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Ziring Book Pages - March-May Reviews

These are the reviews from the Spring of 1999. For newer reviews, go back to the main book page.

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms by Stephen Jay Gould
ISBN 0-609-60141-5

Essays about natural history and related topics have been the staple of Stephen Jay Gould's writing for decades. Periodically, he collects his recent essays into book form. This collection includes twenty-one essays originally published in Natural History magazine, accompanied by an introduction and retrospective notes. Each essay is about 20 pages in length, and some include illustrations.

Science, in Dr. Gould's view, is not just about facts and theories but also encompasses the discoverers, their lives, and society in general. The breadth that he gives to each essay helps to make them entertaining, but also helps the reader connect the scientific or historical topic of the essay with other things. For example, in the lead-off piece about Leonardo da Vinci, Dr. Gould points out Leonardo's fascination with hydrologic and geologic cycles, and ties it to Leonardo's famous Mona Lisa.

As he has often done, Dr. Gould has chosen to group the essays into several informal areas: Art and Science, Biographies in Evolution, Human Prehistory, and four others. My personal favorite in this collection is the section about Evolutionary Facts and Theories, a topic to which Dr. Gould has made significant contributions as a scientist and as an author of popular books. The essay about giraffes in writings on evolution ("The Tallest Tale") is a charming exposé of the over-emphasis on giraffe necks in the public perception of evolution, and their miniscule role in the real development of evolutionary theories. Only Gould could mix history, historiography, and science so delightfully.

This book represents almost two years of output by Dr. Gould, who also holds down a job at Harvard University. The depth and scholarship of the writing belie the time, however; reading it, one could easily believe that it was the author's full-time vocation for several years. With his announcement that he intends to retire from writing essays at the turn of the millenium, Dr. Gould has made each new collection even more precious.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

The Transparent Society by David Brin
ISBN 0-201-32802-X
In the past few years, privacy concerns have become a very big issue for individuals, government, and corporations. Computer and other technologies, as well as changing cultural norms, have greatly broadened the amount of hitherto-private information available to everybody (including government). David Brin takes as a premise for his book that technology will continue to drive greater and greater exposure of information, as well as better ways of accessing, storing, and retrieving that information. To summarize his position, we ain't seem nothing yet.

The book begins with a wonderfully crafted comparison of two cities. In the first city, freely accessible and pervasive surveillance and network technology enable a free, open, and neighborly sort of society. In the second city, pervasive but tightly controlled surveillance creates an Orwellian police state. Contrived? Sure, but it illustrates the central dichotomy that this book strives to explore: will technology force us to choose between privacy and freedom?

Much of the first couple of chapters help to establish the premise, and convince the reader that various improving and emerging technologies pose real danger to privacy and liberty. This point Dr. Brin establishes very effectively. However, that danger is assumed through most of the book, and is already well-understood by most technically savvy potential readers. Dr. Brin's real point is that how we adopt the technologies, and how we control and deploy them, will make the difference between an open, friendly, free society, and a closed, fearful, even totalitarian society. He calls the first option mutual transparency: a society in which technology opens a lot of windows in all directions: citizen sees government, government sees citizens, everybody sees corporations, police see suspects, citizens see police, etc. The argument for this approach is subtle, but Dr. Brin expresses his views very well. By the end of chapter seven, you'll understand the dangers that technology can pose to freedom, and why openness can mitigate some of those dangers.

The discussions of technology are very interesting, but it is possible to read about technology in a lot of other books and magazines. Dr. Brin also explores how these technologies and their uses will be affected by human nature. Chapters 5, Human Nature and the Dilemma of Openness, presents a fairly convincing, but perhaps too optimistic, view of how leadership, social position, embarrasment, and other cultural factors will influence a transparent society. Most importantly, in these chapters, Dr. Brin identifies a point that many privacy advocates overlook: the government is not the only enemy of personal liberties, nor even always the most dangerous; it is merely the most visible.

Unlike some more iconoclastic authors in the privacy debate, Dr. Brin devotes considerable space in his book to seriously considering possible flaws in his approach. The best analysis appears in the introduction to Chapter 9, and it uses a technique called the plausibility matrix. Dr. Brin presents arguments for and against his model of mutual transparency, but in a context that gives the reader a tool for helping to evaluate the arguments effectively.

It is very interesting to compare this book with other recent books on the topic of technology v. privacy. For example, Dr. Whit Diffie's recent team effort with privacy lawyer Susan Landau, Privacy on the Line, takes a historical view, and arrives at one conclusion that defeating government control on privacy-enhancing technology is vital to ensuring continued freedom. Dr. Brin takes a much more forward-looking, broader view. In that respect, his book is less useful to the reader wishing to focus on contemporary cryptography policy debates, but much more useful to the concerned individual hoping to preserve cherished liberties in the longer term.

The Transparent Society is designed to be a thought-provoking book. The author practically admits that he is taking a radical view to help foster debate on the issues. But measured against the typical privacy advocate book-length tirade against government, Dr. Brin's fresh and fairly balanced approach is welcome indeed.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

The Language of Mathematics by Keith Devlin
ISBN 0-7167-3379-X
According to its author, the intent of this book is "to convey the essence of mathematics". As a long-time college educator and mathematician, Prof. Devlin has the credentials to undertake this task. For the most part, the book is successful: it conveys some of the fundamental concepts of mathematics, and manages to be entertaining, too.

Apparently, there is an unwritten rule that all mathematics books for popular readership have to begin with a section about counting and the integers. The Language of Mathematics does include such a section, but it is mercifully short. Almost all the standard, obligatory topics are introduced in the first two chapters. After that, the book is a mélange of mainstream and fringe topics; some described with dry prose worthy of a high school math text, but most with light tones and lots of enthusiasm. Some of the better topics are listed below.

In the best parts of the book, Prof. Devlin offers really inspired non-technical explanations of deep mathematical ideas.

This book is actually a revision, or expanded edition, of a volume from the Scientific American Library series, The Mathematics of Patterns. In that guise, it was heavier on pictures and lighter on substance, but garnered some good reviews. This version has fewer color plates, but the illustrations are generally good. Also, it has a fine index.

Can this book compare to classics of the genre, like The Mathematical Experience or Geometry and the Imagination? No, it is not quite that great, but it is a very interesting and up-to-date book, and quite enjoyable.

Conclusion: Recommended

Rainbow Mars by Larry Niven
ISBN 0-7167-3379-X
Between 1969 and 1973, Larry Niven wrote a charming series of short stories featuring Hanville Svetz. A reluctant time-traveller, Svetz was also skilled and likable. In this new novel, Svetz and his style of time travel get a much more detailed treatment, much of it on Mars.

The crux of time-travel for Svetz and his colleagues at the Bureau for Temporal Research (c. 3100 AD), is that anytime they push their machines back past roughly 1950, they wander across parallel time-lines into various kinds of fantasy.

In Rainbow Mars, Svetz's boss decides to use this fantasy time travel effect to find and bring forward some live martians. Once reaching Mars in the 1400s, Svetz and his companions discover that the planet they've reached possesses live martians and much more, all of it subtle and perilous. The martians are drawn from various classic science fiction and fantasy classics set on the red planet: beings invented by Bradbury, Lewis, and Burroughs inhabit the planet and wage war over its scant resources. Along the way, Svetz manages to change humanity's past and its future.

The hallmark of the Svetz stories is their mixture of serious science fiction concepts with fantasy and humor. While Rainbow Mars has some whimsical moments, it is mostly serious. It is also crowded with ideas, action, long and detailed dialog, combat, technology, and references to other fiction about Mars and its inhabitants. Several key concepts flash by as single-sentence references by supporting characters, which is no problem if you are a careful reader with a lot of background in reading science fiction and popular science. Basically, this is a book by a very experience science fiction author, written for very experienced readers. The mixture of 'golden-age' Mars fantasy and modern tech-oriented science fiction is well managed, original, and a lot of fun; if you have all the requisite background. Otherwise, it will probably just seem like a contrived mish-mash.

As a bonus, Rainbow Mars includes all five of the original Svetz stories as a kind of appendix. If you aren't already familiar with Svetz, read these delightful short stories before starting the main novel - they provide essential background.

Conclusion: Recommended for serious sci-fi fans only


All reviews (c) 1999, Neal Ziring. Reviews may be reproduced in whole or in part as long as authorship credit is preserved.

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This page written by Neal Ziring, last modified 6/15/99.