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Book Reports in 2006

Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
written by Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond is a professor of UCLA and the author of the Pulizer-winning "Guns, Germs, and Steel" which I read in 2002. I was so fascinated by it that when I found his book, "Collapse," I ordered a copy immediately.

He starts writing about Montana, which he loves most. Even if Montana looks ecologically robust, some environmental bad signs have already emerged. Then Diamond narrates the collapses of ancient human civilization from Easter Island, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, Anasazi, classical Maya and to Viking Norse colony in Greenland. he examines all those societies of the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage such as deforestation, over grazing, soil erosion or land salination due to over farming in irrigated agricultural land, both man-made and natural climate changes, rapid population growth and simple-minded or selfish leaders' policies were all factors in those societies. He mentions that they and we also contributed or contributing to extinction of some living organisms both fauna and flora, because of over huntting and deforestation.

And then Diamond examines some success stories in the history such as New Guinea highlands' highly diverse and efficient agriculture, Tikopia islands' resolution method and Tokukawa Japan's strong program of forest protection. Though there were some overruns especially in top down societies like Japan they succeed to not collapse and we can learn a lot from them.
He figures the top down approach suites to a large societies with centralized political organization and the bottom up management to small societies or neihboring organizations.

Diamond introduces the similar problems of modern societies including Rwanda and Haiti where people already had typical disaster, China and Australia which have environmental challenges but with 'Signs of hope' trying to cope in innovative ways and also many propblems that the first world is facing in common. He says "today's larger population and more potent destructive technology, and today's interconnectedness pose the risk of a global rather than a local collapse." Then he concludes that inescapable collapse will happen again unless we humans living on this planet recognize the warning signs and choose to act with determined effort to solve them,"and if we don't succeed at that effort, the world as a whole within the next few decades will face a declining standard of living, or perhaps something worse."

If any people who are in leading position use their reins of power to benefit only themselves, it means they are choosing the rights to starve to death at the last stage of collaption, like the chiefs in some collapsed islands or in Norse Greenland. And it's not that distant future like a few thousands years ahead. It seems that all the collapsed societies reached the last stage just after their utmost periods. But he says there are "Signs of hope and change" of both bottom up and top down efforts and labels himself as "a cautious optimist" devoting most of his career efforts "to convincing people that our problems have to be taken seriously and won't go away otherwise."

(Nov. 26, 2006)


The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers

This book is very interesting and boring at the same time.
This is my second time to read his works. The first was "Prisoner's Dilemma" which I liked. So when I started to read this book I knew his enigmatic and obscuring writing style. I even enjoyed it.
But as I kept reading I felt the writer is showing off too much. You know the old saying that goes "Too much is as bad as too little." This book is a good example of this. I think "Prisoner's Dilemma" is well balanced in this respect.

I bought this book after reading "Powers has woven an extraordinary knowledge of music, of science (particularly of the search for genetic coding, and of computer programming), of the mysteries of language and art history, into a saga that is dazzling and wearying in almost equal measure." in Amazon's editor review. As I like music, art, reading science books and literature, I thought I would enjoy this book. Yes, I love all of them and half way through the book I was being amazed how nicely the writer blended all of them with the story.

There are two stories which are interwoven like double-helix structure of DNA(I think Powers intended this):the first one is that of Jan O'Deigh, who is a reference librarian at a library in New York and Franklin Todd, who wants to know what this mysterious Dr. Stuart Ressler, whom he is working with in a computer processing firm on night shift, did. The other is that of Ressler, 25 years ago, who is a young Ph.D. having started to decipher the genetic code and falls in love with a married woman, Dr. Koss, who is also a member of the research team. Dr. Koss presents a phonodisc of Bach's "The Goldberg Variations," which gives him a clue for cracking DNA structure.

While I was reading (after half of the book I had to encourage myself to keep reading because it's so boring,lol) I anticipated by necessity a fortuitous climax but only found a tame ending like a cheap love story. Oh, I was very much disappointed. Anyway I'm proud of myself having finished this difficult and tiring book of 638 pages.

I want to add this; in the New York Time's book reveiw it is mentioned that this book "is a little bit like Robert Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,' in that it carries us on a cerebral quest for a philosophical heffalump; it's a little bit Borgesian in its love of the complex and cryptic; it's a little bit Joycean in its size and difficulty." I've read both Robert Pirsig and Joyce but not Borges. I think in some parts Powers succeeded in using metaphor and puns which can invoke some sort of images. But I liked Pirsig's book much more than this one because the story and enlightning lecture parts are meaningful and interesting.

(Aug. 27th)


And the Waters Turned to Blood, written by Rodney Barker

This is the story of the struggle of Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, an aquatic botany professor, against not only the aquatic microorganism (a kind of dinoflagellate, which is later named as Pfisteria piscicida) but antagonistic and defensive state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the state Health Department of North Carolina.
Pfisteria causes a large amount of fish kills and human diseases such as amnesia similar to Alzheimer's (by breathing its vaporized toxin) or multiple sclerosis.

The story begins with "What's wrong with me, Mommy?" in the Foreword. The Jorgensen family, returning from their 1995 North Carolina vacation, began to suffer from a mysterious malaise, except the father who didn't enter the water. No physician could give any answer about what caused their bizarre symptoms. Then the mother is convinced "that there is something dangerous lurking in the waters of North Carolina."

As often the case (in Japan, too) their economy is much more important than the health and welfare of the inhabitants. The state agencies had never been willing to admit publicly that there is a threat in the water. Even after Dr. JoAnn Burkholder's identifying of the diabolical one-celled creature, they denied the existence of it or later any link between Pfisteria and the diseases. Pfisteria, the large occurrence of which was triggered by water contamination, has different configurations on different circumstances that's why it was so hard for Dr. Burkholder and her asistant to specify it. There are not many academics who can identify it. All through the story Dr. Burkholder keeps posing a stiff challenge in the environment-related issue courageously.

This book is written like a novel but actually it is a true story. In the Afterword of the softcover edition the author added what Maryland did for the same problem when they found it. Their attitude differs very much from that of North Carolina. They invited Dr. Burkholder to identify Pfiesteria in the water of the Pocomoke. Then the Governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, acted rapidly and decisively to cope with the problem. In consequence they had come up with the breakthrough finding: Pfiesteria caused brain damage.

(May 27th)


Holy War: The Crusades And Their impact on today's world, written by Karen Armstrong

Though this is a very fascinating book, it was hard for me to start to write this report because its contents and the author's suggestions regarding to the current situation of the Middle East (or thus in a way whole the world) are so heavy.

While I was reading this book, even though I have studied Crusades in my high-school class of the world history, I found I knew almost nothing at all. And also my knowledge about Muslims were only some of their contributions to science and culture. As though I've been seeing them through Westerners' eyes.
Karen's skillful narration of history of the Crusades and triple view of the three monotheistic religions-- Christianity, Judaism and Islamism--on the Crusades was an eye opener to me.

I think to know especially the Muslim perspective, one out of these three Abrahamic origin monotheistic religions is very important for us now because if we know the history of them we understand why it is natural for them to view the recent situation as another Western incursion. Remember that Bush mentioned something like 'Crusade' lately? It is interesting to know that Crusade has the stuff of romantic legend. It is like our Japanese legend of 'Genji and Heike' or other battles such as Kawanakajima. But those of Crusades are quite different from them, because of its connection with religions and the big impact on today's world.

In 1095, when Pope Urban II summoned Christian warriors to take up the cross and recapture the Holy Land, they had their own internal condition. The lords were fighting each other and the gap between the rich and the poor was big, making the social situation unstable. The Christianity in the west Europe in those days was very aggressive in spite of the pacifist religion of Jesus Christ (Mohamed was also pacifist,) since it connected with the local northern pagan traditions. Thus Crusades became a series of rabidly savage conflicts in the name of piety against the first intention of Pope Urban ll.

I was surprised to know that Crusades killed not only Muslim, inflaming their holy war 'Jihad' but Jews and Christians themselves as heresy and attacked the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church as well. Then the Crusads's view of chosen people changed its style to conquer other nations as colonialism and even Hitler Nazism fought their Holy War (they thought they were chosen people) Karen claims. And if it were not for the Holocaust, there would not have been the Balfour declaration thus not the conflict between Israel and Palestine today.

"Crusading is not a lost medieval tradition: it has survived in different forms in both Europe and the United Stats and we must accept that our own views are as likely to be blinkered and prejudiced as either the Arabs' or the Jews'. The prophets of Israel, the parents of the two younger faiths, proclaimed the necessity of creating a new heart and a new soul, which was far more important than external conformity. So too today. External political solutions are not enough. All three of the participants in the struggle must create a different attitude, a new heart and spirit," Karen writes at the end of the book.

(May 10th)



Memoirs of Geisha, written by Arther Golden

I read this book very fast, once I started to read it's hard to put it down. The story itself is well written. It is what we call a page-turner. It took me only 5 days to finish. But there was one thing which bothered me while reading besides some minor mistakes. Those minor mistakes are not important but one. It is that the girl named Chiyo (later Sayuri), who is the main character, has pale blue-gray eyes. And her blue-gray eyes play an important role in this story. She is described to be very beautiful and successful as a Geisha because of her eyes. Actually if you are a Westerner you will not understand why it matters so much to me.

It is narrated from the first-person point of view and of course the narrator is Chiyo (Sayuri.) The story took place in Japan during the 1930'~1980's and Chiyo is a genuine and authentic Japanese. There was no way people thought she was beautiful with such strange eyes as a Japanese in those days. More likely she would have been bullied or disregarded not only by her friends but also village people, if Chiyo were a real girl in a poor fishing village (even in a big city like Tokyo) with her blue-gray eyes in those days. If the author depicted Chiyo having 'large dark eyes' or 'large beautiful black eyes', it wouln't have bothered me at all. But it can't be helped since this book was written for Westerners not for Japanese. So I decided to read it as a fairy tale or a fantasy fiction.

As I said this is a well-written story. Arthur Golden did a very good research, especially about Gion in Kyoto and Geisha there. He describes many traditional practices of Gion, namely okiya, a house where geisha and apprentice geisha girls or maiko live, ochaya or a tea-house where rich men have Geisha parties, and mizuage (bidding and selling a maiko's virginity, what a strange tradition!) and their stringent lessons of Japanese dance, shamisen and so on. For Westerners, those Gion traditions must be very exotic, and some are even new to me. I guess the movie on this novel is successful as well because of that exoticism, all the more with beautiful kimonos of geishas and maikos.

It can be read as a success story of a poor girl who was sold by her parents and her ordeal and a love story between Sayuri and a rich gentleman, with a touch of the Japanese time-line of the Showa era all together.

(Mar. 14th 2006)


Darwin's Dangerous Idea, written by Daniel C. Dennett

Wow, I finished this big book at last. I decided to write the book report right now, otherwise I feel like I'll forget the contents as soon as I start to read other books. You know 'Strike the iron while it is hot.'

It took me a month and a half to read. It was very difficult to read and understand the contents for me, because Dennett's description is very much of an abstract philosophical level and argumentative, which I don't like. Though I got used to it as I kept reading, I felt and still feel that the weak point of Darwinism might be that it can't be tested like other empirical science.

Dennett begins in the preface as this: " Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has always fascinated me, but over the years I have found a surprising variety of thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with his great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physicist, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong."

So Dennett uses much of the pages to argue mainly to those "secular philosophers, psychologists, physicist, and even biologists."
But he starts with John Locke's late seventeenth-century Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where Locke raised question , "Which came first, mind or matter?" and answer, "mind did." Further more Dennett unlocks some of David Hume's skeptical arguments against this mind-first principle, with an insight which was close to that of Darwin's, though he couldn't come up with a solid alternative.

Darwin himself avoided to argue with such traditional viewpoints, but Dennett redefines Darwinism. He explains why he thinks Darwin's Idea is "the single best idea anyone had." He introduces evolution and natural selection as algorithmic process which can explain all the design for species. And it is very revolutionary and very dangerous because it can apply to not only biology but any subject such as science, philosophy, psychology and even cosmology.
Dennett calls Darwin's Idea a "universal acid," for it dissolves every concept.
(At the last part he explains Darwin's Idea is so dangerous that you have to treat it with care.)

Then Dennett throws out metaphors "skyhook" and "crane" which he uses all through the book. The "skyhooks" are something mysterious (like God, he implies, or just a chance) which is used when there are unaccountable problems. Skyhook is on the stance of antireductionism or greedy reductionism. On the other hand "cranes" are devices used explaining anything which is build on solid ground. Of course a crane's stance is good reductionism. And Dennett states flatly that there aren't such things as "skyhooks." Though there are somethings can't be explained by Darwinism, the accounts are waiting to be found out there.

He tries to confute anyone who doesn't agree with Darwinism as a"skyhook" seeker. He rather gives religious fundermentarists short shrift but to those who are in the various disciplines such as Noam Chomsky, Roger Penrose, Jerry Fodor, John Searle, and Stephen Jay Gould. In particular he spends many pages to argue Stephen Jay Gould down.
But it seems for me that Gould isn't searching for a skyhook. His theories are, in a way, supportive of Darwinism. Or as Dennett mentioned that his theories are in the range of Darwinism. I think it's the same as Kauffman's self-organization theory which Dennett himself says that it builds up Darwinism.

It was such a good opportunity to learn many concepts and scholars; some are new to me and some I've already known but vaguely.

(Mar. 9th 2006)



Cat's Cradle, written by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the second time that I've read Vonnegut's book.
The first one is "Slaughterhouse-Five," the contents of which are very heavy (it's about Dresden during WWII.) Compared to Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle isn't so heavy except the last part. Mostly it is very funny, satric and esay to read. However I think that the questions he asks about philosophical, religious and ethical matters are basically the same in both books. I guess he got those questions through his experience in Dresden.

The story starts with a writer named Jonah who wanted to write how Felix Hoenikker, the father of the A-bomb, was and what he did when the A-bomb was dropped down into Hiroshima. Then Jonah meets Hoenikker's three children, Newton Hoenikker, the youngest son (who happen to be a midget), Angela Hoenikker who's been like a mother to the boys and then Frank Hoenikker, the elder son. Meeting Frank brought Joan to an mysterious island, republic of San Lorenzo.

In the island Jonah finds Bokononism (the religion founded by Bokonon) and ice-nine that was invented by Felix Hoenikker and one drop of which can turn water of streams, sea and any liquid (that means all of creaturs, too) into ice over 100 degrees F. Felix invented it for requisition of a Marine general since they were straggling in mud in the war for almost two-hundred years.
Anyway, it seems that the ice-nine wasn't the final product since Felix didn't introduce it when he was alive.

Bokononism and ice-nine are the Vonnegut's criation and they play the most important role in the story. Most of the Bokonon philosophy is written as short statements and often provided to a calypso beat. I was impressed the words on the inside cover of the book,
"Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy" ( foma means Harmless untruths in Bokonon words.) The words reminded me of Japanese old saying "uso mo houben" meaning "lie is expedient" or "pious fraud." And I was gasped to read flowing sentences:
The Fourteenth Book (of Bokonon) is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" It doesn't take long to read The fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:

Jonah was going to be the president of the island but the dooms day comes caused by.......

(Jan. 17th, 2006)