by syaffolee

Caputo and Some Reading Recommendations

(Note: This post was written yesterday, but while I was trying to post, the power went out and half the town’s internet went out.)

My computer has died over the weekend (and when I say “died”, I mean the machine doesn’t do anything except emit a few feeble beeps when I turn it on–sort of like a corpse spasming when an electric current passes through it), so don’t expect too many posts while I try channeling Dr. Frankenstein in trying to resurrect it over the next couple of hours, days, weeks, whatever.

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Bellwether by Connie Willis is funny, chaotic sci-fi. More emphasis on the funny than the sci-fi, that is. Sandra Foster is a scientist who studies fads like hula hoops and hair bobbing in trying to understand their origins. It’s by chance via misdelivered mail that she meets fashion-impaired chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly who also works for the HiTek corporation studying monkey group behavior. After Bennett loses his funding in a series of mishaps, involving latte preferences, duct tape fashion, management-speak, corporate sensitivity training, and handicapping a genius grant, Sandra proposes a joint project involving sheep. But before they can discover anything, chaos intervenes in a seemingly endless fall of outrageous disasters stemming from one very sullen and extremely incompetent mail clerk.

Scientific rigor, this is not. The major problem I had was the methodology used–who physically collects newspaper clippings or goes to the local library wait list for research? Does casually circling personal ads constitute an experiment? And whoever heard of asking someone for a random flock of sheep for research subjects? I know this is artistic license to deliberately create a chaotic plot, but still. Any scientist, let alone a naive English major, would go about things more logically. However, I did enjoy the author’s inclusion of tidbits about fads at the beginning of each chapter (Hula hoops! Angel food cake! Chain letters! Dr. Spock!) and musings about the serendipity of scientific discovery.

It’s been a while since I’ve read funny sci-fi. Or funny books, period. Most of the books I glance at these days have plots that take themselves far too seriously. Even so-called “beach reads” seem so lackluster and ephemeral that I feel I might better spend my time watching the grass grow. So if you’re in the mood for amusement try Bellwether and you might even learn some Trivial Pursuit-worthy facts while you laugh like a loon.

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After reading other similar works, Steve Olson‘s Mapping Human History feels like gigantic end-of-the-semester review. But as an introduction to the study of human origins, this is an excellent one. Olson gathers research from a wide variety of fields–from genetic to archaeological–to reveal that all humans are related and that any difference we may presume to separate groups are historical and cultural accidents.

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I’ve recently finished reading A Mind of Its Own by David M. Friedman which is subtitled “A Cultural history of the penis.” A quote on the back cover by Daphne Merkin warns, “If you’ve picked up A Mind of Its Own with a slightly skeptical mind-set, expecting to be merely entertained, think again.” Instead, this made me expect one of two things: that either this text would be a lovefest of phallocentric order or watered down pap paying sycophantic tribute to modern feminism.

It’s neither of these things. Rather, Friedman has managed to piece together a fascinating account of the historical and sociological impacts of man’s obsession with his reproductive equipment. Men seem to agonize endlessly on the question: Does man control his penis or does the penis control him? Religion hopelessly contradicts itself on the subject by declaring the penis both divine and profane. Freudian preoccupation with it led to the formulation of psychological theories which place it as the primary causative agent. It’s been the point and symbol for racism, artistic enlightenment, and political wrangling.

Friedman concludes that science has answered that question in the form of Viagra and its ilk. But judging from the mountains of spam arriving daily in inboxes around the world, it’s doubtful that this is the end of this singular body part’s cultural history.