Tuesday, September 29, 2009

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

by Michael Brooks

13 thingsWriting about science for non-scientific readers poses its own particular challenges but for the most part Brooks has quite successfully met those challenges with his entertaining and very interesting exploration of 13 areas where science is still unable to come to an understanding of how, or why things work the way they do.

The subtitle, “The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time” may be overstating it a bit, but the 13 areas Brooks picked certainly cover a wide range of scientific exploration and theory ranging from the “missing” universe to a discussion on homeopathy. In between he discusses the challenges faced by scientists as they try to explain death, life, sex and a variety of other scientific conundrums.

On life, Brooks says that we are clearly “more than just a bag of chemicals”, but what is the “more”? No chemical in our bodies does not exist elsewhere in other living or non-living things. And even though we can assemble all the ingredients, we are unable to create, or even explain, life. We just don’t know the recipe.

Sexual reproduction is, according to Brooks, one of the least effective ways in which living things can reproduce. Asexual reproduction is more effective, efficient, and does a better job of sustaining the species that practice it. So why did we evolve the way we have and reproduce the way we do (aside from the obvious fun factor)?

One of the most interesting segments in my opinion was the discussion about free will. Free will is often seen as a cornerstone of our humanness, but some research has brought that whole concept into question. Normally we think, then act – I think I’ll move my hand, and then I execute the movement. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that it doesn’t seem to work that way. Subjects wired up to various brain scanners have shown that the brain is already starting the action needed to move the hand before the subject becomes consciously aware of his intent to move his hand. In other words, the brain activity is preceding the conscious thought process. So does conscious thought cause the brain to act? Or is it the other way around? Much to think about here for sure.

This is a book to be read slowly. The concepts, while expressed in layman’s terms, can still be quite complex, requiring a degree of attention and focus one can’t normally get reading in bed and falling asleep mid-page. But it is certainly worth the effort to read, and read again.


Note: You can also check it out at www.13thingsthatdontmakesense.com.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry.

Long long wayWillie Dunne is an 18-year-old Dubliner who joins up in 1914 and spends the next 4 years simply trying to survive the horrors and brutality of the Western Front.

Back home on leave Willie is confronted by the growing tensions and riots over Irish independence and the role his father, a Dublin policeman, has had to play to quell the riots. An injudicious remark drives a wedge into their relationship that preys on Willie’s mind when he’s back at the front.

And the young woman with whom Willie is deeply, madly in love seems either unable or unwilling to reciprocate in kind leaving Willie to question her commitment and their future together when the war is over.

Barry seamlessly weaves the three storylines into a compelling narrative, a story of courage, duty, honour and love.  It is also brutally descriptive. Whether it’s the first gas attacks at St. Julian in 1915,  the blowing up of Messines Ridge in 1917, or the countless battles and encounters in between, Barry brings the horrors of the front to life so that the reader becomes not so much an observer as a participant, one of Willie Dunne’s mates in the trenches or out in no-mans land. And we share Willie’s confusion, anger, and frustration over his relationship with his father and with Gretta as he tries to understand what is going wrong while enduring yet another tour at the front, standing waist deep in bloody water or waiting for the shelling to stop before going over the top one more time.

Willie despairs of ever going home for good.

“The war would never be over. He had come out for poor Belgium and to protect his three sisters. The tally-sticks of death s would be cut from the saplings for ever more. The generals would count the dead men and mark their victories and defeats and send out more men, more men. For ever more.”

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, this book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the genre of Great War narratives. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


By Andrew Nikiforuk.

Tar SandsIn Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Andrew Nikiforuk documents Canada’s and Alberta’s rapid and continuing descent into becoming just another failing petro-state. Clearly both levels of government would argue with the use of the term ‘descent’, but what else could you call it when the exploitation of the tar sands confers Canadian membership in a club that includes such bastions of democracy and human rights as Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Angola, among others.

From Alberta’s absence of accountability and failure to implement a reasonable royalty regime (currently among the lowest in the world), to the environmental time bomb represented by the tailings ponds (presently covering 23 square miles at an average height of 270 feet above the forest floor), Nikiforuk shines a much needed light into many very dark corners.

In this well researched indictment, Nikiforuk also provides some sobering insights.

  • On the economics of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) Nikiforuk quotes University of Manitoba professor and energy expert Vaclav Smil. “CCS, he argues, is part of the same thinking that gave us the energy spectacle of “a 50-kg female driving a 3,000-kg SUV in order to pick up a 1-kg carton of milk.””
  • On the tailing ponds he says, “Within a decade the ponds will cover an area of 85 square miles. Experts now say it might take a thousand years for the clay in the dirty water to settle out.”
  • On using natural gas to separate oil from bitumen he quotes one Albertan who recently observed: “Using natural gas to develop oil sands is like using caviar as a fertilizer to grow turnips.”
  • And On The First Law of Petropolitics he gives us this: “New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman unveiled the law in a 2006 issue of Foreign Policy Review, and it goes like this: the price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in opposite  directions. As the price of crude oil climbs higher in an oil-dominated country, poor or rich, secular or Muslim, that country’s citizens will, over time, experience less free speech, declining freedom of the press, and a steady erosion of the rule of law.”

If you are concerned at all about Canadian politics, Alberta politics, or the environment, this book is a must-read.

Highly recommended.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Old Man on a Bike

By Simon Gandolfi.

Old Man On A BikeWhy would a reasonably sane man in his seventies ride the length of Hispanic America on a small motorcycle – a man who is overweight, suffered two minor heart attacks and has a bad back? Stupidity comes to mind…”.  Thus begins Old Man on a Bike, the story of Simon Gandolfi’s epic solo motorcycle trip from Mexico to the tip of South America. 

Gandolfi buys a small 125 cc Honda (a pizza delivery bike) in Veracruz Mexico, and sets out on his 6-month journey, crossing 13 countries and 22,000 kilometres. He has not ridden a motorcycle in a great many years. He is alone. He has a bad heart. But he has a goal – Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego.

Old Man on a Bike is first and foremost a travelogue; the motorcycle simply a means of transportation, a source of periodic humour, and a cause of crises of varying degrees. Gandolfi covers the trip on a day-by-day basis, recounting his experiences as a series of vignettes as he discovers new towns and villages, meets new people of many cultures and stations in life (he speaks fluent Spanish which makes this easier than it would be otherwise), and deals with all the trials and tribulations of a long road trip – including breaking his false teeth on more than one occasion and running out of heart medication.

While the diary format is appropriate, I found Gandolfi’s writing style to be such that I got the sense I was experiencing the trip whilst looking through a soda straw – getting but a very narrow perspective frequently lacking in context. Nonetheless, his ability to engage with the local populace did provide some of the more interesting parts of the book as well as giving the reader a basic understanding of the people and the environments in which they live, and through which he travelled.

Gandolfi makes no secret of his politics or his views on current world events such as the Iraq war and at times it seemed Gandolfi was using the book as his personal soapbox. Whether one agrees with his views or not, I just found the injection of politics to be an unnecessary irritant that contributed nothing to the story of his travels. It is a minor flaw to be sure, but still it bothered me enough to warrant a comment in this review.

So bottom line? I would offer a qualified recommendation for this book. Is it a requisite item for inclusion in any motorcycling library? Not really. But as the story of one man’s voyage, it’s an interesting read and one can’t but admire Gandolfi’s courage for undertaking such a trip at his stage in life.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Ghost Road

By Pat Barker.

The Ghost RoadThe Ghost Road is the third book in Pat Barker’s First World War Regeneration Trilogy, following Regeneration, and The Eye in the Door.

The Ghost Road picks up the story in the closing days of the war as Dr. Rivers tries to make sense of what has happened and obsesses over whether he has actually helped any of the war wounded in his care. He has done his job, but is sending men who are “cured” back to France to face almost certain further injury or death morally justified? Reminiscences of his childhood and his experiences with the primitive head-hunting tribes of Micronesia provide further insight into his character.

Two of the patients in his care, Billy Prior and the poet Wilfred Owen are among those who go back to the front. Prior has an option to stay in  England but chooses, in fact feels compelled, to return. The details of their last few days of the war at the front are chilling indeed as they try to survive even as talk of an armistice is heavy in the air.

A winner of the 1995 Booker Prize, this book is very good – not quite as good as Regeneration, in my opinion, but a worthy read nonetheless. Furthermore, the reader would be best advised to read the trilogy in sequence, otherwise much of the context and some of the character development would be missed.


Saturday, February 28, 2009


By Paul Gross.

passchedaele2Passchendaele was one of the major battles of The Great War (WW I), one in which the Canadians played a key role.

By all accounts Passchendaele was a bloody affair that became synonymous with the misery and sheer brutality of WW I trench warfare. From Wikipedia:

“More than any other battle, Passchendaele has come to symbolise the horrific nature of the great battles of the First World War.

In terms of the dead, the Germans lost approximately 260,000 men, while the British Empire forces lost about 300,000, including approximately 36,500 Australians, 3,596 New Zealanders and some 16,000 Canadians from 1915 to 1917. 90,000 British and Dominion bodies were never identified, and 42,000 never recovered. Aerial photography showed 1,000,000 shell holes in 1 square mile (2.56 km²).”

It’s against this horrific backdrop that Gross presents the reader with what is, at its core, a love story.

And although it’s a good story, the book suffers from the fact that is was produced from the original movie screenplay. While a screenplay is written such that character development, situational context, etc., can often be provided or enhanced through visual means, a  novel does not have that option and must rely on the written word and turn of phrase to truly engage the reader. And this is where the book failed, in my opinion. While the translation was a decent effort, the book lacked the literary punch one should expect from a well-written novel with such rich and powerful subject matter.

With all its faults, Passchendaele is an “okay” read, but certainly not in the ranks of great WW I novels (eg. Birdsong, Three Day Road, Regeneration).  If you want to read it, pick it up at the library if you can. And while I have yet to see the movie, I expect it will be much more enjoyable than the book. 

Zen and Now

By Mark Richardson

Zen and nowZen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a road story with a twist.

From the cover liner:

Richardson … was struck by [Zen and The Art’s] portrayal of Pirsig’s complex relationship with Chris and struck by the timelessness of its lessons.

So Richardson tuned up his old Suzuki dirt bike and became a “Pirsig pilgrim””.

Richardson neatly blends his own experiences on this trip with those of Pirsig some 36 years earlier. He follows the same route, visits the same places, and meets many of the same people that Pirsig encountered. And in the process comes to better understand himself, the Pirsigs, and Zen and the Art.

But Richardson takes it beyond a simple road story with his extensive research into the lives of the Pirsigs beyond what we learn in Zen and the Art.  The murder of Chris in San Francisco, the marital breakup, the relationship with the other son, Tom, all combine to add an interesting third dimension to Zen and Now.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for something deeply philosophical, read Pirsig’s second book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. But if you want a book that will keep you turning the pages and perhaps trigger an impulse to become a Pirsig pilgrim yourself, Zen and Now is a worthwhile addition to your motorcycling library.

When walking, just walk.
When sitting, just sit.
Above all, don’t wobble.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

One Percenter

By Dave Nichols.

One Percenter is probably the most poorly written book I’ve ever read, which is too bad because there is the potential of a decent book in amongst all the whining about misunderstood and universally picked on bikers (“You couldn’t even ride your scoot down to the corner store for a pack of smokes without getting pulled over for any number of bullshit violations.” ), the RICO Act (“Welcome to America, land of the free...as long as you don’t ride a motorcycle that is.”), and frequent plugs for Easyriders magazine (of which he is the editor) and Harley-Davidson.

Clearly he has a pretty good handle on the history of the one percenter, and his observations on such diverse topics as rubbies (rich, urban bikers) and the reality TV custom bike building world (OCC, Biker Build-off) are interesting. But Nichols is all over the motorcycling map providing a brief history of piracy, talking at length about biker films good and bad, dissing the Hamsters (“Rolex riders”) while providing the reader with the complete bylaws of The Weasels (apparently an Easyriders creation), and ending with a pitch for environmental responsibility. And except for a multi-page rant on the RICO Act he glosses over (ignores?) the entire subject of the descent of motorcycle clubs from “good natured drinking clubs with motorcycle problems” to the modern day criminal enterprise that some clubs have become – or perhaps that’s just because his 10-page list of every American motorcycle company since 1903 needed the space.

One Percenter is desperately in need of a good editor. The quality of the writing is awful (“servicemen who fought ... in the muddy trenches during World War II”?) and as indicated above, the book lacks any kind of focus other than anything to do with motorcycles. As published, it reads like a stream of consciousness as Nichols bounces from one topic to another, often in mid-paragraph, only to come back around to the same point pages or sometimes even chapters later. To call it a jumble is being charitable.

You wouldn’t miss much by not reading this book at all, but if you are someone who needs to read every motorcycle book you can get your hands on, wait a month or two and save your money. One Percenter is destined for a very short shelf life and should be in the bargain bin for a buck or two well before the riding season begins.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Through Black Spruce

By Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce is a beautifully-written and tightly wound story of a Cree family from Moose Factory, Ontario. It is a contemporary tale of intrigue and violence, terror and beauty, loves lost and love found, but most of all, the family and the strength of the ties that bind it together.

Will Bird is in a coma from which the doctors think he will never emerge. Annie is his adult niece who visits him in the hospital daily, talking to him, holding his hand, refusing to let Will give up.

The story comes out in pieces as Boyden alternately takes us inside Will’s head as he lays comatose, and then to Annie who initially struggles to find something to say to her uncle and then increasingly uses their long, one-sided talks as an opportunity to put voice to her own life.

What emerges is a picture of a family beset by more than their share of troubles, but also a family that has held together with faith and determination. And woven throughout is a rich portrayal of life in Canada’s north, on the ‘wrong’ side of the Moose River.

Boyden strikes a fine balance in the telling. Despair and hopelessness is countered with optimism and liberal doses of wry humour – an elder living on the streets of Toronto hosts goose cookouts under the Gardiner, and has an e-mail address; a drinking buddy declines to take up jogging, saying, “I thought about it, but my truck’s running fine, so I don’t see the point.” His characters are alive, and his descriptions of life – whether alone on a trap line in the northern woods, or living on the streets of Toronto – draw the reader in, until it seems they become part of one’s own experience, not simply written words on the page.

This is a fine novel and a great read. Highly recommended.