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Posts Tagged ‘Bloomsbury’

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

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That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People, Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead (Bloomsbury 2016)

It would have been worth reading this book for this single pithy summation of religion’s appeal:

Colin Haycraft, the atheist husband of the fervently reactionary Catholic writer Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say that “religion is for women and queers” […] (ch. 3, “Gays and Evangelicals”, pg. 39)

In fact, there’s more than that to make reading worthwhile, but “women and queers” are usually at the heart of the story. Sometimes in very funny ways, like the encounter between the Nigerian Bishop of Enugu and Richard Kirker, “the general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement” outside the Lambeth Conference in 1998. As Kirker squeaked in indignation, the Bishop of Enugu tried to exorcise him: “I can deliver you! God wants to deliver you! In the name of JESUS! Father, I pray that you deliver him from homosexuality in the name of JESUS! Father, I deliver him out of homosexuality, out of gay!” (pg. 138)

That’s in chapter 8, “Dreams of a Global Church”, which describes the Church of England’s ludicrous attempts to become a big player on the world stage by harnessing the almost entirely imaginary power of the Anglican Communion. Everything the Church of England does is ludicrous, but the sight of two sacred minorities – the Black Community and the Gay Community – clashing like that is especially so. Not that the Bishop of Enugu really belongs to a minority, but that’s how he would have been seen by Guardianistas in the UK. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead are certainly Guardianistas, so they think the Church of England’s decline has been caused by its failure to become liberal fast enough:

[T]he biggest casualty of the battle over women was the continuing support of ordinary English women, and their willingness to pass on the faith. The timing could not have been worse. The first generation of women to be both highly educated and still committed to the Church of England in large numbers was precisely the one the battle did most to alienate. (ch. 5, “The Trouble with Women”, pg. 89)

Apparently the Church should have accepted women priests immediately and not alienated that vital generation. To me that’s nonsense. Decline was inevitable and the only parts of the Anglican Communion flourishing today are the evangelical ones in the West and the conservative ones in the Third World, neither of whom accept women priests or want to be welcoming to gays. Christianity is declining in America too and the Episcopal Church’s rush to embrace gay and women priests has done it no good.

And “Blacks vs Gays” isn’t the only funny clash of Guardianista favourites: the Gay Community doesn’t always get on with women either. One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters says this about Anglo-Catholics in Brideshead Revisited (1945): “They’re all sodomites with unpleasant accents.” That isn’t so far from the truth: Anglo-Catholics are the “smells and bells” wing of the CofE and this book says they control a training college called St Stephen’s House, or “Staggers”:

Some of the handful of women unwise enough to go to St Stephen’s ended up being transferred to other colleges by compassionate DDOs [Diocesan Directors of Ordinands], and the handful who stuck it out learned to live with routine cruelties and humiliations. One year, at the end of their time in training, they sent the customary Petertide ordination cards to their brother students asking for their prayers, only to find them torn up into small pieces and returned to their own pigeon-holes. (ch. 2, “Cuddesdon: where the mild things are”, pg. 24)

Bitchy? Well, yes: St Stephen’s was famous for a culture “in which men called each other by girl’s names like ‘Doris’ and ‘Betty’ and got excited by lacy cottas and embroidered chasubles.” (pg. 23) That camp culture wasn’t at all welcoming to real girls. But how can self-professed Christians, gay or otherwise, behave like that? A quote at the end of the book suggests an answer: “Christian hatred is powerful because it arises out of deep convictions which really matter to the haters.” But the deepest Christian conviction of all should surely be devotion to and obedience of Jesus, who told his followers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew v:44; Luke vi:27).

There’s little sign of those divine commands being followed by any side in this book, but the twisted psychology of religion is part of what makes it so fascinating. The best argument against belief is the behaviour of believers. But conservative believers do at least keep Christianity alive. Liberal believers kill it by trying to make it acceptable to the Guardian. Liberal Christianity is often just as irrational as evangelical, but less interesting and entertaining for all involved, whether true believers or sceptical outsiders:

Andrew has had it seriously explained that the only reason God does not resurrect the dead at English ecclesiastic events the way that frequently happens in Africa (if we are to judge by the evidence of evangelical DVDs) is that the English don’t have enough faith. (ch. 7, “Charismatic signs and wonders”, pp. 127-8)

It takes enormous faith to believe that the Church of England will ever be a popular church again, in any sense of the word. I think Christianity will revive, but it will be the crazy and conservative kinds, not the kinds favoured by the authors of this book.

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Harrap's Wild Flowers by Simon HarrapHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

The botanist Simon Harrap photographed every plant in this book but for one: the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, on page 399. That’s an impressive achievement. An enviable one too, because he had to combine a lot of expertise with a lot of travelling. On page 70, for example, there are chalk milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. The milkwort is found in southern England and the avens in northern Scotland, as you can see at a glance from the map that accompanies each flower.

The scientific name of the avens means “the eight-petalled wood-nymph”. Botany doesn’t just please the eye and nose: it’s fun for the tongue too, even if you don’t eat anything of what you see. The milkwort and avens please the eye on page 70 and so do the “frothy, creamy-white clusters” of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, on page 71. Meadowsweet also pleases the nose: its flowers are “heavily scented, recalling musk or honey”.

But Harrap says that its “name refers to its use in flavouring mead and other drinks, rather than a predilection for meadows”. Information like that is rare. Even though he isn’t trying to be comprehensive, he has a lot of plants to cover and usually limits himself to the botanical minimum: descriptions of appearance, habitat, growing season and any similar species. This is a field guide, after all: “take the book to the plant, not the plant to the book”, as he says in the introduction.

The bigger and heavier the book, the harder that is to do. But I’d call Harrap’s Wild Flowers a work of art and not just a field guide. It’s well-designed and a pleasure to leaf through, full of attractive colours and interesting shapes, and the photographs seem like little windows on spring and summer. But summer can be sinister: the section devoted to the Orobanchaceae family (pp. 241-6) has the strange parasites known as broomrapes and toothworts. Their stems jut from the ground in almost predatory fashion, coloured in putrefactive browns, yellows and purples. You could imagine them growing in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Garden of Adompha”, fertilized by corpses. And the flowers of purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestina, look like a convention of hooded priests, conspiring together in a graveyard. It has “no aerial stem, the flowers arising in clusters directly from the underground rhizome”.

However, the beauty of flowers like peach-leaved bellflower, Campanula persicifolia, outweighs the beastliness of the broomrapes, and this book is a sunny read. I would make only two changes to it. First, the maps use dark green dots to indicate where a particular plant has been recorded. That’s fine when it grows inland, where the green stands out against white, but when it’s a coastal species the green is sometimes hard to make out on the black line of the coastline. A different colour or lighter green would have been preferable.

Second, Harrap doesn’t always record when a plant is poisonous. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, and deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, get info boxes about their deadliness, but hemlock, henbane and thornapple don’t (Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus niger and Datura stramonium, respectively). Nor does hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. These omissions save space but make the plants less interesting to the uninitiated. I don’t think anyone will be put in danger by not being told about henbane, thornapple and company – poisonous plants generally look unappetizing – but you look at a plant in a new way when you know it’s poisonous and a little symbol like a skull-and-crossbones could have been added if there wasn’t room in the text.

But these are minor flaws. Harrap’s Wild Flowers is delightful to look at, easy to use and deserves a place on every British botanophile’s bookshelf, whether you’re interested in avens above or helleborines below.

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Front cover of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon SinghThe Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh (Bloomsbury 2013)

I don’t like The Simpsons and I don’t think Simon Singh is a very good writer. But there is some interesting maths in this book. As the Emperor Vespasian said when criticized for taxing urinals in Rome: Pecunia non olet – “money doesn’t smell”. And simple sources can yield riches in other ways. There’s a good example of that in chapter 9 of this book, “To Infinity and Beyond”, where Singh looks at the mathematics of pancake-sorting. It was first discussed in 1975 by the geometer Jacob E. Goodman of the City College of New York. Suppose there’s a pile of pancakes of different sizes. You can insert a spatula at any point in the pile and flip the block of pancakes above it. Goodman posed this question about sorting the pancakes into order of size:

If there are n pancakes, what is the maximum number of flips (as a function of n) that I will ever have to use to rearrange them? (ch. 9, pg. 110)

It sounds simple, but isn’t. As the pile gets higher, the problem gets harder. The answer is 20 flips for 18 pancakes and 22 flips for 19. And 20 pancakes? Surprisingly, mathematicians don’t know: “nobody has been able to sidestep the brute computational approach by finding a clever equation that predicts pancake numbers”. The best mathematicians can do is find the upper limit: pancake(n) < (5n + 5)/3 flips.

This limit was proved in a paper “co-authored by William H. Gates and Christos H. Papadimitriou” in 1979 (pg. 112). The first co-author is better known now as Bill Gates of Microsoft. The Simpsons enter the story because David S. Cohen, a writer for the series, extended the problem in a mathematical paper published in 1995: the pancakes don’t just come in different sizes, they’re burnt on one side and have to be flipped both in order of size and with the burnt side down. Now the number of flips is “between 3n/2 and 2n – 2” (pg. 113). The source of the problem may seem trivial, but the maths of the solution isn’t. Pancake-flipping has important parallels with “rearranging data” in computer science.

Cohen has degrees in both computer science and physics, but his expertise isn’t unique: “the writing team of The Simpsons have equally remarkable backgrounds in mathematical subjects” (ch. 0 (sic), “The Truth about the Simpsons”, pg. 3). They have degrees and doctorates in tough subjects from colleges like Harvard, Berkeley and Princeton. And they’ve been engaged, according to Cohen, in a “decades-long conspiracy to secretly educate cartoon viewers” (back cover). They haven’t had much success with that, but they’ve succeeded in other ways: TV is no good at education, but very good at propaganda and manipulation. That’s one reason I dislike The Simpsons, which is obviously inspired by cultural Marxism, despite its occasional un-PC jokes. Another reason is that I think the characters and colours are ugly and dispiriting. Or is that cultural Marxism again? But I have to admit that the series is cleverly done. To appeal to so many people for so long takes skill, but explicit maths has been low in the mix.

It had to be, because The Simpsons wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. It has a lot of stupid fans and stupid people aren’t interested in Fermat’s Last Theorem, strategies for rock-scissors-paper or equations for pancake-numbers. That’s why you need to freeze the frame to find a lot of the explicit maths in The Simpsons. Or you did before Singh wrote this book and froze the frames for you. The implicit maths in The Simpsons is everywhere, but that’s because maths is everything, including an ugly cartoon and its science-fiction offshot. Singh discusses Futurama too and the “taxi-cab numbers” inspired by the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920). I’ve never seen Futurama and I wish I could say the same of The Simpsons. I certainly hope I never see it again. But it’s an important programme and this is an interesting book.

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