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Hansen (Copenhagen, Denmark)

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Vesuvius A.D.79: The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
Vesuvius A.D.79: The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum
by Carolis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £21.95

5.0 out of 5 stars The end of a city, 29 Sept. 2013
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Everyone knows the story of the Roman city of Pompeii, which in 79 A.D. was buried in ashes and lava by the volcano Vesuvius. This was at the time when the Roman Empire was at its apogee, and Pompeii thus offers to the archeologists a snapshot view of life at that time.

Pompeii has been excavated over the last 200 years, and many spectacular finds have been made. Famous are the ghoulish casts made of the people who died in the eruption and were buried in the ashes. When their remains rotted away, they left behind empty spaces, and by pouring in plaster of Paris very lifelike replicas have been obtained of their bodies.

Books on Pompeii normally focus on all the finds, the buildings and especially the wall paintings, which are colourful and cover a huge range of topics, from everyday life to scenes from mythology.

The book by Carolis and Patricelli instead puts focus on the volcano and how the eruption actually occurred. The Roman author Pliny the Younger wrote two letters describing the event, as seen from an almost safe distance, and a couple of other ancient authors mention the eruption in passing. To learn more, evidence from the excavations as well as a general understanding of volcano behaviour must be taken into account.

This is done extremely well in "Vesuvius A.D. 79", with its clear text and many relevant and nicely done illustrations. The first chapter deals with volcanoes in general and we learn about other - later - eruptions of Vesuvius, none of which match the one in A.D. 79. In the next chapter we get a more detailed backdrop to the fatal eruption.

The following chapter describes events of the 15 years prior to the eruption. A serious earthquake hit the city in 62 A.D., many buildings were destroyed, and repairs were not completed yet at the time of the eruption.

The eruption itself was preceded by several serious earthquakes and there is evidence that many people already at that time decided to get out of town. When the top of Vesuvius finally gave way to a 20 km column of ashes, which started raining down on Pompeii, more people evacuated, and when the final deadly flows of hot gases and materials swept over the city, killing everyone, there was only a fraction of the inhabitants left to kill.

After reading this excellent book, you really have a good understanding of what actually happened. Also, you realise that Pompeii was not a city operating at full pace and then stopped in its tracks and preserved for posterity. It was an already damaged and to a substantial degree abandoned community that finally was buried by its fearsome neighbour.

Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres (Life of the Past)
Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres (Life of the Past)
by Donald R. Prothero
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £28.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A huge rhino, 29 Sept. 2013
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Knowing the author from a couple of his previous books, one may rest assured to be in good and competent hands in this little book on the indricothere, related to the rhino and claimed to be the largest land mammal known to have existed.

The book - including many excellent illustrations - is primarily written for the layperson. Hence we are spared the detailed anatomical descriptions of bones found. Obviously, the book is in no way a scientific monograph on the giant rhino. On the other hand, here and there we are not spared some scientific heavy going, like in chapter 3 where the timing of the geology is discussed in detail.

Since there is not so much to say about the indricotheres if the text is to be kept at layman level, the author has filled the book with anecdotes on e.g. the great Mongolian expeditions in the 1920's and more anecdotes on the issues of scientific naming of animals. All very entertaining, but it could be part of any book dealing with long-gone animals.

Having said all this, we of course still learn a lot about the giant rhinos. The fossil record is considered good by paleontology standards, but nothing like a complete skeleton of a single animal has ever been found. The spectacular reconstructions shown in museums are based on parts from several animals, differing considerably in size (bones have then been scaled up or down according to need). Often we tend to forget just how scanty the base is for our knowledge of animals gone extinct.

The patchy fossil record has given a free rein to theories on the size and weight of the indricotheres, with maximum estimates of 35 tons or more. Prothero argues that more likely the animals weighed no more than 15-20 tons, and thus were not significantly larger than the largest extinct members of the elephant family known. It seems that the indricothere may just retain its pole position, but only just.

For some good enlightening entertainment "Rhinoceros Giants" can be recommended to anyone interested in life of the past.

Web Games
Web Games
by Lior Samson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Entangled Web, 26 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: Web Games (Paperback)
The theme of "Web Games" is cyber crime; we find ourselves among hackers, geeks and a generous allotment of cynical bigwigs with shady motives. Everyone, maybe except the heroine, Des, has something to hide.

The plot centres on a scheme to take over industrial control systems via malicious software: "Trojans", over the internet. The purpose, of course, is large-scale destruction.

The author mentions in a postscript that, while he was completing the book, the news of the Stuxnet worm came out. Stuxnet in real life apparently succeeded in knocking out a number of Iran's uranium-enrichment centrifuges, after having penetrated their control systems virally via flash drives or similar.

In "Web Games" the target is much less exotic, but the planned consequences are far more serious.

The book slowly builds up the suspense and a lot of people get beaten, injured or killed along the way. The final part is tense and on the whole reaches a satisfactory climax.

"Web Games" accordingly is quite an efficient thriller, but it does have its flaws. A lot of wizardry is performed on computers by the leading characters, but whether this reflects reality or is more or less fantasy is beyond the lay reader to judge.

More seriously, the book simply has too many people playing a part. The reader gets a brief introduction to a whole bunch early in the book, and is supposed to remember who is who when they re-appear 50 or 100 pages down the road. A further complication is the large number of groups and organisations involved, sometimes splinter groups within organisations, each of them having their own agenda. In short, the reader sometimes has a hard time keeping track of what is going on.

Finally, we have a few instances of ordinary people doing extraordinary stuff which borders on the incredible. No matter how good somebody is at so-called "first-person shooter" games on the computer, I seriously doubt that he or she would be of any use the first time in a real fire fight with a real assault rifle.

"Web Games" is all in all good entertainment, but not a top-class thriller.

The Rule of Four
The Rule of Four
by Ian Caldwell
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Unruly Four, 3 Jan. 2013
The book offers a truly great idea for a first-class thriller plot. Old Italian nobleman writes mysterious and complicated book in 1499 and has it printed in order both to preserve - and provide posterity with a key to - a great secret. Only the worthy who really can appreciate the result will be able to solve the riddles in the book. Some 20th century scholars have been working on the subject for decades when not busying themselves sticking knives into each others' backs. They have failed miserably and then our young undergraduate heroes enter into the picture, and make tremendous progress with the riddles. They do so at their own peril, since the old scholars turn out to be very nasty and perfectly willing to commit murder and steal from others what they have not achieved themselves.

Add to this the fact that the old book in question, the Hypnerotomachia, really was issued in 1499 and seems to be a fascinating object in itself; beautifully designed and printed and with a dreadfully obscure and strange text, in several languages mixed together.

The basic story makes perfect sense and in this respect is very satisfactory. The comparison to Dan Brown is not entirely misleading, and actually "The Rule of Four" elegantly avoids having to resort to the kind of far-fetched explanations found in "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels & Demons".

So far so good. However, the blurb on the cover informs us that the book combines the Dan-Brown like thriller with a "coming-of-age" storyline, and this must in fact be intended as a warning to the prospective reader.

"Coming of age" literally sinks the book. Hundreds of pages are devoted to descriptions of the 4 main male characters; whom are neither likable nor very plausible. There is also a girl that anyone would fall in love with, but she is treated awfully by her fiancé, one of the 4. There is supposed to be developments in the relationships between these 5 persons, but they are told by means of confusing flash-backs and -forwards and are really not very interesting.

The thriller part picks up some interest around page 200 and the reader is almost ready to forgive the authors for the slow start, but then the story falls flat again, drowning in new avalanches of descriptions and tedious details of the 5 youngsters and their oh-so-complicated lives.

Towards the end we get some real drama: a whodunit and a gigantic explosion, but once again the story quickly slides into bottomless depression. Everyone is unhappy, nothing works for them. The final twist of the book, which actually could be the capping of a most satisfying story, drowns in the gloom and doom of the many preceding pages and, frankly, by then the reader doesn't care anymore.

A great idea just gone too bad.

Sticks, Stones, and Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids
Sticks, Stones, and Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids
by M. Isler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Not a Picnic, 16 Dec. 2012
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According to the subtitle this book is supposed to deal with pyramid construction. However, after having read the first 150 pages, which have very little to do with building pyramids, the reviewer is sorely tempted to dismiss the book with one or two stars. We are initially given a broad introduction to culture and building in the ancient world; Egypt and elsewhere. Thereafter many pages are devoted to mud-brick mastabas, the tombs built by the Egyptian pharaohs in the period preceding the pyramid era. Especially niches in the mastabas, and the possibilities of the sun casting shadows or light into these at certain calendar days, are treated at great length. On p. 90 we get around to the pyramids, but again focus is more on their adjacent funerary temples with niches hit by sunlight. We leave the pyramids again for an immensely thorough description of so-called gnomons; basically wooden sticks in the ground casting shadows from the sun, and used primarily as calendars.
Relief finally comes on p. 157 when we start actually building a pyramid, and thereafter the book fully lives up to the reader's expectations. Each aspect of the design, preparation and construction is exhaustively treated. The problems at each stage are clearly laid out and the possible solutions (proposed by archaeologists over the years) discussed. Martin Isler then concludes by offering his own theories.
The clear impression left with the reader is the immense difficulty of constructing a large pyramid. The hard work of somehow dragging up all the stones is only one issue. Another one is how to ensure that the result actually ends up as a geometrically true pyramid. If layers of stone are merely placed, one on top of another, the result will certainly not have plane sides and straight lines at the corners, meeting at one point more than 100 meters above the ground. Isler thoroughly discusses possible methods for the necessary controls along the way.
The book argues convincingly against the use of low-inclination ramps for elevating the stones all the way to the top. Instead, a combination of other methods is proposed. Isler, being a sculptor by profession, has considerable personal experience with handling large and heavy blocks of stone. He shows how, in many cases, moving them is not as difficult as we normally would imagine. No doubt the ancient Egyptians knew all the tricks of the trade and by combining these methods achieved what looks almost impossible to us. It was done by having a lot of people available, a lot of hard manual work, and probably, as Isler points out, a lot of dangerous situations with many fatalities as a result. But in the mind of the Egyptians, the honour of building the God King's tomb probably by far outweighed the risks.
The book has a very nice appearance, being richly illustrated. The many black and white photos support the text along the way, but the real pleasure is all the handsome line drawings, prepared by the author himself and carefully illustrating each and every technical point made. Even the most complicated explanation is immediately made clear to the reader.
Anyone with ambitions to build a pyramid by hand should, before going ahead, definitely read this book. Anyone just interested in the mystery of how the pyramids were built should do so too.

Engineering the Pyramids
Engineering the Pyramids
by Dick Parry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rolling Stones, 10 Dec. 2012
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This is a quickly read book with large typescript and many illustrations. The author provides a brief overview of the early stone-built pyramids from Djoser's step pyramid to the last and smallest Giza monument built for Menkaure.
Djoser's pyramid, built by the famous architect Imhotep, was a technological success, having largely survived to the present day. The immediate successors were less fortunate, the pyramid at Meidum apparently collapsed partly under its own weight, and the two monuments at Dashur suffered from a weak geological foundation. During the construction one started to settle unevenly and was finished at a lower angle in the top part (the "Bent Pyramid"). The second one was, apparently as a consequence, built at an ungraceful low angle, resulting in a somewhat squat appearance (the "Red Pyramid").
Only the next two pyramids, built by Khufu and Khafre at Giza were resoundingly successful: huge, beautiful and sturdy monuments.
Dick Parry relates this well-known story clearly and with many fine illustrations. All the way he is evidently warming up to the presentation of his theory on how the pyramids were built.
Many books and articles have been written on this subject, and even when we ignore the extra-terrestrial-origin nonsense, many of the ideas put forward are clearly not realistic. For example, the use of levers on a grand scale is shown by Parry to be prohibitively difficult and dangerous. We are left with the ramps and hauling up the stones one by one.
Parry's theory now is that instead of dragging up the stones on sledges, they were encapsulated in 2x4 quarter-circle wooden "cradles" which then enabled the stone to be rolled along or uphill at comparatively ease. Actually, a few ancient model specimens of these cradles have been found, however, with no information regarding their practical use. Modern-time full-scale experiments with the idea have been conducted in Japan, transporting 2.5 ton concrete blocks. It worked well.
All in all a nice little book, regardless of whether the theory proposed is believed or not.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2014 11:39 AM BST

Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt
Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt
by Lionel Casson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short and Sweet, 9 Dec. 2012
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When opening the book the reader could get the impression that this is an old expert cranking out a fast publication without too much effort. The book is only some 140 pages long, although it deals with a topic where others have written many more pages. Furthermore, Lionel Casson chooses to focus on the time of the New Kingdom, where the sources are the richest and study is easy. Finally, he even squanders a number of pages on the well-trodden topic of Akhenaten, the heretic Pharaoh.
Having said all that, the book turns out to be a pleasant surprise indeed. It is extremely well written, each sentence is precise and conveys lots of information in a lucid and easily read fashion.
We are taken through all aspects of life of the ancient Egyptians, their homes, work, leisure, religion, travel etc. Focus is not especially on common people, examples from the lives of pharaohs or known high-ranking officials are drawn in whenever they may shed light on the issue at hand.
The important professions are dealt with in some detail, e.g. the ubiquitous scribes who filled the roles of civil servants, secretaries, accountants etc. We learn about soldiers and doctors, the former rather mediocre, but the latter unrivalled in the ancient world until the times of the Roman Empire. Engineers and craftsmen who made the pyramids, temples and endless wall decorations in tombs and elsewhere also get their due.
Finally, the book has an interesting chapter on the later years of the Egyptian nation, when it was ruled by various foreigners, ending with the Greeks and Romans. Again succinctly written, conveying a lot of knowledge in just a few pages.
The book is nicely laid out and has a few black and white photo illustrations of acceptable quality.
Definitely a recommendable read for anyone interested in a short introduction to the fascinating topic of one of the world's first civilizations.

Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Life of the Past)
Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Life of the Past)
by Jennifer A. Clack
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £46.00

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How we crawled ashore - 2, 6 Oct. 2012
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This is the long-awaited second edition of Jennifer Clack's classic from 2002. A lot of new spectacular fossil finds during the last 10 years must have shed new light on the issue of how vertebrate animals transformed themselves from fish to lizards.
The new edition is, as expected, clear, well written and packed with facts and information. Although the book starts out with brief explanations of basic paleontology, e.g. the meaning of latin anatomy terms, definitions of time eras, etc., the text here is not for the layman. It is a scientific treatise and sum-up of a huge volume of research work done by the author and her colleagues. The text is packed with latin names and terms, which probably will make most lay readers give up before the end. For the scientists or paleontology students it is of course a different matter.
The book has a nice appearance, although the black print in my copy tends to be a bit grayish. The illustrations are good looking, clear and very numerous, mainly depicting bones and skeletons - and closely backing up the text. Reconstructions of the animals are fewer, and little attempt is made to describe theories on their lifestyles, ecology etc. The book also contains a number of colour plates. Many of these resemble holiday shots of landscapes around fossil locations, and in several cases with the author included. A few (too few) depict specimens of actual fossils. A curious feature is that all the colour plates, which are located together between pp. 224 & 225, also are printed in black and white, throughout the book at the locations where the subject is dealt with in the text. This seems like a waste of paper.
And how, then, did we crawl ashore? In the good old paleontology books it was simple. We had a fish with some slightly arm-like fins just venturing out of the water. A little later we had a somewhat fishy amphibian doing a bit more crawling and then came a proper four-legged land-dweller. End of story. Clack shows in her book just how much more complex the picture is looking now. The amount of 300+ million years old fossil material found is enormous, and the level of detailed studies made possible is impressive. Comparable bones from a number of different species have been investigated one by one, feature by feature.
In many cases it is easy to see which features developed into the next step, but the problem is that they do not do it in an orderly way. Specimens show a curious mixture of fish-like and amphibian-like traits in different combinations. Attempts to range the species, i.e. whom begat whom, by using the so-called cladistics method, give different results depending on which part of the animals you choose to look at.
The fact emerging is that a lot of experimenting was done back then, and many of the developments happened in animals, which probably never left the water; the new features served other purposes. Accordingly, we by now have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but we still do not know exactly who went ashore for the first time.
But that does not make the book less interesting.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2015 11:32 AM GMT

Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years' Residence in the Interior of Africa (Cambridge Library Collection - Religion)
Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years' Residence in the Interior of Africa (Cambridge Library Collection - Religion)
by David Livingstone
Edition: Paperback
Price: £44.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars African adventures, 22 July 2012
David Livingstone is widely regarded as one of the greatest 19th century explorers of Africa. Best known is the episode where he was believed to be lost in Eastern Africa, and Stanley set up an expedition to find him. The successful conclusion of this endeavour was marked by the famous phrase: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
The present book brings us further back in time - some 20 years - and describes the first major expedition undertaken by Livingstone. From 1852 to 57 he travelled from South Africa towards the north, until he reached a location close to the Victoria Falls (on the border of present-days Zambia and Zimbabwe) from where he headed north-west, and continued all the way to Luanda in Angola. He re-traced his steps back to the Falls and continued traversing the continent until he reached the east coast in Mozambique, just above the Zambezi River. Here he boarded a ship and returned to England.
Livingstone had no Europeans accompanying him, he travelled with a group of natives from a couple of friendly tribes. They moved mainly on foot, although Livingstone sometimes could ride on an ox. They carried very little baggage and basically no food. They lived on whatever provisions they could barter or were given locally plus the wild animals they could kill. They were not well armed either; the natives' spears and a few guns. Some of the tribes, whom they passed, were inclined to be hostile and in many cases it took all the diplomacy of Livingstone to prevent having to resort to his weapons.
Remarkably, the trip to Luanda and back (some 2500 miles) was accomplished without losing a single man, although Livingstone was racked with serious bouts of fever.
The book describes in detail the landscapes, topography and runs of rivers encountered. Livingstone finally clarified the course of the great Zambezi River, refuting a number of arm-chair theories concocted by various gentlemen back in the safety of London. The book thus is Livingstone's report to the Royal Geographical Society, describing the landscapes, flora & fauna, geology and local populace.
For the present-day reader the book, however, has a lot more to offer. It is packed with exciting anecdotes, portraits of numerous native individuals and descriptions of the behaviour of a long range of animals, big and small. The hardships suffered by the small expedition are described in vivid details.
Livingstone started out as a missionary, and there is never any doubt as to his sincere Christian beliefs. During his expedition he always looked for opportunities to preach the Gospel, but on the other hand he was realistic enough in his expectations of success with converting the natives. Diplomacy was always foremost on his mind, towards the people he encountered as well as towards his own men. At the same time he fully embraced modern science, he had e.g. a good grasp of geology and - in spite of what is stated in the bible - freely accepted the long spans of time required for geological processes to run their course.
The book is illustrated with a large number of contemporary prints, albeit of a rather primitive style, especially the ones depicting natives.
The undersigned warmly recommends this book to anyone interested in Africa, its history, animals, culture etc.

The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution
The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution
by John A. Long
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £28.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and difficult, 5 Jun. 2012
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"The Rise of Fishes" must be one of the most beautiful paleontology books ever published. It is crammed with spectacular colour photos of the actual fossils and (mostly) colour reconstruction drawings of the animals described. Every page is adorned with one or several of these illustrations and the result is truly pleasing to the eye.
Fishes have been around for the last 500 million years, starting out with primitive worm-like critters, continuing with the so-called jawless group, followed by armoured fishes, sharks and rays, and then the proper bony fishes which make up the majority of what we have today. Finally, a group of the animals developed into the lung fish and the amphibian-like fish (which turned into fish-like amphibians or whatever). Interestingly enough, many of the early forms of fishes still exist today, like the hagfish and lamprey representing the jawless stage. The lung fish also is a very old design, still around, while the amphibian predecessors already had most of the bones which are found in you or me, although in other size proportions.
The book clearly documents the amazing range of fish fossils known. Thousands of species have been named and a good number are represented by nearly complete fossils preserved in exquisite detail - sometimes even including soft parts. The photos in the book amply illustrate this. In all fairness, however, the author mentions that most fish fossils found of course are small puny scraps: scales, teeth or the odd bone. The photos give a good impression of the difficulties in working in this field. A fish skull consists of a large number of smaller bones, and often they are found in a jumble, mixed up and maybe twisted out of shape. Painstaking work is required to sort them out and reconstruct the skull as it was, but a lot of information is gleaned from the process, regarding the specimen's affiliation, life style, etc.
The lay reader must be warned that the text of the book is not easily digested. The author attempts to mention a huge number of different kinds (genera) of fishes and most of them only get a very brief description. Furthermore, a lot of scientific jargon is used, e.g. for body parts. The result is a jumble of scientific classification names (which are hard to remember) and Latin descriptive terms. There is a classification overview and also a glossary at the end of the book, but if you want to look up every unfamiliar term the reading will be slow indeed. In the foreword the author himself mentions that one purpose of the book is to lure undergraduate paleontology students into the field of fishes, rather than the more glamorous dinosaurs or prehistoric mammals. This makes a lot of sense, obviously a tremendous amount of work has been done with fish fossils and it would be a pity if it slowed down now.
And the rest of us can enjoy the illustrations and read some of the more generally descriptive passages which are richly rewarding by themselves.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 26, 2013 8:47 AM BST

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