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Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada)
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Breath
Breath
by Tim Winton
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catching the Big One, 21 May 2008
This review is from: Breath (Hardcover)
In a small town, a young boy finds adventure where he can. Disregarding parental distress, particularly when the lad already is disdainful of them, is part of the game. Bruce Pike lives in Sawyer, a lumber town on Western Australia's south coast. Entertainments are sparse, to say the least. The best he can do is follow his mate Ivan Loon's pace. Loonie is well named since no dare seems beyond his attempt. "Pikelet" and Loonie use the local river to find their limits - staying under water holding their breath. In relating this tale of two boys entering manhood, Winton has added yet another gem to his crown of marked successes. He copped Australia's highest literary award, the Miles Franklin, for his first novel "Cloudstreet". He deserves another for this tale of a man's boyhood reminiscences.

Holding your breath under water brings confidence and self-satisfaction, but lacks a major need in boys, the admiration of others. Loonie's his mate, but they are alone in their fulfillment. Another test beckons, one which prompts a major confrontation with Pikelet's father, who loathes the sea. There are places along the coast where the waves arrive with majestic presence, threatening to sweep all before them. Enter Sando, an experienced surfer with the calm assurance of one who can read the water. Taking Pikelet and Loonie as apprentice surfers, Sando reveals an entirely new and challenging world. Loonie, of course, is enthralled, learning quickly and responding to risk with near foolhardiness. Both endure their spills, but both want to achieve the highest success they can. Sando deftly urges them on, finally leading them to a site where the waves are big, a rock punctuates the sea, and a giant white shark is their sole observer.

Loonie's exploits bring him closer to Sando than Pikelet can come to grips with. The distance between them grows as Loonie puts himself in increased jeopardy. For all Pikelet's disdain of his parents, a smashed body delivered at their front verandah is over the top. Another challenge presents itself in the form of Sando's wife, Eva. Not a surfer, she's a devotee of snow country, staging thrilling performances as an acrobatic skier. As eager to push the envelope as her husband, Eva has been sidelined by the combination of a bad accident and incompetent surgery. Pikelet is drawn to her, even at his young age, and the relationship unfolds in a bizarre manner. Winton builds the tension of this situation with unerring skill, balancing Pikelet's relations with Eva with his admiration of Sando and his competitive role with Loonie. Winton's a masterful writer with few peers. Compressing many elements into a brief story is a masterful example of his talents. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2010 2:13 PM BST


Turkish Gambit
Turkish Gambit
by Boris Akunin
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Tracking traitors and stalking subversives, 17 May 2008
This review is from: Turkish Gambit (Hardcover)
She's young, beautiful - and abandoned. Varvara Suvanova, a "modern woman" in late 19th Century Russia, has been deserted by her "guide" in a remote Bulgarian inn. Rescued - in a manner of speaking - by a diffident, but clearly significant, middle-aged man, Varya quickly finds herself embroiled in a web of war, intrigue and contrary values. Russia is [again!] at war with Turkey, a conflict viewed with concern by the European Powers - especially Great Britain. Varvara is seeking her fiance Pyotr, who is a cryptographer at Russian military headquaters. Her rescuer, Erast Fandorin, is a man of mystery, and Vavara is brought into his machinations by becoming his assistant. With this opening, Akunin launches a tale of Chekhovian proportions. In fact, describing this book as "Chekhov light" would be fitting.

A dispatch concerning Turkish military dispositions around Plevna launches the complex situation embroiling Varya and Erast. Hardly equipped to deal with state secrets, she can only mourn the easy victory that became a disastrous rout for the Russians. How did the Turks manage to intercept the battalions before they were even disposed for the planned assault? On this question, the entire story pivots as it becomes increasingly clear that the defeat was neither chance nor hinged on superior Turkish military skill. Something else is involved, here, and Fandorin's job is to determine what that is and who might be responsible.

As this story progresses, each new character is introduced with his [they are all men] pedigree trailing along behind. You can almost hear the military fanfare for each officer, and national anthems for the Europeans. For there are "observers" resident at this headquarters to report on activities. There is the Frenchman "Paladin", the Britisher McLaughlin - who is actually Irish, and a Bulgarian nobleman. Varya is continually plagued by indecision as to her role in this conflict. She doesn't wish to be treated as a "frail female", but is insulted when proper deference to her gender isn't given. She has no nursing skills, breaking into tears at the sight of wagonloads of wounded. Resentment at the hierarchical structure of Russian society is offset by her patriotism for the Motherland. The challenges are many and varied - more than once leading to fatalities.

While all this sounds terribly grim and foreboding, Akunin keeps the pace fast and the dialogue rich and delicious. It's hardly an example of Slavic despondency usually encountered in Russian fiction. The author is writing to a new market in Russia - middle class readers seeking entertainment without it being farce. Without contrivance, he keeps the reader smiling at Varya's struggle to maintain her self-generated identity. Her foil is Fandorin, who, although hardly an easily defined character, keeps offering surprises for her to cope with. Not the least of which is what drives him to his feats. A fine tale, well worth any reader's time. Fans of intrigue will find it a real gem. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life
Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life
by Carl Zimmer
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You're playing host today, 11 May 2008
You didn't possess a single one when you were born. Now, there are trillions of them, mostly enjoying the warm hospitality of your gut. If you are recently born, they may have been put into you on purpose. They are the famous/infamous Escherichia coli microbes of our inner selves - billions of them residing peacefully in each of our intestinal tracts. Carl Zimmer has added yet another gem in his crown as North America's premier science writer with this comprehensive and insightful account. Zimmer's talent lies in taking up serious science that deals with complex issues, and then putting it down in a way that seizes and holds your interest. More importantly, he informs you on topics relevant to your daily life - and prompts you to think about future decisions. While the subject may seem off-beat or esoteric, rest assured that "Microcosm" is aptly titled, with a host of life's secrets tucked away in how this microbe lives.

The microbe was first identified in 1885 by Theodore Escherich, who was struck by the "massive, luxurious growth" it could achieve. He dubbed it "a common bacteria of the colon", having no idea of its prowess or future role. Renamed Escherichia coli in the following century, the microbe entered an unexpected role in research - from medicine to evolutionary biology. Zimmer stresses this role and its importance in science, technology, business and even government through this account. Understanding those roles is fundamental to understanding the importance of this fine book - and why it's important for you to read it.

E. coli long played an enigmatic role in science - it was "discovered" more than once. Microbiology, not unlike palaeoanthropology, was once divided between the "splitters" and the "lumpers". Was each similar but distinct new organism a new species or just a variation on a theme. In E. coli's case, the "lumpers" prevailed and Zimmer explains clearly about "strains" of E. coli and their significance to us. The "K-12" strain is the one chiefly used as a standard for biological research. It's considered harmless to humans - as one researcher demonstrated by drinking a water glass filled with it. On the other hand, not long after Escherich's discovery, a Japanese scientist who was trying to fathom an outbreak of dysentery, isolated a bacterium resembling the German's find. Thinking it a different species, they named it "Shigella". It wasn't a new species, it was a strain of E. coli. That strain "O157:H7" plays a large role in this book because it is a serious disrupter of the human gut. And we brought it into existence.

The ubiquitous nature of E. coli and the various strains identified rendered it the workhorse of biological research laboratories. It is easy to modify by changing conditions like food supplies, temperature and assaulting it with viruses or chemicals all provide answers to how it works. In so doing, it also explains to us how life works, and how it likely worked in the past. Advances in technologies not only provided maps of E. coli's genome, it was found the genome could be tampered with successfully. Genes could be removed and inserted. So long as the basic life-support genes were left unscathed, E. coli would merrily perform for the scientists. Viruses might be resisted or even ousted after an infection. More astonishing to early researchers, it was seen that E. coli could pick up genes from a virus or other microbes and change its own genome. Today, there are those contending viruses inserting genes into DNA have driven evolution itself. Why do we have over 3 billion base pairs in a genome with only 18 thousand working genes? Invading viruses in our ancestors - and those of E. coli - have left traceable remnants.

The author doesn't confine himself to accounts of laboratory research and analyses. E. coli research has led to numerous social and even legal questions. The latter is best revealed in a lively account of the recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. There, a school board insisted on biology teachers reading a challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The board demanded the adding of elements of the "intelligent design" proposal to the course. Zimmer's account of the testimony and witness exchanges resulted in the presiding judge dismissing "ID" as based on fallacious assumptions and bearing no scientific credibility. The social questions are broader and of greater concern. Forty years ago, as the potential for E. coli as a working tool to manipulate genetic information emerged, public outcry and researchers' own reflections on possibilities led to a brief interruption in "genetic engineering" efforts. With various safeguards in place, Zimmer explains, advances continued. He notes that fears about things like "Frankenfood" are generally baseless, given the long history of Nature's own tinkering with genetic processes. An informed, reasoned approach is required to determine which claims for benefits are possible and which threats, if any, need further addressing. He even manages to address issues in "exobiology", the prospect of either finding life on another planet, or introducing it there.

The wide sweep of topics, thoroughly and effectively addressed by this author make this book a treat to read and an asset to retain. It's Pulitzer or Aventis Prize material and deserves the highest recognition. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Cerebrum 2008: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science
Cerebrum 2008: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science
by C Zimmer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts for the day, 10 May 2008
The way cognitive studies are going, this book's subtitle: "Emerging Ideas in Brain Science" suggest it should be published on a continuous roll of paper. New ideas in neurosciences seem to be occurring on a monthly, if not a weekly basis. This noteworthy collection is indicative of the challenge readers face in the effort to maintain the pace set by research in this field. These sixteen timely and well-presented essays cover more than just the mechanics of the brain. There are some serious social issues to be considered relating to the brain's capabilities and limitations.

Editor Cynthia Read provides us with a collection of new considerations in what we would normally deem "brain science". These include an article delving into a basic of brain operations - the neurotransmitter dopamine and the basal ganglia. Those who expound on human "free will" have two opportunities to review the topic. One is a debate by Mark Hallett and Paul McHugh which raises once again the issue of "personal responsibility" and how we make even political decisions. Those seeking clinical studies related to these issues should peruse Michael Frank's article closely, as he explains how the "pleasure transmitter" can influence our behaviour - particularly the forming of habits and blockages to establishing new ones.

Another chemical messenger, glutamate, is described as "the major signalling chemical in nature". An amino acid, it is both highly useful and highly destructive if released in dangerous amounts after a brain injury as explained by Vivian Teichberg and Luba Vikhanski. Therapies for this condition are being studied through a new class of drugs known as "biologics". Their discovery and applications are explained by a trio of authors who note how these new drugs can block invaders at entry rather than treating the results. The brain is vulnerable to internal threats, as well, as Scott Edwards reveals. A form of erratic protein in the brain, prions, are difficult to deal with as they possess their own defence mechanism in changing shape. Since most medicines dealing with similar diseases have shapes to latch on to or destroy such threats, the prion's ability to shield receptors makes treatment a challenge. One which is still being defined.

The social issues dealing with new brain research are many and varied. The lead article in this series, by Kayt Sukel and Russell Epstein, explains how cognitive science and architecture can work together to provide assistance to Alzheimer's patients. David Drachman raises another, little considered, issue concerning Alzheimer's sufferers - when does the effect of a mental disability disallow such a victim their right to vote? Many US States have vague regulations on this matter, but there is neither uniformity nor recent brain research underpinning those statutes. Fabien Mackay examines the role of stress and how it affects brain chemistry.

This book is a fine collection of well-written and timely articles. The brain is only lately receiving the kind of consideration due its importance. This book raises many questions worthy of any reader's attention and interests. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


A Partisan's Daughter
A Partisan's Daughter
by Louis de Bernieres
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like watching a tennis match, 2 May 2008
This review is from: A Partisan's Daughter (Hardcover)
Disaffected husband Christian is finally driven to seek a street-walker for relief. The encounter proves entirely unfulfilling, since the young woman he attempts to pick up declares otherwise. Roza, however, perceiving his confusion and embarrassment, decides he's harmless and invites him to return - on a platonic basis. The invitation leads Chris to becoming an adoring recipient of Roza's relation of her past life. In this brief compression of Roza's life and Chris' reaction to her tale, de Bernieres demonstrates that brevity can encompass much.

Who is Roza? Chris never confronts that question directly. Instead, he lets her account of her life, implausible as much of it seems, wash over him. He accepts whatever she tells him at face value. He's shocked at much of it, of course. Roza is the daughter of a fighter for the Old Man - Tito - against the Nazi invaders of Yugoslavia. He's tough, and that trait has passed on to her. Roza's father is a sentimentalist as well, however, and she possesses that sense, also. Although it's never made clear how he managed the costs, Roza's parent sends her to university. Predictably, her first love is found there - except it isn't.

De Bernieres passes the narration from Roza to Chris almost seamlessly. You are taken into one character's confidence only to be snatched away by the other. Feelings are dumped on you whether you wish them or not. Nothing here is hidden - or at least you are told what the narrator wishes you to learn. As you read, you are confronted with stark contrasts. Both characters are born out of their time. Chris watches the mixture of excitement and despair of 1970s Britain. Life among the young is less constrained, more experimental and free-thinking than he's used to. But Roza's flat is one among many occupied by young squatters in a very dilapidated building. Chris' heroes aren't Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones - yet he realises he must come to grips with what they represent.

The contrast with Roza could not be more stark. Her life has been a roller-coaster ride of delights and despairs. She's Chris' tour guide to a life he can't even imagine. Is it to his credit that he's not repelled enough to leave, sitting out the episodes of Roza's life with more grief than resentment. Why does he keep returning? Why does she wish him to? She's a mix of "young woman in control" and "victim of men's depravities" by her own admission. What is Chris' role in her life - to allow her to reassert her illusion of control or to demonstrate depravity is not gender specific? De Bernieres, for all he exposes the character's views to the reader, allows them to keep much hidden away.

The finale to this taunting situation is inevitable, almost Hollywood in its predictability. Yet, that aspect doesn't disappoint. Any other conclusion would have been contrived. That this one is not detracts nothing from how the author leads the reader to it. The brevity of this book may suggest that it lacks depth. Nothing could be further from the truth. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Why Think?: The Evolution of the Rational Mind
Why Think?: The Evolution of the Rational Mind
by Ronald De Sousa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reviewing your investment, 2 May 2008
Thinking seems to be a particularly human activity. While the other animals, even at the microbe level, clearly have some decision-making capacity, it appears we are the only species to engage in forms of long-term planning or introspection considering who we are. Or why? All that reflection and expression comes at a price - the organ performing it invests more of your body's resources in its operations than does any other. In this outstanding discussion of the evolutionary roots of human thinking, de Sousa has made a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves.

What makes us so different from the other animals? What is "rational"? de Sousa asks. One major distinction, the author reminds us, is our social condition. Many species "school" or "herd", but the social interactions of Homo sapiens are far more complex than is the case with herring or wildebeest. We must keep track of what that individual over there has done or might do. Does that hunter owe me a dinner or must I gather up my tools and go provide for him and his family? The expansion of numbers of our species also prompts us to adapt to changing conditions - if the river's level is dropping, do I need to relocate?

Consideration of such questions has led to the idea of "teleology", or "goal-seeking", de Sousa notes. In the pre-Darwin era, it was assumed life had a "goal" - to produce us. Nature leaves the impression that what we see today was "inevitable". As understanding of life grew, teleology was dismissed as a concept. However, he doesn't want to excise the notion completely. Noting that the earlier idea of teleology relied on divine intervention to make life move toward the goals, better understanding shelved that requirement. Evolution could produce without goals. Evolution, however, could also produce a creature that could define, set and pursue goals - by being rational.

While thinking isn't adaptive in its own right, it clearly increased the probability of our success. Thinking, says de Sousa, enlarges our options and allows us to create situations in which we can fit. That improves our chances for survival as well as introducing new options. This situation is enhanced by our social situation, in which cooperation can lead to desired ends. These ends may be considered for their level of success and used as springboards to new actions. It requires a rational, "thinking" brain to assess all the variables involved in this process and weigh their virtues or impediments to the next step. For our species, of course, the reasoning process is enhanced by the invention and use of language. De Sousa further suggests that mathematics, as an extension of language, provides the most significant example of rational expression - the ultimate in problem-solving tools.

In concluding his presentation, de Sousa dedicates a chapter to "irrationality". While this might seem anomalous, it's his way of demonstrating that no definition of rationality can be meaningful without its opposite. We need the offset of non-rational thoughts and actions to help us consider the worth of the goals we set and methods we use to attain them. Here, too, is the distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. We can test - even in our minds - while a failed test for other species is likely to be death. Here, too, the social environment, enhanced by language, provides a means to make and evaluate decisions.

De Sousa's volume is a comparison of the culmination of a primate lineage with that of other creatures. There is little here on the operation of the human brain, which leaves a number of questions unanswered. Even so, de Sousa's insights are a significant contribution to understanding how evolution managed to toss up a species so distinct in its mental processes. It is not a light read, but distinctly thought-provoking. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


The Age of American Unreason
The Age of American Unreason
by Susan Jacoby
Edition: Hardcover

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The problem is not "elitism", 30 April 2008
How long should a new nation retain its "frontier" status? The United States used the condition of "filling an empty continent" to disclaim any need for intellectual advancement for over a century. During the following decades, learning may have become more widely disseminated and an "American culture" may have arisen to overturn that imported from Europe. Still, there remained the attitude that the "intellectual" was a figure of elitism.) While that picture is necessarily false - what other single nation has garnered so many Nobel awards? - "intellectuals" have not been held in high regard in the US. As Susan Jacoby reminds us, Richard Hofstadter's 1963 "Anti-intellectualism In American Life" was a breakthrough effort in pointing up how and why his countrymen viewed higher learning as they did. Jacoby has done more than merely updated Hofstadter in this excellent overview. She exposes some of the root conditions leading to her country spawning a tide of "unreason".

Distilling Jacoby's presentation to its basic element, we realise that the foundation for today's "Age of Unreason" lies in education. While that seems a paradox in a nation with so many noteworthy science, economic and other figures, the general picture confirms her analysis. It's not the education system itself that draws her ire - although she has some serious comments on that topic - but the diversionary elements either distracting the young from learning or failing to help preparing them for education. The former is something long commented on - the video screen. Whether it's games, "children's" programmes or simply "surfin' the 'Net", the video monitor leads children away from real mental challenges or sources of useful and meaningful information. Instead, children - and no few adults - are inundated with "infotainment". It boils down to "junk thought" being broadcast in one form or another and retained by those least able to resist it.

That manufactured term is almost self-explanatory in declaring why decline of the printed page is another of Jacoby's topics of concern. Reading, she argues, is falling by the wayside because images and sound-bites provide quick, simple explanations of what is deemed "reality". The brevity of presentation and the superficial forms used to convey it have led the young away from understanding the complexity of everyday issues. Jacoby lists the symptoms of the loss of reading, from shrunken book review sections in newspapers to her own experience as a journalist. Where once she was commissioned to produce lengthy, analytical pieces on a given topic, editors now put severe limits on word-count. Reading is being downplayed and readers are demanding and expecting to be less challenged and less informed about subjects. Brief, easily absorbed snippets - whether informative or not - have become the norm.

Nowhere, of course, is better placed to provide the "quick answer" than is religion. Jacoby's discussion of the role of fundamentalism [she eschews adding "Christianity" to the description] is extensive and thorough. Evangelical Christianity has experienced a rollercoaster ride through the years in the US. There have been, according to the author, three "Awakenings" of religious intensity in North America, the first prior to independence, the second in the early 19th Century and the third in the present day. Each has been typified by an aversion to a perceived dominance by an "intellectual elite". As Hofstadter had noted in his earlier book, the Awakenings have spilled over into a broader social arena than religion alone. Since religion is perceived as the very underpinnings of a stable society, any ideas or information challenging religion, established or evangelical, loss of religious intensity is viewed as tantamount to leading to social chaos. Stability, whether informed or not, is the aim. Only faith can provide consistency.

Although there are some missing elements in this book - why should religion gain such a foothold in one of the world's most literate and scientifically advanced nations, for example - this is a work deserving a wide readership. Jacoby doesn't make detailed comparisons between her native country and elsewhere, yet, she's concerned about what the decline in intellectual growth means for the future. Perhaps she considers that obvious, but the poorly informed readers she's concerned about might be better served by a nudge in that direction. Given the number of recent works on these questions, Jacoby is hardly alone in her analysis of the intellectual condition of the US. In terms of communicating the issues, her writing skills place her at a more accessible level than some of her colleagues. In any case, the issues are clear and her approach unequivocal. This book is, therefore, essential reading. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
by Timothy Wilson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.95

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Renovating the House of Freud, 30 April 2008
Timothy Wilson enters the structure erected by Sigmund Freud a century ago bearing a wrecking bar and fresh wall paint. Freud's concept of the unconscious is in dire need of updating, Wilson contends, but not demolished entirely. The construction can be refurbished with modern research. Instead of the unconscious being hidden away until a psychotherapist teases it back into view, says Wilson, its effects can be detected by new observing techniques - even done in the laboratory setting. In fact, the author argues, much of the unconscious is there to help us through our daily lives. We just don't perceive its role or influence. In an easily read and nearlycomprehensive account of how over the past century psychology has revised the Freudian construction, Wilson has produced a shiny, almost new edifice. Sadly, the structure lacks a foundation.

Wilson points out that our brains are the result of life's evolutionary process. There is the ancient, rapidly responding elements inherited from ancient ancestors. There is also the rather cumbersome, plodding segment, more recently acquired by our species. In fact, it may be that which distinguishes our species. The ancient parts drive us to jump back when we see a long, slim, dark shape on the ground while walking in the woods. The newer, slower cognitive functions allow us to detect the object has bark and knots - it's a twig, not a snake. Although Wilson is anxious for us to understand our brains are based on an evolutionary foundation, he's quick to dismiss the nascent science of evolutionary psychology as "too extreme" in comparing us to other animals. His field is psychology, not ethology, and he's not willing to surrender his role. He's also unwilling to "reduce" the mind to something in common with other animals - or allow it to be compared with computers.

His concept of "adaptive unconscious" is a compromise between Freud's dark realm and the realities of evolutionary biology - tilting toward the Freudian side. Wilson demonstrates how in many ways our "adaptive unconscious" influences us. There's confabulation - contriving reasons for behaviour we can't immediately explain. Wilson deems us "the ultimate spin doctor" for projecting how good we are - both to others and to ourselves. There's the problem of whether emotion is reflected in changes of body condition - or vice versa. The wide variety of expressions of adaptive unconscious behaviours is amply and ably spelled out in this book. Perhaps no topic drives his thesis home more vividly than the segment "Are You Racist", still a major topic in Wilson's [and other] nations. The section is a glaring example of what is going on within our minds without our being aware of it.

Wilson's underlying theme is that the adaptive unconscious is the ultimate multi-tasking device. It is not a single entity, as Freud would have us believe, but a complex mix of motivating and reacting mental elements that play a significant role in our lives. At the bottom, it's things like breathing and heartbeat; at higher levels, it's rapid breathing and faster heartbeat in time of stress. The adaptive unconscious goes beyond our sense of self, however. It's also fundamental in how we deal with others. We may "rationalise" our behaviour in our own minds, but we act as our own "spin doctor" in actions toward family, friends or workmates. It's the latter that concerns Wilson in turning our mental "CEO" into a responsive, cooperating social element. If we can rationalise improper or inept behaviour, why not reverse the process and tell our adaptive unconscious how to react. Wilson doesn't say we're able to utterly reverse personalities, but we can choose which actions to emphasise and repeat. "Do good to be good" is a common saying and the author thinks that can work. However, given that we've only just shed Freud's "subconscious" with this book, it will be a long time to see if this new form of "operant conditioning" actually works. Let alone how.

What is missing in this otherwise fine overview is discussion of the underlying roots of what is driving the systems. The information on brain science touching on these topics is nil. In a science where brain mapping and data on the flow of neurotransmitters is almost daily news, this is a glaring omission. Even the single case of testing students in their reactions to a film while injected with either a stimulant or a depressive only indicates to Wilson that reactions vary. This is an unfortunate aspect in an otherwise good summary. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk - An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization
The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk - An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization
by Michael Balter
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Digging up a story, 18 April 2008
What would it have been like to live there? A high plain, holding a marshland framed by distant hills. The flat countryside allowed access to various resources and links to other communities. Cattle roamed in places, but at some point, these were brought under human control. In the meantime, there were sheep, goats and pigs to complement stands of barley and early wheat. Although this might describe countless villages of today, this was something more like a town or "settlement". Well populated for a millennium, this was a community inhabited by up to 8 000 people at one time. And the time was over nine thousand years ago at a place now known as Catalhoyuk. World-famous now, the story of this ancient settlement is graphically portrayed in this comprehensive account.

James Mellaart was investigating "mounds" in Turkey, coming to Catalhoyuk in 1958. Mounds in flat places are certain signs of human habitation. First surface scrapings led Mellaart to serious excavating and the settlement began to emerge. Not only was this an ancient community, but it was large and complex. The dead were buried under house floors, domesticated animals were put on ovens for dinner, and walls were decorated with bulls' horns, while figurines interpreted as women or goddesses were scattered about. Hence, the title of this book. Both the bulls and the figurines remained in central roles as excavations proceeded and attempts to understand the inhabitants' society were debated.

Mellaart, embroiled in a scandal over some Neolithic "treasures" was ultimately banned from the site by the Turkish government. Years later, another archaeologist, Ian Hodder, was granted permits to continue the work. He launched a decades-long programme, utilising hundreds of excavators, preparators and specialists in a variety of fields to sift the evidence on what Catalhoyuk was and how its people might have lived. Michael Balter couldn't interview those folks, but he details the lives of those working the site over the years with intimate - and articulate - skill. From the site's chief Hodder through the various specialists to the locals involved, he weaves an intricate tapestry of active, and interactive, lives. The result is many small portraits forming a large picture centred on this spectacular settlement.

Hodder's choice as team leader brought a serious archaeological debate into closer focus. For a long time, archaeology had simply meant digging - find the site, unearth whatever artefacts were revealed and leave interpretation to the philosophers. A key point, however, continually intruded - when did humans domesticate plants and animals and where did they do it? How did agriculture change human society? Did people form communities before or after they learned to farm? Balter examines these questions thoroughly as he relates Hodder's career and how Catalhoyuk influenced his thinking and that of others in the discipline. Hodder's role proved essential in dealing with a movement known as "The New Archaeology" founded by Lewis Binford and others. It was to be a more scientific approach to digs, adding elements of "ethnoarchaeology" - greater focus on the inhabitants than just pots and middens. What was unearthed was to be considered as evidence of social behaviour.

As Balter explains, the evidence modified both the core New Archaeology and Hodder's own revisions of it. Close examination of the evidence emerging from the dig demonstrated that no simple conclusions could be drawn. The marshland around the community provided rich soil for tilling and animals for food and fuel. Dung was commonly burned in cooking ovens - it's better than wood for temperature control. But that meant the people wandered great distances to gather it. These findings, seemingly mundane, prove the real clues to how people lived. Houses are also indicative. Why were they deliberately burned [as many were]? Was it a signal of the end of a family line? What was the role of men contrasted to the women? "Mother Goddess" cults have emerged, particularly in the US, stemming from Mellaart's original discoveries, but Hodder's team discounts their premise, insisting sexual equality seemed to be the norm at Catalhoyuk.

In all, Balter has provided an exquisite overview of the science and practices of archaeology. By heavily personalising his account, he has firmly dispelled any notion of "white coat" scientists or excavators removed from "real life". Instead, he depicts how the lab can support the diggers, and the trowel-wielders in turn, bring ancient times into today's world. An excellent book, dealing with many levels of research and life, presented with clarity and an obvious affection for the subjects. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
by Gary Marcus
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It works . . . but you can fix it!, 12 April 2008
"If it works, don't fix it!", runs the old adage. Any engineer will tell you, however, that this is false confidence. What works today may not work tomorrow when conditions change. Animal brains worked for many millions of years. Then Homo sapiens arose somewhere in Africa with an enlarged, busy brain. Combined with walking and handiness, that brain accomplished - and still accomplishes - wondrous things. Until you wonder where you left your car keys. Gary Marcus, in this fluidly written review, backed by a wealth of references, explains how the workings of our brain have been built up over time, with bits added or enhanced through the ages. It makes us a unique species, but it's anything but a fine design. Instead it's what engineers call a "kluge" - an inelegant, marginally efficient product of evolutionary bits cobbled together well enough to get the job done.

Using the fact of our brains having an evolutionary foundation, Marcus shows how Shakespeare's and the Bible's depictions of the brain are flawed. We have poor, erratic memories, we make irrational decisions, and we'll believe things that are patently untrue - sometimes with real tenacity. Our brains are built up from very ancient structures, probably using the same processes, with added complexity developing over time ["This worked last time, but it's not working now. Cobble something up to fix it."]. Knowing that readers might be overwhelmed with data overload [our memories can't handle it!], the author focusses on a half-dozen aspects of brain "design" demonstrating the positive features and the shortfalls. Memory, Belief, Choice, Language, Pleasure and "Things Fall Apart" - distractions. In each case, he explains how the system is usually depicted, what might be the ideal process, and how it actually works.

The opening segment on Memory lays the groundwork for the entire book. "If evolution is so good at making things work well, why is our memory so hit and miss?" Marcus compares human memory with computer memory. Nothing is lost on the computer's disk and any stored information can be retrieved. It was clearly "designed" for that task. Human memory, on the other hand, lacks access, lacks specificity, lacks reliability. We can retrieve old memories, but can't recall what we had for dinner yesterday. Nor can we assume that old memory, which seems so vivid, is valid. Marcus describes computer memory as "postal code" memory due to the system's design in making an "address book" used to find data. Human memory, along with that of other animals, is "contextual" - recollection comes within a frame of reference. That might be good or bad, depending on the circumstances, but it's hardly reliable or consistent.

The author's use of comparison in memory is followed by similar scenarios in the other sections. Language is particularly vague and imprecise, why does each language have its own version of the sound of a dog's bark. Yet, our brains allow us to work out meaning in contextual ways. Choice seems to be one of the most irregular mechanisms in our brains, since we continue to avoid shifting from decisions resulting in long-term benefits for short-term gains. Those limited scope decisions likely have links with the brain's pleasure centres, hence the current rise in addictions - even video games take time better spent at exercise or learning.

The conclusion of this book may come as a surprise. The unthinking may tend to see this section as one of those "self-help" manuals so common today [and which are designed to overcome the "kluge" aspects of our minds]. Here, Marcus is able to line out a set of recommendations for improving how we use our brains. He recognises that the idea of the human brain as a kluge will find little appeal with some people. That's a prejudice that must be overcome. Evolution, he reminds us, has produced things of tremendous beauty. If the brain falls short, it has the capacity to examine imperfection and understand it. More importantly, those imperfections of the brain can be addressed. Who is capable of that? You are. Don't miss this book. It's about you. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]


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