2018年3月28日 星期三

"The Nature of Sex" by Dr. Carin Bondar (2015)

"Traditional thinking about the sexual process fails to take into account the fact that alternative systems exist."

Dr. Carin Bondar has a PhD in Population Ecology, and she's perhaps better known as a media personalityThe Nature of Sex is something of an outgrowth of her web series, Wild Sex.

In The Nature of Sex, Dr. Bondar (she goes to great pains to remind you that she's a doctor) explores the mating habits of animals throughout the world.  She discusses hermaphroditism in sea slugs, homosexuality in primates, and the eating of young in several bird species.  Her descriptions of sexuality are skewed towards the humorous and sensational, though she's careful not to anthropomorphize where it's unwarranted.

I found the first few chapters of this book engaging, but after a while it all just seemed too random.  There's no real theme in this book - no overarching structure - and what we get instead is a semi-random list of how animals find partners, how they have sex, and what they do with their babies after the inevitable occurs.  Towards the end The Nature of Sex felt highly repetitive, and I was led to the conclusion that Dr. Bondar might be better at selling sex in media formats where she can show herself to better advantage.  If this book sold well, I think it had more to do with a combination of the title and Dr. Bondar's reputation outside of print.

As science popularizers go, Dr. Bondar isn't the worst offender.  She's fairly rigid in her definitions, and she's not afraid to go over people's heads.  But I'm sure there are better books on animal sexuality, even if they aren't quite as flashy as The Nature of Sex.

Related Entries:

"NeuroLogic" by Eliezer J. Steinberg, M.D. (2015)
"Make Way for the Super Humans" by Michael Bess (2015)
"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
"Frozen Earth" by Doug Macdougall (2004)

2018年3月22日 星期四

"NeuroLogic" by Eliezer J. Steinberg, M.D. (2015)

"Our thoughts are not inert, not trapped in the vacuum of the mind.  Underlying each instant of imaginary exploration is a current of electrical information that trains and molds the neuronal cells that carry it."

Ok, this probably sounds weird, but I've read a Neurology textbook.  Back in graduate school I was introduced to a few features of brain chemistry (the only thing in graduate school I found interesting), and from there I progressed to a series of books with "neuro" in the title -  Neurophilosophy, Neurophysiology, and ultimately that textbook.

So NeuroLogic isn't exactly my first rodeo.  I may not be a trained neurologist, but I've done my best to stay abreast of current developments, and I would rate my understanding of brain function (much) higher than average.

In this respect I definitely fall outside the intended audience for this book.  It's aimed at the layman, and I was familiar with most of the topics covered.  Some of the material on subvocalizations and how they relate to schizophrenia was new to me, but the remainder was nothing I hadn't heard before.

Is NeuroLogic a good/interesting book?  I think I'm the wrong person to ask.  In my opinion it was all fairly obvious stuff, but as a guide to how the brain works you could do worse.  It's very readable, and includes many memorable anecdotes from the author's medical practice.  

Will it blow your mind?  Probably not, but then again our understanding of the brain is in the very early stages, and I'm sure there are some wonderful (if frightening) discoveries yet to come.

This book, by the way, calls bullshit on what author Yuval Noah Harari says about our "illusion of individuality."  If anything, this book points toward a strengthening of our sense of individuality, and a weakening of the schizophrenic tendencies in modern technology.  

It's every man (and woman) for themselves, you know.  It's all spelled out in our neurochemistry.

Related Entries:

"Make Way for the Super Humans" by Michael Bess (2015)
"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
"Frozen Earth" by Doug Macdougall (2004)
"The Oceans" by Ellen J. Prager and Sylvia A. Earle (2000)

2018年3月17日 星期六

Some Other Movies From 1996

I'm having trouble remembering 1996 - probably because I was stoned most of the time.  I was working at Home Depot, UPS, or JC Penney.  I was a student at either Shoreline Community College or Bellevue Community College.  I was living in Seattle, Kirkland, or Coer d' Alene, Idaho.

A good time as things went.  Plentiful jobs.  Many girls to chase after.  Parties to attend.  New things to do, see, and explore.  When you're 21 you sometimes think you're miserable, but 22 years later you realize that you were having a pretty good time.

The biggest movie that year was Independence DayI have never understood the appeal of this film.  Other big movies included Twister (below), the first (!) Mission: Impossible, The Rock, and Jerry Maguire.  I wouldn't say it was an especially good year for movies, though some of the lesser-known films were not bad.  If I had to pick a favorite it would be Ransom, Fargo, or Sling Blade.

Some Good Ones

1. Basquiat

Jeffrey Wright leads an impressive cast in this movie about the painter who was either a genius or a con-man.  I think you'd be better served by 2000's Pollock, but Basquiat is good too.  It's only that it doesn't start asking the really pertinent questions until the movie's halfway over.

Fun Fact: David Bowie, who plays Andy Warhol in this movie, had a longstanding relationship with Mr. Warhol.  The song "Andy Warhol" appears on his 1971 album Hunky Dory.

2. 2 Days in the Valley

Crime film set in Southern California.  James Spader plays an excellent psychopath, and the movie's full of many good performances.  My biggest complaint is that Eric Stoltz's and Jeff Daniels' characters seem to lack any real purpose or function in the film.  I'm thinking that many of their characters' scenes were removed from the final cut.

And only Charlize Theron could make Teri Hatcher look somewhat average.  2 Days in the Valley was Theron's second film, after the straight-to-video Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest.

3. Bastard Out of Carolina

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jena Malone star in this portrait of Southern child abuse.

...and goddamn some of the scenes in this movie are hard to watch.  I get why it was banned in Canada.  Yikes!

If you ask me, Leigh is one of the great American actresses.  When you think about the type of roles she's taken, and the breadth of her filmography, she's in a class by herself.

4. Twister

A lovable band of misfits chase tornadoes around Oklahoma.  And naturally there's another, "bad" group of misfits trying to steal their shine.  But worry not, dear viewer, Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt find true love in each other's arms by the end of the movie.  ...not that any of us saw that coming.

I'll watch any movie with Bill Paxton at least once, but this is definitely one of his more forgettable films.

Fun Fact: Joss Whedon wrote parts of the script.

Fun Fact #2: Burned retinas, concussions, back injuries - a lot of people got hurt during the making of Twister.  Many of the cast and crew blamed director Jan de Bont for the mishaps on set.

5. The Funeral

Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, and Benicio del Toro star in this most Catholic of gangster movies.  It's slow going, but it has its moments.  It was also directed by Abel Ferrara, so you know it's going to a dark place.

Fun Fact: Abel Ferrara directed a porno movie!  9 Lives of a Wet Pussy.  I kid you not!

6. Bottle Rocket

Two idiots try - and fail? - to become criminals.  It's Luke and Owen Wilson's first movie, and even though it sets the stage for 2+ decades of typecasting it's still excellent.  Oh, and it was also director Wes Anderson's first movie - the only one in which Bill Murray doesn't make an appearance.

7. The Evening Star

Bill Paxton again, this time opposite Shirley Maclaine.  Maclaine plays a domineering grandmother trying to come to terms with her past life.  Even though the characters are trying too hard to be quirky it's still an enjoyable film.

When I think about it, Shirley Maclaine has a real knack for elevating what would otherwise be forgettable movies.  It's no Terms of Endearment, but she manages to make The Evening Star memorable.

8. Gotti

Armand Assante was ill-used in Striptease (see below), but in Gotti he's on firmer footing.  Assante gives a masterful performance as the famous mobster, even if the film's too talky, and the low budget shows at times.

Fun Fact: John Travolta will be starring in another version of the same story.  His version of Gotti should hit theaters this year.

9. Kansas City

The best thing about this movie is the jazz.  If you like jazz, the parts in the club are great.  Jennifer Jason Leigh's character is somewhat annoying, but the recreation of 30s-era KC is fascinating.  For Robert Altman it was also a return to form.  One of the best movies of that year.

Fun Fact: Joshua Redman, Ron Carter, and many other jazz greats play in the band featured throughout the movie.

10. Secrets and Lies

Very British, very depressing, and full of actors you've never heard of.  If in 1996 the Academy had offered an Oscar for Most Crying, Secrets and Lies would have been the movie to beat.  As it was it received a lot of other awards, and remains a good movie.

11. Citizen Ruth

Finally - that movie about huffing/abortion you've been waiting for!  Alexander Payne is a very overlooked director, and Laura Dern is great in almost everything.  If you look real hard, you'll notice that the "paramilitary dude" from the Police Academy movies is the judge at her trial.

Hey Kids!  10 out of 10 doctors agree that inhaling patio sealant WILL LIQUEFY YOUR BRAIN!  So next time your friends pass around the old spray can, you might want to say "No thanks!"

Burt Reynolds is, by the way, also (see below) great in this movie.  It's just too bad that Striptease was so lackluster, and that so few people bothered to see Citizen Ruth.

12. Caught

Talk about some unhealthy relationships.  Infidelity, incest - these guys have it all going on.  

It's a decent movie that answers the question as to what Maria Conchita Alonso was doing after The Running Man.  Some of the story points could have been elaborated upon further, and Edward James Olmos' character is extremely underdeveloped.

One That Could Be Either Bad Or Good

1. Evita

I tried, but I can't hang with most musicals.  I'm a big fan of director Alan Parker, but I had to abort mission a minute or so into Antonio Banderas' first song.  I've heard that this is Madonna's best movie, but I suppose I'll just have to take other people's word for it.

Some Bad Ones

1. Before and After

Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson star as parents confronted by the possibility that their son has committed murder.  The parents are hard to both understand and sympathize with.  Streep hasn't been in many bad movies, but I'd have to say that this is one of those few.

2. The Mirror Has Two Faces

Like most Barbara Streisand's movies, this one's about "ugly duckling" Streisand finding the man of her dreams.  The first half is surprisingly good, and the second half proceeds with all speed to Implausible Land, a place where characters cease to be sympathetic and where plot points make little sense.

One That's So Bad It's Good

1. Striptease

What a weird movie.  It starts out all serious, and then turns into a comedy, and then turns into I don't know what.

Back in the day guys were probably pretending to see this movie out of an enduring love of Burt Reynolds.  But come on - you know Demi Moore is going to look amazing on that stage.  She might not have been the best actress in the world, but that woman was FINE.

Strip clubs and erotic dancing, however, have never done that much for me.  Even so, Demi Moore was quite impressive once upon a time, and if Striptease has a strength it's that very thing.  Showgirls is a much better "bad" movie, but Striptease is not bad (in a bad way?)

Burt Reynolds is, paradoxically, great in this movie.  He almost makes it good enough to be called "good."

Fun Fact: Striptease pretty much swept the Golden Raspberry awards in 1996.  The only "loser" (i.e. "winner") was Burt Reynolds, who failed to win Worst Actor.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 1994
A Review of Every Marvel Movie from 2008 to the Present (Revised as of February 13, 2018)
Some Other Movies From 1992
Ideas for DC Films

2018年3月16日 星期五

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead (2016)

"But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world.  And no one wanted to hear it.  Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.  Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren't looking, alluring and ever out of reach."

Colson Whitehead lives in New York and started his career writing for The Village Voice.  He's written several other novels, and his books have won many awards.  The Underground Railroad is his most recent novel, coming five years after his last book, Zone One.

In The Underground Railroad Cora, a slave in Georgia, attempts to escape life under an especially cruel master.  Her flight from plantation life leads to several stops along the underground railroad, and at every turn she's confronted by the inhumanities of daily life in the slave states.

It's a thrilling novel, and brought to mind several other novels touching upon similar themes.  Faulkner came to mind, though Whitehead's prose isn't nearly as experimental.  I also found myself remembering parts of Toni Morrison's Beloved* and Ann Petry's The Street.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed The Underground Railroad, I can't help but think that Whitehead isn't quite in the same league as the above-mentioned authors.  Taken as a whole, The Underground Railroad isn't as fleshed out as Go Down, Moses, Beloved, or The Street, either in terms of the details it presents or the way the characters are developed.  It felt to me like The Underground Railroad should have been a much longer book, with more space given to some of the other characters.  It also felt more like the outline of a novel, missing some of the scenes that would have made it truly great.

Besides Beloved and The Street, Cormac McCarthy's The Road came to mind.  This is another book that wasn't quite fleshed out, and another book that received acclaim far beyond the author's other, superior works.  Like The Road, The Underground Railroad makes a great (and timely) point, but one wonders if that point couldn't have been made even stronger through the inclusion of certain details.  Both books were highly praised by the likes of Oprah and other tastemakers, yet both books are, to me at least, somewhat unsatisfying.

Of course given the current social/political climate and the trend towards "representation" (laudable though it often is) people are falling over each other to praise this book.  It's unfortunate, however, that in praising this book people often overlook other, better books which preceded it.  The Underground Railroad is certainly good, but I'm thinking that Colson Whitehead either has written or will write better.

Related Entries:

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
"The Street" by Ann Petry (1946)
Some of My Favorite Authors
"Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

*I realize that my review of Beloved is very critical, and doesn't make it sound like a very good book.  Just the same, I think it's much better than The Underground Railroad.  Part of my reaction to Beloved was colored (if you'll excuse the pun) by having read Jazz not long before.

2018年3月12日 星期一

"Make Way for the Super Humans" by Michael Bess (2015)

"When you acquire a godlike power (and you are not a god), an excellent virtue to cultivate is that of humility."

Michael Bess is a Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.  He has written four other books, but only one of them, Our Grandchildren Redesigned, explores topics similar to those presented in this book.

Like The God Species before it, and like Homo Deus after it, this book tackles the subject of how humans will adapt to changing technologies, and also how these technologies will work for good or for ill in the subsequent evolution of the human species.

Yet where The God Species was ecological, Make Way for the Super Humans is anthropocentric.  Where Homo Deus was historic/philosophical, Make Way for the Super Humans is practical, and far more focused on concrete examples.

Make Way for the Super Humans is also less depressing than either of the other two books, for obvious reasons.  I have the feeling that the author of The God Species would complain that Make Way for the Super Humans ignores Man's place in nature, and the obvious ecological catastrophes which could circumvent our development into near-gods.  I also have the feeling that the author of Homo Deus would complain that Make Way for the Super Humans is entirely too optimistic, and that the author's Humanist views fly in the face of how current technology is already diminishing (what we perceive of as) our individuality.

Both authors would have a point, but I have to say I like Michael Bess's optimism - even if it might not be the most realistic point of view.  Sure, it's cool to think about a future in which we can read each other's minds, engineer ourselves into Olympian levels of athletic performance, and live in peaceful coexistence with the Internet-of-All-Things.  And at the end of the day who knows how it's all going to turn out?  Maybe all three authors are wrong.  Lord knows that the topic of futurism is littered with books whose predictions ring false now.

If I have a complaint about this book, it's the "vignettes" (short stories) that head some of the later chapters.  I think such vignettes weakened the author's points, and in presenting them he sometimes comes across as a frustrated science fiction author.  I get that he was trying to liven up the subject, but any number of sci-fi anthologies are full of much better, much more insightful stories.  

Oh, and that jibe that most science fiction authors haven't anticipated the epigenetic developments he speaks of?  Plenty have.  Frank Herbert, William Gibson, and John Varley among them.  There's a long history of such fiction, and saying that there isn't only indicates that the author has some reading to do.  Even his list of "relevant" science fiction films leaves a lot out.

Props for including Moon in that list though.  That's one underrated movie.

Related Entries:

"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)
"Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges (1983)
"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds (2008)
"Neuromancer" by William Gibson (1984)

2018年3月8日 星期四

"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

"The Dataist revolution will probably take a few decades, if not a century or two.  But then the humanist revolution too did not happen overnight.  At first humans kept on believing in God, arguing that humans were sacred because they were created by God for some divine purpose.  Only much later did some people dare say that humans are sacred in their own right, and that God doesn't exist at all.  Similarly, today most Dataists claim that the Internet-of-All-Things is sacred because humans are creating it to serve human needs.  But eventually the Internet-of-All-Things may become sacred in its own right."

Yuval Noah Harari is a Professor of History.  He lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  He has written one other book, Sapiens, about human history as viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology.

The subject of Homo Deus is a bit harder to pin down.  It's essentially about the future of humanity, and thus forms a kind of sequel to Sapiens, but along the way it digresses into a number of other topics, with the forward-looking sections of this book being somewhat overwhelmed by Dr. Harari's attempts to settle the big questions as to what people really are, and what they've done up to this point in time.

I haven't read Sapiens (yet), but from the synopsis on Wikipedia I have the feeling that he's recapitulating most of that book in Homo Deus.  I suppose that in this book he's putting a slightly different spin on some of his theories, but the mentions of genetic engineering, virtual immortality, and the Singularity in Homo Deus would be familiar from Dr. Harari's earlier work.

He begins Homo Deus with a glimpse at a future in which the ills of former generations are merely an unpleasant memory.  He then goes back to the earliest moments in our history, advancing from our beginnings as hunter-gatherers to the development of farming, from there to the rise of religious traditions and the ascent of Humanism, and finally to the grim conclusion that we might not be the individuals we think we are - if we are truly individuals at all.  He concludes the book with the idea that algorithms and forms of artificial intelligence might make many of us superfluous in the near future.

And what does the future hold after that?  Is it a world in which the average person resembles a superhero?  Is it a world in which we've merged with our machines?  Is it a world in which we no longer exist, and in which we've been exterminated by AI?  Dr. Harari might jump to a lot of conclusions, but he's more tentative when it comes to more distant events.

I can't say that I agreed with all of this book.  Then again, I can't say that I disagreed with any of it either.  It's just that his conception of individuality (or the lack thereof) bothers me somehow, and I think that news of its imminent demise might be a bit premature.  Surely this concept of the self serves a larger evolutionary function (or, if you will, advantage), yet the author of Homo Deus seems to think that it will be discarded the moment someone releases the appropriate number of apps.

This said, Dr. Harari is an original thinker, and this book had me reflecting about how I interact with technology on a regular basis.  He has a tendency to overgeneralize, but just the same Homo Deus is one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in a long time.

Related Entries:

"Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Andrew Hodges (1983)
"Neuromancer" by William Gibson (1984)
"Permutation City" by Greg Egan (1994)
"The Crisis of Islamic Civilization" by Ali A. Allawi (2009)