Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

I’ve bitten into my university reading list before the classes even begin. My reviews will be totally honest—so if a book doesn’t make any sense to me, then that’s exactly what I’ll write. Before I start reviewing university books, though, here’s one piece of fiction:

Blind Willow Sleeping Woman

Disappointing writer’s scrapbook.
pages, ★★

I can’t relate to the good reviews of this book. These 24 surreal short stories are mostly negative, bleak, largely pointless and totally lack a common theme.

Whether taken individually, or taken as a whole, these 24 stories have no typical ‘story’ structure to them. Murakami’s novels (see my review of 1Q84) are so well-written that I had high hopes for his story collections, too. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed with all of them. ★★

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Thank you, Thea Christie, for awarding me the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

The rules of the award are as follows:
  1. Link back to the blogger who nominated you. Done.
  2. Post the award image to your page. Done.
  3. Nominate other blogs for the award and inform them about it.

Here’s a selection of WordPress blogs that deserve my nomination:

Book: The Goldilocks Enigma

The Goldilocks Enigma
Life’s so perfect. Why?

Mind-boggling science proves the world is a marvellous place.
(I already knew that.)

350 pages, ★★★

The Goldilocks Enigma follows the same structural model as The Future of Physics, The Science Delusion and 23 Things. All these books are collections of easy-to-read scientific essays with introductions, fact-boxes, conclusions and summaries that plug a single thesis (in this case, “Life is miraculously improbable“). This formulaic approach to non-fiction really works, and the arguments stick in my head this way.

The Goldilocks Enigma proposes that the universe seems so perfectly suited for life that to some people, it looks purpose-built (the anthropic principle), or created by a deity (creationism). The author renounces multiverse theories as ridiculous (reductio ad absurdum) both on scientific and philosophical levels. I agree.

I saw author Paul Davies speak at the AAAS Annual Conference in Chicago in 2009. He emphasised the sheer miraculousness of Earth’s existence—six physical constants are calibrated perfectly:

Tweak any one of these constants and life becomes impossible! Some people liken this impossibility to “a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and assembling a perfectly-formed Boeing 747”. It’s reassuring to see scientific evidence of how precious and rare our planet is.

The physics in this book overlaps significantly with The Trouble with PhysicsQuantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Science Delusion. While it’s an easy book to understand, it’s only mildly entertaining. Unless you’re really interested, only read one of these popular physics books. The Science Delusion is the best. ★★★

Book: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

My fiancée and I have a great relationship. We’ve been together for almost three years and today, we bought wedding bands from Tiffany’s. Everything we do is romantic—from the day we met (on the Beijing subway) to the normal, suburban life we now lead in Australia.

Of course, no relationship is perfect all the time. But when I picked up this self-help classic from the library, I learned that when it comes to love, I’m not as clueless as I thought…

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Self-help classic

So theoretical. And where’s the sex?
286 pages, ★★★

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus screams, “NINETEEN-NINETIES!” at you. It’s a relationship manual written for sexually dimorphic salarymen and housewives, and it rose to fame in the 1990s while the Spice Girls were still a surprise. Men and women were changing, but weren’t yet sure of who they were. Call it ‘pre-post-feminism’, if you like.

Enter this book. It’s so theoretical! Each double-page spread sports at least two sub-headings, and there’s a pull-out quote every three pages. You can skim-read all the sub-headings and still get the gist: “men and women think differently”.

Sometimes, it’s too theoretical. It’s somewhere between a self-help book and an instruction manual! I’d prefer to learn the same information in a more entertaining format—by attending John Gray’s lectures and seminars, for example, or by watching a TV documentary. The message of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus begs to be served in a more interactive way than a printed book.

Despite focussing on the sexes, I’m surprised to see that this book is completely devoid of sex itself! If you want sex tips, you’ll need to read another book called, The Secrets of Successful Relationships, also by John Gray. I know that sex is only one part of a romantic relationship, but it’s quite an important part… I’m sure John Gray had his reasons for omitting it from this book.

I have two problems with this book. First, who starts a love letter with “I’m angry that…”, then includes four paragraphs of negative emotions followed by one paragraph of love? Is this normal? I’m certainly not going to do it, even though this book says that I should.

Second: it’s very basic in places. The list of 101 things that a man can do to ‘score points’ with a woman are so glaringly obvious that I already do all of them—and more—without even thinking about it.

This book can help couples who have small problems (i.e. too small to seek professional help). Otherwise, just read it because it’s a classic in its genre. Remember that while men and women are different, they’re not as different as John Gray claims—and nor should they be.

Feminist talks are everywhere, but here’s a great TED talk for men. Men changed in the feminist revolution, too. Enjoy. 🙂 ★★★

Book: South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun
South of the Border, West of the Sun

Boy grows up, explores love and sex but never really ‘gets it’. Poor guy.
213 pages, ★★★★

Protagonist Hajime starts as a 12-year-old boy who’s never kissed or dated anyone. He explores dating, kissing, sex and marriage throughout this book. By the end, he’s in his mid-30s, and married with two daughters.

After finishing school, Hajime spends 12 years wandering around aimlessly in life. He eats alone, relaxes alone, and doesn’t think about marriage. He dates girls, but none of the relationships are long-lasting or meaningful. David Brooks defined this relatively new period of life, the “decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood”, as “odyssey” in his book, The Social Animal. Luckily, this period of my life was very short—just a few months—and I can testify that life’s much better once you’re out of it.

But poor Hajime never really gets out of it. Even when married with two daughters, he’s still driving out of town to see his lover, his ex-lover and her cousin… at 30 years of age, his romantic life is a shambles! Everyone’s romantic life is a shambles is at some point, but we’re all supposed to grow out of it. And again, life’s much better when you do.

The ending is a classic Murakami one. Two (then three) characters meet in a miracle of coincidences, seeing each other in separate vehicles at the traffic lights. This also happened at the end of After Dark.

We can learn two things from this novel. First, everyone starts life understanding almost nothing about sex, dating and romantic love. Second, unlike Hajime, we should learn these things and get better with time. Don’t do what Hajime did and waste over a decade, not learning. Poor guy. ★★★★

Book: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Lungs, subway lines and sarin.

Cult mentality at its worst. An appendix to Cults.
366 pages, ★★★

In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.

Underground is divided into two parts. The first, larger part focusses on the victims of the attack and their families. Author Murakami does this because he feels the media focussed too much on the perpetrators, and neglected coverage of the victims.

The second part consists of interviews with cult leaders. His conversations make the fictional cult/gang in 1Q84 very believable.

Translator’s footnotes describe the fate of the attackers throughout Underground. Some of the attackers were sentenced to hard labour, some received the death penalty, and a small number were still awaiting trial.

The line between ‘cults’ and ‘charismatic groups’ is a fine one. Arguably, ‘cults’ are just the products of ‘charismatic groups’ gone awry. They exist in every country and need to be kept in check. This book made me wonder: what if Scientology, with all its resources and influence, were to turn violent?

I recommend Underground for anyone interested in cults, and for all die-hard fans of Haruki Murakami. ★★★

Tea brewing calculator (Excel)

Click here to download my Tea brewing calculator.

Tea brewing calculator made in Excel for Mac 2011
Tea brewing calculator made in Excel for Mac 2011. It’s safe, has no macros, and works on any Mac or Windows computer with Excel. Click to download.

It works for all strengths and for all types of tea. You can even check out the formulas to see how I’ve calculated the brewing times for each consecutive brew.

Sometimes, the later brews have no times by them. At this point, leave the tea in the pot to steep indefinitely while you finish drinking.

To improve this calculator, I need feedback! Plug in the values of how you brew your tea and let me know whether the brewing times are correct. Tweak the constants if necessary. What values of β and c work best for your favourite brew?

Enjoy 😉

Book: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

She solves a murder mystery and restores all karmic balance.
532 pages, ★★★★★

Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch—and there’s always a catch—is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.

The story is set in Sweden, in a realistic present-day dystopia. Murder, kidnapping, rape, embezzlement, feuds and revenge dominate the connections between the characters. The crime in question, “Who killed Harriet?” is revealed to Blomkvist on page 82.

Everyone in this book, except for Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, is creepy. Mikael gets wrongly imprisoned by one of said creeps, who is a billionaire trying to protect his business. Lisbeth suffers two sex attacks from another creep on page 220, but keeps focussed on the murder mystery and on page 420, solves it. Serial killers and biblical misinterpretations fill the middle pages (it reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, actually).

In the concluding 100 pages, Lisbeth hilariously “makes everything right”. Largely thanks to Lisbeth, all the victims are compensated, all the rapists get revenged, the bankrupted magazine gets rescued, and all the Nazis die. How very karmic.

The first book of a trilogy is almost always the best. One book was enough, though. I enjoyed this thriller but I’m not going to read any more. ★★★★★

Book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet
Quiet

Alerts you to society’s irrational love of extroverts.
352 pages, ★★★★

Introverts are singled out from a young age. They’re considered shy, socially-inept, boring, lazy and stupid in schools—at least, that’s the first thesis of this book.

The second thesis is that introverts are actually more valuable than people think. Evidence suggests that their moral reasoning, sense of responsibility, ability to stick to a plan, empathetic skills and thoughtfulness are better than those of extroverts. Introverts also earn more scholarships and graduate degrees than do extroverts.

Extroverts, on the other hand, make rash decisions, engage in risky behaviour (both in bed and on the stock market), are more prone to “groupthink”, make unsatisfactory team leaders and have poor listening skills. They have empty charisma—that is, they might appear to have everything in control, but when questioned, we realise they know nothing.

The third thesis, at the end of this book, says that “introvert” and “extrovert” are actually over-simplistic labels, and the book suggests “high-sensitive” and “low-sensitive” as more appropriate alternatives. Studies by Jerome Kagan have shown that people with sensitive amygdala prefer lower levels of stimulus—quiet rooms, fewer people, and familiar settings—characteristics of ‘introversion’. People with less-sensitive amygdala prefer higher levels of stimulus—loud places, more people, and new experiences—characteristics of ‘extroversion’. Different people need different amounts of stimulus to be comfortable, and these levels are quite fixed from birth through to adulthood.

Genes play an ambiguous role. I have C/C at the rs752306 SNP, which is located in the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene on chromosome 11. Even though the C allele has a frequency of as high as 75% (meaning most people have it), people still got excited when a study by Lee et al. in 2011 hinted at connections between rs752306 SNP and ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘risky behaviour’—traits which this book interprets as ‘extraversion’. Lee’s follow-up study showed no connection whatsoever. Personally, I think we understand so little about how genes affect our health that we should ignore any supposed ‘genetic factors’ for personality traits.

This book separates society along a single axis and looks for striking differences. The Geography of Thought did that too, along East/West lines, as did Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, along gender lines. Take all these books with a pinch of salt. Society is not a dichotomy of extremes, but a melting pot in which most people are pretty close to ‘average’. Remember that you are, too. ★★★★

 

Book: The God Delusion

The God Delusion
Thanks to thewrittenwordreviews for scanning the cover.

Pedantic, borderline sadism. Hatred and mockery of faith.
406 pages, 

Richard Dawkins is the world’s most outspoken atheist. He crusades against organised religion and anyone who holds faith in phenomena that haven’t yet been proven by a double-blind scientific trial. In his books and feisty speeches, Richard Dawkins persuades the religious public to renounce their beliefs and adopt a stubborn, intolerant, militant mixture of atheism and science—let’s call it Dawkinism—instead.

His first argument is that God doesn’t exist. On page 35, he describes Catholicism as “shamelessly invented… tasteless, kitsch… airy nonchalance”. The rest of the book is peppered with anti-religious mockery, and trivia, which he sometimes turns into evidence (e.g. Joseph’s family tree). One of his arguments backfires on page 173, and he makes arguments on pages 83 and 119 that blatantly contradict each other. His crusade is far from flawless.

His second argument is that a world without religion would be a better one, claiming that religion was the sole cause of atrocities such as “9/11, 7/7, the Crusades, witch hunts, the Gunpowder Plot… …Northern Ireland’s troubles and those swindling television evangelists”. This more worrying argument is flawed for two reasons.

First, he overlooks the swathes of good that religion has done for society in terms of creating cultural traditions and amalgamating civilisations. Instead, he only talks about when religion goes wrong. Second, he assumes that science is inherently ‘good’ (or is at least ‘better’ than religion), when this is probably not true. Science brought us the atomic bomb, climate change, and even some genocides were ‘justified’ by science. The 9/11 attacks were no more of a reason to give up on religion than the atomic bomb was a reason to give up on science. As Deng Xiaoping said:

“If you close the window, you get no fresh air, and also no flies. But if you open the window fresh air comes in and also some flies”. — Deng Xiaoping

Neither science nor religion are perfect, but both have their place in society. They explain different phenomena and we need both.

The God Delusion would be a noble goal if Dawkinism actually offered any reasonable alternatives to the moral, spiritual, and metaphysical and questions answered by religion. But it does not. The scientific method, by definition, is useless at answering spiritual questions because, by definition, nothing purely spiritual can ever be directly observed! By never being able to answer spiritual questions, Dawkinism aims to demolish more than it builds, and is thus doomed to fail as a philosophy. (See my review of On Revolution).

I think that science and religion answer different questions entirely, and are more complementary than contradictory. Here’s a snippet from my conversation with Anthony Hewish back in 2009, when he showed me his Nobel Prize for Physics:

Me: What do you think about the existence of God?

Hewish: I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that God exists. I’ve been a Christian all my life. Arguments from authors such as Richard Dawkins I find shallow and trivial. Tension arises from religion’s historical background that leads us to all sorts of assumptions and theories. I agree with John Polkinghorne that you need both science and religion if you’re going to make sense of life as a whole.

Interestingly, the Dalai Lama agrees with both Anthony Hewish and John Polkinghorne on this matter.

But even if Dawkins were right, and there is no God, what benefit would that bring to the world? Disproving the beliefs of billions of people would do no good at all. If Dawkins had good intentions, then he would not want to be right, and would promptly give up his fight.

Above all, The God Delusion reminded me that no matter the magnitude of historical atrocities justified in the name of religion, atheistic extremism can be just as militant, stubborn and ugly as religious extremism. Just look at Dawkins. If atheists reject this book in disgust, and become more tolerant of religion as a result, then I’ll consider The God Delusion to be a success. There is no other way that this book could make any meaningful contribution to humanity.

Fortunately, Buddhism and Confucianism are spared from Dawkins’ wrath, for, according to Dawkins, they are “not religions at all but ethical systems or philosophies of life” (page 37-38). That phrase earned this book an extra star. You’re better off reading articles about Dawkins than the books that Dawkins wrote himself. Just try to avoid the firing line of his sadistic, atheistic crusade. ★

Book: Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay

The Year of the Snake has begun and I wish all my readers a healthy, prosperous and Happy Chinese New Year!

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay
Book 3 in the trilogy

Massive, cliché rebellion. Far too much Hunger Games.
455 pages, ★★★

I found this book boring.

Ninety percent of Mockingjay depicts a rebellion against the Capitol, during which, Peeta is captured and Katniss fights in a mockingjay costume. Mockingjay reminded me of two more disappointing trilogies: Matrix Revolutions and The Bourne Ultimatum… all were action-packed but lacked an interesting story.

Even though some people die along the way, Mockingjay ends with Peeta and Katniss living happily ever after. The evil Capitol falls.

I strongly recommend the first book, but it leaves you with no cravings for a second or third book at all. Don’t waste your time reading them just because they exist—one Hunger Games book was enough. ★★★

Book: White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
penguin.com.au

Aimless, sexless, pointless. Why the hype?
541 pages, ★★

White Teeth isn’t funny. What the reviews call “wit” is actually snide and banal comments from silly characters. To understand this book’s “relentlessly funny, clever” jokes requires a familiarity with London’s ethnic stereotypes, which I lack. Other “humour” is directed at ethnic accents—comedy which might work well in a pantomime, but falls flat in a written novel.

The only sex in White Teeth is when two morons have sex on a prayer mat. I found this neither humorous nor inventive—not shocking, not sexy, not even important. It was just dull.

By page 330, I already cared about none of the characters. There was no longer an obvious protagonist, nor any continuity to the plot. Admittedly, I started to skim-read.

This book screams, “LONDON!”. You’re inundated with British brands and euphemisms throughout. It focusses on London’s ethnic diversity, particularly the lives of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants. But rather than gaining the readers’ respect, these characters seem to be treated as the subject of slapstick humour. The author depicts them as silly.

I’ve been trying to categorise books recently, and have determined that White Teeth lies somewhere between The Casual Vacancy (four stars) and The Time Traveller’s Wife (two stars)White Teeth, however, lacks the complex, twisted ending of The Vasual Vacancy, and lacks the character development (and sex) found in The Time Traveller’s Wife.

All I learned from White Teeth is that I don’t like books about daily British life. I like more exotic fiction. Please give me more of Haruki Murakami books. ★★

Book: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Thanks to bookyish for scanning the front cover.

An uncomfortable, unforgettable, necessary read.
434 pages, ★★★★★

A Japanese-born woman in New York recalls her youth as a geisha in 1930s Japan.

Reading this, though, I learned more about the sex trade than about Japan.

Protagonist Chiyo was taken into an okiya (geisha compound) as a 14-year-old virgin. There, she learned the arts of etiquette and seduction, and was trained to sing, dance, play music, tell stories, pour tea and sake, and entertain rich businessmen and aristocrats. The most valuable skill she learned there was how to endure commodified sex. Her sister, Satsu, was also taken, but promptly sold into prostitution under the new name of Yukiyo. Geishas are, in a way, upper-class equivalents of prostitutes. Both are paid by the hour for entertainment—including sex.

After being given training and kimonos, geishas are bonded to their okiya by unrealistically large ‘debts’, which they must spend many years repaying to their bosses through geisha service. For some, geisha training is a once-in-a-lifetime investment that will make them rich and powerful (by meeting a danna, or sugar-daddy), while for many geishas, it marks the beginning of a downward spiral. In this respect, too, the geisha industry is remarkably similar to the sex trade.

In fact, geisha is written “芸妓” in Japanese, which translates as “artistic prostitute”. Uneducated, uncultured geishas (i.e. prostitutes) can only entertain their clients with sex—because they don’t know how to sing, dance, pour sake or play music.

Protagonist Chiyo leads a successful geisha career. She tries to find a suitable danna in a company that makes electrical appliances. Her successful run begins when a high price is placed on her virginity (as verified by incessant hymen-touching), and she is able to repay her debts to the okiya with ease.

Pleasing male clients is paramount for the geishas. At one point, the okiya boss arranges a meeting between Chiyo and the doctor—a potential suitor—by carefully cutting her with a knife and then sending her to hospital. It paid off: the doctor ultimately purchased her mizuage (virginity).

I see glamour in politicians racing to please millions of voters, or in celebrities frolicking around to attract millions of fans. But for some reason, I feel sadness in seeing geishas cater to the irrational whims of one person. I find the idea of a “VIP celebrity” industry quite disturbing. Admittedly, this conclusion is based on gut instinct and not on logic.

There are 50 characters in this book, many of whose beautiful names are lost in translation. Women’s names which mean “Bean Leaves” and “Little Lily” in Japanese are stripped of all meaning when transliterated as “Sayuri” and “Mahema” in this book. The original Japanese version is probably more beautiful than the English one. I can’t read Japanese, but I’d like to see the original Japanese names to complement the English.

The geisha industry is shaken upside-down when Japan loses the war in August 1945. Okiya are dismantled and many geishas are sent to work on production lines, where the struggles of geishahood pale in comparison:

“Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper” — final sentence

I recommend Memoirs of a Geisha for anyone who loves Japan, and for anyone who doesn’t know much about the sex trade. Not all geishas are glamorous, and not all prostitution is tragic; there are debatable ethical boundaries between the two, which I’m not even going to attempt to discuss here. The ethical debate becomes even more complex when you substitute sake (in this book) for the modern substance-of-choice, cocaine. Memoirs of a Geisha certainly makes you think. ★★★

Book: The Science Delusion

The Science Delusion
This book balances Dawkins’ The God Delusion with science

Credible, groundbreaking, happy next step for science.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Rupert Sheldrake has a talent for captivating his audiences. His soothing, eloquent lectures mesmerise and astonish those who listen. Watch him introduce his book below:

He also has an impressive academic background: a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and a fellowship at Harvard University. He has written ten books, given countless lectures and published dozens of academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. He’s a well-respected scientist.

His theories, however, are not considered ‘mainstream’. This book challenges ten fundamental (and groundless) assumptions in modern science:

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots”, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activity of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the Universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Sceptics would say that to refute these assumptions verges on “pseudo-science” or “mysticism”. Supporters would say that because the claims in this book are backed by strong evidence, these theories are more scientific than mainstream science itself.

Sheldrake is most famous for developing the theory of Morphic Resonance. This theory states that the presence of existing forms in the universe (e.g. biological fields that guide biological development, behavioural and mental fields that organise animal behaviour and mental activity; social and cultural fields that organise societies and cultures) makes similar forms easier to create in the future. Information about the existence of these forms is carried across the universe instantaneously, rather like the mysterious linkage between a pair of entangled photons, or the (possibly-)particle-less effect of gravity.

One of the implications of Morphic Resonance is that all “constants” are actually capable of change. In this book, Sheldrake proves that many scientific constants have changed over time. Most notably, the speed of light, c, decreased by 20 m/s between 1928 and 1940, and increased again in the late 1940s. The gravitational constant, G, has also fluctuated by over 1%. While most mainstream scientists agree with the data, none of them can provide a plausible explanation for this phenomenon.

Morphic Resonance also predicts that the boiling points of new, artificial compounds should increase as the solid forms become more stable with time (solids and liquids have more ‘form’, or less entropy, than gases). Substances that have already existed for a long time (such as water) will show no change in boiling point over time. Sheldrake has an astonishing wealth of historical data to support this theory, and his results are published in the new edition of his book, A New Science of Life.

This book makes attempts to rescue science from its pessimistic, materialist path and revert it to a happier, more comforting, and possibly more scientific one. I agree 100% with Sheldrake’s thesis that the ten assumptions above have coagulated into unquestionable dogma. I also agree 100% that holders of established “scientific” beliefs and are rejecting any challengers to the status quo, which undermines the very essence of science, which is to look at the evidence. I have no idea whether the theory of Morphic Resonance is correct, but I do know that it would be incredibly unscientific to deny it without any evidence, as some of the critics (e.g. Richard Dawkins) have done.

Sheldrake’s argument is very convincing, in no small part because it is delivered by a man as eloquent and captivating as Sheldrake himself. I recommend introducing this book, and its context, to all science students. Despite what the critics claim, It’s more scientific than a lot of “science” literature out there. Even if you disagree with this book, you’ll at least learn the persuasive power of a well-written argument by reading it. ★★★★★

12 things I learned from my 23andMe results

Just before Christmas, I spat into a plastic tube and sent it to 23andMe: a genetic testing company in California.

23andMe Logo

 

23andMe tests one million SNPs (minor changes) in a person’s genome, many of which are linked with known, inherited traits. Their results reveal a wealth of information about your health and ancestry, ranging from eye colour and bitter taste perception to the presence of major genetic diseases and your extended family tree. Meaningful results are then sent to you by email within a few weeks.

All this is priced well-below cost, at just $99 plus shipping. It was totally worth it. Here’s a list of the 12 most interesting things that 23andMe revealed about me.

1. No carrier status

Fortunately, I carry none of the 48 diseases for which 23andMe tests. That’s good news! None of these diseases will affect me, nor will they be passed on to my children.

2. HIV-resistance: CCR5 +/Δ32

This is awesome—I carry one copy of the HIV-resistance allele! A very small percentage of people are lucky enough to have this allele. The virus which heterosexual, monogamous vegans almost never encounter just got even harder to get.

3. Can’t taste bitter: TAS2R38 -/-

The TAS2R38 gene encodes the receptor that detects PROP and related bitter plant compounds. I have a relatively common mutation that is insensitive to PROP. My version of this gene improves the taste of bitter foods—including poisonous ones.

4. Can digest lactose: MCM6 +/+ (regulates LCT)

I don’t like milk, but at least I can digest it. I have two fully-funcional copies of the lactase enzyme, and both will remain active throughout adulthood.

5. Slow caffeine metabolism: CYP1A2.

Caffeine is primarily metabolized by the liver enzyme cytochrome P450 1A2. My version of this enzyme metabolises caffeine slowly (just like 99% of people). I learned that I’m not one of the 1% of people who are virtually insensitive to caffeine.

6. Ancestry

British and Irish: 67.6%; French and German: 5.8% (4 gen); Scandinavian: 0.1% (10 gen); Northern European: 24.0% (2 gen); Southern European: 1.2% (6 gen); Other European: 1.1% (7 gen); Middle Eastern/North African: 0.1% (10 gen); unknown: 0.1%.

James Kennedy ancestry results
Click to enlarge.

I calculated generations by taking the percentages, log base 2 and multiplying by -1.

Most of my ancestors were from “Britain/Ireland”, or “North Europe”, which includes Britain and Ireland. But interestingly, there was a little more diversity than I expected. one of my (great-?)great-grandparents was either French or German (see number 11). Six generations ago, there was someone from South Europe in the family. Ten generations ago, there was one person from Scandinavia, and one person from the Middle East or North Africa.

7. My blood group: A Rh(-) Di(a-b+) K-k+ Kp(a-b+) Jk(a+b+)

I already knew my blood group, but it was interesting to learn that blood groups are a complicated business. For everyday purposes, though, I’m an A-negative.

8. 3.1% Neanderthal DNA (very high)

Neanderthals looked like caricatures of Celts: white, brutish, red-haired and freckled. The average Caucasian has 2.5% neanderthal DNA, and I have 3.1%, putting me in the 98th percentile. It means that I’m “whiter” than most white people.

9. Maternal haplotype: H3 (Western Europe)

H3 is a minority European haplotype found in Western Europe. (Most natives are H1 haplotype.) Over the last 10,000 years, H3 declined in Europe due to random genetic drift, but remains prevalent today in the Basque region (probably because they mixed less frequently with outsiders). There’s almost no phenotypic difference between H1 and H3, so until further research is done, this is merely an interesting fact.

Maternal haplotype H3 map
Maternal haplotype H3 map
10. Paternal haplotype: R1b1b2a1a2f2 (Ireland)

Obviously. My paternal family is Irish and my paternal haplotype proves it. R1b1b2a1a2f2 is distinctively Irish.

11. One arm of Ch1 is entirely French/German

This is very interesting. I’m British, so while having a little French/German DNA is normal, having it all on one arm of one chromosome indicates that it probably all came from one, recent ancestor (no more than 4 generations ago). Given that French/German DNA is unique in going mostly undetected using 23andMe’s testing methods, and that the possibility of inheriting an entire chromosomal arm halves with each generation, this French/German ancestor was probably a great-grandparent. I didn’t know this.

James Kennedy French/German DNA
My French/German DNA (dark blue) is mostly on one chromosome.
12. Eight chromosomes contain one arm with no British/Irish DNA at all.

Chromosomes 1, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18, 20, and 22 contain one arm with no British/Irish DNA at all, and one arm with almost 100% British/Irish DNA. Given that one arm is inherited from each parent, this indicates that either I (or each of my parents) had one parent who was purely British/Irish, and one who was a more mixed “Northern European”.

James Kennedy's British/Irish DNA from 23andMe
Eight chromosomes have one arm with no British/Irish DNA (dark blue) at all. This indicates one recent family member of mixed, Northern European origin, not just from Britain and Ireland.

Additionally, 23andMe found 833 distant cousins who have also had their DNA tested. I share great-great-grandparents with the closest of these cousins, but none of them have surnames that I recognise. Some of them live in Wales, but that’s probably just a coincidence. The process of trying to link the family trees, if I do it, would be a long one.

I wanted to do this years ago, but it used to be too expensive: $999 plus a monthly subscription (whatever for?) The price then dropped to $499, $299 then $249 (last year), before finally hitting $99 before Christmas 2012—without any monthly fees. That final price drop prompted me (and nearly a million others) to buy the test.

I highly recommend 23andMe. The data arrives little by little, so there’s something to look into (and reference papers to read) each day. Anyone interested in their own health or ancestry should give it a go.

Book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Stretched. Easy to read.
237 pages, ★★★

Amy Chua (a.k.a. “Tiger Mother”) bullies her children into being successful. Her loveable mixture of strict rules, punishments and blackmail locks her children into a world of all work and no play.

“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Clearly, Amy Chua loves her children. She sees them as fallen deities, as sleeping giants, who, with enough maternal provocation, can once again prove themselves as prodigies. She sees in them infinite potential, and pressures them immensely to succeed.

Love for her children sometimes blinds her to reality. On page 7, she writes:

“I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at 2 months [of age], Sophia understood this”.

Really? That sounds like over-analaysis to me.

On page 8, she continues over-analysing: when her daughter draws what her husband calls “two overlapping circles”, Amy Chua calls it “doing simple set theory”. On page 11, she describes 豆腐脑, a simple Chinese tofu dish, as, “silken tofu braised in a light alabone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish”. (Her description is correct—it’s just pretentious.)

Amy’s propensity to overestimate her ability to raise children is exemplified most clearly on page 82, when she takes pride in having raised a “weakling, underweight” puppy into an adult dog that “excelled on its dog IQ test” despite hating dogs. Clearly, she’s not only blinded by love, but also by pride.

Fortunately, Amy Chua’s ruthlessness is somewhat justified. Her daughters, not yet 20, have articles printed in the New York Post and have been accepted into world-class universities. It’s the millions of Tiger Mothers with average kids that are cause for concern.

Interestingly, the Chinese version of her book was titled “我在美国做妈妈”, which translates roughly as, “I am a mother in America”: no mention of tigers; no implication of being fierce, and no connotation of being Chinese! The Chinese title makes her parenting style look “normal”. Check out the Chinese cover, below:

我在美国做妈妈
我在美国做妈妈

While Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy, double-spaced read, it is no more informative than Amy Chua’s famous Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. You can save time and just read the article (and this) instead. ★★★