Tag Archives: Australia

Book: Questioning Collapse

Macanany Yoffee Questioning Collapse

Grandiose, obsessive, delusional criticisms of Jared Diamond.
390 pages, ★★

Questioning Collapse is a direct rebuttal to Jared Diamond’s epic anthropological book titled Collapse (I reviewed that book here). In the preface, Questioning Collapse aims to improve on Collapse by being optimistic and easy-to-read, while at the same time retaining academic credibility. It also claims to correct some of Jared Diamond’s professional “mistakes”.

Unfortunately, Questioning Collapse didn’t need to be written. Collapse was a rare display of academic content written in very readable prose, and absolutely no improvement was needed. Jared Diamond also made it explicitly clear when he was making speculations, and there was therefore no need to “correct his mistakes”! These authors tried too hard to overstep the legendary Jared Diamond and failed.

Questioning Collapse is an edited book (i.e. each auth). Like most edited books, the chapters don’t quite fit together. There’s no consistency from beginning to end and the different authors sometimes repeat each other unnecessarily. Questioning Collapse isn’t even a pleasure to read. Despite its wanting to be ‘optimistic’, it spends more time deriding Jared Diamond than building on Collapse.

I’d like to see this book re-written in a positive tone and re-titled, “Collapse: a follow-up study” or “Collapse: recent developments”.

What bothers me most is that the authors of Questioning Collapse put lengthy, illustrated biographies in highlighted boxes at the end of each chapter. Why? It seems that this book isn’t about improving on Collapse at all—it was just a platform for a dozen or so scientists less successful than Jared Diamond to try and boost their careers. ★★

Book: The Future Eaters

The Future Eaters

Australian history in three stages: Geology, Aboriginals, Europeans.
432 pages, ★

The Future Eaters is written in three parts: (1) the geological formation of the Australian continent; (2) the arrival of Aboriginals; and (3) the arrival of Europeans.

Part one is a geological history of the Australian continent. In short, Australia was a unique, vast, climatically stable continent. Australia had no ice ages, little climate change and no human influence, so its plants and animals evolved to be enormous and easy to catch, such as the moa (see picture below). Author Tim Flannery says that Australia’s impressive diversity of animal and plant species can be explained almost entirely by (a) millions of years of climatic stability; and (b) lack of humans.

Moa hunting
Moa (giant birds) prevalent in Australia before the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago.

Parts two and three talk about the Aboriginals and Europeans who arrived 40,000 and 300 years ago, respectively. These two parts are faster-paced and are by far the most interesting to read.

In terms of tone, The Future Eaters is hit-and-miss. Towards ancient Aboriginals, it’s sometimes flattering and sometimes accuses them of ecological recklessness. In some places, it’s wordy and long-winded, while in others, it’s extremely interesting and concise. I’ve summarised the three most interesting parts below.

1. Aboriginals loved fire. They burned forests to such an extent that early European explorers described Australia as the “land of fire”. Women and children started most of the fires. However, the medium-sized Aboriginal fires prevented the massive fires that would have occurred periodically anyway, and researchers predict that the result was no net increase in the annual acreage burned!

2. Australia’s animals have become smaller in the last 40,000 years. Aboriginals hunted the largest animals for food, and put an evolutionary pressure that selected for smaller, faster, and more nimble offspring. Kangaroos, koalas, lizards… everything except the wombat has shrunk considerably in size in the last 40,000 years. Even the Aboriginals themselves have shrunk by 9% since they arrived!

3. Terra nullius was a law that gave all “unused” land to the British. Because the first British settlers couldn’t recognise any “use” of the land (i.e. agriculture), they stole Aboriginal land claiming terra nullius as a justification. (The Aboriginals were of course using the land, but not for agriculture—as it was not required.) This law was only repealed in 1993 in Australia.

Author Tim Flannery is clearly a fan of Jared Diamond—he mentions him four times in this book.

“Jared Diamond is one of the world’s greatest living scientists” — Tim Flannery

I hope that Tim Flannery realises The Future Eaters is almost as information-rich as Collapse by Jared Diamond, which I reviewed two days ago. (Despite the title, I also found The Future Eaters less pessimistic than Collapse, which, taken together, earns these books the same 4 star rating.)

This book was extremely wordy in places but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in natural history, anthropology and Australia—or anyone in Australia who likes Jared Diamond. Keep reading The Future Eaters even when it seems slow. It’s worth it! 

Book: Collapse

Collapse

Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic.
608 pages, ★★★

Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:

“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.

I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!

I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.

Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?

For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (3 more islands and Japan)
  • Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
  • Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)

Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.

Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.

Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).

The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.

The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”

…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)

Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn

Green tea: Mao Feng

Mao Feng

Too expensive and too light.
Green tea » Chinese teas » Oven-dried, ★★★
Also known as: Dancing Mao Feng, 毛峰

Mao Feng traditionally comes from the Yellow Mountain region in China. “Mao” (毛) means “hair”, which represents the curled, brittle leaf structure, and “Feng” (峰) means “peak”, which refers to Mao Feng’s mountainous place of origin. Despite its delicate taste, Mao Feng is a rather common green tea in China, and its price tag is never excessive.

This particular Mao Feng, though, sells for $28 per 50 grams in Australia—a price that 3-star quality doesn’t justify. Tannin is more prominent than caffeine, and there’s no lasting sweetness at all. Mouthfeel is restricted to the lips and the tip of the tongue, and the usual back-of-the-throat warming feeling (茶气) is completely absent in this Mao Feng variety. All the flavours thus seem dull, or muted.

If you’re looking for a similar tea that’s both better and cheaper, then try the lively, fruity Bi Luo Chun (碧螺春) instead. ★★★

Book: The Thorn Birds

The Thorn Birds

Large and uneventful, just like Australia itself.
743 pages,
★★★

The Thorn Birds is a novel about a family who migrates to Australia by boat, then procreates. Not much else happens in 743 pages.

The Thorn Birds teaches me that 100 years of history (from 1850 to 1950) can be summarised as follows: they arrived, they had sex, and they killed all the rabbits. Compared to the founding of Communist China or the United States, this book makes the founding of Australia look like a walk in the park.

Admittedly, it’s because I recently read Mao’s Last Dancer, Wild Swans and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out that this book feels dull in comparison. Those three books were filled with revolution, massacres, political struggles and people tinkering on the verge of life and death. Reading about China’s Cultural Revolution numbed me somewhat to the delicate nuances and character developments in The Thorn Birds—just like how eating whole, raw chillies makes everything else taste bland for some time afterwards.

Maybe this book will make other books more enjoyable… Or maybe I’ll enjoy the fine character descriptions much more next time I read it. Either way, it’s going back on the shelf for a long time. ★★★

Book: Liquid Gold

Liquid Gold
I live near here.

I’m not interested.
438 pages, ★

Synopsis: Australia now makes wine. Originally, snobby Europeans told them they’d never make good wine because the climate wasn’t suitable/ the workers weren’t talented/ the vineyards weren’t mature enough/ or it all tastes the same and is therefore too boring to sell.

Defiant Aussie wine-growers persisted to build a strong wine industry in the face of a declining gold industry. Australian wine is now considered among the best in the new world.

I usually admire stories of triumph against the odds, and I would fall in love with this story, too, if were about anything but alcohol.

Most readers would give this book 4-5 stars. Most readers, though, probably also love drinking wine. I’m not interested, though. ★

 

Book: Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun
Sun imagery is everywhere if you look for it.

Epic cross-section of all of human culture. Fact-dense.
680 pages, ★★★★★

It’s so hot in Australia right now. The sun melted my chocolate yesterday. Today, my trusty iPod displayed the word “Temperature” instead of a map, before promptly shutting itself down in the car.

iphone-warning
It’s 34°C in Australia, and even hotter in the car. I’m Chasing the Sun.

Chasing the Sun was thus a very apt book choice. It dances through science, but weaves in a lot of culture as well. British doors have sunrise-shaped windows. The Statue of Liberty wears a sun-shaped hat. Images as diverse as Jesus, Charlie Chaplin and Chairman Mao have all personified the sun in some way to imply power (be it spiritual, comical or political). Twenty countries currently have suns in their flags, and even the swastika was originally a line-drawn representation of the sun! According to Google Music, 2,500 copyrighted songs have been written about the sun (how many can you think of?), and nearly 500 trademarks feature the sun in their logo. The sun permeates our lives in ways that we are seldom aware.

This book is therefore relevant to everyone.

Like the sun itself, Chasing the Sun is dense. Reading it, I felt like one of the zillions of photons that takes 150,000 years to permeate the sun’s dense core, before finally reaching the surface (i.e. finishing the book) and zooming out at the speed of light. I read my next book very fast.

Author Richard Cohen is loaded with theories, such as Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Daisy World, the evolution of ancient calendar systems, and natural therapies involving tomatoes (which protect against sunburn but get sunburned easily themselves) and TB (which was alleviated somewhat by sunlight exposure). Best of all, he touches on the theory that solar maxima (peaks in the natural fluctuation of our sun’s intensity) coincide with peaks of ‘hot-headed’ human activity. Certainly, the upheavals of 1905, 1917, 1948 and 1989 coincided with solar maxima. Coincidence, perhaps?

Richard Cohen’s work is in the same category as Bill Bryson, but is much more fact-laden. On one occasion, (on page 528) he even corrects Bill Bryson’s math! He balances science and culture in a way only paralleled by Arnold Taylor’s The Dance of Air & Sea. This book took 8 years to write, involved research trips to 17 countries and includes input from dozens of world-leading academics. Don’t let this much wisdom pass you by. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★

Book: Getting Ahead as an International Student

Getting Ahead as an International Student

Gives you no advice. Just makes you think, like counselling.
205 pages, ★★★

I’m about to become an international student! I have been accepted to study Education at a major university in Australia, after which, I will be able to register as a secondary school science teacher. Finally, it looks like I have a long-term career!

In preparation for one year of study, I got this book from the library.

This book doesn’t actually tell me anything. It instead uses counselling techniques to ask “what are your expectations?”, “why?” and “it might not be like that, which is okay”. It asked me to write my thoughts on preferred teaching styles and the role of lecturers in education, then quoted me four largely conflicting opinions of students from different international backgrounds. (It’s easy to see, then, how each of these students will be disappointed by at least one aspect of their university experience.) By opening your mind, Getting Ahead prevents the disappointment that arises when expectations differ from reality (the sole root of disappointment, actually).

Getting Ahead didn’t give me any information but it did help—CBT-style. So I’m going to university next year with no assumptions about what it should be like, and hopefully, I won’t be disappointed. ★★★