Science, Dinosaurs & Environmental Issues



IN THE JAPANESE GARDEN
ELIZABETH BIBB (photos by Michael Yamashita)

out of print; available at all online booksellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Celebrates the elegant 1,300-year-old art form of Japanese gardening, providing gardeners with the basic concepts for including aspects of the Japanese garden in their own landscape plans.

My Review: This book was such a joy to find, to buy, to read...it has been a perfect experience. It's the Fulcrum Publishing edition in paperback of a book done by Starwood in 1991. As it's a paperback, my local Salvation Armani charged me 49 cents for it. It's in *perfect* condition. Rapture!

Then there is the gorgeousness of the book...photographs that are almost lit from within, they are so lovely. The printing job is adequate, but a little heavy on the cyan, making all the blues intense but the greens a little squishy. Very, very small quibble.

Above all else, though, is the subject matter...the gardens...the aesthetic of accepting nature's gifts of color, shape, and form, and designing the living landscape to make every angle and vista a reflection of this aesthetic, inviting meditation on the nature of life's seasons and the seasons of life...well. It is a restorative draught for my wearied, nibbled-at soul.

The Shinto spirituality of the gardens is not neglected in Ms. Bibb's essays on the gardens and their various histories. It is telling that the origins of this most Japanese-identified of landscaping modalities is a direct lift by the ancient Japanese from Chinese culture's gardening traditions. The borrowing went on until the 18th century, in fact, with the Ming/Qing garden trend that emphasized greenery and stonery at the expense of Western gardening's obsession with blooming things. It is one reason I so love Japanese gardens: they are not awash in messy, purposeless FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER plant FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER stuff.

I would recommend this book to anyone who feels hemmed in, pecked at, torn, or simply needs a respite from daily life. The book is presently out of print, but copies are well worth searching up!

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OCTOPUS!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
KATHERINE HARMON COURAGE

Current Books
$27.95 hardcover, available 31 October 2013

Rating: 3.75* of five

I received an ARC from Current Books for review, but I don't remember why.

The Publisher Says: We eat, study, copy, and idealize the octopus. Yet this strange creature still eludes our understanding. With eight arms, three hearts, camouflaging skin, and a disarmingly intelligent look behind its eyes, it appears utterly alien. But octopuses have been captivating humans for as long as we’ve been catching them. Cultures have created octopus-centric creation myths, art, and, of course, cuisine. For all of our ancient fascination and modern research, however, we still haven’t been able to get a firm grasp on these slippery beasts.

Now journalist Katherine Harmon Courage dives into the fascinating underwater world of these mysterious cephalopods. From her transatlantic adventures to Spain and Greece, expeditions in the Caribbean and back to Brooklyn, she invites readers to experience the scientific discoveries, deep cultural ties, and delicious meals connected to the octopus.

Courage deftly interweaves personal narrative with interviews with leading octopus experts. She provides an entertaining yet informative romp through the world of these infinitely interesting creatures.

My Review: Anyone who's paid me the slightest bit of attention over the years knows I'm a fan of Tentacled Americans. They're delicious. They're delightfully ookie. They're probably the closest things I'll ever have to soul mates: They don't like their own kind, regard other species as prey or enemies, and possess a deeply misunderstood intelligence.

All I lack is six more arms.

And now Katherine Harmon, a writer for Scientific American who appears to have married into the coolest last name ever, writes a Mary Roach-esque monograph on the 'pus! Oh frabjous day callooh callay! I dived (!) into the book the instant the mailman shoved it into the door-slot.

What a dive that was. I landed in the sea-water off Vigo, Galicia, with the seasick Harmon Courage (love that new name!), thinking about the *a*maz*ing* octopus preparations prevalent in the region. The trip to Greece's Octotropolis Gythio was a drool-inducing litany of same-ol' same-ol' octopus preparation: wail on the dead body on the ever-present beach rocks, hurry home and boil it then saute the tentacles in olive oil and then make a tasty accompanying sauce. You can not go wrong doing this. It is never-fail deliciousness, with the added bonus of being nutritious and heart-healthy.

I'm drooling. Pardon me, need to clean the keyboard.

So for sixty pages, I existed in a haze of hunger and longing for some fresh octopus instead of the canned smoked stuff from Vigo. Page sixty-one began the lessons, or as a pal of mine says, "the eat-your-spinach part."

Fortunately, I enjoy "eating my spinach" and learning about stuff. The only television I'm really interested in is informational/educational stuff...if I'm going to do something I don't enjoy (sit still in front of a screen and stare fixedly), I'm at least going to get something memorable out of it....so I trotted happily along in Harmon Courage's wake as she chatted up the scientists who study these fascinating creatures. The locations she gets herself sent to are anathema to me, being largely warm-water beachy places, locales I'd pay good money never to have to visit. But the scientists are opening an immense realm of knowledge by living and working there, and no one's making me do it, so here I sit in air-conditioned splendor reading about the fascinating conclusions from this research.

Modern life, for a first-worlder, is excellent.

Octopus skin is near-miraculous in its mimetic ability. Octopus brains are only barely beginning to be studied but are already causes for fascinating discoveries. Octopus bodies are marvels of efficiency, and inspiring research into imitative robotic design.

Wondrous stuff, and that's not even half of the scientific amazement. How does a delicious creature without a shell avoid being din-din for every hungry thing in the sea? We've all heard about the ink-squirting defense, we've all heard of the prodigies of camouflage, but who knew that the wriggly ones could emit a *sound* that distracts vibration-sensitive predators? How? From WHERE?! Still being studied, stay tuned....

All of the above is my yodel of praise and my warble of enticement for you to dash out and buy a copy of this informative, enjoyable book. But the attentive reader will note that my rating is under four stars, while my enthusiasm is (I hope) evident. My rating might then seem ungenerous.

I feel bad about it, but I have to be a little ungenerous. The first sixty pages, with recipes and culinary enticements, do not fit comfortably with the science and research bits in the second part. The transition is handled as smoothly as it can be, but still isn't comfortable, because the nature of the book changes completely at that point. Harmon Courage's amusing, light touch doesn't change. She has a bit less to work with in humor terms. Not to say that, all of a sudden, we're in a textbook. It's simply a change from chatty, dinner-table food discussion, to after-dinner talk with slides and charts. Both are pleasurable, but in very different ways.

I want to be clear: This book gave me a lot of pleasure to read. I immersed myself in the lore and the science and the witty banter like they were a warm, salty bath, easing my literary aches and pains from reading so much forgettable snack-food in search of a good reader's meal. I got what I wanted from this read, and I suspect that any fan of light, amusing, informative reads will as well.

But like an octopus, I'm sensitive to the subtle shifts in my natural medium. Octopus blood is copper-based, which is why the darlings bleed blue. It's a less robust base for oxygen transmission than mammailan iron, and renders the octopus very vulnerable to changes in the ocean's acidity...too far outside its comfort zone, and the octopus dies. The climate change issues we've wished on the world include acidifying oceans.

The problem isn't a disaster, like the mismatch within the book isn't a disaster. But it's there, and it's something that needs mentioning, so that it might be cured for the future.

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THE FABRIC OF REALITY: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications
David Deutsch

Penguin Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For David Deutsch, a young physicist of unusual originality, quantum theory contains our most fundamental knowledge of the physical world. Taken literally, it implies that there are many universes “parallel” to the one we see around us. This multiplicity of universes, according to Deutsch, turns out to be the key to achieving a new worldview, one which synthesizes the theories of evolution, computation, and knowledge with quantum physics. Considered jointly, these four strands of explanation reveal a unified fabric of reality that is both objective and comprehensible, the subject of this daring, challenging book.

The Fabric of Reality explains and connects many topics at the leading edge of current research and thinking, such as quantum computers (which work by effectively collaborating with their counterparts in other universes), the physics of time travel, the comprehensibility of nature and the physical limits of virtual reality, the significance of human life, and the ultimate fate of the universe. Here, for scientist and layperson alike, for philosopher, science-fiction reader, biologist, and computer expert, is a startlingly complete and rational synthesis of disciplines, and a new, optimistic message about existence.

My Review: I report that The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is simply wonderful. Clear, well-turned prose, ample illustrative examples of his points, and a beautifully thought-out explication of the bizarre nature of reality as explained in the far reaches of physics. The fact that Richard Dawkins is cited as an inspiration for Mr. Deutsch's work should forewarn the spiritual seekers in the audience to avoid this book at all costs. It takes a very clear stance against there being a supernatural agency in the workings of the Multiverse.

Instead, Deutsch says that the Multiverse is weird enough to contain answers to all questions couched in numinous terms and to explain all phenomena and experiences the species has filed in the "supernatural" bin. His arguments are presented without condescension or hectoring, which is a common failing in the prose that wishes to "debunk" the spiritual experience. He simply explains how the experiences fit into the framework of the Multiverse. From there, he says, it's up to you the reader.

THIS is an attitude I can endorse and enjoy. I dislike the spiritual imperialism that says, "My way is Right and all others are Wrong," and equally dislike the materialist dogma that "There IS no spiritual and those who imagine there is are deluded and foolish." (I reserve that dismissive and rejecting locution for religion, not the spiritual, as they are unrelated things.) I want the arguments presented and then leave it up to me to decide what to do with the information presented. Please don't do my thinking for me! And that, laddies and gentles all, is what I feel Mr. Deutsch makes an overall successful stab at NOT doing. He favors the material explanation, and makes no bones about it; but he is very reasonable and reasoned in his advocacy, not shrill or hectoring.

A well-done work of enduring value in the cultural conversation about the nature of reality as we find it. And for reasons that I can't understand, not a gigantic bestseller. I hope that will change....

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THE MONTY HALL PROBLEM: The Remarkable Story of Math's Most Contentious Brainteaser
Jason Rosenhouse

Oxford University Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5 bumfuzzled stars of five

The Publisher Says: Mathematicians call it the Monty Hall Problem, and it is one of the most interesting mathematical brain teasers of recent times. Imagine that you face three doors, behind one of which is a prize. You choose one but do not open it. The host--call him Monty Hall--opens a different door, always choosing one he knows to be empty. Left with two doors, will you do better by sticking with your first choice, or by switching to the other remaining door? In this light-hearted yet ultimately serious book, Jason Rosenhouse explores the history of this fascinating puzzle. Using a minimum of mathematics (and none at all for much of the book), he shows how the problem has fascinated philosophers, psychologists, and many others, and examines the many variations that have appeared over the years. As Rosenhouse demonstrates, the Monty Hall Problem illuminates fundamental mathematical issues and has abiding philosophical implications. Perhaps most important, he writes, the problem opens a window on our cognitive difficulties in reasoning about uncertainty.

My Review: I'd rate it higher if I understood it....

Twenty years ago, a brouhaha erupted in Parade magazine, of all unlikely places, about a probbility problem, of all unexpected things. It's an exercise in applied probability mathematics. Here's the famous statement of the problem:

"Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, 'Do you want to pick door No. 2?' Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?"

Okay, so the answer is, "Always switch." You'll win about 64% of the time if you always switch, vs 31% of the time if you DON'T switch. This has been demonstrated again and again and again and again since the problem surfaced in 1959 (under a different name). People are *still* arguing about it! People with advanced degrees in math are arguing against the mathematical proof! (Which reinforces my absence of respect for the mere possession of an advanced degree.)

This book contains formulae and equations, so the phobic should pass it by. Being barely numerate, I skipped anything that had italic x's or y's, curly brackets, extra-large parentheses, or other quick identifiers of mathspeak, and I did okay.

What did I learn? 1) Jason Rosenhouse has a sense of humor and a quick way with a zinger. 2) Always switch doors on "Let's Make a Deal." 3) Rein in my curiosity about subjects I don't grasp readily...getting books via InterLibrary Loan means one has to read them too quickly for comfort!

Should you read it? Probably not. It's not a subject of interest to most people. If it is of interest to you, make sure you have ample time to revisit the more baroque sections. And run run run like a bunny if you see the word "Bayesian!" That way mouth-breathing, drool-dripping, eye-crossing befuddlement lies!

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THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann

Doubleday
$27.50 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century": What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world's largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle's The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilisation--which he dubbed Z--existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett's fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists & adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett's party & the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes or gone mad. As Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett's quest, & the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle's green hell. His quest for the truth & discoveries about Fawcett's fate & Z form the heart of this complexly enthralling narrative.

My Review: This excellent book is the exciting, unusual story of the last of the Victorian polymath explorers on his quest to prove the unthinkable: That the Amazon, that "false paradise", supported a major technologically advanced civilization before the Columbian Holocaust.

Percy Fawcett took his oldest son and his oldest son's best friend into the depths of Amazonia in 1925, to search for a place that the consensus of scientific wisdom of the time said could not exist. From that day to this, there has been no evidence of these three mens' existence. This by itself would provide the bones of a fascinating story. Why would a father risk his son's life in so unlikely a quest? Why bring the son's best friend? What the ruddy bleeding hell was a 58-year-old man THINKING to do this at all?!?

Percy Fawcett was supported by his wife, who was his son's mother, and the mother of the best friend, as well as the Royal Geographical Society. He was a veteran Amazonian explorer. His son was himself writ young. His son's friend, well, it's on such trips as this that a man uncovers his true self, and the best friend was...wanting.

The story of Percy's life, as Grann tells it, is interesting; the story of the exploration of the Amazon is interesting; the story of the many, many attempts to find the three disappeared explorers is not as interesting, but is very deftly compacted into a few passages.

The author's expedition to follow Percy Fawcett's footsteps is, blessedly, brief in the telling. Exactly long enough, in fact. What the author, a fat middle-aged shlub who writes for The New Yorker, discovers...should be front-page news.

Read this book. No evasive "maybes" no "I'll get around to it"s just go GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT. No one with an ounce of human curiosity can possibly regret reading The Lost City of Z.

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THE VIEW FROM LAZY POINT: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
Carl Safina

John MacRae/Henry Holt
$32.00 hardcover (!!), available now

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: Beginning in his kayak in his home waters of eastern Long Island, Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point takes us through the four seasons to the four points of the compass, from the high Arctic south to Antarctica, across the warm belly of the tropics from the Caribbean to the west Pacific, then home again. We meet Eskimos whose way of life is melting away, explore a secret global seed vault hidden above the Arctic Circle, investigate dilemmas facing foraging bears and breeding penguins, and sail to formerly devastated reefs that are resurrecting as fish graze the corals algae-free.

"Each time science tightens a coil in the slack of our understanding," Safina writes, "it elaborates its fundamental discovery: connection."

He shows how problems of the environment drive very real matters of human justice, well-being, and our prospects for peace.

In Safina's hands, nature's continuous renewal points toward our future. His lively stories grant new insights into how our world is changing, and what our response ought to be.

My Review: Carl Safina is an August Personage. He's a Guggenheim Fellow. He's a MacArthur Fellow. He's won at least two awards for literary merit in writing about science. He founded Blue Ocean Institute. He's been on the teevee, too! PBS, even Nightline! Here he chronicles the full twelve months of his year of environmental activism and study for our delectation and enlightenment.

I am not delectated and not particularly enlightened, and if I didn't owe a review to the publisher, I'd just quietly pass this dull, overwritten snoozefest to someone who's never read Silent Spring and therefore has no basis for comparison re: quality advocacy writing with a personal touch.

A note to editors: Capitalizing Species Names Is Like Having Your Eyelashes Plucked. It Starts Out Annoying But Ends Up Inducing Homicidal Feelings Towards The Perpetrator. A cedar waxwing is a cedar waxwing, not A Cedar Waxwing.

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WICKED PLANTS: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
Amy Stewart

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. In Wicked Plants, Stewart takes on over two hundred of Mother Nature s most appalling creations. It s an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend. You ll learn which plants to avoid (like exploding shrubs), which plants make themselves exceedingly unwelcome (like the vine that ate the South), and which ones have been killing for centuries (like the weed that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother).

Menacing botanical illustrations and splendidly ghastly drawings create a fascinating portrait of the evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, alarm, and enlighten even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.

My Review: Bite-sized reports of the horrible horrible scary itchy deadly horrible doings of the Kingdom Plantae. Illustrated with beautiful woodcuts by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, that are, by themselves, worth the price of the book.

I swear I have never bathed so often as when I read this book. Hibiclens, pHisoHex, witch hazel, lavender water...every cleansing agent I possess...applied to every inch of my quite sizable person, at least three or four times for every plant I read about. Even my shoulder hair is falling out from over-washing. (There go the last long, wavy locks I'll ever have....)

*Most* satisfyingly, the horrid, nasty, icky-ptoo-ptoo nonfood CORN is included in the book! (Yes it is too: pp38-39...comes in for harsh treatment because the body *can't use it* in kernel form! Take THAT corn-on-the-cobbers! Horrible stuff, corn on the cob. Oughta be banned.)

So many awful horrible, itch-inducing theings described in one small place would normally mean stay the heck away from it, but Stewart really does a fine job of making her villains fascinating, if not sympathetic. Hope she writes a novel one day soon.

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HOW TO BUILD AN ANDROID: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In late January 2006, a young robotocist on the way to Google headquarters lost an overnight bag on a flight somewhere between Dallas and Las Vegas. In it was a fully functional head of the android replica of Philip K. Dick, cult science-fiction writer and counterculture guru. It has never been recovered.

In a story that echoes some of the most paranoid fantasies of a Dick novel, readers get a fascinating inside look at the scientists and technology that made this amazing android possible. The author, who was a fellow researcher at the University of Memphis Institute of Intelligent Systems while the android was being built, introduces readers to the cutting-edge technology in robotics, artificial intelligence, and sculpture that came together in this remarkable machine and captured the imagination of scientists, artists, and science-fiction fans alike. And there are great stories about Dick himself—his inspired yet deeply pessimistic worldview, his bizarre lifestyle, and his enduring creative legacy. In the tradition of popular science classics like Packing for Mars and The Disappearing Spoon, How to Build an Android is entertaining and informative—popular science at its best.

My Review: ANOTHER year-old LibraryThing Early Reviewers win! Oh the shame, the shame!

If you don't know who Philip K. Dick is, well first of all what are you doing being friends with me, and second, this book will read like a novel whose main joke is about something you don't understand. Like "ain't nobody got time for that" if you've never seen the memes.

I read this book with a sort of befuddled sensation. I liked it, I even thought young Dufty was a decent prose stylist. But, I kept wondering, why on earth does this book need to exist? Twenty-six United States dollars for a 250-page exploration of the whys and wherefores of an android that no longer exists, can't be seen and therefore exists only in descriptions such as this that will make more sense to geeks than to thee and me. (Well, me anyway.)

Dick casts a long shadow in our world, Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall being among the movies made from his bleak, unsettlingly predictive fiction. He was a weird man, he wrote weird books, and thought strange thoughts that were way far out in front of the culture. Pretty much nailed it, though, did our Phil. It makes reading his work strangely current.

But here, Dufty (who was a bit player at best and a bystander if we're honest) tells of the obsessive fascination Dick has for the seriously geeky boffins who spend their paid work hours trying to make SF in to reality. It is astonishing to me that they get paychecks for doing this stuff. They'd do it for free, sleep in the office and eat Cheetos and hot dogs, you just know they would so long as the parts bin is open and the computers come on when they need them. It's a slightly disturbing sensation to watch the boys (all males, natch) play in the sandbox and create something so (apparently, it's vanished so you and I will never know) lifelike because they just want to.

I am interested in the way our material culture is manipulated and massaged and transformed by science's application to technology. If you are too, this book will keep the pages turning. If you're a Dickian cultist, this book will make for some riveting reading. Absent those interests, there are better ways to spend your eyeblinks and your spondulix.

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THE BIG NECESSITY: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
Rose George

Metropolitan Books
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Produced behind closed doors, disposed of discreetly, and hidden by euphemism, bodily waste is something common to all and as natural as breathing, yet we prefer not to talk about it. But we should—even those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. For it’s not only in developing countries that human waste is a major public health threat: population growth is taxing even the most advanced sewage systems, and the disease spread by waste kills more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death. Even in America, 1.95 million people have no access to an indoor toilet. Yet the subject remains unmentionable.

The Big Necessity takes aim at the taboo, revealing everything that matters about how people do—and don’t—deal with their own waste. Moving from the deep underground sewers of Paris, London, and New York—an infrastructure disaster waiting to happen—to an Indian slum where ten toilets are shared by 60,000 people, Rose George stops along the way to explore the potential saviors: China’s five million biogas digesters, which produce energy from waste; the heroes of third world sanitation movements; the inventor of the humble Car Loo; and the U.S. Army’s personal lasers used by soldiers to zap their feces in the field.

With razor-sharp wit and crusading urgency, mixing levity with gravity, Rose George has turned the subject we like to avoid into a cause with the most serious of consequences.

My Review: The crapper. The toilet. The convenience. The Porcelain God. Of them all, it's the last one that's the most correct. We should worship the waste-disposal vessel in every American home, because it and the infrastructure that supports it, invisibly to the end users, make modern life as clean, comfortable, and healthy as possible.

Rose George has done us all the service of surveying the world's various systems and non-systems of waste disposal. She reports from the front lines of poop removal all over the planet, and let me just say that, after reading her reports, I am profoundly grateful to her that I now know what I do, without having to go and see and experience and smell all the things she did.

An entire caste of women exist in India who make a living scooping poop. Not dog poop, either. A whole continent, Africa, has dams and irrigation canals and other water control systems, and vanishingly small numbers of waste-disposal plants; water-borne illnesses, usually code for “fecal bacteria contaminated water”, kill millions there.

Aid donors don't want to pay for sewerage systems. Not glamourous enough. Local authorities don't know what to demand. The populace doesn't know there's another possibility. So generation after generation after generation gets sick, most often dies young, and all for the lack of a few lousy billions spent on treating human waste. Billions, to a country like this one with an annual income in the multi-trillions, ought not to be a big deal. Wouldn't be, either, if we hadn't spent several trillion bombing people who did nothing at all to us. Had to use the Chinese sugar daddy's credit card to do it, too. Now our grandkids will be lucky if they get clean water, since the asshole elite spent all that borrowed money on doing nothing worthwhile.

Oh dear, I'm off on my anti-conservative ranting again. Sorry. This book made me madder'n a swatted wasp. It makes me want to hurl when I read about the idiot Wall Street banks and bankers whimpering about their taxes, and how poorly they're spent on things like roads and bridges and health care and schools. Next up, and I am dead serious about this, next up is clean water. Privatize it, like the English did! Like we did with cable and phones! (How much more do you spend now on your phone than you did 30 years ago? I found an old bill from May 1984...$25. Now, over $200. Inflation doesn't account for but about half that increase.)

So when dysentery carries off your 90-year-old mother or your grandbaby, conservative voters, do not even think about complaining. YOU DID IT.

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HEALING AT THE SPEED OF SOUND: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Our Lives
Don Campbell and Alex Doman

Hudson Street Press
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The bestselling author of The Mozart Effect taps cutting-edge science to show how we can use sound to improve our lives and achieve our goals.

Based on over a decade of new research, Don Campbell and Alex Doman, an expert in the practical application of sound and listening, show how we can use music--and silence--to become more efficient, productive, relaxed, and healthy.

Each chapter focuses on a single aspect of everyday life, providing advice, exercises, wide-ranging playlists, and links so readers can use the music they love to create the perfect soundtrack for any goal or task. Also included are "Sound Profiles"--brief stories showing how real people creatively tap the power of sound to improve their own and others' lives.

Inspiring, practical, and truly enjoyable, Healing at the Speed of Sound opens the door to a fuller, richer, and much more harmonious life.

My Review: The authors are both sound guys. They have written a book together that unifies the research each has done over the years into the role that sound plays in the brain's processing of information and also the role that sound's brain effects play in the good physical and mental health of each one of us.

Campbell's 1997 book The Mozart Effect was an early overview of the then-emerging science of the brain's response to sound. Doman founded a company called Advanced Brain Technologies to apply the science Campbell discussed to everyday issues and problems.

This is the perfect book to read on a NooKindlEreader, because the text is loaded with free sound downloads and links to various resources that us tree-book readers must tediously and laboriously type into our home computing devices to share, not simply tappy-tappy-tap to appreciate in real time.

So, well, ummm. Not a prose stylist's exercise book, this one, though by no means is it incompetently executed. It's an informative book, the information is presented clearly and concisely, and there is nothing at all that's not footnoted, linked (seventy-six of them!), or backed up.

But oh my goddesses how desperately I longed for a well-turned sentence, or a metaphorical flourish that was even slightly surprising, or just a laugh. The authors, worthy and serious men, are short on humor in this book. Earnest is, I believe, the mot juste for their presentation, and while that's not at all inappropriate, it wore on me. I dreaded coming back to the book, not because I wasn't interested in their subject...quite the contrary!...but because it was like sitting down with a guy who looks like Brad Pitt and talks like Stephen Hawking.

Recommended? Sort of? But to those who are in need of its mother lode of information about the brain's sound universe, and how manipulating that can create much-desired changes in a person's daily life. Casually curious readers are best off skimming a bit in the bookstore and then deciding how much they want to pursue the topic. Perhaps a visit to the book's website would be a better choice for those readers.

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THE GILDED DINOSAUR: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science
Mark Jaffe

Crown
out of print

Rating: 4.125* of five

The Publisher Says: It was an age of counterfeit giants, avaricious robber barons, corrupt politicians, intrepid pioneers, fierce Indian chiefs, and dinosaurs. The second half of the nineteenth century -- the so-called Gilded Age -- was a time when Americans were exploring the West and building a nation that would stretch from coast to coast.

It was also a time of scientific ferment. Charles Darwin had shaken the very foundations of Victorian society with his theory of evolution by natural selection, and scientists across the civilized world were locked in a great battle over Darwin's idea. While the debate raged in Europe, the hunt for hard evidence increasingly focused on the American West, with its grand mesas, buttes, and badlands. "We must turn to the New World if we wish to see in perfection the oldest monuments of earth's history," advised Sir Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, after a visit to America. "Certainly in no other country are these ancient strata developed on a grander scale or more plentifully charged with fossils."

Could the answer to the history of life and the proof of evolution be found in those fossils? That was the question that two young American paleontologists--Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh--set out to answer. But what began as a friendly contest quickly turned into bitter rivalry that would spill over into American science and politics and rage relentlessly for nearly three decades.

Cope and Marsh would battle on the prairies, in the halls of Congress, in science journals, and in the popular press. Both wealthy men, they launched lavish, western expeditions and raced across the plains and mountains searching for the remains of the magnificent beasts that once inhabited the continent. Along the way they would encounter George Custer, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, and Red Cloud.

Among the most remarkable fossil discoveries of Cope and Marsh are a bevy of dinosaurs, including some of the best known beasts -- the Triceratops, the Stegosaurus, the Camarasaurus, and the Brontosaurus. Even today, Marsh holds the record for dinosaur discoveries.

Just as valuable, however, were some of Marsh's discoveries of ancient mammals and birds that provided the first real proof of Darwin's theory--"The best support for the theory in twenty years," the great Darwin himself proclaimed.

The tale of Cope and Marsh is also the story of the rise of American science. When their story begins just after the Civil War, America was an intellectual backwater, with eminent scientists snookered by the great, fake stone statue The Cardiff Giant--a hoax unmasked by Marsh.

But even as Cope and Marsh waged war, they both fought to build up American science and its scientific institutions. Yet despite their discoveries and their Gilded Age celebrity, the names of Cope and Marsh have faded into the recesses of the library and archive. In The Gilded Dinosaur Mark Jaffe exhumes from those archives the notes, journals, and letters of Cope and Marsh to reanimate and retell one of the keenest rivalries in the history of science.

My Review: Ah, science. You successor to religion as a means of explaining everyday life's many and various mysteries. You pretender to the Throne of God in your assertions of omniscience and omnipotence. You silly, arrogant adolescent brat! I love you no matter what, just like I do my kid.

Science in the 1840s, when this book begins to trace its protagonists's courses through life in earnest, had fewer stagnant backwaters more rank and turgid than our own USA. Germany, France, England! The Big Three! The Commanders of the Heights looked down on us rude mechanicals in the all-too-recently Colonies and viewed Harvard and Yale and Princeton much as we today view community colleges: They serve a purpose, one supposes, but one would never allow one's daughter to marry a "graduate" of same.

So how, with such a richly deserved international rep as a scientific backwater, did the USA emerge as one of the preeminent scientific powers? In fairly large part because of the fight between Cope and Marsh, each determined to describe and name and claim credit for discovering the most, the biggest, the earliest, the crucial fossil, preferably of a dinosaur but in a pinch of a Pleistocene mammal, or a bird, or even a fish. FIRST counted MOST because of the convention that the first guy gets to name the discovery, and that's a huge---HUGE---deal because ever afterwards (well, almost ever afterwards, the exceptions needn't concern us here) your name is It.

Cope was a Quaker, with the seemingly universal Quaker trait of reserve. He was a married man, possessed of a deeply beloved wife and adored daughter. He was well-off, from a well-off family and never thought of himself as an outsider. He, naturally, was the underdog in every fight with Marsh because of this.

Marsh was a poor lad from a poor family, never married and no close ties to his birth family, though he (crucially for his ambitions) had a super-rich Uncle Peabody who funded his fossil fetish. He was hail-fellow-well-met, he never failed to browbeat, overawe or cow those he needed to accomplish his ends, or suck up to those whose ends he could serve while doing himself the maximum good. In short, a politician, and a surprisingly good one, given that his emotional constitution was both jealous and iniflexible. I think that, had I ever met Othniel (he hated that name!), I would have LOATHED him and attempted to belt him in the chops on G.P.s.

Cope, milder of manner but completely ruthless in his pursuit of fossils, was also the more prolific publisher of papers. He won many a battle in the Fossil Wars simply by being first on the field, though very often with the wrong information or with the right information wrongly interpreted. Famously, he assembled a pleisiosaur's skeleton with the head on the tail! And it was exhibited in the principal scientific museum of the day that way! And Marsh corrected him, publicly! Juicy stuff, and stuff that Jaffe makes excellent use of in his well-paced text.

The role of human nature's failings in the progress of the world is not an unexplored subject. It's evergreen, though, in its interest to us, and rightly so. Without Cope and Marsh's Fossil Wars, would we possess an interational scientific reputation today (albeit a steadily eroding one)? Yes, of course, it was inevitable that a huge, increasingly rich country like the USA was in the 19th century would come to the forefront. It was a matter of survival, really, since without scientific advance there is unlikely to be technological advance. But the Fossil Wars added so much to the world's store of knowledge that they were instrumental in affording American scientists something almost beyond price: Prestige. The burnished glow of merited repute. It's a huge gift these men gave to posterity, and one we've squandered most foolishly in recent times.

Anyway, I think this is the perfect end-of-year book because it's such a fun read, because it's a fascinating subject, and because, to a few important people, it's a reminder that a nation that fails to move forward is sliding backward. We're in danger of doing that again. In fact, I argue that we're already 10 years behind. The superconducting supercollider; the American absence from space; the abysmal condition of science education among our youth. It's a worrisome return to the status quo antebellum. I can only hope that the end of the Aughties means the end of the conservative, nay-saying, how-dare-we anti-science league's power.

Recommended. Really, truly good stuff here.

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WICKED BUGS: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects
Amy Stewart

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: too busy scratching to give it one.

The Publisher Says: Amy Stewart, perpetratrix of Flower Confidential (a book I loathed), has given us bite-sized bios of horrible, horrible, horrible little creepy/crawly or fly-y/stingy horrible things with lots of horrible legs and horrible, horrible ways of mating and reproducing in general. Most of the worst ones are female. Just like in life.

My Review: I've finished it, and so far I've determined that I suffer from:

--scabies
--Guinea worm disease
--tapeworm
--Lyme disease
--elephantiasis
--bilharzia
--sand-fly infestation under my itchy toenail

I've taken eleven showers with surgical scrub so far. I expect that, when I go outside next (after the haz-mat suit is delivered), I shall be ridiculed...but I *won't* be a feast for the horrible disgusting vile scary critters this book is about!

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FLOWER CONFIDENTIAL: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers
Amy Stewart

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: We buy more flowers a year than we do Big Macs, spending $6.2 billion annually. We use them to mark our most important events, to express sentiments that might otherwise go unsaid. And we demand perfection. So it's no surprise that there is a $40 billion global industry devoted to making flowers flawless.

Amy Stewart takes us inside the flower trade--from the hybridizers, who create new varieties in the laboratory, to the growers, who produce flowers by the millions (often in a factory-like setting), to the Dutch auctioneers, who set the bar (and the price), and ultimately to the neighborhood florists orchestrating the mind-boggling demands of Valentine's and Mother's Day. There's the breeder intent on developing the first blue rose; an eccentric horticultural legend who created the world's most popular lily; a grower of gerberas of every color imaginable; and the equivalent of a Tiffany diamond: the " Forever Young" rose.

Stewart explores the relevance of flowers in our lives and in our history, and in the process she reveals all that has been gained--and lost--by tinkering with nature.

My Review: I don't like flowers. I know most of you will think of that as an admission, but I think of it as a statement of character. Flowers are the female porn stars of the plant world: Look! Look!! These are my genitals, all splayed out and unnaturally manipulated to get you big, drooling apes to do what I want you to!

So I approached this book as a source of ammunition for my entrenched dislike of its subject. I was not disappointed.

Flowers are completely useless. We can't eat most of them, and are seldom hungry enough to eat the ones that won't make us ill. They serve little purpose in the insect world, at least the ones that a) don't eventually turn into fruits or b) have convinced the big drooling apes to do their reproducing and colonizing for them based on their sex organs' perceived attractiveness.

It's instructive to read this book as one who is immune to the "charms" of the flowers. The unacknowledged root (snort) of the whole enterprise of developing, growing, and selling the stupid things is never even questioned. Of course, the (female) author seems to say, of course you'll want to see these genitalia up close and personal all day and in your own home (why is that a given?)...she even says, at the end of the book, "Every day Americans go out and buy about ten million cut flowers...That's just over one flower a month {per person}. How can anybody get by on one flower a month?" (p269, hardcover ed.)

A better question is, "How DARE anybody spend actual money on these useless, frivolous things when there are hungry, homeless, and sick people right here in the richest country on Earth and in its history?!" And spare me the argument of all the jobs lost if we suddenly stop buyiing flowers...1) we won't and 2) they should go get useful jobs in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics and other places that do something worthwhile.

Writing's adequate, I suppose, nothing wrong with it; some moments of humor; but I can't recommend it to anyone, since if you're a flower person you don't need it and if you're not, you don't want it.

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THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 5* of five

The Publisher Says: One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

My Review: De rerum natura was a long narrative poem expounding Epicurean philosophy that was written in the first century before the common era. I am told by those possessed of sufficient Latin fluency to appreciate it that it is beautiful. I am not possessed of that level of fluency, and to me it seemed agonizingly impenetrable and obscurantist.

But author Greenblatt, in this fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning history and analysis of the poem and its influence on the world, focuses not on the merits of the poem but on the genesis, development, survival, and influence of De rerum natura, arguably the foundation text for the mental construct that you and I share, and that diverges widely from the mental construct of earlier times.

Why is this so? Because we accept a material explanation of the existence of things as our prevailing orthodoxy, even in the face of religious challenges to the primacy of logic and evidence and just plain good sense. It's down to Lucretius's poem's astounding clarity of thought, persuasiveness of rhetoric, and miraculous survival and rebirth.

What Greenblatt did was to provide a brief history of Epicurus, his actual philosophy, and the cultural currents that distorted and misrepresented his philosophy, together with the whys and wherefores of that misrepresentation. Then Lucretius, a shadowy figure whose biography is unknown to modern readers except for a calumny heaped on his memory by a man who did not know him and in fact lived centuries after his death, wrote in poetry...a form of expression not to Epicurus's taste or, in his opinion, a good and useful tool of communication, he preferring plain and simple and direct prose...broke down the Epicurean vision of the world, and argued in support of it. Greenblatt then traces the survival of manuscripts from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the resurgent interest in their contents during the run-up to the Renaissance, and the incalculably valuable role of obsessive individuals in hunting down, copying, and disseminating the surviving antique texts to a world then, as now, hungry for more and better and different views and experiences and thoughts and ideas.

I give this book one of my rare five-star ratings because it has solved a problem of identity for me: I am, as Thomas Jefferson said before me, an Epicurean. Not the debased view held of that noble philosophy thanks to “Saint” Jerome, who in the course of ramming his ignorance-celebrating religion down the throats of humanity, hit on the perfect misstatement of Epicurus's actual materialist philosophy: Hedonism! Hedonism and vice and licentiousness and gluttony! The pursuit of pleasure can only mean these things, shouted Jerome, and the chorus of baying dogs was off after the fox.

We all know how that ends.

Chapter eight of The Swerve, “”The Way Things Are,” breaks out the point-by-point reality of Epicureanism, and is the prime motivating factor for my five-star rating. (In fact, I dislike Poggio Bracciolini, the discoverer of De rerum natura, quite intensely, and suspect that had I met him in life, I would have been repulsed by him.) I list here the bullet points Greenblatt is at pains to provide with clear, concise, and satisfying explication:
--Everything is made of invisible particles. This is called “atomism.”
--The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
--The elementary particles are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size.
--All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
--The universe has no creator or designer.
--Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Another word for this is collision.)
--The swerve is the source of free will. If there is no preordained pattern, how can there be a preordained result?
--Nature ceaselessly experiments. Evolution by natural selection, anyone?
--The universe was not created for or about humans.
--Humans are not unique. We are animals, literally not figuratively, like all the others.
--Human society began, not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
--The soul dies. There is no afterlife.
--Death is nothing to us. It is merely a fact. There is no personal component to death.
--All organized religions are superstitious delusions. Religions are, invariably, cruel.
--There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
--The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
--The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, it is delusion.
--Understanding the true nature of things generates deep wonder.

I have never seen in print or heard with my ears a clearer, more concise, or more complete statement of my own personal worldview than this. It rang me like a bell. It sounds like Lucretius was sitting inside my head and copying down my responses to the world.

In the brief explications Greenblatt attaches to the bullet points, he makes it clear that these ideas, while they never wholly vanished from the world, were seen by the dominant world-view as a challenge to the idiotic legendary nonsense that had come to replace them, and were thus strongly condemned, to the point of burning people alive as a punishment and a warning to others inclined to think for themselves, to view the world as it is instead of through a warped fantasy construct that demonstrably causes harm and pain and facilitates much evil-doing.

So on that basis...five stars, and a ringing huzzah, to Gentile Signor Poggio Bracciolini; to Greenblatt for digging deeply enough in the humus of scholarly debate and historical records to make these connections for us, in a less scholarly age than the Renaissance, to find and use for ourselves as we see fit (ie, to exercise the free will we've got); and to WW Norton for publishing the resultant text as an under-$30 course in humanism. I am also grateful to the Pulitzer Prize board for awarding this book its non-fiction encomium, and to the Catholic News Agency for remaining consistently wrong by grousing about the book's anti-Catholicism and misinterpretation of the Church's anti-intellectualism. It's kind of hard to misinterpret burning people at the stake, guys. Own up: Your religion requires ignorance and prefers stupidity in its adherents.

Books such as this one do nothing to enhance religion's role in human affairs. It is best avoided by those of religious bent.

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FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto

Rodale Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: "Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” But what happens in a world dominated by complex science? Are the people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government? And with less than 2 percent of Congress with any professional background in science, how can our government be trusted to lead us in the right direction?

Will the media save us? Don't count on it. In early 2008, of the 2,975 questions asked the candidates for president just six mentioned the words "global warming" or "climate change," the greatest policy challenge facing America. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs.

Today the world’s major unsolved challenges all revolve around science. By the 2012 election cycle, at a time when science is influencing every aspect of modern life, antiscience views from climate-change denial to creationism to vaccine refusal have become mainstream.
Faced with the daunting challenges of an environment under siege, an exploding population, a falling economy and an education system slipping behind, our elected leaders are hard at work ... passing resolutions that say climate change is not real and astrology can control the weather.

Shawn Lawrence Otto has written a behind-the-scenes look at how the government, our politics, and the media prevent us from finding the real solutions we need. Fool Me Twice is the clever, outraged, and frightening account of America’s relationship with science—a relationship that is on the rocks at the very time we need it most.

My Review: The most unnerving reality in today's social, political, and educational reality is that science, which you are benefiting from this very second as you read this review on the Internet, is underfunded, undertaught, and underapprecitaed by the people of the USA and their political overlords. The reason for this is that an insane religious know-nothingism has infected the Body Politic with a conservative (in the worst possible meaning of that never good term) resistance to accepting reality as it is, instead of how one fancies it should be. This book quantifies the horrors on their way down the pike as this horrifying metastatic stupidity continues unchecked and even promoted by the small-souled fear-mongering Yahoos, in the original Swiftian sense, who shout and rail and spew on Fox "News" and the related echo chambers.

This book is exactly as tendentious as my book report is. If you don't already agree with its premise, then you're unlikely to consider picking it up. Which is a pity, in my view. For those of us who already agree, this acts either as a call to arms, or a horribly depressing reminder of how the New Dark Ages have already begun. For make no mistake: Stupidity has more gravity than intelligence, and hate has more than enlightenment. Science has proven too many times that gravity always wins for me to have any hope that Good will triumph over Willful Ignorance.

Please prove me wrong. Read this book and get energized to fight the Yahoos. Please.

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