Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review: The Loch Ness Story (Mitchell)

Mitchell, Nicholas The Loch Ness Story (1974) A “revised” edition published by Penguin, this book contains a typically credulous account of the creatures supposed to live in Loch Ness. In the 60s and 70s several people used the best available underwater technology they could afford in order to find Nessie, and of course came up empty. There’s no question IMO in that Nessie is a compound of hoax, wishful thinking, and carefully ambiguous publicity aimed at tourists. Tourist pamphlets from before the first world war do not mention Nessie, which I think is evidence enough that she’s a very recent “discovery”.

Mitchell’s tone is that of a believer: any possible fact turns into reality within a sentence or two. He makes snide remarks about the skeptics and critics, often identified with a shadowy scientific establishment of some sort, who have closed their minds against this most momentous discovery. I read about halfway through the book, by which time Mitchell is referring to Nessie as a prehistoric animal, possibly a saurian, that has somehow survived for millions of years. Notions such a minimum sustainable population, of geological and climatic changes that would reduce the odds of survival, etc, appear to be beyond him. Grainy photos, out of focus blobs in the middle of out of focus snapshots, eye-witness accounts of things seen in the gloaming or against a background of sun-glistering water (there’s a photo of one of these sightings) – all these are for him irrefutable evidence, not only that Nessie is real, but that (s)he’s a reptile of some sort.

A wonderful, often amusing, but finally tedious read, like so many of these books, it will merely confirm both the believer and the skeptic in their opposing beliefs. The pictures are the usual ones, often reprinted, and to my skeptical eye are utterly unconvincing. The fact that they are badly printed doesn’t help. **

Book Review: Remaking the World (Petroski)

Petroski, Henry Remaking the World (1999) Jon gave me this book for Christmas. Petroski wrote historical essays for American Scientist, a magazine that appears to carry on the original intent of Scientific American, which was much more focussed on technology (and even DIY) than the current version. His essays are very much like Gould’s, but the style is somewhat more neutral and pedestrian. I get little sense of Petroski’s personality, which is a pity, since his choice of subjects indicates a lively mind and wide range of interest.

His emphasis on the non-technical aspects of engineering is important. Most people lack scientific and technical insight (we need a word like “illiteracy” for this), which means that the context of engineering works is often incomplete. The yearning for quick fixes prompts politicians and their constituents to trust the technocrats too much (see the “heightening” of “security measures” at airports recently). On the other hand, nimbyism and paranoid Ludditism result in know-nothing rejection of economically viable and ecologically effective solutions (see the resistance to H1N1 vaccination.)

All in all, a good book, with useful nuggets of information here and there. For example, “bug” as a glitch or unexpected flaw in design predates computers. Petroski quotes a note in Edison’s diary, in which Edison refers to “Bugs – as such little faults and difficulties are called –”. I’ve suspected that the “insect in the electronic works” was a story a little too pat to be true, and am happy to have my suspicion confirmed. ***

Book Review: Pohlstars (Frederik Pohl)

Pohl, Frederik Pohlstars (1984) Most of these stories are Pohl's darker visions, more like Harry Harrison or Roald Dahl. Pohl, like Poul Anderson, usually writes about swaggering, libertarian, free-enterprise types, often crossing the line between legal and illegal (sometimes venturing into crime), in order to succeed. But in the end, they not only do well, but good.

Unlike Anderson, Pohl has a strong tragic streak in his makeup, sometimes tending to elegiac sentimentality. The first tale is a novella, I sampled it but did not read it. The short stories range from the mildly funny (a driving instructor is unaware that one of his pupils is setting up an invasion of Terran territory) to the horrific (a convicted murderer is purchased by aliens to conduct their business; when they decide they want to know what human sex is about, they make him reenact the crime for which he was condemned, and he kills his lover.) All have a more or less obvious theme; Pohl is one of the most tendentious SF writers ever. In A Day at the Lottery Fair he attacks the "pro-life" movement. A Day in the Life of Able Charlie tells how an artificial intelligence program is used for market research. Second Coming sends up the literalists who expect Jesus to return from the sky - he does, but decides he wants to go back to the zoo where the space people have kept him, it's a nicer place than Earth. The book will be added to my collection of Pohls, but not because it's his best work. **