The Last Unicorn by William deBuys

The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures1992, Laos – A remote team of scientists stumble across an unusual pair of horns on the wall of a village hut. Excitedly interrogating the residents, they confirm the discovery of a new species of animal, the first large land mammal discovered in fifty years – the saola.

Infrequently seen alive in the wild and only once kept briefly in captivity, saolas are considered to be The Last Unicorn, practically a mythological creature. They are so rare and elusive that they could be extinct and we wouldn’t know it. Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nature writer William deBuys set off with famed biologist William Robichaud into the wild mountain forests in the hopes of becoming the first Westerners to spot a saola – I’ll let you read it to find out if they did! But along the way, the expedition must tangle with belligerent poachers and unhelpful locals as well as untangle snares, traps, and the truth about the difficulties of conservation in a developing nation.

DeBuys gives us fascinating glimpse into a place that most of us will never go and a creature that we will never see. I particularly appreciated the bounty of photos to help the reader gain a clearer insight into his adventure. His eloquent writing also draws an in-depth background picture of saolas – the history of their region, the people cohabiting their habitat, and the culture that both reveres and hunts them. I was less impressed with deBuys’ interjections about his travel woes than his factual knowledge or even his philosophical musings on humans and nature, but it lightened the depressing parts (i.e. extinction) I guess.

Overall, an informative and engaging read for fans of nature and travel.

4 Stars

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetEvery once in awhile I feel like learning something, not just reading for the pure unadulterated enjoyment or escapism of it. After barely keeping up with my friends’ conversation about net neutrality, I decided the subject had to be the Internet. Surprisingly, there’s very few well-known books on the topic, so I settled on the (Internet-recommended) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum.

Hilarious title aside, journalist Blum starts off just as clueless as I was. After his Internet connection is disturbed by a pesky neighborhood squirrel, he begins to think about where all those cables head off to – is there an Internet home base or it is just all blank space? Blum discovers the Internet comes and goes from multiple places, from underneath Manhattan where a new fiber optic cable is buried to the coast of Portugal where an undersea cable carries the Internet between Europe and Africa to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest where Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all hide their massive data centers. Despite our conception of the Internet’s placelessness, it in fact lives everywhere.

A large chunk of the book is dedicated to a history of the Internet, how it evolved into the beast it is today and the people and places who birthed it. Blum meets a bevy of fascinating individuals, including the geeky network engineers who guard its monuments and act as caretakers for its services. Among the most cool to me were the Internet mappers, who trace the cables that carry signals around the world, and the folks who actually lay the cables along the ocean-floor, one instance of which Blum witnesses.

While fascinating and informative, this wasn’t among the most readable nonfiction that I’ve read. As someone who express open ignorance of technology, I admittedly found explanations of certain issues hard to understand (e.g. optical switching, TCP/IP), though Blum tries his best with highly descriptive prose. I admire his philosophical wonder at all he sees, but ultimately the Internet remains shrouded in mystery for me.

3 Stars

Weekend Update: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingFinally! was my exhausted yet euphoric thought as I lay down Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything earlier today. I had loved Bryson’s  A Walk in the Woods about his trek through the Appalachian Trail for its amusing anecdotes and slightly-terrified reverence for nature, but this work was a harder slog that quickly tired me out. So I’ve been reading it in fits and starts over the last two months, interspersed with lighter reads for sanity’s sake.

The good is that Bryson, as always, does a very good job of succinctly and wittily condensing the greatest questions about humanity and the universe, and our understanding of ourselves in our universe, into 560 pages. The bad is that that’s a lot of ground to cover so the material is very dense, dropping names and theories and hard science like the Niagara Falls drops water. Bryson tries the best he can to make everything comprehensible while comprehensive but in the end there’s not much more editing he can do.

A sampling of fascinating facts:

  • Bipedalism can be largely blamed for the increased pain and risk of death during childbirth because the pelvic bone and birth canal had to be reshaped to accommodate walking upright.
  • Dodos were so spectacularly dense that to find them, you only had to make one squawk and the others would flock to the source of the squawking.
  • Einstein worked as a Swiss patent clerk, where he was denied a promotion but at least had the time and leisure to contemplate, leading to the theory of relativity.

I highly recommend it for those who want to deepen and broaden their science knowledge, but this is not a book that can be powered through. It requires thought and re-reading, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t able to do that, skimming through parts of the middle. However, this book is one of those that should be required reading at high schools because it offers an in-depth cross-curriculum look at a variety of subjects from geography to cosmology and physics to paleontology.  I was thoroughly geeking out at the random bits of knowledge I learned, and will be insufferable at upcoming parties. But it’s not for the faint of heart!

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should KnowThe Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know was highly recommended to me by a feminist friend, who called it the Lean In of 2014. Successful journalists and bestselling authors of Womenomics Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explore the concept of confidence from neuroscientists’ research into its genetic coding  to psychologists’ studies on nurturing confidence in ourselves. Alongside interviews with women leaders from the worlds of politics, sports, the arts and the military, they dissect how a lack of confidence hurts our performance in all areas of our lives and how everyone can tap into this essential resource within themselves.

The most fascinating thing this book revealed for me is the balance between natural confidence and developed confidence. While some amount of confidence is pre-determined (which I was surprised to learn that geneticists can test you for), you can also boost your confidence levels, training your brain to work differently. It doesn’t happen just by positive thinking and feel-good mantras – it’s about taking risks and failing, and then picking yourself up again in the face of repeated rejection. This is a behavior men are better at, and one that is reportedly more predictive of success than competence.

Unsurprisingly, Kay and Shipman confirm that men are usually more confident than women, and suggest that generally women can improve their self-confidence by behaving more like men, though you should still being true to your authentic self – so easy! But what is interesting is that women still perceive other women (and men) as confident when those individuals don’t see themselves as confident (ex. Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, the authors themselves). That suggests the main obstacle to a woman owning her achievements is overcoming her negative self-delusion and replacing it with a more positive image of herself.

However, like most self-help books, this one doesn’t give much specifically applicable advice in practicing that beyond the usual spiel of meditation and self-compassion. Instead, they filled pages with endless personal anecdotes of their lives and their children’s experiences and the aunt’s second cousin’s exploits –  you get the point, which is that at points it was heavy of the fluff and light on the science. Most egregious though was the limited point-of-view it covered, that of elite, privileged women.

In sum, I don’t think it was quite as good as Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which touches on similar concepts and the authors themselves recommend, but I did prefer it to Lean In and would suggest it for women out there whose self-confidence is battered and whose self-doubt is rearing its ugly head. Maybe like me, they’ll be comforted by the knowledge that everyone struggles with low self-esteem occasionally, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent situation – you can fix it. Just act.

3 Stars

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS JeannetteHampton Sides’ nonfiction tome In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terribly Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette had made its appearance on a number of best lists of 2014, so I was eager to read it. Silly me made the error of reading it on a cruise ship though, which led to the appearance of a number of icebergs in my dreams.

It’s the late nineteenth century and people the world over are struck by Artic Fever. Theories abound about the North Pole, including the prominent (and incorrect) one by the German cartographer August Petermann, which claimed that the fortress of ice simply framed a warm sea surrounding a verdant island. James Gordon Bennett, the millionaire owner of the New York Herald, seeking a new adventure to sensationalize for his readers, decides to find the truth. He funds a nationally-sanctioned U.S. naval expedition to prove American might and claim the Pole. Departing in 1879 from San Francisco and captained by rescue hero George Washington De Long, the USS Jeanette quickly became trapped in an ice pack. For two years, the 32-man crew lived on the floes until the ship finally sank. Realizing the only hope of survival was to travel 1000 miles south, they set off with their dogs and canoes, walking across a frozen hellscape, either to rescue in Siberia or death.

Is that all a spoiler when it actually happened over a century ago? In any case, the ending is tragic, especially for a few of the people (and dogs) I felt connected to over the course of their 454 page narrative. Because let’s be real, I would’ve given up and died much sooner than them (not that I would’ve taken this trip to begin with), so was suitably impressed by their perseverance and courage in the face of insane adversity and terrible odds of survival – though I was convinced for the first half that they all would survive, and appalled to discover the reality.

This voyage was both a product of its time and of its people, and Sides does a fantastic job of weaving in a character-driven story with the greater historical-cultural background. From the flamboyantly wealthy and eccentric sponsor James Gordon Bennett to the determined dreamer and fearless leader George Washington De Long and his devoted wife Emma, he made the reader feel like these real people were really alive and personally knowable. For a sad and harrowing tale, the contrast between Bennett and De Long provides some levity, as does anecdotes of Bennett’s society-scandalizing hijinks and the men’s daily occupations on the ice. I’m glad Sides focused mainly on Bennett and De Long because the introduction of the rest of the crew proved to be a few too many to remember all individually.

There is a fair amount of science involved, including detailed explanations of the prevailing theories of the time about currents and the Earth’s geography (ex. Kuro Siwo, Wrangel Land, and the Open Polar Sea). Sides makes it readable, even for a non-science person like myself, though I admit my attention flagged at certain parts during the journey’s preparation stages. Though the book is long, and dry on occasion, I still read it fairly quickly. The last third as the crew walks through endless labyrinths of ice is a gripping, awe-inspiring journey and definitely worth the first few hundred pages.

Overall, this book is both well-researched and well-written, and particularly interesting in an age where the melting polar ice cap is making headlines. A highly recommended read for anyone with Artic fever of their own, or who are explorers and adventurers at heart.

4 Stars

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

War of the Whales: A True StoryIt seems this blog was successful in influencing me to branch out to new genres. I ordinarily would never read something so sciencey but I saw this one on a friend’s shelf and thought, why not? And I’m very glad I did.

Joshua Horwitz’s War of the Whales chronicles the mass strandings of various whale subspecies due to the Navy’s use of deep-water sonar and the fight to enact new legislation protecting the oceans against violent intrusion from military activities. In the summer of 2000, Marine photographer and ex-Navy officer Ken Balcomb thought it was just another day of whale-spotting with his Earthwatch volunteers in the Bahamas until he finds a beached Curvier’s beaked whale outside his house. Within 24 hours, numerous other whales are spotted grounded ashore, with many of them unable to survive the experience. Calling on fellow biologists, like Bob Gisner of the Office of Naval Research and Darlene Ketten, a renowned whale hearing expert, as well as the Internet community, he attempts to find the reason behind this strange occurrence.

Coming to find himself stymied by the government and with a suspicious naval destroyer doing highly classified testing in the area, Balcomb’s experience leads him to the conclusion that the Navy’s sonar testing frightened and disoriented the whales by causing their eardrums to hemorrhage so that they headed towards shore accidentally. Similar incidents occurred after NATO naval tests off the coast of Greece and after the Spanish navy conducted exercises by the Canary Islands. Although he felt guilty about betraying his fellow soldiers, Balcomb eventually decides to expose the Navy’s role in multiple instances of whale deaths with the aid of attorney Joel Reynolds from the Natural Resources Defense Council, spurring a halfhearted government investigation and eventual Supreme Court case. (Spoiler: They lose in the court of law but win in the court of public opinion.)

Horwitz excels at making his cast come alive as distinctly human individuals. Although the government and military are meant to be the bad guys, with the Navy being the chief villain and fisheries being their minions, he provides compelling reasons for their actions, primarily in the interests of self-protection and national security that do have to be balanced against environmental protection. Neither Reynolds nor Balcomb are perfect either, see their numerous failed relationships as evidence, but their passion and dogged persistence for their beliefs outweighs other character flaws in this context. I’m sure none of these individuals appreciated seeing their actions (or inactions) dragged into the public eye, but at least Horwitz makes them all understandable to the reader.

He is also incredibly good at clarifying the often murky and complicated scientific and legal facts that are crucial to this story. From the anatomy of a whale’s head to the process of training dolphins to detect bombs to the complexity of filing a Supreme Court case, he manages to explain things clearly and in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry footnote. This book could’ve easily been textbook boring, but instead it is an approachable and engaging read.

Unfortunately the sad part is that despite the recent attention Save the Whales campaigns have received, it’s still hard to enforce what little legislation exists both in the US and worldwide. As Horwitz explained, the premier marine biologists are all dependent on the government and military for funding, so are often reluctant to stand up for the environment. While the awareness of noise pollution in the oceans in greater, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how human activity affects marine life, and how to balance between the two.

However, this book is a perfect launching point for learning and discussing these issues. It was definitely one of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve read, especially on such a timely topic with connections from the documentary “Blackfish” to military power/responsibility in a post-9/11 era.

5 Stars