Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Spirit Desire – Jennifer Benningfield (2018)
I am a Sonic Youth Lifer. The skronkalicious foursome has been my favorite musical group for the past 30+ years. As a part of my fandom, I have been a member of the Sonic Youth Gossip Forum for nearly the entire existence of the interwebs. In that nebulous cul-de-sac I met and have befriended many a fellow Sonic Youth Lifer. I have seen them grow up, rock out, and move on with their lives. I have lost Sonic friends who passed too early (RIP Adam “atsonicpark” Cooley - http://directoradamcooley.angelfire.com/ ). I was also exposed to some of the most creative, interesting, and downright bizarre people, all of them Sonic Youth nuts to one extent or the other. One of these bad-asses is Jennifer Benningfield, or as she is known on the SY Gossip Forum, jennthebenn. In 2009 she published her first book, No Setlist: Pieces of a Sonic Life, detailing her near-obsessive devotion to traveling for Sonic Youth concerts. My review of that book is here: http://rxttbooks.blogspot.com/2017/06/rxtt-flashback-review-story-of-sonic.html .
It is now 2018, Sonic Youth have broken up, and the individual members have moved on to new musical projects, as varied as one can imagine. Jennifer Benningfield has released the follow-up to No Setlist. The development of her writing voice and style are evident throughout, as the book is tighter, funnier, and in many ways more resonant than her debut. Like before, the book is divided into sections detailing individual Sonic Youth concerts she attended, describes the moment she and her partner in crime, Patrick “pantophobia” Suddath learned of the imminent breakup of our favorite band, and finishes with her treks to various post-Sonic Youth concerts.
If it was inspiring to me to read Ms. Benningfield’s initial love letter to the Youth, it was even more amazing to read this new book, appreciating the growth and maturity of writing that has allowed Jennifer Benningfield to submit her short stories to various hard-copy and online publications. While I do not personally know her, having had little interaction with her besides the Sonic Youth Gossip Forum (and the Instigator Fantasy Football league which I run every year. Jenn’s team is Snoopy’s Smash Squad, and anyone who knows her knows she has a near-fetishistic fascination with Charles Schultz and the Peanuts gang), I am so proud of this digital friend for grinding away, for continuing to write and submit, even though the rejections and tough times can seem never ending. The band is very lucky to have someone such as her as a fan.
One of the little oddities that I found endearing in this book, is the way that, as a super-fan, Ms. Benningfield describes the journeys taken to the shows, the people she meets and stays with, the long-distance friends she connected with, the fearful walks through unfamiliar neighborhoods in search of a pre-show meal, and everything that goes into attending rock shows. I myself have attended countless hundreds of not thousands of rock shows, and these little details are the ones that actually make the occasions memorable, apart from the musical performances themselves. There is a huge difference between going to a big, national touring show at a giant arena, and going to a small touring act performing at who-the-fuck-knows-where. It is more personal, more intimate, and if you are one of the early arrivals, like Ms. Benningfield likes to be, you can be in the FRONT ROW! (I never ever stand in the front row. I am 6’2” tall, and no one likes my ass blocking their view.)
Sonic Youth is no more. The Sonic Youth Gossip Forum is creaky and increasingly less populated. The Sonic Lifers have had to move on. Our favorite band, the band that never even sold 250,000 copies of any release, that taught so many of us what noise as Art was, and the possibilities inherent in that, will never come together in skronk again. All we have are our memories, and thanks to the mind and work of SY Lifers such as Jennifer Benningfield, we can all share in our collective Sonic Joy. SONIC LIFE!
(This book can be downloaded and read here: https://trapperjennmd.blogspot.com/2018/07/spirit-desire.html)
Friday, November 2, 2018
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers. Perversions, and Potential of Heredity – Carl Zimmer (2018)
(A quick note on some awesomeness that has graced this humble book review blog recently. Several weeks ago I received notice that RXTT’s Intellectual Journey has been included in Feedspot’s Top 200 Book Blogs, currently found at #193! Amazing! Many thanks to blog master Mr. Anuj Agarwal, and the good people at Feedspot. BOOKS RULE!)
The past decade has seen the world of genetic research explode, in both the amount and the scope of what is being attempted. Researches the world over have new tools with which to explore the genetic codes that provide the instructions to make all parts of living organisms. As with all emerging scientific fields, the general public’s discourse is decades behind the forefront of research. This leads to reactionary angers, manipulation of the ignorant through fear, and an inability to properly fund cutting edge research. Carl Zimmer has done an amazing job corralling the wild and weird history of the human study of heredity and genetics, and made it truly enjoyable to read.
Humans have been genetically altering the natural world around us for millennia; way before we knew what drove heredity, or had any idea about why offspring acquired certain characteristics of their parents and lost others. These early genetic experimenters were the early humans that began to cultivate wild plants. An example of this is the modern tomato. The original fruit, which is exceedingly rare to find these days, was basically a tiny, tart and seedy berry. The humans in the New World (many of our modern foods were not found in Eurasia, Africa, or Australia) would choose a plant with slightly lager or sweeter berry, collect those seeds, and propagate it. Each new generation, the human would choose the plants with the best fruit, propagate that one, and dispose of the lesser plants. Over the centuries, that basic method created whole new species of tomato plants, capable of producing much bigger, sweeter, and more nutritious food. The same process allowed our New World ancestors to create what we now call corn, chili peppers, potatoes, and a host of other vegetables that are ubiquitous in modern diets worldwide. This same process was undergone by early humans domesticating cattle, goats, swine, etc. By breeding only the animals whose traits were preferred, more animals capable of reproducing those traits existed, soon making them the norm.
In spite of the long history of humans altering the plants and animals around us, it seems that as a species, we humans have an extremely short memory of our collective past. We allow ideas that have no relation to the world around us to color how we see the world itself. One of the biggest restraints to developing the science of heredity and genetics came from organized religion, and the blind obedience that their dogma requires of their followers. Ideas that are in opposition to religious dogma are disposed of without exploration, and people are kept blind, ignorant and happy in their stupidity. For centuries, the idea that the world was truly static, truly unchanging, was prevalent in Western culture. This stems solely from theologians and priests demanding that everyone see their little collection of stories, history, genealogy, myths, and fables as LITERAL TRUTH, never to be questioned, never to be doubted. In this world view, every animal species was perfectly crafted by an omniscient creator, and these species have remained unchanged since the beginning of time. This belief depended on the unchallenged assumption that the world was just over 6,000 years old, an assumption so stupid and wrong yet strictly dogmatic, that it was unchallenged for centuries, even causing the execution of people willing to claim otherwise.
It is quite fitting that despite these idiocies pushed on people by organized religions, it was ordained members of the clergy who did the most groundbreaking work on genetics. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar and abbot, decided he was going to do his own experiments, regardless of the consequences. He used the common pea plant, and its many colorful flowers, as his subject. By cross-breeding them over and over, and carefully observing the results, he developed the idea that the outcome of reproduction is due to the offspring inheriting some sort of instructions from both of its progenitors. He showed how, for these plants, and it turns out, for much of life on Earth, there is a rigid set of probability controlling which traits are passed on and in what quantity. By selectively breeding only tall plants, an d then pollinating them with pollen from short plants, he was able to show the existence of dominant, and recessive, traits.
Dominant traits are those that will appear in an offspring if only one of its parents carries that trait. Recessive traits can spring up in offspring, but only if both parents carry the recessive trait themselves. He also determined the ratio in which these traits would appear, and was vindicated by his experiments. People condemned the man, ignoring his work. It was only after his death that recognition came, and now Mendel is considered the father of genetics for his efforts.
Breeders and scientists continued working in this manner for centuries, through trial and error, until a great discovery was made. This was the discovery of the DNA molecule, and how it is found in every single form of life on the planet, from bacteria to trees to humans. Understanding that this complex and huge molecule encoded instructions for the creation of all parts of an organism was something that, even today, many people are not willing to accept. Once this was found out, scientists and researchers sought to decode what was now called a genome. Some animals have few chromosomes containing DNA, and others have dozens and dozens. Each species is different, yet each species carries so much “junk” DNA (DNA that is left over from previous ancestors or organisms) that looking for the genes that are actually shaping our bodies was a herculean task. Over the past 30 years much groundbreaking work has been done in studying genes, what they are responsible for, how to alter them, and how to use gene therapy to help people suffering from genetic diseases.
Another awesome part of this book discusses the study of heredity, as it relates to what traits and genes are passed on to our children. Humans are pretty selfish and stupid, for the most part, and because of this many people were convinced that having “bad” parents automatically created “bad” offspring. This was such a racist and classicist idea, yet it persisted for a long time, because, of course, most “educated” people canme from the rich white upper crust of society. It allowed people to classify a pecking order of human quality, with white Europeans on top of the list, and African and tribal people at the bottom. These morons made the grievous mistake of assuming that genetics count for everything in a person’s makeup, and that environment, opportunity, and nutrition had no bearing. These idiots fought the hardest, and still fight today, to try and maintain the status quo which keeps them fat and happy while everyone else deserves their shit lot in life. It has been shown, countless times, that human achievement and quality is an ongoing process, and results from everything that shapes a person, from their family life, to their education, to their nutrition, to where they are born.
Even after these dumb-ass ideas were discounted, people continued to stick to strict ideas of heredity, ideas which have no bearing in the real world. In one example, around the 1920’s, the comedian Charlie Chaplin was sued by a young lady claiming her son was his illegitimate child. Chaplin sought to have the court accept scientific evidence (blood type) that the child could not be Chaplin’s, but at the time the courts were scientifically ignorant, and would not allow it. In recent decades, this mindset has flipped, and in most courts, only DNA evidence is accepted and it is seen as irrefutable. The blind stupidity of this is pointed out by the case of a woman with three children, who, in a custody battle, had blood work done. The blood work showed that her kids did not share her DNA, so the courts accused her of stealing the babies when they were young. She tried everything, including testimony from the doctor that delivered her babies, but had no luck. It was not until several scientists did extensive work on the lady that it was discovered that she is a chimera. Her body is composed of two distinctly different sets of DNA. Her blood contained DNA that did not match her kids, but her muscle and skin contained matching DNA. Genetic chimeras are quite common, in fact, it is estimated that most humans are genetic chimeras on some level. Some of them are formed when two eggs are fertilized by two sperm I the uterus, and then these two combine into one embryo, creating one human. Sometimes these come out hermaphroditic, other times it is seemingly undetectable. Even other people have stripes across their skin, from two separate genetic pools.
One other seeming insanity I came across while reading this book is the discovery that human mothers exchange DNA with their offspring, and vice versa. It used to be thought that the placenta was a protective barrier, keeping the fetus separate, but that is not the case. The mother’s DNA does enter the child, and sometimes the child’s DNA goes back through the umbilical cord in the form of stem cells and become part of the mother’s body. In some cases it was found that the fetus’ stem cells became neurons in the brain of the mother, sometimes months after the child had been born. The implications are awesome.
I could write about the amazing stuff in this book forever. I think it is a very engaging read, and worth the time it takes, for anyone interested in heredity, genetics, science history, and the foolishness of man’s assumptions about our own nature. Highly Recommended.
(This book can be purchased here: https://carlzimmer.com/books/she-has-her-mothers-laugh/ )
Monday, October 1, 2018
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary – Caspar Henderson (2013)
Bestiaries are bad-ass. I even like the word itself (a collection of beasts!!!). For the most recent human history, bestiaries were collections, much like encyclopedias and atlases, that sought to compile the whole breadth of the animal life found in a specific area of the world. Ancient Greek and Roman scholars would compile these amazing bestiaries, mostly based on word-of-mouth and accounts brought back from intrepid sailors. Because their sources were never actually verified, many of the entries found in these old bestiaries are either for wholly made up animals, such as chimeras, unicorns, and gryphons, or they were for severely misidentified and poorly described animals, such as the rhinoceros, which was originally thought to have armored plating, and whose horn it was said would spew fire when the creature was angry. While many of these descriptions sound poetically correct, (you do NOT want a 2 ton rhino angry at you. You will swear he has fire shooting out its snout as it comes to wreck you up. Also, its thick, folded skin, does indeed look like armor plating,) they were not up to the veracity needed to function as true scientific categorization.
Around half a decade ago, author Caspar Henderson started to think about animals, specifically the ones that are surprising to encounter. These animals are so amazing, so unique in their morphology or their behavior, and so different from the standard animals we humans find ourselves exposed to, that they may as well be mythical. He began to do the research that led to this book. Mr. Henderson’s love of nature shines through in his writing. He has chosen one animal to represent each letter of the alphabet, and in each chapter he manages to not only describe the amazing animal in question, what we know currently about its life, physical properties, and behavior, but he also explores the way humans have discovered these details, how humans used to see these animals historically, and the possibilities inherent for us in studying these magnificent creatures.
I am a huge nature nut, and I am always in awe of the seemingly inexhaustible variety of form and function that life has taken on our lovely planet Earth. I was quite familiar with some of the animals in this bestiary, and I was completely ignorant of several of these creatures. I learned quite a lot about or fellow animals, and was left with a distinct impression that, for all we humans know about life and the universe around us, what remains to be known is so vast, and so completely unpredictable to us, that it shines a harsh light on the selfish way we humans treat our Earth and its fellow inhabitants. We are all in this together, whether prey or predator, scavenger, or parasite. The more we know about the world around us, hopefully the less we will take it for granted. When we destroy nature we are destroying ourselves.
(This book can be purchased here: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo15631080.html )
[ Review edited per the author's correction. - RXTT ]
[ Review edited per the author's correction. - RXTT ]
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – Steven Pinker (2011)
Living in our world today presents a duality that we all must cope with. Firstly, we now live in a time where fewer people are living in extreme poverty than ever before in our collective history. Humans are living to older ages than ever before. Humans have managed to engage in worldwide trade and diplomacy, and do so with the minimum of force or violence. Secondly, we now have the ability to be informed about every single horror that occurs anywhere on our planet within seconds of its happening. We have the ability to detect more and more varieties of cancer and disease. We also have a never-ending news cycle that will repeat ghastly news over and over again, giving the impression that everything is chaos and horror. These two sides of our world fight for our collective consciousness.
Many people claim that humanity has degraded over the eons, beginning in a pastoral and peaceful existence, and ending in our constant competition for resources, bringing wars, violence, and terror to the people. What Steven Pinker has done in this amazing book is gather up the data available to show that, as a whole, and throughout all of humankind, our collective violence has actually decreased due to the evolution of our collective humanity.
Pinker explores the many methods by which violence is categorized and quantified, and proceeds to regale the reader with 8 chapters of the most brutal history of human violence upon ourselves, animals, and the world around us. He details everything from state sponsored war, to individual acts of murder and violence. In each instance, these violent acts have drastically decreased throughout the world. Even in the most remote and government-less parts of Earth, violence has decreased.
It is hard for a modern human to consider how horrible it was to exist a thousand years ago, with our knowledge of world wars, genocide, and other horrors fresh in our collective minds. Pinker describes exactly how dangerous it was to be a human being at various points in our past, both distant and recent. In fact, up until very recently indeed, most humans died before the age of 30, and a person reaching 50 years of age was considered ancient! These days, we all expect to live to 80 and worry a ton about “premature” death, as if death was something we all have on a schedule like lunch or nap-time. This bias comes specifically from how safe and non-violent our day-to-day world is.
One of the most important conclusions from this research is that, as the world becomes less religious, it becomes less violent. In previous eras, when religion was state-sanctioned, and belonging to a different religion regularly meant death, or at best, banishment, the ease by which humans saw other humans as NON-humans is evident. Religion also taught men to subjugate women, and to approve of using “lesser humans” as slaves, for their god told them it was A-OK. The worst were states where the religion controlled the politics. These provided humanity with extreme cases of genocide, mass-murder, and the infestation of violence.
Violence was so pervasive in our past that people writing contemporaneously did not seem too bothered by public torture, public executions, and the display of endless gore and violence. Every ancient culture had blood-sports, from the Romans and their gladiators, to the British and their bear-baiting. (Bear baiting is when a bear is chained up and then feral wolves or dogs are dispatched to attack the bear, and everyone had a blast watching dogs and bears get ripped to shreds in horrible ordeals of pain and gore. The British LOVED this, and they were all very religious!)
What Steven Pinker has done here is provide factual, well-researched data to help spread the enlightenment and humanist ideas that have managed to make our current time the least violent of all. It is a heavy book, and quite depressing at times, but the knowledge that we humans seem to be heading towards a less violent and more constructive existence is something that lifts my spirits.
(This book is available for purchase here: https://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0143122010 )