BOOK REVIEW: The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human HistoryThe Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a geographic and historical overview of the Indian Ocean from the geological processes that created it to the wave of independence movements that took hold in the wake of the Second World War. The author’s approach is to emphasize the interaction between – rather than within – the various nations of this region. [Though, India in particular, gets a great deal of space devoted to internal happenings. However, given its central location (trading to both the east and the west,) its size, and its cultural influence on the region, it’s not necessarily the case that this is an unfair bias.]

I was happy to find a book that seemed to be just what I was looking for. Having lived in India for more than five years, I’ve often been struck by the intriguing evidence of interconnectedness that I didn’t have the historical background to understand. From a discussion with a Nairobi cab driver who had no idea that chapati (a flat bread common in South Asia, but eaten as far afield as the Caribbean) was anything other than an indigenous Kenyan culinary invention to the fact that Tamil is one of the official languages of Singapore, I’ve often found myself curious about how these connections came to be. This book didn’t disappoint. Sanyal delves right into the fascinating fun facts without getting too bogged down in the who married whom and who fought whom that quickly becomes the tediousness contributing to a lack of enthusiasm for the subject of History among school children. (That said, there is – probably necessarily – some of the stuff that students are forced to memorize, here and there.)

The approach of the book, after an introductory chapter that gives the reader a contextual introduction to the region, is to proceed chronologically. This means the book starts out more geology, geography, and anthropology and gradually becomes more of a history. In the later half of the book, this history is particularly an economic history focused on the products whose trade drove interaction in the region – be it for conflict or for cooperation. Trade is important throughout the region’s history, but we also see a lot the spread of culture earlier, especially the spread of religion. From the spice that was much coveted in Europe to the opium that the British East India Company used to balance its trade with China (resulting in the Opium Wars,) this trade has had a profound impact on the world in which we live.

There are many graphics throughout the book, primarily maps. These are extremely beneficial. The book is annotated with end-notes that provide sources and elaborations.

I found this book to be both interesting and entertaining. The author throws in a one-liner joke now and again, but what I really found humorous were the fictions that were widely believed back in the day. Most of these resulted from merchants telling tall tales to make asking prices more palatable. It’s harder to scoff the price of a diamond if one thinks they were guarded over by gigantic snakes and the only way to get them was to throw meat into a canyon so that Eagles (the only things that could out move the snakes) might snatch up a diamond with its steak. It is also fascinating to learn how the same stories were heard from different sources, suggesting that false information behaving like an infection isn’t new to the internet age.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that in the final chapters the author leaves behind the historical objectivity that seems prevalent throughout most of the book. Instead of presenting the information and letting the reader make up their own mind about such events as Subhas Chandra Bose’s (Netaji’s) courting of the Nazis during the Second World War, Sanyal shapes the information he feeds to readers to persuade rather than to inform. I didn’t notice this in earlier parts of the book and suspect it was just easier to be dispassionate about the distant past.

All-in-all, I’d recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn more about history and trade across the Indian Ocean. I learned a great deal, and found the book readable and intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hypnotism for Beginners by B.V. Pattabhi Ram

Hypnotism for Beginners: Easy Techniques to Practice HypnotismHypnotism for Beginners: Easy Techniques to Practice Hypnotism by B.V. Pattabhi Ram
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Pattabhi Ram provides a concise and accurate overview of the basics of hypnosis. There are a lot of books on hypnosis in publication, but – unfortunately – it’s a subject for which there is a lot of chaff to shift through to get to the grain. Many of the books that address the subject with scientific accuracy are dense scholarly tomes unsuitable for the average reader. And many of the books that target hypnotic neophytes are filled with erroneous statements which contribute to the perpetuation of myths. This book strikes a nice middle ground for those looking for an introduction to hypnotic trance that isn’t too dense, but yet is rooted in scientific findings on the subject.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first two chapters examine the development of hypnosis as a subject of scientific inquiry. This isn’t to suggest that there was no application of hypnotic trance earlier, but it fell more into the realms of religion and spirituality. The first chapter considers the history of hypnotic science, focusing on major figures such as Franz Mesmer (as in “mesmerized,”) James Braid (the one who coined the term “hypnosis” and moved the subject away from the ethereal approach of Mesmer,) as well as other early influencers, namely John Elliotson and Jean Martin Charcot. The second chapter investigates the legitimization of hypnosis tied to its recognition by governments.

The third chapter explores the varying levels of hypnotic trance, dividing them into light, medium (hallucinatory), and deep (somnambulistic [sleep-walking].) Here the reader learns what differentiates varying degrees of trance.

Chapters four and five offer brief overviews of neuroses and phobias, respectively. As hypnosis is about tapping into the subconscious mind, these are domains in which the technique is particularly likely to be of assistance.

Chapter six is where skeptical readers will begin to doubt what I have said about the scientific legitimacy of this book. It is entitled, “Hypnotism and Occult,” and for one thing it inquires into the evidence that hypnosis can contribute to extra-sensory perception or other super-normal abilities. However, to be fair, the author doesn’t suggest that there is evidence of such a connection, merely that it’s a claim that has often been made. If there is truly an offense to science, it’s more in the later portion of the chapter, which deals in Freud’s ideas about dreams and their interpretation (which is generally discredited in the scientific community, though it maintains a large following among psychoanalysts.)

Chapter seven deals in another common [and controversial] claim, that hypnosis can be used to improve memory. One thing I would have liked to see a little about in a chapter on memory and hypnosis is discussion of inadvertently planted false memories as has now been well established in the literature. There have been a number of cases in which it seemed hypnosis had turned up a repressed memory, but under investigation it was discovered that the memories were false. (It should be pointed out that it needn’t require a diabolical intent for this to happen. It seems likely many of the therapists who suggested visualization in the hypnotic trance state genuinely believed they were helping, but failed to realize that a visualization can become indistinguishable from a memory under the right conditions.) At any rate, that isn’t addressed in this book. However, to be fair, the book is several years old at this point (I read a 2010 edition that I suspect wasn’t the first edition), and a lot of these findings are relatively new.

Chapters 8 and 9 form the heart of the book, teaching the reader how hypnosis is done. The first of these chapters focuses on the script and technique by which a hypnotist would induce a hypnotic trance in a subject. Chapter 9 is an overview of self-hypnosis. A truism in the field is, “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” and so it makes sense that this subject is addressed – especially given the self-help nature of the book.

Chapter 10 explores smoking, and how hypnosis can be used to break that addiction. This is one of the areas in which the usefulness of hypnosis has been most clearly established. The chapter is specifically geared toward smoking addiction, but an astute reader could apply the script to dealing with other addictions. The penultimate chapter explores the use of hypnosis and self-hypnosis as a means to overcome stress. This, too, is a major area in which hypnosis has shown itself to be helpful for a large number of people. The book focuses heavily on mental conditions, suggesting that hypnotism shouldn’t be considered for physical conditions. In this sense, I feel it may take too conservative a stance as it tries to avoid being accused of “hypnotic imperialism” (i.e. the suggestion that hypnosis can be used on anyone for any purpose.) Hypnosis as an analgesic (pain-reducer) is extremely well-established.

The last chapter is a bit different, and it focuses on how to do demonstrations of hypnosis. In India, where this book was published, there are laws regulating such shows in response to a lot of charlatanism. So, some of the chapter deals with legal issues that may or may not apply to you, depending upon where you reside, but it also deals with the general flow of a stage show for demonstration.

The book has black-and-white graphics (photos and drawings), but doesn’t provide much else in the way of ancillary material. Where references are made, they are in text – i.e. there is no bibliography. Footnotes are used rarely. The edition I read does have some typos here and there, but not at a distracting level.

My biggest criticism of the book would be that I couldn’t quite grasp the logic of its organization – particularly through the middle. Chapters 1, 2, and 12 make perfect sense, but the other chapters seem like they might benefit from being rejiggered with the how-to / technique chapters (8 and 9) moved closer to the front and the topics regarding afflictions and their treatments being more tightly grouped. That said, this wasn’t particularly distracting or detrimental while I was reading.

I would recommend this book for someone who is interested in learning the basics of hypnosis.

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BOOK REVIEW: Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of biology in the best and worst of human behaviors – as well as presenting factors that compete with or complement biological explanations, as the author finds relevant. Sapolsky is neuroscientist (specifically, a neuroendocrinologist) with a unique perspective as his research cuts across species – involving not only human beings but also baboons. Sapolsky investigates why humans fight, cooperate, rape and forgive by comparing and contrasting human behavior with what is seen in the animal kingdom.

The first thing a potential reader must realize is that Sapolsky dives into the weeds more so than most scientists writing for a popular audience. This will be a plus if one’s grasp of science (biology, in particular) is strong. However, if the reader hasn’t read anything on biology since high school or freshman year of college, one is likely to find the names and descriptions of hormones and neurochemicals, brain sectors, and protein processes a bit daunting. The book has three appendices that offer primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins, respectively, to get readers up to speed on the basic science. Furthermore, Sapolsky is quick to point out what can be skipped by readers who don’t want so much detail. I don’t want to give the impression the book is boring. Sapolsky uses humor and story to good effect. It’s just that he gets into Latin names and physiological minutiae at a level that most of his counterparts don’t, and that some readers will find challenging.

While not formally divided so, the seventeen chapters of the book can readily be split in two parts. The first ten chapters discuss the types of behavior that Sapolsky is taking on, and then work back from what happens immediately before a behavior (i.e. one second before) through neuronal, hormonal, and other proximal causes to the far distant causes rooted in human evolution. The first half of these chapters take one to a point in the individual’s life at most months out from the behavior under consideration. Chapters six through eight go back to the individual’s youth, exploring the role of adolescence, infancy, and fetal development. Chapters nine and ten peer back before the birth of the individual to those who contributed indirectly to the individual’s vice or virtue, including the role of the broad run of human evolution. It should be pointed out that this first part is where the aforementioned technical depth is mostly observed.

The second part of the book changes the approach by taking a more topical approach. Said topics include: us/them discrimination, hierarchy (and the acceptance / rejection thereof), morality, empathy, metaphors and symbols that become integral to good and bad behavior, the biology of free will (or the lack thereof,) and consideration of the question of whether humanity is getting more peaceful (as Steven Pinker argues in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” [which is arguably one of the main competitors to Sapolsky’s book, though the focus is a little different.]) This second part gets much more into the social science perspective, and isn’t as scientifically dense as the first portion of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. With the exception of getting a little technical in spots, it’s quite readable and interestingly organized and presented. As one can’t help get into political and cultural norms in a book on human behavior, Sapolsky betrays his personal biases here and there, but is quick to admit when there is evidence against them (or no evidence at all, either way.) I felt he maintained a reasonable scientific objectiveness, but others may feel differently.

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BOOK REVIEW: Food: A Very Short Introduction by John Krebs

Food: A Very Short IntroductionFood: A Very Short Introduction by John R. Krebs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume in the Oxford University Press AVSI series examines human eating habits. The first chapter puts the human diet in the context of evolution, reflecting upon how we got where we did in terms of food consumption. Here one gains insight into where the Paleo-diet fad is flawed, and one learns how cooking had a huge influence on human evolution.

The second chapter delves into the issue of likes and dislikes in food. We see that there are species-wide commonalities, but there are also differences both at an individual and cultural group level. e.g. Why is spice so common in the tropics and so rare in the great white north?

The third chapter looks at the ways food can do us in and what we’ve done – besides [and including] the aforementioned cooking – to reduce the threat of food gone awry. The penultimate chapter examines nutrition and how we get what we need from food.

The last chapter takes a bit of a turn, but investigates the fascinating topic of how (and whether) we will continue to feed our species. Readers will likely remember the name Malthus from either history or economics classes. He was an economist who suggested humanity was in dire straits, vis-à-vis food. Malthus noticed that population was growing geometrically while agricultural output grew arithmetically, and he reasonably noted that this was unsustainable. Of course, Malthus failed to foresee the huge technological advances from fertilizer to mechanization. However, that doesn’t make his concerns forever moot – perhaps just tardy. It remains far from clear whether the limited land space and resources can take billions more humans – especially without killing off all the other species. (Especially, if we aren’t willing to give up eating resource-intensive foods like cow in favor of less intensive one’s like grasshopper.)

The book has some graphics as well as both a “references” and a “further reading” section.

If you’re interested in food in a general sense, I’d recommend this as a great way to take in the outline of the topic.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

Hidden Depths: The Story of HypnosisHidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis by Robin Waterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Hidden Depths” is a history of hypnotism in the Western world from speculative discussion of its use in the ancient world through its employment for self-improvement in the modern era. It’s a bold undertaking. For one thing, hypnotism as we know it today given the insight of modern science is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, what we call hypnotism has existed variously in the domains of religion, spirituality, pseudo-science, entertainment, and outright fraud. For another thing, the hypnotic trance is a subjective experience and an individual’s susceptibility varies greatly, leaving some scholars to doubt to this day that a hypnotically-induced trance is a real thing. Added to all that, another aspect of confusion is that there are few activities that are so firmly wrapped in misconceptions in the popular mind as hypnosis. The hypnosis of fiction and film is different from the practice as it exists in the real world.

Waterfield takes on the aforementioned difficulties throughout the book. He tends to error on not calling any practice hypnosis unless the descriptions of it in historical documentation are quite explicit on a range of criteria we currently associate with hypnosis. I was ambivalent about this skew. On the one hand, I sometimes wished that Waterfield had more expertise in hypnosis (as a practitioner rather than as a historian) as it might have given him greater insight into hypnotic activities before that word (or its predecessor “mesmerism”) evolved. It seems dubious that all mentions of hypnotic activities are going to be described in a way that makes the state of consciousness readily identifiable to a lay reader, and some reading between the lines might be of benefit. On the other hand, I’ve read books by hypnotists who are what Waterfield (quite properly) calls “hypnotic imperialists” – i.e. individuals for whom any activity that involves suggestion or persuasion is hypnosis. So, it is easy to go to far, and to start calling everything hypnosis. While at times I thought Waterfield suffered from that chronic malady of historians (i.e. thinking that a thing never existed before the first mention of it in the earliest texts they can find), ultimately, I think his approach was sound in that he presented the thoughts of other authors about what activities constituted hypnosis and then offered his reasons for discounting (or not discounting) them. That seems to be a sound line to take.

The first couple chapters discuss this complex question of what hypnosis is and how we can tell it from other states of consciousness (if we can) and they also refer to the earliest mentions of activities that may (or may not) have involved hypnotically-induced trance. It is only when we get to chapter three that we get onto terra firma on the history of hypnosis. That’s when Franz Anton Mesmer enters the picture. Some credit Mesmer with inventing hypnosis. [Note: It wouldn’t come to be called “hypnosis” until a surgeon by the name of James Braid later coined that term. It did become known as “mesmerism,” reflecting Mesmer’s role in development of the technique and / or his fame. Personally, I always cringe when I hear someone in the modern world credited with “inventing” mental and physical techniques that require only a body and conscientiousness, rather than a particular state of technological advancement. It stinks of what a beloved professor of mine used to call the “outhouse fallacy” – the idea that because earlier people had no indoor plumbing that they were complete blithering idiots.] Mesmer was a study in contrasts. He thought himself a man of science and railed against the accusations of false science, but he also wore a cape and engaged in bizarre showmanship that one wouldn’t want to see if one went to one’s doctor’s office for a check-up. While it turned out that the hows and whys of Mesmer’s method are generally considered pseudo-scientific quackery (Waterfield is more diplomatic), it seems clear that the man had a gift and /or a skill for inducing trances.

There are chapters on the early use of hypnosis in both the United States and the United Kingdom, including by both doctors and religious men. There is also a discussion of the early debate about whether hypnosis presented a public safety danger. While the consensus view today is that a hypnotist can get most people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, he or she can’t make them do something they don’t want to do, at the time there was a concern that nefarious hypnotists might use hypnosis to prey on women or even to make an assassin of an unwitting stooge. There is a lot of interesting legal history to be discussed involving individuals who pled non-guilty by way of mind control. The discussion of hypnotism for nefarious purposes is revisited in chapter 12, which deals not only with persuasion by advertisers but also [unsuccessful] government attempts to make Manchurian Candidates (programmed assassins who would kill on command, but have no recollection of it in a state of ordinary waking consciousness.) The idea that a hypnotist could make a subject do anything they wished is a notion that has died hard, but remains alive and well in fiction. I should point out that Waterfield addresses many of the more prominent fictitious applications of hypnosis, and – as an avid reader – I found this to be of literary interest, while as a person interested in human behavior I was intrigued by the influence of fiction on people’s decisions and behavior.

The middle of the book also has a chapter that discusses a widespread notion that hypnosis was key to unlocking super-normal skills of extra-sensory perception (ESP.) While that part of the chapter might not be of much interest to the skeptically minded reader, chapter 8 also addresses the fascinating and well documented phenomena of false memories. The book devotes a chapter (ch. 9) to Freud, another individual who went from being at the top of his field to being widely disregarded by modern psychology.

Chapter 10 elucidates the debate over whether the hypnotically-induced trance is actually an altered state of consciousness, distinct from other states. As I said, there are many psychologists today who believe that it’s just suggestible people in a state of waking consciousness. This chapter lays out the arguments on both sides. While the author argues for the considering hypnotic trance a unique state, to his credit he gives fair hearing to the opposition.

Chapters 11 through 13 consider hypnosis in the modern era as a tool used in medicine, mind-control, and self-improvement. The first and last of these applications are alive and well. Attempts to use hypnosis for mind-control seem to have been written off with the debacle of MK-Ultra. However, that chapter (ch. 12) also deals with hypnosis related to sales and persuasion. However, use of hypnosis as drug-free analgesic as well as for other medical purposes, as well as to quit smoking or stick to diets is alive and well. The final chapter is a short plea to keep interest in genuine hypnosis alive. The book has illustrations, annotations, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about hypnosis — particularly its history in the Western World.

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BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern WorldHere Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.

In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.

However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”

The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.

As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.

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10 of My Favorite Books from 2018

10.) Here is Real Magic by Nate Stantiforth: A professional magician, disillusioned because he has lost the sense of wonderment that it’s his job to create, travels to India to look at magic anew.




9.) Superhuman by Rowan Hooper: An evolutionary biologist examines how extreme specimens of humanity got to be that way. How come some people easily manage fluency in a couple dozen languages while some of us stumble on just our native tongue? Why is it that some people can run 100 miles non-stop when the average person’s body would start disintegrating before 20? What is the role of genetics and epigenetics versus practice and will?




8.) Anarcha Speaks  by Dominique Christina: A collection of poems formed into the story of a slave woman used for medical experimentation by a man many have called “the father of modern gynecology.” The books is a rare mix of story, history, and poetry, but it isn’t a narrative poem in the usual sense of the term.




7.) The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil: A womanizing poet and painter living in New York returns to his native India for a final show of his work. Along the way, the reader is presented with a host of fascinating characters.




6.) The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed./trans. by Jay Rubin: This collection of Japanese short fiction includes works by Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, and Akutagama Ryunosuke and covers a swath of the timeline from the days of the samurai to the meltdown at Fukushima Dai Ichi.




5.) Milkman by Anna Burns: A young woman tries to brush off the attentions of a mysterious character known as the Milkman, but is really in a fight to avoid becoming the center of attention generally.




4.) How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan: Pollan, best known for his works on food such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” tells the story of a resurgence of interest in psychedelic substances such as psilocybe mushrooms, LSD, and Ayahuasca for medicinal use as well as for mental and spiritual development. Included are descriptions of his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, Ayahuasca, and even a pyschoactive substance milked from the glands of a toad.




3.) Circe by Madeline Miller: This book tells tales of Greek Mythology with a lesser-known goddess at the fore. Circe is a daughter of the powerful sun god, Helios, but is an underdog character herself, which makes her stories all the more gripping.




2.) A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: This is the story of a man who fled North Korea, leaving his family behind, during the famines of the 90’s. Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a Korean father, and his father moved the family to rural North Korea in the late 1950’s under a “repatriation” program designed to gain workers for a war-torn North Korea while allowing Japan to offload some of the Koreans it’d forced to move to Japan as laborers during the Second World War.




1.) The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: A love story set in the Nazi death camp in Poland. Based on a true story.

BOOK REVIEW: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the UniverseBiocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book argues for an understanding of the universe in which consciousness is key – the sine qua non of reality, i.e. without which there’s nothing. While Lanza emphasizes biocentrism is a scientifically-based conception, his argument will likely find more immediate traction with people of faith than with the scientific community. Skepticism is likely to arise among the scientific community because the history of science from the Copernican Revolution onward has indicated that we are a bi-product of the universe in action, and not the reason for its existence. Humanity, with our brilliant brains that are the most complex systems we know of in the universe, is neither the geographic center of the universe nor are we its center of meaning or purpose either. Looking at it another way, our annihilation wouldn’t even register as a blip to the universe. Lanza (along with his co-author Bob Berman), fairly uniquely among men of science, argues otherwise.

Lanza and Berman present seven principles of biocentrism over the course of the book. I won’t list these, but they essentially say that in the absence of an observer the world exists only as an unresolved probability function, and that time and space are meaningless in the absence of consciousness. Not to oversimplify the authors’ case, but the heart of their biocentric argument is that it’s consistent with, and could arguably solve, two of the biggest mysteries in science.

The first mystery is the nature of quantum weirdness that has been shown true repeatedly through experiments such as the double slit experiment (which the authors discuss in some detail, but I will not.) I will mention a thought experiment designed make this subatomic strangeness clear in the world at our scale. It’s called Schrödinger’s cat. The idea is that a cat is in a box with a vile of poison that is released by a radioactive trigger. One can’t know when the radioactive decay will release the poison. (This is a bit of subatomic strangeness that can only be reconciled in the face of an observer.) It’s said that the cat would have to be thought of as being in a superposition, simultaneously both alive and dead, until the observer enters the picture. The reader also may have heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which states one can’t know both of a pair of measurements (e.g. position and momentum) with perfect accuracy. All of this says that at the infinitesimally tiny scale of the quantum, particle behavior seems erratic, baffling, and is influenced by observation. While it’s hard to relate to through the lens of our macroscopic experience of the world, it’s a notion that is completely accepted by physicists because it’s been validated by countless experimental observations.

The second truth that science struggles to make sense of that biocentrism presumes to eradicate is the conundrum of the “Goldilock’s universe.” Taken from the fable of finding the porridge that was “just right.” We live in a universe whose actions comply with a series of equations and constants that – were they slightly different – would make life in all the forms we can fathom completely impossible. Starting from the fact that our universe is so mathematically consistent (a feature that it’s commonly argued needn’t be) to the fact that turning the dials a little would make intelligent life impossible, it’s easy to start wondering whether the creationists aren’t on to something. Religion doesn’t have a problem with the Goldilock’s Universe because it presumes the universe was made this way purposefully. Biocentrism doesn’t have a problem because the universe can only exist where there are conscious beings. Of course, science hypothesizes its own solutions to the conundrum. These varied solutions generally revolve around the anthropic principle (we exist in a universe capable of supporting life because if we didn’t we couldn’t) and a multiverse of parallel universes (because the anthropic principle applied to a single universe isn’t intuitively superior to assuming a god, goddess, or gods magically “poofed” us into existence.) Under this idea, which appeals to the Copernican Revolutionary mindset, there will be many more universes where life doesn’t exist, and perhaps even ephemeral bubble universes that can’t even exist as a universe – let alone as a life supporting universe.

There’s a major challenge to biocentrism that results from the fact that we are fairly certain that the universe is 13+ billion years old and our planet didn’t come into existence until about 9 billion years after that (i.e. Earth is about 4.5 billion-years-old.) Even if one assumes the conscious life grew up elsewhere before us, it’s hard to imagine it having happened instantaneously with the beginning of the universe. Lanza’s end run around this can be found in his sixth and seventh principles of biocentrism which state that time and space are illusory in the absence of an observer. Of course, this raises questions of how this could be so and why we might believe it is so — because “it’s essential to my case” isn’t a good reason to believe anything. To be fair, there are all sorts of theories out there – many more mainstream than Lanza’s – that propose time and space aren’t what they seem – starting with Einstein’s well-proven idea that time and space are relative.

This book is oddly composed. It describes the principles of biocentrism largely in the first half to two-thirds of the book, with a few random digressions, and then it really goes off the rails. Most of the digressions are little biographical stories about Robert Lanza, many of which are interesting but completely irrelevant to the book’s proposed topic. I’m unsure which of three competing explanations account for these erratic digressions: a.) the publisher said, “this manuscript must be 200 pages or we aren’t publishing it.” b.) the author is getting up there in age, realizes there is no market for his memoirs, and thinks he can sneak the highlights into this book which is sure to have a following if a controversial one. c.) the author was concerned about being taken for a kook and wanted to establish his bona fides (note: many of the biographical digressions consist of name-dropping.) I should point out that these digressions are the main reason for my mediocre rating of this book, and not disenchantment with the case for biocentrism. (I think we know too little about consciousness and about it’s odd interactions at the quantum level to draw any firm conclusions in that regard.)

I found this book to be fascinating – even some of the digressions were interesting, though not helpful to discussion of the topic at hand. It’s a thought-provoking work. I have no idea whether it will prove to have merit as a description of how the world works. I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether they think it is a sound interpretation of observed reality or a physics-envy based attack on the stronghold of physics as the heart of science or an attempt to reduce the fear of death in a way consistent with science (i.e. time as we perceive it being an illusion makes us all immortal.) If you are interested in the big questions of why the universe exists and what is the nature of reality, you may want to give this book a read – not that it’ll answer all your questions, but it will provide an alternative to mainstream views that you may find useful.

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BOOK REVIEW: Agriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Brassley and Soffe

Agriculture: A Very Short IntroductionAgriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Brassley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is another in my favorite series of brief guides to various topics and disciplines, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” books. These books typically take around 100 pages to cover the fundamentals of a given subject. The series offers a quick overview in a no-frills fashion. This book is no. 473, providing an overview of agriculture.

The book is divided into six chapters, and has an Introduction in the front and a “Further Reading” section at the rear. The first chapter is about crop farming and it discusses the major issues of concern, including: the best soils, essential nutrients, fertilizer, as well as discussing what kinds of problems are faced in crop cultivation. Chapter 2 explores the other major division of farming, raising animals. In it, one learns about basic issues of feeding, breeding, housing, and providing medical treatment.

The third chapter investigates the topic of agricultural markets and trade. Here the reader is reminded of their basic economics education, and how market forces result in the topsy-turviness of farming in which a bumper-crop year can be bad while a drought year not so bad. (i.e. Huge harvests mean unit prices drop and surpluses may be lost to waste, whereas shortages result in high unit prices.) The authors also discuss the issue of global trade which is unique for agricultural products because almost every country makes some portion of their own food (excepting nations like Singapore and Vatican City), they are resources no country can afford to be cut off from, and they are perishable on varying time scales.

The fourth chapter is about the inputs used in agriculture such as land, labor, and machinery and equipment. This chapter discusses these topics more generally than they are touched upon in the first couple chapters. The penultimate chapter compares modern and traditional forms of agriculture. As the author points out, this division could mean very different things depending upon what two periods one is comparing. However, it is a worthwhile topic to consider with respect to its relevance to sustainability and the effect on the environment.

The last chapter is nominally about the future of farming, but it considers a number of current issues such as GMO (genetically modified crops) and the effects of climate change. The chapter explores what changes will need to be made as the population approaches 9 billion. It doesn’t go into issues like urban farming, petri-dish grown meat, or insects as the future of protein as much as I’d have thought, but does raise some interesting questions.

There are many graphics, from photos to tables, used to more conveniently and concisely convey information.

I would recommend this for those looking to get an overview of how farming works. Like most books in this series, it is optimized to being concise, not to being interesting – so if one wants fun facts and narrative creative non-fiction this isn’t so much the book for you. But if you want the gist of agriculture fast, this will do nicely.

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BOOK REVIEW: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North KoreaA River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tragic memoir tells the story of a man of mixed Japanese – Korean heritage who was, as a boy, moved to North Korea under a “repatriation” program that was designed to provide North Korea with laborers while conveniently reducing a minority problem for the Japanese. During the Second World War, Japan had imported labor from Korea for the war effort. As it happens, Ishikawa’s father was from South Korea, but – in the wake of the Korean War — it was North Korea that was looking for rank-and-file laborers.

The author’s father was eager to get out of Japan because he was treated as minorities frequently are – especially ones as rough around the edges as he, and so he swallowed the propaganda of Kim Il Sung’s regime hook-line-and-sinker. The author’s mother (and the author, himself) didn’t want to leave Japan because she didn’t speak the language and was ethnically Japanese (putting her in the minority shoes.) Little could any of them have known how bad life in North Korea would be, and how dire a mistake it was to agree to the move.

Life in North Korea was hard on everybody (except the party elite), but it was particularly hard on this family because: a.) they were discriminated against and could only attain the lowest-of-the-low in farm sector jobs; b.) they were accustomed to life in Japan and so they knew exactly how backwards North Korea was compared to its neighbors; and, c.) the wife’s family in Japan disowned them, and so even when other transplanted families began to be able to receive wealth from their kin in Japan, their family was cut off (but assumed by neighbors to be receiving packages.) From constantly having to game the system to get enough calories to survive to a series of tragic events that were largely tied to the country’s impoverished nature (e.g. inadequate healthcare,) the book features one soul-wrenching turn of events after the next.

Ishikawa grew to manhood in North Korea, married twice, and had children, but when the famine struck in the 1990’s he fled the country into China across the Yalu River, leaving his family behind. The book’s last chapter deals with Ishikawa’s challenges living in an expensive first world country – Japan – while trying to get his family back. It’s difficult to know whether Ishikawa ever serious could have thought he could get his family out once he was gone. Certainly, he proposes that he did think that, and he spoke to Japanese diplomats (who felt horrible about what had come of people like him) about it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how he could have thought so, being familiar with how the Kim dynasty operated. Still, one may have to grant a man his delusions when he makes such a hard decision while he is literally starving to death. Ishikawa was able to discover what happened to at least some of his family members, and that information is in an epilogue.

I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s depressing reading throughout, there’s no getting around that, but it gives insight into how people live in the villages of North Korea that is not so extensively described elsewhere – not to mention what it’s like to be a member of a minority group, labeled a “hostile” and essentially relegated to a low-caste life. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. It’s one the best books of 2018 that I’ve read this year.

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