BOOK REVIEW: Hansel and Greta by Jeanette Winterson

Hansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale RevolutionHansel and Greta: A Fairy Tale Revolution by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This story takes a green twist on the similarly named Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Being such a beloved classic, it seems like it would be hard to mess up an environmentally friendly re-telling, and yet it succeeds [in messing it up.] It’s true to its subtitle, “A Fairy Tale Revolution,” being – in part – fairy tale and – in part – the kind of vitriolic villainization of out-group members that one sees in the diatribes of political revolutionaries.

In one of the only non-rant departures from the original story, the witch is made a good character. This might be viewed as a progressive and charitable turn of the story were it not for the fact that the author just – unconsciously or consciously – shifts villainization over to another group: fat people. In the story, fat characters not only consume more food, they are in every way materialistic, gluttonous, and environmentally hateful — as opposed to the skinny in-group who aren’t at all part of the problem. This us-them tribalization is particularly unproductive in dealing with environmental problems because we are all part of the problem, and we all need to be engaged.

I don’t know whether Winterson got caught up in her own ideological anger, or whether she thought young readers need to have the issue oversimplified and the villains made over-the-top. It seems to me like reading Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” results in kids wanting to plant trees and be more aware of how they use natural resources. Reading this book is more likely to make the child want to slap food out of a fat kid’s hands and shame him for his gluttony.

I can’t really recommend this book for kids. It’s more for parents who want their kids to know how to virtue signal than to be thoughtful about using resources.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book does a good job of showing that there are fundamental differences in philosophy, worldview, and perspective between indigenous / aboriginal peoples and the rest of the world. It’s fair to say that differences exist between any two different cultures, but the argument is that these are deeper and more profound. Said differences run from how one visualizes abstractions to how one views and interacts with nature to one’s go-to pronouns.

What the book does not do, not by any means, is honor its sub-titular promise to show how changing to aboriginal modes of thinking would save the world. It doesn’t even strongly demonstrate that the world needs saving. Instead, it relies heavily on the looming sentiment among many in the modern world (myself included) that the world is FUBAR [if needed, please look it up.] That sentiment is what draws people to the book in the first place. (And to others, e.g. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” books, that argue for overturning modernity in favor indigenous ways.) While I, too, feel the imminent fall of modernity on a visceral level, I also recognize that this inevitable collapse is a combination of fact and fiction, and that its bases are as well. So, in some sense, Yunkaporta’s book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Because of this, it only tweaks and clarifies the reader’s philosophy and mode of thinking (sometimes in clever and fascinating ways,) but it doesn’t vastly overturn a reader’s thinking. But even if it did completely change modes of thought and philosophies, those things don’t automatically change behavior. And saving the world (if the world needs saving) requires changes in behavior. Ultimately, one needs to know whether, how, and to what degree incentives change. (FYI – the importance of incentives is not lost on Yunkaporta, as he discusses them himself in another context.)

That said, there were many ideas that resonated with me, and in which I found deep truths. I’ll go straight to what may be the most controversial idea in the book and that is that modernity’s discomfort with – and desire to do away with — every form of [non-state sanctioned] violence has not been without cost. Yunkaporta is not justifying domestic violence (although the perception – justified or not – that such acts are out-of-control in aboriginal populations is likely an impetus for bringing up the subject.) What he seems to be arguing is that what seems like a disproportionate problem of violence in aboriginal populations derives from looking at what is happening in tribal communities through the lens of modernity, and the resultant tinge blows things out of proportion while missing part of the truth of the matter.

I’ll elaborate how I came to have a similar view through the study of martial arts. For example, when I’ve traveled to Thailand, I’ve always had mixed feelings about child Thai-boxing. On the one hand, I recognize a reason for concern about concussions in a brain that’s not fully developed. On the other hand, those children display a combination of emotional control, politeness, and self-confidence that seems in decay in much of the world. On a related note, I think that the lack of coming-of-age ritual might be failing the kids in the modern world because they skip a step that puts a bedrock of self-confidence under their feet. As a result, it’s not that they all end up milquetoast, some end up murderous because they can’t process challenging emotions effectively, they have a feeling of powerlessness gnawing at them, and they have no grasp of how to moderate their response under challenging conditions.

As far as ancillary matter is concerned, it’s mostly line-drawn diagrams that are used to show how aboriginal people depict various concepts under discussion.

I enjoyed the book and found many new ideas to consider. I’d recommend it for individuals interested in approaches to thinking and problem solving – and for those who want to learn more about indigenous populations. Just don’t think you’ll have a map to fix the world at the end.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Life of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn

The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are TodayThe Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today by Rob Dunn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dunn’s book addresses a host of intriguing questions such as:

-Why are there diseases that disproportionately attack those in the richest parts of the world while being almost non-existent in poor countries?
-Why is obesity at epidemic proportions among modern humans?
-Why—while people have diverse tastes overall—do there seem to be universal preferences for sweet, salty, and fatty foods?
-Why are so many people’s lives wrecked by constant stress and worry?
-Is the Appendix really a vestigial organ with no apparent purpose?

As the subtitle suggests, this book is about the role that other species have played in human evolution and the way we look, behave, and think today. The message of The Wild Life of Our Bodies is that humanity’s proclivity to see itself as an island–uninfluenced by other species–has its cost.

The book is popular science–approachable to a layman but with the usual disdain for gratuitous assertions and shoddy reasoning that define the scientific though process. That being said, Dunn does put some editorial opinion out there in ways that might appear as fact in a slipshod reading. The most prominent example being Dunn’s suggesting that what best defines humanity is not our intelligence or ability for abstract representation (or even our physical appearance), but that we are the only (first?) species that has killed other species off not purely of self-defense or for food, but to exercise control over our ecosystem. I doubt this would strike a majority of impartial scientists as a fair and unbiased way to define humanity. Granted, this point not what The Wild Life of Our Bodies is about, and whether one thinks this it is fair or not is not critical to whether one will find the book to be of value. However, the idea (and the fact) that humans have zealously killed off other creatures is certainly relevant to the discussion at hand.

If “terraforming” is the term for how an alien race might environmentally engineer Earth to make it suitable for them to live here, perhaps we could call humanity’s assault on other species “bio-forming” of the planet—choosing a roster of species that strikes our fancy. All the time humans were trying to make ourselves more comfortable by getting rid of inconvenient species, we remained ignorant to the downside.

Dunn covers a broad range of mismatches between who we are evolutionarily and how we live in the modern world. The Wild Life of Our Bodies suggests that, like the pronghorn antelope, humans are in many cases over-designed because of the loss of species (parasites, predators, symbiotes, etc.) that helped to make us who we are today. (One question that once puzzled biologists was why pronghorns were so much faster than every species they faced.)

While it sounds good to be over-designed (at least relative to the alternative), it’s not without cost. In our case, we had guts that were supremely adapted to having parasites, but the lightning fast (on an evolutionary timescale) elimination of those parasites has left us with bodies that attack a non-existent enemy and this has resulted in a number of new diseases. We are used to diseases that succeed in the poorest—and, hence, least hygienic areas– but disease that mostly attacked in the cleanest places on Earth have puzzled us for some time. Crohn’s disease is a prime example. “Rewilding” (i.e. putting parasites back into) the guts of Crohn’s patients has shown positive results.

Dunn lays out a couple of the theories as to how the loss of our intestinal bacteria may result in a number of first-world ailments. Interestingly, some of these diseases aren’t even digestive in nature, and might seem to have no logical connection to gut bacteria. However, our body’s systems are a system-of-systems—i.e. they are integrally linked. One issue is that some parasites have been able to mask their presence, and our bodies have learned to present a heightened response to account for this veiled threat. Today our systems can’t tell the difference between our squeaky clean guts and a gut full of these sneaking parasites so it drops the immune system version of an A-bomb.

This is one example of why some diseases don’t exist in the third-world where the body knows what parasites it’s up against. One might say, “Yes, but these ailments of over-reactive systems can’t be as bad as the effects of the parasites.” That’s often not true. Most people with internal bugs (we all have them to some degree), don’t even realize it. The fact that people with Crohns’ are willing to have predators implanted in them speaks to this issue.

There has been concern for years about downside of the rampant use of anti-bacterials, antibiotics, and antiseptics, and this is a topic Dunn addresses as well. For example, there seems to be little evidence that such agents in soap do any particular good, but they decidedly do bad (encouraging drug resistant species.)

Perhaps the single greatest change in the nature of homo sapiens life resulted from the agricultural revolution, and Dunn delves into how this seminal event changed our bodies. With paleo-dieting all the rage, it will come as no surprise that there have been some major changes to the human diet since our hunter-gatherer ancestors roamed the Earth. Once again, we have bodies built on an evolutionary timescale, and they don’t necessarily cope well with our new diets.

One problem is that we have strong hardwired drives for foods that were a rarity in our species’ past, but which we now produce in abundance. For example, we eat far too much refined sugar because our bodies are wired to love sweet, but that kind of food was rare to our pre-agricultural ancestors. Hence we have the existence of diabetes, and its greater prevalence where high-sugar diets are common. Many people are also saddled with an evolutionary advantage to store fat because their ancestors come from a clime where food was not abundant year round. The problem is that now there’s a grocery store on every corner and this once great advantage is contributing to burgeoning waistlines.

I gave this book a high rating on the grounds that it presented a lot of food for thought, and that’s what I most value in non-fiction. Some of the theories may turn out to be incorrect, but this book offers one a lot to think about and clear explanations of the bases for what can otherwise seem a little outlandish. There is also some wit in places that contributes to heightened readability.

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DAILY PHOTO: Scrap Rubber

Taken on February 26, 2014 in Bangalore.

Taken on February 26, 2014 in Bangalore.

I took this photo today in Bangalore (south of city market and east of Tipu Palace.) It’s a scrap rubber place mostly made of… well, scrap rubber.

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