Tag Archives: human beings

Data Apocalypse

Dataclysm (nook book)

Dataclysm: Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder (Crown, $28.00, 272 pages)

Dataclysm – an unprecedented deluge of digital information reshaping our view of the world.

Christian-Rudder-credit-Victor-G-Jeffreys-II

Christian Rudder is a co-founder and the analytics team leader of the dating site OkCupid. Rudder has made use of the massive amount of data collected by his website. He ventures beyond the two basic and common data use perceptions – government spying and commercial manipulation to encourage purchases. Rather, he has added a third use – an unprecedented look into the nature of human beings.

The OkCupid site data yields not only the responses to its in depth questionnaires but also the transactions and/or communications between the site’s users. Much is revealed regarding our prejudices and preferences through text and graphic depictions.

Data geeks and everyone else will benefit from reading this fascinating mainstream science book. It is definitely not a pop science product. Rudder’s smooth writing style is quite surprising for a data person. Perhaps his Harvard education included writing classes or he has the benefit of an excellent editor. The comfortable sentence structure provides a balance of tech data and human warmth.

Dataclysm (audio)

This is a book that should appeal to those readers interested in how often humans act like pack animals, versus how often they act independently. It’s only fair to add that Dataclysm requires an attentive reader who has a true commitment to the subject matter. The payoff is well worth the effort.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Photograph of Christian Rudder by Victor G. Jeffreys II.

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Back in Black

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $24.95; 272 pages)

The Descent of Man explores an interesting premise:  In the face of fear, can humans actually de-evolve into their basest nature creating a world where self-preservation overtakes reason and higher-order thinking?

The book opens when the main character, Jim, and his wife, Marla, hear two car thieves attempting to steal their car in the wee hours of the morning.   Jim’ s subsequent decision on how to act, and then an impulsive, unplanned act, come together instantly to set off a chain of events that involve a lie, which, of course, leads to subsequent lies and more complications before the story finally resolves itself.

The tale starts off well.   While the theft of a car may lead one to initially assume that the book will be an action/suspense story, a great deal of the early portion of the book is told from a psychological, philosophical point of view through the inner workings of the minds of the main characters.   This is where the book works best.

As the story unfolds, a promising concept begins to unravel.   It is possible the author tried to do too much at once.   For a while, the reader may want this to be a thriller, with humans hunting down other humans, car chases, accidents, and scenes that take place in the seediest part of town.   Or, they may like the parts that stick to the introduction and are a psychological drama about tormented and tortured souls.   Or, they may like the scenes that touch on the relationship between Jim and Marla and want more of the “love story”, for lack of a better term.   But the reader gets a little bit of each and not enough of any of them to be truly satisfied.

It is hard to know what to make of the detective in the story.   Does he want to help Jim, or is he setting Jim up?   Clearly, he does not trust Jim, yet at the end, they seem to form an interesting, through unrealistic bond.   One painful incident from the couple’s past is introduced, but does not do much to advance the story or give hints as to the current nature of their relationship.   Perhaps, in fact, the most unsatisfying parts of the story are those that focus on Jim and Marla.   Jim is supposedly desperately in love with her, and she wants badly to reconcile after events cause them to be apart for a while.   But most of this picks up about halfway through, when the reader believes the story is headed in a different direction.   There just isn’t enough to them to care very much about their relationship.   The crimes, lies and curiosity about who might get caught, killed, or whatever, is much more intriguing.

There are some other problems from a plausibility standpoint, like when Jim buys a gun from a hooker he hardly knows during one of his insomniac-based ventures into the town’s red light district.

In this reviewer’s opinion, author Kevin Desinger has promise, but the book falls a bit short despite some strong passages that peak the reader’s interest.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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Neanderthal Man

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)

In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons.   It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals.   Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.

The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?”   The answer is – not much.   He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire.   And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.

On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong.   On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.”   But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe – are their direct descendants.

A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures.   It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon.   A major opportunity missed.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

Take Away:  If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books).   Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press. 

Joseph Arellano

 

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Silence is Golden

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer (Public Affairs, $27.95, 385 pages)

“Lou Reed’s (music) is not noise; Gregorian Chant piercing my bathroom wall is.”

This is a highly entertaining and sometimes annoying survey account of noise around the world and its impact on humans.   Garret Keizer occasionally cites relevant points, such as that one’s reaction to noise is often tied to personal factors.   If I’m married to a professional pilot, the noise from the nearby airport does not bother me the way it troubles my neighbors.   (Human transportation remains the number one noisemaker around the world.)   He also notes, importantly, that we do not become “used to” noise, and that its damage to our ears is all too permanent.

But Keizer also includes considerable material of little relevance that seems to be an attempt to justify his travels around the globe in the guise of doing research for this book.   Is he serious about discussing the noise made by foreign sex workers?   Keizer also makes one whopper of a questionable pronouncement, which is that noise is something imposed on us against our will.   If we enjoy something, such as rock music, it is not noise.   Nonsense.   I love Live at Leeds by The Who but played at any volume it remains noise, even if a joyful one.

This compilation of random thoughts and scientifically based findings on noise is interesting but meandering.   The editor was missing in action.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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A Blurb Too Far

OK, so we all know that book blurbs (those quotes of high praise you find on the front and back covers of books) can be more than a bit full of hyperbole.   But most of them attempt to remain within the bounds of reality.   The following one may be an exception and it’s one that’s getting a lot of attention online.   (So we’ll add to that attention.)  

This blurb was written by one Nicole Krauss about To the End of the Land, a forthcoming novel by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.   Are you ready?   Fasten your seatbelts.   Here’s the fantastical blurb:

Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it nothing can ever be the same.   Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before.   To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude.   David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique sense of her humanity.   For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it.   To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense.   To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.

Wow!   And she wrote that, I’m sure, while typing with her gloves on and without taking a breath.   No, I don’t know exactly what I mean, but did she?   Whew…   Unflinching, unique light, turned back into a human being, all of that and more.   (So much more.)

So let me ask you – Would you  want to read a book that takes you apart and touches you at the place of your essence?   Me neither but, who knows, it could be a good read anyway.   LOL.

To the End of the Land will be released to the physical universe by Knopf in hardbound form and in a cozy digital Kindle Edition on September 21, 2010.   The novel will run 592 pages, so you’ve been warned…  But if you love it (especially if it turns you back into a human being), remember that you first heard about it here!

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The Wolf in the Parlor

The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs by Jon Franklin

Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer Jon Franklin delivers a thoughtful account of his search for the nexus of human and dog.   His exploration begins with two events.   First, Franklin sees a photograph depicting an ancient grave at an archaeological dig.   A man’s skeleton reaches out to the skeleton of a small creature, perhaps a puppy.   Secondly, Franklin proposes to his girlfriend, Lynn, who upon hearing it asks, “Does this mean I can get a puppy?”

Lynn accepts Franklin’s proposal after he accepts her counter-proposal.   Charlie, a black standard poodle, becomes the third member of their new family.   Soon, Charlie works his way into Franklin’s life.   Their relationship triggers a decades-long academic and emotional search for how and when wolves became dogs – man/woman’s best friend.

Over many years Charlie and Franklin go for long daily walks in the Oregon woods exploring nature via Charlie’s nose, eyes and ears.   All the while the image of the ancient man and his small companion lurks in the back of Franklin’s mind.   As a science writer he has access to the best and the brightest, and makes very good use of this access through interviews with top-notch academics.   He learns that, “While humans may be unique in some respects, we can’t afford to set ourselves apart from other animals.   If we do, we’ll never understand ourselves, or what happened to make us what we are.”   This lesson and others add texture and meaning to our otherwise everyday lives.

Rating:  Four paws and a wagging tail!

Henry Holt, $25.00, 272 pages

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

  

 

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