdity, and there is less of a suicidal impulse present within them.  I prefer Roth, the more depressing of the two authors, because he's not as long-winded.