Thursday, February 11, 2016


 Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
© 1999 Matt Ridley
317 pages

  The human genome is a recipe book, divided into 23 chapters, but considerably larger than Matt Ridley’s Genome. Were it to scale, he writes, a genuine version of the genome in book form would be closer to the size of a stack of bibles.  Genome visits each of the human cell’s 23 chromosomes in turn to learn a little something about human nature. This is not An Ancestor’s Tale in miniature, as Ridley addresses the entire natural history of human kind in the first chapter.   Subsequent chapters cover subjects as diverse as the genetic basis for language and sex differentiation, and as ambitious as free will.  Health and disease occupy much of Ridley’s attention; after genetic disease is covered by itself,  these diseases  are used to illustrate other subjects.    One oft-used example is that of the prevalence of sickle-cell anemia among people of immediate African ancestry;   carrying one allele for it greatly reduces exposure to malaria, a scourge of the continent.  For the genes, losing a few carriers to sickle-cell anemia is a better bargain than losing a greater number to malaria. In evolution, as in economics, there are no solutions – only trade-offs.  Nothing is simple; many conditions like asthma are caused not by one gene flubbing, but by different genes in different populations. Genetics is a subject that can quickly get too detailed for lay readers to enjoy, but Ridley finds the right balance between narrative and specifics, and he has an sly wit.  In a chapter on the sinister history of eugenics, he notes that the Soviet Union never adopted a eugenics program; they were more interested in murdering clever people than limited ones.  The take-home lesson is the human body is not one thing with a becraniumed control tower;   even our flesh is dynamic,  our genes warring with one another and vying for control between themselves and the brain they forged and maintain.   Though it may lose something in being slightly dated, Genome is an eye-opening bit of popular science that offers plenty of insight into history, as well. There was a reprint in 2006 that may have more current information.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Onward to the Edge

"Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surround us. In the process, the clearing we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view. Before the discovery of the genome, we did not know there was a document at the heart of every cell three billion letters long, of whose content we knew nothing. Now, having read parts of that book, we are aware of myriad new mysteries. [...] A true scientist is bored by knowledge. It is the assault on ignorance that motivates him -- the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing."

p. 271, Matt Ridley.  Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chromosomes

(It's a servicable metaphor, though a clear-cut forest is hardly picturesque. I give you the Sandwalk instead.   I borrow the post title from Symphony of Science's "Onward to the Edge", which features Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, and Brian Cox.)

Monday, February 8, 2016

This week: the usual suspects

Well, dear readers, it's another month! I have a serious itch for science and science fiction at the moment, so I have no less than five potential science reads stacked up now, and three potential SF books. Among the numbers...Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, and Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chromosomes.   What about science fiction? Well, there's some of H.G. Wells' less well known novels, and  perhaps something newer.

I recently finished The War of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians, and the Rise of Islam.   It is a brief but highly detailed history of the last Romano-Persian war, one in which the great powers of the classical world mauled each other.  Rome nearly perished here, because while the Persians were sweeping into Syria and Judea, tribes in the Balkans began raiding against Constantinople. Eventually the Persians would be stopped, and even subjected to raids in their heartland, and the statuo quo ante bellum stored.  No sooner had the armies retired, however, than came armies from Arabia...and by the time the ancients realized these weren't just the usual Bedouin raids, all of Persia was falling and the Romans were again stripped of most of their territory outside of Anatolia. The second half of the book is dedicated to Islam's early military victories, with abundant maps that showcase the solid maneuvering of commanders like Khalid.  The book is chiefly about combat, with some politics mixed in as the Persians weakened themselves through civil war.  I intend on reading a fair few more books about the 'middle world' later on.

Since I am in the area, I may as well mention a book I read a few weeks ago, Facing East by Frederica Mathewes-Green. recounts a year in the life of a small Orthodox mission, one created by six families that include the author's newly-minted priest of a husband. The M-Gs, as the author refers to her family later on, are both converts to the faith, and throughout this piece she reflects on the way her experience has changed in the last three years, as she and her husband begin to soak in the liturgy and live the Orthodox life more deeply. While this is not a formal introduction to Orthodoxy, or even a conversion testimonial, Mrs. M-G often provides exposition about the what and why of service. Like the faith itself, however, this tale is more experiential than epistemological. We encounter the sacraments -- Baptism, for instance -- not through lectures but through the lives of the congregants, communicated in the intimate and awe-filled style of the author. Short though it may be, Facing East provides a hint of how deep a well the Orthodox tradition is. The mission of Holy Cross may be small and relegated to renting a space that has to be evacuated every Sunday afternoon to make room for the weekday tenants, but in their religious life they are as firmly established as any of the grandest metropolitan seats or parishes across the world.    I'll probably have couple of more books about Eastern Orthodoxy as the year goes on.  For the moment, however...SCIENCE!

Saturday, February 6, 2016


Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State
© 2014 Ralph Nader
224 pages

George Carlin groused that when he heard the word bipartisanship, he knew a larger than usual deception was in the works. Ralph Nader's Unstoppable offers a different kind of bipartisanship -- cooperation, not conspiracy. Written primarily to a progressive audience, Nader draws on his reading of Russell Kirk and F.A. Hayek to share the good news:  there are people who share the similar values in both political wings, and plenty of room to work together against a common enemy. What common enemy? The crony-capitalist state, the nemesis of both progressives who fear the power of modern-day robber barons, and of libertarians and conservatives who value free markets, the rule of law, and civic order.

Nader opens Unstoppable with a victory several decades old: the termination of a particular nuclear project based on a alliance between progressive environmentalists and fiscal conservatives.  Although joining forces with conservatives was initially a pragmatic move, in the decades that followed, Nader familiarized himself with both conservative and libertarian literature.  Nader deserves kudos, for while it's not unusual for those passionate about politics to learn their opponents' arguments merely to demonstrate to them while they are wrong, Nader seems to have gained a genuine sense of empathy for those on the other side. Humanistic concern runs through each political camp considered here, a commonality that can be the basis of cooperative action.  What most progressives think of as conservatism, Nader writes, is a new thing, the product of decades of slow corporate corruption of the political state.  Its subsidies to multinationals, the benefaction rendered by regulations that smother competition, conserve nothing -- and nor do they promote liberty. Nader may still disagree those on the right, but underneath the ideology, he writes, we are still human beings who, when confronted with abuses, want to help one another.

The alliances that can be created vary. Progressivism's opponents may agree on opposing the State's growing activity in everyday life, but they don't agree with one another.  Take the environment: some of the United States' most sweeping conservationist legislation was enacted by presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and environmentalism lends itself well to the language of conservatism; think 'stewardship'.  Progressive horror at the inroads consumerism is making in the lives of children can find kindred spirits in the ranks of social conservatives, especially the religious who fear their children becoming selfish and materialistic.  Libertarians who swear more by the market than moral order may object to progressive-conservatives limiting choice by barring certain kinds of advertising, for instance, but when it comes to forswearing money given to corporations they're stalwart allies. Another area of progressive-libertarian camaraderie is ending the drug war, which even Old Right types could be convinced to join if shown how the war has completely destroyed civil law enforcement in favor of pseudo-military police enforcement.  Free trade is a particularly thorny issue: libertarians may be for it, and paleo-conservatives against it, but there's a fuzzy thin line between protectionism (which progressives might  back) and cronyism.

In the latter half of his book, Nader puts forth a list of twenty-five issues that progressives can work with either libertarians or paleo- and populist conservatives on, or both. Some of them involve the federal government doing more, which I don't think will sell well in allying with groups who view federal overreach as the entire point of opposition. It's a let's-get-the-Wehrmacht-out-of-Paris-before-we-strengthen-it-against-Stalin situation.  Others involve a heart dose of localism. like promoting 'community self reliance', and distributive electrical grids. At one point Nader quoted Who Owns America?, the classic agrarian-distributist critique of the then- nascent plutocracy, and I may have swooned.  Considering that two of the major contenders for the presidency have nebulous connections to their respective parties -- the independent socialist Sanders and the populist Trump --  Americans' frustration with the reigning RepubliCrat scheme seems ripe for this kind of cooperation. I only wish Nader had put more emphasis on local cooperation, which is further removed from ideology, and more motivated by  having to work with the facts at hand. Non-progressives will find Nader's repeated assertion that progressives have less interest in ideology than facts to be  dubious, and  for the record I think that comes a little too close to holding that the ends are more important than the means.  It's not enough to take steps to take care of what ails us:  we should have some idea of where we are going. If we allow power to accrete in the name of "doing something", then we'll simply pave the way for future abuses.

Quarrels withstanding I found Unstoppable to be an immensely heartening book, a reassuring dose of civility and cooperation. I think if more Americans read it -- progressives, liberals, conservatives, and even those power-enabling rascals in the middle, the liberals and neocons, we might see each other more as people with genuine convictions, and not merely wrongheaded enemies who need to be defeated and driven from the field.   When the talking heads on TV, both the announcers and the candidates, drive one to despair, consider Nader's humane rebuttal. Genuine hope for America may not be forlorn.

(And where else are you going to find a book with a Green party progressive hailing decentralism and lamenting over the problems of regulatory capture and bureaucratic quagmire?)

Crunchy Cons, Rob Dreher
Citizen Power, Mike Gravel
What's Wrong with the World?, G.K. Chesterton
We Who Dared Say no to War, ed. Murray Polner and Tom Woods. (Men of the left and right, respectively.)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ten Stories by Isaac

Back in 2007, I discovered Isaac Asimov's short stories and became a trifle obsessed with him, to the point that I have an entire bookcase devoted to his short stories, essays, novels and books.  Lately I've been feeling the itch to read some old-fashioned SF, and that vein have thought back to some of the dear doctor's more memorable pieces:

1. "The Feeling of Power"

In the near-distant future, Earth suddenly achieves a revolution in space warfare when a rogue scientist invents...math. Those fellows on the other side will find their mere automatons outmatched!

2.  "Nightfall"

On a planet with several suns,   night never falls.  Or...does it?  Lately archaeologists have begun to see a pattern in sites through the world, as if global civilization destroys itself in spectacle of fire every  two thousand years.

3. "Gentle Vultures"

They've seen it before. An intelligent society comes of age, invents nuclear arms, and then destroys itself.  After the collapse, however, our gentle main characters, aliens, step in to help rebuild a nuclear-free future  -- for a fee. Now Earth has achieved nuclear arms, and ...well, they haven't gotten around to destroying themselves. Surely they will. Perhaps they need a little..push?  Best to get it over with so the rebuilding can start, right?

4. "The Obvious Factor"
The Black Widowers are a club of six professional men who meet once a month at a New York restaurant and enjoy dinner in a private room. Each month, a guest joins them, and invariably the guest has a mystery. But now comes a mystery that -- seemingly --  defies logic and rationality.

5. "Bicentennial Man"

My first encounter with Asimov was watching the Robin Williams movie inspired by this tale of an android who seeks to be human.  (This is not to be confused with Positronic Man, also an Asimov story.)

6. "Reason"

One of a series of stories about two human engineers who trouble-shoot mining robots, this one features artificial intelligence gone awry. That's unusual for Asimov, because he believed from the beginning that robots were human tools, and would be by design created for safety.  All of the stories about these two engineers are favorites, but "Runaround Sue" is another worth naming.

7. "Profession"

On their seventh birthday, boys and girls learn to read by being hooked up to a machine. On their sixteenth birthdays, they are analyzed by the machine again and given the knowledge they need for whatever career the machine decides Earth needs. But what if someone can't be molded so easily?

8. "Sally"

A self-driving car? Hah! Try a self-aware car.

9. "It's Such a Beautiful Day"

Something is wrong with little Johnny. He go outside. Outside! In the open air , without any climate control, with no roof nor walls about him, where insects and mud lie in waiting around every corner.  Kids these days!

10. "Franchise"

The future of voting? In 2008, elections have become so computerized, so influenced by the planet-master MULTIVAC computer, that only one man's input is needed. Every year, the computer in its wisdom finds The Average Voter, the one man or woman who most epitomizes what Americans want in the election, and asks them a few questions.  From such an interview, the next president is chosen.

Now, time to see if there's an Asimov short story I haven't read! Let the hunt begin.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Historical Fiction, Half Off!

This week, the Broke and the Brookish inquire: what are your favorite settings for historical fiction?

1. Medieval

Castles, lyres,  armies of armored men on horseback,  columns of swords-, spear- and bowmen...what's not to like? Besides plagues, I mean. And..the lack of dentistry and various other things that stave off death.

Mostly I've read from Bernard Cornwell (The Last Kingdom, Agincourt, etc), with the only recurring author being Alison Weir (The Lady Elizabeth).

2. Republican Rome

Rome becomes decidedly less interesting after the rise of the Empire.  Several authors of interest: Robert Harris, for his political-legal thrillers based on the life of Cicero, plus his Pompeii; Steve Saylor, for his late-republic detective novels;  John Stack, for a naval trilogy between Rome and Carthage;  and Simon Scarrow, whose series about the invasion of Britain by Rome I am currently ankle-deep in.

3. Gilded Age America

In the late 19th century, the cities swelled with immigrants and displaced farmers alike, and the products of the industrial age saw the cities transformed in response. Here is the age of trolleys,  the rise of mass spectator sports, mass politics, the early years of the Mafia...all sorts of things of interest!

4. Early America

Let's say this covers everything from novels set during the colonial period, up to the Civil War.  Most of the books I've read in this category are 'classics' like The Scarlet Letter and Tom Sawyer, but Bernard Cornwell also penned a few Revolutionary War novels. (Redcoat, The Fort), and David Liss has his The Whiskey Rebels.

5. World War 2

I don't especially like reading World War 2 fiction, I just...happen to do it a lot.  Jeff Shaara would have started me on that, with his European trilogy, but in recent years I've also read a lot of Phillip Kerr's mysteries set in 1930s-1940s Europe. As much as I like Kerr's thriller-crafting and humor,  they are dark to the point that I've considered not reading him anymore. Perhaps one once in a while, though.

I know the title says "Top Ten" Tuesday, but my historical fiction reading isn't all that diverse. It's the middle ages and Rome, really.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves
© 2015 Adam Levin
288 pages

 Looking for a growth industry? Try identity theft. Over a third of Americans have experienced some degree of outside use of their accounts, and that number will only rise as our personal data is collected in more and more places.  News reports may have alerted citizens to the need to destroy physical mail carrying their social security number and other personal information, but  even the most vigilant of privacy-protectors can’t stop outside forces from sacking institutions that use that data. Big box stores, transnational health insurance providers, even the federal government: all are vulnerable.  In Swiped, Levin maintains that if a given reader hasn’t already experienced identity theft, the odds are good that they will in the near future.   Instead of consoling oneself with the pleasant notion that such a crime can’t happen to them, he urges readers to minimize their risk, monitor their accounts, and take precautions to manage the damage.

Personal cybersecurity, covered in only a chapter of books like Future Crimes, takes center stage here, and with chapters especially devoted to identity theft arising from tax fraud and healthcare systems,  it makes for an especially pertinent read for tax season. The heaviest burden for action against identity theft is laid on the individual, for we are much more quick-footed about adapting behavior to threats than institutions, and have the most control over releasing information. Regardless of the precautions taken -- the savvy exercised -- at some point Levin believes that most people's personal accounts will be compromised.  He recommends constant scrutiny of personal records: daily bank check-ins, thorough examinations of "benefits received" from insurance companies, etc.  Finally, Levin urges readers to have an action plan for when -- not if -- they are compromised.  Know what accounts you need to freeze, what forms to file -- and don't think it stops with your death, either, because there are plenty of operators who comb the obituaries for accounts to borrow. While his emphasis is on personal vigilance, Levin also has chapters detailing ideas for business security culture, and national-level legislation.   Swiped is fast and abounding with ideas on 'data hygiene', and its emphasis on action rather than alarm makes it an welcome follow-up to Data and Goliath and Future Crimes.

Ten Don'ts On Your Digital Devices, Daniel G. Bachrach, Eric J. Rzeszut