What do you read outside?

Spring in the city! The last few days, I've stopped in Trinity-Bellwoods Park on my way home from work, and read a chapter or three of Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

There is something satisfying about reading outdoors in the sun. I pass through Trinity-Bellwoods usually twice a day on my 30 minute walk. I've mentioned the park before, and here are a couple of even better pics of the stunning little albino squirrel, having a snack with a friend.

Parenting Beyond Belief is an excellent book I found out about backwards, through reading the editor-author's blog, Meming of Life. Dale McGowan is entertaining and informative, and also heartfelt. He knows how to mix appealing anecdotes with research, so the literary calories are not hollow.

Here in Toronto, Chapters/Indigo/Coles/World's Biggest has it listed in their system, but I can't seem to find it. A new Book City moved in, and were happy to have it delivered to the location on my walk home. Nice! The sales consultant thought it looked pretty interesting too.

It's easy for me to pick a favourite in this book. Teaching Kids to Yawn at Counterfeit Wonder, by Dale McGowan. I like anything by McGowan in particular. Even the endnotes can be entertaining.

There are science experiments you can do with kids. A beautiful letter to his daughter by Richard Dawkins, whose writing has inspired much of my painting in the past. Essays on how to deal with concepts of death with your children (and for me - this was good stuff).

This is not a ponderous, heavy book, and is not meant to be. It is a nimble conversation-starting book, a catalysing book, a deeply interesting book. It does not matter if you are atheist, Bright, religious-but-liberal-and-a-little-lapsed; a parent of adopted or natural children, an educator, or involved in some young person's life.

Never quite understood the fuss about evolution? Chapter 8: Jaw-Dropping, Mind-Buzzing Science has the easy explanation of what Darwin discovered. Order this book, and while you're waiting for it to arrive, read The Meming of Life.

There is something a little sublime when sitting below a massive, twisty old tree, reading an excellent book while the sun is shining, buds are slow-mo bursting, kids are on bikes, dogs are lolling on their backs in the grass, and you have a bottle of blueberry-green tea.

Spring is back. What have you read outside? What do you plan to read?

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All original artwork on
The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Squirrel photos by Glendon Mellow. I tried not to hound the little guy; this was taken from a distance. It's a squirrel, ya gotta be respectful.

the boy on the back of the turtle

Brief Book Review of...
the boy on the back of the turtle:
Seeking God, Quince Marmalade and the Fabled Albatross on Darwin's Islands
by Paul Quarrington

The title immediately caught my eye, and well, you can't judge a book by its cover, but I am a very visual person.

I actually have a copy signed by the author that my wife bid on at a fundraiser here in Toronto, so that's a lot of fun. I had never read Paul Quarrington's work before (that I know of; now I am noticing his writing cropping up in front of me in magazines, since the name is distinctive). I also have a copy of his book, Storm Chasers.

I took this book with me on my trip to Alberta in July, and I whipped through it much faster than I usually do on vacation. Perhaps there is a subtle quality in the writing of a fellow Torontonian that made it feel like an especially rich conversation. And it was a conversation, since it made me laugh, and shake my head, and look forward to my time with it each evening or lazy afternoon.

The story is a biographical one, with the authour going on a trip to the Galapagos with his 7-year old daughter and 77-year old father. Mr. Quarrington immediately caught me with a high-falutin' opening paragraph that quickly tripped over some vulgarity on it's way to conclusion.

A lot of research into Darwin's life, and the history of the Galapagos (or 'Encantadas', Enchanted Isles) was poured engagingly into this book. Which is why the following had me whipping out my own pen to retort on the margins of the book:

"Whales are interesting. They are in a sense the largest example of Paley's hypothetical watch, because there are no clear evolutionary ancestors for them, no proto- or mini-whales. They seem to have been popped into the waters by the Almighty. " (p97)

What about pakicetus?! Ambulocetus? The ancestry of what evolved to modern whales is almost as clear as the horse, or our own primate ancestors and relatives. I flipped out, grabbed for a pen. (Cool skeleton re-created here.)

As my fervour abated, I flipped to the frontspiece of the book. Ahh. Published in 1997. That may explain it. On vacation and without easy internet access, I resolved to check when the amazing discoveries in Pakistan were published. It seems that in 1996, J. G. M. Thewissen, S. I. Madar, and S. T. Hussain published their work. It hardly may have been seeping into the consciousness of a Toronto writer by that point. The stellar Walking With Beasts t.v. series by the BBC had not yet aired.

But still. Although this was a footnote in a relaxed style, the book was well-researched and insightful. It was a bit of a shock to see the authour jump from no current evidence to the Almighty in the span of a footnote. It happens again later in the book, when he refers to "the unliklihood of complexity arising out of chance," (p175). However, you can't throw the whale out with the flood. (Or something. ) What a truly excellent book while I was on vacation looking at fossils! Part of the arc of this journey was to come to what Quarrington referred to as the Big Insight, and discover something meaningful in his family for his daughter, and perhaps about his father.

I think he did. The book leaves you with an intimate sense of travel, family, and how searching for self-discovery can be done in the outside world. I found the story to be a gripping one with how a person (perhaps agnostic), can search to be moved, and find it in the natural (not supernatural) world. I would recommend this book heartily to other members of the BrightsOnline, Atheist Blogroll and PaleoWebRing communites.

The rollicking history and natural history lessons of the Encantadas in Quarrington's "voice" make this a great book for people interested in science, family, or just curling up and relaxing.

Glendon's Daemon

The movie adaptation of the Golden Compass comes out in December this year. At the movie website, you can find out what your personal daemon would be.

Here's mine:

My daemon is Desra, and it coalesced into a raccoon.

The His Dark Materials books are popular with older children and adults, and would be enjoyed, I think, by most Harry Potter fans. The author, Philip Pullman, is an atheist, and the books are fantasy with some science fiction thrown in. There are witches, talking blacksmith polar bears, and discussions of dark matter and quantum entanglement.

The first story, The Golden Compass, was originally published as The Northern Lights. The two sequels, which take you places you'd never thought of in the first book, are titled The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. There is also another book featuring main character Lyra Belacqua that followed, called Lyra's World.

The daemons are a mystery if you are new to the story. Without too many spoilers, they seem to be people's souls or conscience, on the outside of their bodies in the form of animals. Until puberty, the daemons can change into any animal shape at any time. They can speak out loud, and it is considered to be the most heinous of acts to touch another person's daemon, and act which even causes physical shock. Daemons, though regulary touch and interact with each other.

I love these books, and the movie looks like it will be excellent.

Brief Book Review of...

The Agile Gene - How Nature Turns On Nurture by Matt Ridley

"Right now, somewhere in your head, a gene is switching on, so that a series of proteins can go to work altering the synapses between brain cells so that you will, perhaps, forever associate reading this paragraph with the smell of coffee seeping in from the kitchen...

"I cannot emphasize the next sentence strongly enough. These genes are at the mercy of our behavior, not the other way around."

This is the type of thought-provoking, clingy thought that sticks to your brain after Matt Ridley presents it before your willing eyeballs. This book is a history lesson on the nature Versus nurture debate, and Ridley deftly turns the debate on its side, and has nature chumming around with its pal nurture at every turn. The dichotomy is a false one. Most people realize this in their daily lives. It's immensely silly to think of peoples' (or pets', or vegetable gardens') lives and attributes as being soley because of their genetic heritage, or because of the environment.

To elucidate on the vegetable garden analogy, you would be hard pressed to find a gardener or farmer who says that the environment (amount of heat, rainfall, nutrients, and so on) doesn't matter. And you would also be hard-pressed to find a farmer who doesn't favour particular strains of seed, for their genetic superiority (larger crop, pleasant taste, abundant seeds) over others.

This is something lay-people like myself are very comfortable with. Where Ridley takes us next is deep into the territory of how genes function, and how our very behaviour is switching some on like mad, and affecting our brains, which in turn allows us to affect our environment. Ridley clearly marvels in in the sophisticated level which geneticists have achieved, and is eager for more. (The part about the genetically-modified fruit flies who are paralyzed when the temperature goes above 30C and fine again when it dips below 20C is astonishing, and Ridley expresses this wonder also).

If I have one quibble with Ridley's book, it is his description of an as-yet unidentified mechanism that allows our genome to express itself as clearly as it does. Since much of the exploration of genes is still being uncovered, Ridley dubs this mechanism the "Genome Organising Device" (GOD) in a tongue-in-cheek way. You can find clever puns and jokes in Ridley's writings from time to time, and at first this was funny. As the book went on though, I had to keep repeating in my head what "GOD" stood for so as not to lose sight of what he was saying. The clever name was carried too far.

As someone who speaks American Sign Language, I thought the discussions about gestures as related to ape grooming were totally fascinating. A lot of light is shed on how the genes express in the brain, the mind and in culture. More than once I was amazed at how lucky my wife is that she is a linguistics & psych major.

Over the last few days of finishing this book, I have found myself questioning my own thought processes differently, and it has been kind of quietly entertaining. When I am telling my wife an interesting story, how much of it is to impress, like a peacock's tail? The compulsion to share stories about my day, is that free will? Or is the compulsion to share stories determined by the minor genetic strengths that I focussed on as a youth, and sought to hone in my environment? Is the free will to be found not in the compulsion to speak, but in what I am going to say?

Matt Ridley shares with us an intellectual bounty.

May 16th 2007

Brief Book Review of...

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey

Ok, I know this website has "trilobite" in the title, so it may seem like I am just a paleonerd gushing about an obscure thing few people like, but this book is one of the best science books I have ever read.

It doesn't read all dry and rhetorical like a textbook. It is more like a novel about the life of the authour, who happens to be in love with studying trilobites. More than once it actually made me laugh aloud.

Fortey describes how his days at work usually contain a ride in the Tube (subway) where he makes other passengers uncomfortable when they ask what he did that day (his answer: moved North America 600 km) or else he is so far into the Australian outback the dingos are friendly.

Some of the discoveries in it are just amazing. The eyes of the trilobites were the first we've found in the fossil record, and were made of hard calcium crystals, not unlike the Cararra marble of Michaelangelo's David. (I could be mistaken...if you are a geologist, please correct me.) Some trilobites have the outline of their delicate limbs and soft parts preserved in glittering fool's gold (pyrite!). Simply astounding.

This guy loves his job and his life, and it shows on every page. It's not a technical book, and it is easy to find the authour and his subject utterly charming. I mean, the search for trilobites starts off on a dark and stormy night in a rough Scottish pub. It's awesome.

April 22 2007
(Once again, I think the new edition of this book has a better cover...but it was hard to find online, so I posted this one instead. I have a one with a bluer cover than this, from Flamingo Press, div of HarperCollins, 2001. )

Brief Book Review of...

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Dawkins is always at his best explaining evolution so simply, and with compelling examples. Really, I mean the echolocation of bats kept me riveted to my chair one evening, and I'll never greet the sight of one of those critters quite the same way again. If you want a jargon-free explanation of neo-Darwinist evolution, I would still recommend The Ancestor's Tale as a richer book. The Blind Watchmaker is fun and witty. Each page is a nugget of discovery.
March 30 2007
(re-posted May 1st...I decided to move book reviews off the side and into the main blog.)
I have to say, I like the cover of my Penguin 2006 edition a lot better than the one I have posted here. It's the greyish one with the bubble on the water. What's in the bubble? What made the bubble? Bottom-up emergent properties? Hmm...