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G. Hunt "Scouser Abroad" (Valencia, Spain)
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King Animal
King Animal
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: 12.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Listen, listen and listen again, 15 Dec 2012
This review is from: King Animal (Audio CD)
Let's start with a confession: I didn't think much of King Animal when I first heard it and I only stuck with it because I like so much of their other stuff. Other than Been Away Too Long, no song immediately stood out and I found the last track on the album, Rowing, to be repetitive and, well, weird. Rowing? What was he going on about?

After a few listens though, some of the songs started to grow on me. Taree is a good example: I heard them play it on Jools Holland before I heard the album and it made very little impact on me at the time, but it's a favourite of mine now. You know that if a song starts playing in your head the moment you wake up, then that song has got something. When that happens on consecutive mornings with different songs from the same album, then you start to think you're listening to something special.

Another reviewer has mentioned feeling a bit cheated by the fact that the deluxe version just gives you different versions of the some of the songs. But I think it's a great insight into the production process and in some ways I prefer the demo version of By Crooked Steps. I love the way that song starts - it reminds me a bit of Pearl Jam's Faithfull - another great song.

Despite his penchant for screaming, Cornell has a superb voice and he puts it to good use here. In fact, the biggest thing for me is that this album proves that the other members of Soundgarden bring out the best in Cornell, both as a writer and as a singer, and his best is very good indeed. In contrast with this release, his Audioslave stuff sounded good to me pretty much from the off, but, looking back, you can see that he phoned it in sometimes and the quality of many of those songs seems to diminish the more I hear them. As for his last solo studio album, Scream, I think it's fair to give him credit for wanting to move out of his comfort zone, but it's not something I want to listen to. There is certainly evidence of experimentation on the new album - at times Attrition sounds like Cornell has started fronting the Zutons - but you do get the impression he has really put his heart and soul into it.

I should have known that the downbeat complexity of Soundgarden's music makes them less immediately accessible than other bands, but hey, it's been 16 years. The album is definitely worth persevering with. I don't know yet whether King Animal is as good as Superunknown or Down on the Upside, two albums I love, but I intend to play it to death until I find out.

By the way, after six or seven listens, it has dawned on me that Rowing is a ridiculously good song.


The Origin of Our Species
The Origin of Our Species
by Chris Stringer
Edition: Hardcover

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chris Stringer - a wise man, 20 Sep 2011
I came to this book looking for a definitive account of human evolution, I didn't quite get what I was looking for, but I'm more than satisfied.

I've been looking for a book such as this because I've found that, at times, the usage of names differs so much author to author (Erectus, Ergaster, etc.) that it can get very confusing. This book seemed just the ticket as the author is the leading expert on human origins at the Natural History Museum in London and it shows: he has a dizzying command of his subject area.

The blurb on the inside cover says that he will answer all of the big questions in the debate on our origins. So, does he? As you might expect the answer is yes and no.

Yes, because many, or most, of the issues that you would want a book like this to deal with are discussed in detail: what kind of relationship existed between modern humans and the Neanderthals, where & when the first modern humans appeared, what the genetic evidence says about us, whether the Neanderthals and other hominins are actually cousins or ancestors of ours, and so on.

No, because some issues are not dealt with: the book does not really discuss species previous to Homo Erectus, so there's little or nothing about our common ancestor with chimpanzees, or the australopithecines, Homo habilis, etc. Instead, the focus is on the later hominins: Erectus, Heidelbergensis, the Neanderthals and us, especially the last two. So, roughly, the book covers the last two million years, but most especially the last few hundred thousand. This is fair enough - there are no superfluous sections in this book, and so discussing these species would have meant a lot more pages and taken the author away from his goal of identifying and describing the origin of our species specifically, rather than the whole Homo genus. But I didn't know this before I bought the book. Also no, because one question, which seems to me to be a central one, was dealt with only briefly over the course of four or five pages: the evolution of language. You might think this is because there's not much to be said - there aren't any fossils of words - but this is a whole area of study, so this was a slight disappointment.

Whether you like this book or not will also depend on what kind of book you usually read. If you have only a passing interest in evolution and science in general, but you find this issue appealing, I think you may find chapters 2 and 3 of this book hard going. These sections mainly focus on how experts in the field can date and extract information from the fossils they find; so, while these issues are relevant to the matter in hand, they concern the scientific method rather than the history and evolution of mankind. It's not overly technical, but there is a lot of information, mixed in with a little of bit of the author's own biography. I found it very interesting, but I did think that the author was brave to place so much of this material so early in the book.

On the other hand, if you're a scientist or you regularly read books on scientific subjects, I confidently predict you will lap this up. It covers a lot of ground authoritatively and, if you're the kind of person who, like me, reads books on issues which human evolution has some bearing on, I think you will often come back to this book for reference. It's well written, there's a bit of humour in there occasionally, and while the author is keen to put across his point of view - that we have a recent African origin - I think he deals with other opinions very fairly.

Highly recommended. If you like that kind of thing.


Adam's Tongue
Adam's Tongue
by Derek Bickerton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bickerton the underdog, 29 July 2011
This review is from: Adam's Tongue (Paperback)
I really enjoyed reading this stimulating book. Bickerton provides an interesting and original view on language evolution, but in many ways it is also a revealing book about the author.

His style is entertaining, erudite and aggressive. He is bold in suggesting what the actual first words might have been. He takes no prisoners - Pinker is wrong and Dawkins is dogmatic - but surprisingly he keeps most of his powder dry for Chomsky, of whom he is (or was) a known admirer. He not only believes that Chomsky's view on the evolution of language is wrong, but also that Chomsky himself has proven without realizing it that the thing which he maintains is central to human language, recursion, does not exist.

There are times when some of these broadsides seem unnecessary. His criticism of the author of the Selfish Gene borders on caricature at times ("genes are everything") and it is surprising, given that in his earlier book, Language and Species, Bickerton censured Dawkins for his "overly acerbic comments on rival views". There is quite a lot of biting commentary to be found here.

Bickerton likes to portray himself as something of an outsider, the one who sees the truth that others cannot reach and this is a problem. He is a persuasive writer and he forcefully presents his take on language evolution. But this isn't his first book on the subject and his 1990 effort, Language and Species, contained an equally persuasively argued theory - which was very different.

In that book, Bickerton's argument was all about humans developing a secondary representation system which a handy mutation transformed into language. To support his theory, he drew on a work which he claimed had been unfairly ignored (The Nature of Explanation by Kenneth Craik). In this new book, he eschews that perspective, claiming that humans created their own niche (I won't spoil Bickerton's surprise by telling you what it is) in which linguistic skills were an advantage. His new proposal draws on niche construction theory, which he claims has been unfairly maligned. Spot a pattern?

Despite the fact that Bickerton's new theory seems plausible, as well as being original and provocative, it's hard not to take his view with a large pinch of salt. He's convinced he's right now, but he was before, and now says he had it all wrong. Perhaps if he were to live another 10-15 years (he's in his eighties, but you wouldn't know it), he would have another very different theory. Maybe that's unfair - too many scientists blindly stick to their guns on a particular viewpoint just to avoid having to say "I was wrong" - but there is a credibility issue arising from the way in which he argues his case.

Overall, if the evolution of language interests you, you will enjoy this book, although it is a rather partisan view. For a more balanced, if less entertaining, read try Christine Kenneally's The First Word.

As a postscript, it would be interesting to know if Bickerton would change anything about his book in the light of the recent doubts cast on Marc Hauser's research.


How the Mind Works (Penguin Press Science)
How the Mind Works (Penguin Press Science)
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Is Superb, 20 Aug 2009
How anyone seriously interested in the subject matter of this book can only give it one star has me stumped. It is a fantastic introduction to psychology.

The book is brilliant on two levels: the content, as Pinker gives a blow-by-blow account of how our minds function (or at least our best guess), and the style in which it is written. There are some very complex ideas here and yet Pinker takes pity on the reader and makes his writing accessible, with the occasional joke thrown in. As a regular reader of turgid tomes on linguistics, I appreciated this - I particularly liked the joke on p549 about double affirmatives, but maybe that's an acquired taste. (Search for "relish" in the text if you think it'll tickle your fancy.)

The jokes are good, but the content is even better: the computational theory of mind, how the human mind evolved, the psychology of vision, how we reason about the world, our emotions, family relationships and, er, the meaning of life. Pinker discusses all of these lucidly, and although most of the ideas are drawn from the works of others, Pinker's ability to synthesise these and present them together coherently is incredibly impressive.

I've read the views of other philosophers and psychologists (Dennett, Blackmore...) on the nature of the human mind with dismay: the self and consciousness are illusions, we are all basically zombies, etc., etc. I was beginning to think I was just a stick-in-the-mud who was unable to face up to reality. Pinker has come to my rescue - he sticks his neck out and when I read the words "I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything", I nearly stood up and cheered. But, hey, that's just me.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I suppose the same goes for book reviews. Some of the other reviews are incomprehensible - I'm not sure if they read the same book I did.


Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Susan Blackmore
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Rather Skewed Introduction, 30 Jun 2009
Considering that this is a Very Short Introduction, this book is odd and I am ambivalent towards it.

On the one hand, it is well-written, persuasive and thought-provoking. On the other, it is openly biased and inappropriate for a short introduction to a new subject.

My misgivings about it mainly concern the style of presentation of the subject rather than Blackmore's actual opinions. These may or may not be correct, but it is unusual in an introductory work to present and then dismiss the opinions of swathes of other researchers and present your own views in the best light possible.

For example, the use of the word "magic" in scientific literature when describing a theory is obviously pejorative. Yet Blackmore uses it in this way several times, while also describing the theories of Descartes and the 20th century scientists Popper and Eccles as "hopeless". The only theories that receive unequivocal backing are her own and those of Daniel Dennett. Other opinions are often explained in terms of facile metaphors which lead the unguarded reader to see such views as silly.

Balance is not an easy thing to achieve and objectivity is, of course, the impossible goal. Yet Blackmore should have tried harder. The perspective she has may well be valid, but in an introductory work one should give a broad outline of the field and let the reader decide which arguments seems the most interesting or plausible. At most the reader can be given a prod in the directions that seem the most fruitful, but Blackmore indulges in several hearty shoves.

The above is the main criticism, but I also wonder whether Blackmore fully believes what she is saying or whether she has thought about the true implications.

Firstly, it is rather strange to write an introduction to a field of study and then argue that the thing being discussed is an illusion and does not exist - why not write an introduction to alchemy? Would a convinced atheist write a book introducing theology?

Secondly, consider this quote (p81), discussing the self: "We can equate it with some kind of brain process and shelve the problem of why this brain process should have conscious experience at all, or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self. I think that intellectually we have to take this last path." In the space of a few lines, Blackmore dismisses the self and uses the words "I think...". If the self does not exist, what does it mean to say "I think"? Whether or not Blackmore's view on the self is correct or not, her view on this and her writing a book on consciousness are blatantly contradictory. Who will read it? Why put your name on the cover? Perhaps "she" has thought of this: if the self does not exist, "she" can hardly be blamed for any flaws in the book.

Overall, it is a stimulating book to read and it will get you interested in the subject, but some may be tempted to throw it out of the window at various points. Perhaps Oxford should rename it a Very Controversial Introduction.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2014 8:30 AM GMT


Winter in Madrid
Winter in Madrid
by C. J. Sansom
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving Portayal of Spain, 22 Jan 2009
This review is from: Winter in Madrid (Paperback)
This is a good book.

It's a mix between a historical novel and a thriller, but don't expect something by Lee Child: it's not fast-paced nor populated with supermen; it's a bit more considered than that and yet I was still gripped. The characters are generally well-crafted (Sandy is a bit of a pantomime villain), the atmosphere created is convincing and, because of the situation in Madrid at the time, also moving. I read it in three days, staying up late on the last night because I didn't want to go to bed without finding out what was going to happen to these characters that I cared about.

It has been compared to the excellent The Shadow of the Wind by Ruiz Zafón, but that's maybe a little misleading. The similarities are that the story takes place in Spain in the period after the Civil War, leading to obvious correspondences in the social situation in which the stories unfold, and that there is an element of suspense to both, but that's it really. The Shadow of the Wind has elements of Greek tragedy, there are some flashes of humour and it's also a ghost story to some extent. Sansom plays it a bit straighter and so Winter in Madrid is a bit more rooted in reality.

There has been some criticism in some reviews about a lack of authenticity (one bizarre criticism was about the characters using powdered milk in their coffee). I don't agree. I live in Spain and have a decent knowledge of Spanish history and I thought there were very few false steps. There are a few mistakes that should have been taken care of at the editing stage: the Spanish that occasionally appears isn't always perfect and there is a passage where Father Eduardo is talking and he suddenly becomes Father Jaime before becoming Eduardo again. But these are pretty minor issues really.

The best thing that I can say about this book is that it makes you want to know more about the time and place in which the story unfolds. As the author mentions in his note at the end, Spain's relationship with other countries during this period has been well covered but the situation within Spain during the 40s is much less well-known. This book goes some way to remedying this and for that it is to be applauded.

I'll be checking out Sansom's other books after this. Highly recommended.


Load
Load
Offered by DVD Overstocks
Price: 5.17

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This album changed my life, 25 July 2008
This review is from: Load (Audio CD)
I'm a big Metallica fan, but I wouldn't be if it weren't for this album. I saw the video to Until It Sleeps while in Spain as a 17-year old and I was captivated by the arresting images and the music which stayed with you hours after hearing it. I didn't really like heavy metal, Nirvana was as heavy as I would go, but this felt different; it had, well, soul. A couple of days later I went down to the local music store, bought the album and then listened to it everyday, sometimes more than once, for the next three or four months.

I still like "Until It Sleeps", but it's been overtaken in my affections by "Mama Said", "The Outlaw Torn" and, especially, "2x4" - there are times when I'm walking along the street listening to this song on my Mp3 player and I feel like I'm stepping a little bit taller. An irrepressible blues groove played by a metal band: it's just dynamite.

After twelve years, what really stands out for me now about this album is how well crafted it is. You might look at these guys and be scared to meet them down a dark alley, but they are real musicians. A lot of thought has gone into each song. After several listens, each one reveals an element you hadn't thought about; even on a song like "the Cure", which isn't one of my favourites, you listen again to the vocals and hear the overlaid tracks of Hetfield singing in two different ways, accompanied by the thumping bass line, and, with the effect that creates, you think, wow, that's clever...

I'll never tire of listening to it.


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