Archive for November, 2010

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

Posted in Surveys and opinions with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by JonH

In honour of Jared Diamond’s November 17th lecture for the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas (which I missed) I’m posting my comments on a book I believe fits in with the title of Diamond’s discussion that evening: Why Societies Fail or Flourish.

Without even considering for a moment the idea of Intelligent Design, I proudly embrace my inner ape (some would say ‘outer’ when they see me in a bathing suit), and hereby proclaim my belief in the theory of evolution (both natural and artificial), and that humans descended from the apes that roamed the plains of Africa close to five million years ago.

As distilled from Ronald Wright’s book, A Short History of Progress, here’s a quick history of how our development into modern humans went down after the bloodlines between what was to become man (Homo erectus) and ape began to diverge close to five million years ago:

Two million years after leaving Africa, hominids begin making and using crude tools; another two million years after that Homo erectus is found in several temperate and tropical climates; jump ahead at least half a million years and we find that Homo erectus has begun to use fire; the evolution of Homo erectus begins to get a bit murky 130,000 years or so later as Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Cro-Magnon man (early modern humans, or Homo sapiens) come onto the scene. The author presents evidence that for brief period of time, 100,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals lived side-by-side in some areas. Living in close quarters isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and Wright suggests that the former wiped out the latter.

Arguably, development of modern man then came on at a pretty decent clip, and was due, in large part, to the impact of culture.

“Our main difference from chimps and gorillas is that over the last 3 million years or so, we have been shaped less and less by nature, and more and more by culture”, Wright says on page 30 of the book.

He describes civilization and culture as the sum total of a society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices.

“Culture is everything: from veganism to cannibalism; Beethoven, Botticelli, and body piercing; what you do in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the church of your choice (if your culture allows a choice); and all of the technology from split stone to the split atom. Civilizations are specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. Civilizations vary in their makeup but typically have towns, cities, governments, social classes, and specialized professions. All civilizations are cultures, or conglomerates of cultures, but not all cultures are civilizations” (32).

In a nutshell this discussion of culture provides the backdrop for the main thesis of Wright’s book, which comprises his 2004 Massey Lecture of the same name. The essence of the book is presented in the context of the Frenchman Paul Gauguin’s painting, “D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous?

By asking ourselves these three fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wright urges readers to consider the experiences of past civilizations as a blueprint for where the modern world and its desire for progress could be heading.

For the most part, we’ve answered the first two questions already. We come from the plains of Africa as distant cousins of the apes and are molded by our shared time with one another in the form of the cultures that we have developed.

As far as where we’re going, Wright then draws on the history of four civilizations, the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Sumerians, the Roman Empire, and the Mayans to illustrate how exploitation of the resources available to each of these civilizations had precipitated its downfall, and contrasts that with two of the more successful civilizations, the Egyptians and the Chinese.

The most provocative example is of Easter Island. Here, given the small size and remote location of the island, Wright describes how inhabitants would have seen with their own eyes the dwindling of resources and they would have actually witnessed the chopping down of the last tree available to them.

Bookending the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Romans, and the Sumerians are the Egyptians and the Chinese. Due to its location between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Egypt and its people were more inclined to live in concert with the environment as they were subject to the ebb and flow of the Nile’s cycles; whereas China benefitted from comparatively lush, fertile soil.

Clearly, the two successful cultures had something unique going for them, namely abundant resources in the form of water and fertile soil, but they must have also had foresight and understood that management of their resources was tantamount to survival.

This is provocative when viewed in the context of our current energy issues. Global Warming has been accepted as the dominant theory for everything from unseasonable temperatures and more extreme weather events to shrinking ice floes and the extinction of species; thus compelling governments to look towards another form of energy production now being touted as green because it purportedly doesn’t release greenhouse gases: nuclear fission. But until we learn how to properly dispose of radioactive waste that’s really just swapping one problem for another.

When you think about the discussions surrounding Alberta’s oil/tar sands and the possibility of using nuclear power to help extract fossil fuels you begin to see how precarious the situation has become. Our need for energy is understandable, especially when it’s minus 24 outside (as it is tonight), but our reliance on it in almost all aspects of our lives tends to put us more in line with the cultures that lacked long term viability than it does with ones that had foresight.

By ensuring advancements in technology have a commensurate advancement in environmental (and thus resource management) stewardship we might be able to squeeze a few more million years out of this rock.

Food for thought: “from the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly 3 million years; from the first iron to the first hydrogen bomb took only 3,000” (14).

A Great FALLow Up

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , on November 15, 2010 by JonH

Click here for a review of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s novel The Strain, so you’re up to speed.

With virtually every city across the globe beginning to succumb to the virus, the Master’s plan to usurp control from the established old world order of the Ancients is set into motion. But even as mankind’s destruction seems imminent professor Abraham Setrakian reveals to his cohorts the existence of a 17th century book, the silver-bound Occido Lumen, which could be the key to salvation and victory. However, in order to acquire the book, on display and being held for auction at Sotheby’s, Setrakian must forge a precarious union with the only group capable of helping him acquire such an expensive item: the Ancients themselves. Time is at a premium as the Master’s human counterpart, Eldritch Palmer, is also doing the same.

The Fall leaves off right where The Strain ended, and quickly establishes itself as a worthy follow up. In some aspects I found it to be better, but in others a bit more frustrating. I tore through this book at quite a clip. The pace of the story is relentless, and it incorporates more back story which further develops Del Toro and Hogan’s vampire mythology.

As with the first book I found the writing to be fairly engaging, but thankfully (something I didn’t mention in my review of The Strain) with far less use of clichés. PLOT SPOILER: One drawback, although minor, was a particular plot element, which involved the location of the Occido Lumen, the book sought after by both parties. Even though the authors do a wonderful job of setting the stage and describing how some people can be in denial even as the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it was hard to believe that Sothebys would still be holding an auction given the circumstances and that the two opposed factions trying to acquire the book would adhere to auction etiquette in acquiring it.

It would have been more believable if Eldritch Palmer, the billionaire hoping to gain immortality by helping the Master, had a private army break in and take the book by force. However, if this was the case, the story would have turned out differently, and to be honest the way it turned out has left me chomping at the bit for the follow up.

Pick this book up at a local bookseller like Audrey’s or Greenwoods.

The Strain

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , on November 7, 2010 by JonH

Let me preface this by saying this review was originally posted on December 2, 2009, but somehow got deleted. I’m reposting because I’m almost done book two and wanted review what I thought of the first book.

Here goes:

Just when I thought the vampire genre had become overrun by vaguely homoerotic, pale skinned man-boys with sunken cheeks and puckered lips along come Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan with their novel The Strain. There are no forlorn, love-lost, shirtless blood suckers in this one; no sir, the villains in here are pretty nasty. Kind of like Ridley Scott’s Alien crossed with a zombie and a Pez dispenser. Oh yeah, and blood worms.

For the most part the story takes place in modern day New York, but includes some back story on the character, Abraham Setrakian – the story’s Van Helsing – and the tales his grandmother told him of Jusef Sardu, a young nobleman suffering from a rare form of gigantism.

The Sardu family patriarch believes that if Jusef eats the flesh of a wolf – the Sardu family symbol – Josef’s condition will be alleviated. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out that way. On the night of the hunt, rather than being the hunters they were the hunted. All of the men, with the exception of Jusef, die horribly. The young giant, with his weakened body, is left to discover and bury the bodies of all of the men in his family. He then sets out to find and kill what did it.

Fast forward to modern day New York. An airplane, a 777, a jumbo jet, I presume, lands under mysterious circumstances and is found on the airport’s taxiway like a giant, slumbering hulk. No motion, no communications, and no internal or external lights – she’s totally dark . . . and dead. The sleek shell, like the boat of the original novel, also contains mysterious cargo.

For the most part, like a vampire’s aversion to light and silver, the novel stays true to some of the conventions that we’ve come to expect. In others, it self-references the genre and declares them to be false. (Damn, crucifixes and holy water don’t work.) In others still we find the authors injecting interesting twists. For example, in previous incarnations, a vampire could only come into our home if it was invited and could only cross a body of water unless helped. This is significant when we’re given the history of these vampires and the delicate truce that they observe between their various ancient groups and the locations that each group occupies.

The Strain is the first of three novels telling this story, and it successfully introduces a number of compelling elements that deliberately provoke the reader by playing on our fears of viral and biological infectious agents. We see that it’s more than a vampire’s bite that can turn you.

Pay extra special attention to the “Thrum . . . Thrum . . . Thrum” of the only thing that sates a vampire’s thirst.

I’ll leave it to you to read the book to see how that turns out.

A Bloody Battle with a Long History

Posted in Review with tags , , , on November 3, 2010 by JonH

A fascinating look at the historical context behind the development of the two rival groups largely responsible for the gang violence that’s been perpetuated in Los Angeles for nearly four decades, Crips and Bloods: Made in America serves to underscore the severity of the disconnect between perception and reality, and suggests that the gangs are a natural result of years of racial discrimination and neglect.

Directed by Stacy Peralta of Dogtown and Z Boys fame, the documentary is narrated by Forest Whitaker and features a number of interviews with current and former gang members. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, the movie comes across as quite polished. The historical context the film-makers provide is top-notch, well researched, and very provocative. Additionally, and hopefully without sounding too condescending, everyone being interviewed is well behaved and most are remarkably engaging.

Like most, my only exposure to the gang culture being shown in the documentary is mediated through the lens of the news media and popular culture. Neither depicts the depth of reality accurately, but only provides a superficial understanding of the issues at stake. Crips and Bloods: Made in America goes a long way in introducing depth. It reminds us that there’s nothing romantic about the life of a gang member–in fact it’s depicted as pretty desperate–but it also reminds us these people are not animals, but human beings with hearts, hopes, and dreams.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone that has even a passing interest in issues of American civil liberty.

Wake up! It’s Time for Science Faction . . .

Posted in Book reaction/review with tags , , , on November 1, 2010 by JonH

I’ve been reading like a demon these days. I just finished the second book of the King Raven trilogy, Scarlet, to which I’ll dedicate some time to later, and I’m getting ready to dive into the biography of the late poet E.E. Cummings. The former came recommended by my wife, and my sister. The latter comes recommended by my wife’s sister. (Hmm, imagine how confusing that would be without punctuation.) Incidentally, if my wife’s sister’s recommendations are half as good as her husband’s it should be a good read.

I’ve also just finished reading the first book in a trilogy by the Canadian sci-fi writer, Robert J. Sawyer called Wake. This is the book that I wanted to focus a bit of time on now.

Wake consists of three narrative strands. First and foremost it’s about a precocious, blind teenage girl named Caitlin Decter who undergoes an experimental medical procedure that miraculously restores her sight. As the world begins to open itself up anew for Decter the digital interface that was used in the procedure begins to seemingly malfunction producing visual anomalies. Decter discovers that the anomalies are coming from within the World Wide Web. Soon thereafter, she becomes aware that there’s a nascent consciousness developing within the World Wide Web. This consciousness has also become aware of her.

The second element involves the idea of control and censorship in the context of a fictitious Chinese cover-up involving the government’s fictitious systematic killing of thousands of peasants that have contracted a virulent strain of hybrid influenza. In order suppress access via the Internet, Chinese officials institute a protocol described as the Great Firewall. This, in effect, shuts China off from the rest of the world by blocking trunk access to the World Wide Web. Working under the pseudonym Sinanthropus, a dissident named Wong Wei-Jeng begins to piece it together as government officials close in on him.

The final strand involves a grade student named Shoshanna Glick and her research involving simian communication through sign language and representative art. This will no doubt factor into the discussion of consciousness and subjectivity, thereby bookending the first element.

In blending three complex strands such as these, Sawyer manages to entice, rather than alienate readers. Each element touches on the other without resolution creating a satisfying tension, of sorts.

Even though I found it a bit disconcerting that a middle aged man has a teenage girl as his protagonist—Sawyer does manage to capture the more annoying idiosyncrasies of a 15-year-old female, Wake is a novel I found to be intensely interesting. He describes things in minute detail. In his various descriptions of both inorganic and organic technology (i.e. everything from architecture of the web to how the eye processes visual signals) he seamlessly blends fact with fiction. As an example, at one point he mentions an alternative search engine to Google named Jagster in such a convincing manner I found myself going online to look for it.

Needless to say Jagster doesn’t exist. What does, however, is my desire to read the second installment of the trilogy.

Go here or here to buy it.