Wednesday, 25 December 2002

Swallows & Amazons, Genome and Harry Potter

Listening to:

The (Thelonius) Monk Quartet, Misterioso. Jazz from New York's Five Spot Café, 1958.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons.

This is a children's classic, and a very enjoyable read for a reminiscing adult too. It tells the story of a summer holiday from the perspective of four of the six children taking part, the Walkers. John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker are on holiday in England's Lake District, and get parental permission to sail to one of the lake's islands, and camp there. The boat they sail in is called the Swallow. Later on, they meet and quickly befriend Nancy and Peggy, who sail in the Amazon.

Most of the story is about exploring and sailing adventures, but there are also run-ins of various sorts with natives (also known as grown-ups). The natives range from charcoal burners on the mainland, to parents, to the hostile seeming “retired pirate” who lurks on his own house-boat. It's all told very well, and each of the four Walker children is an individual in their own right, with their own view of the world.

Matt Ridley, Genome.

This is a clear and informative popular science book about genetics. It's divided into 23 chapters, one for each human chromosome, and Ridley takes a gene or more from each chromosome as a starting point for the discussion in each chapter. He covers a lot of ground, and explains things pretty well. There is probably about the right amount of technical detail. There isn't always much to link one essay to the next, so the reader gets a survey, or a sampling, of the field, rather than a structured course of instruction. This makes the reading all the easier. Ridley discusses blood groups, RNA and DNA, the X and Y chromosomes, genetically transmitted diseases, prions (unique it seems because they don't rely on DNA or RNA to reproduce), the possibility that there may be genes determining sexuality, and even free will (in the context of a typical nature vs nurture discussion).

The only criticism I'd have of the book is that Ridley occasionally makes it all too obvious that he writes for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper. For example, he wonders at the decentralised marvel that is the development of the human embryo (or is it the immune system?), and then suggests that perhaps humans should try this in their societies too. He has a good go at left-wing political ideas on a number of occasions, and is happy to repeat someone's claim that the eugenics scare of the 1930s (when prominent scientists all over the world endorsed eugenicist claims that human populations were doomed to fall into wrack and ruin because of swamping from inferior stock), is just like the global warming scare of the present. (I'd disagree: even if you dismiss the proposed causes, and the proposed cures, there is loads of real data making it clear that the world is getting warmer. The eugenicists never had data, or facts in the same way. Theirs was the science of bald assertion.)

These are just occasional glitches in what is otherwise a very good read.

A recent movie:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

I enjoyed this, and have now even seen it twice. It was good the second time too. Kenneth Branagh is very amusing as the fraudulent Gilderoy Lockhart, and there's lots to laugh at throughout. The climactic battle with the basilisk and the evil spirit of Voldemort is also very good. (The denouement in the school hall is somewhat gag-inducing, but nothing's perfect.) My biggest problem is with the nature of the universe that Rowling describes in her books, and which is accurately reflected in both movies to date. In particular, the school house system is completely unbelievable. It's unreal to have a house of good guys (Gryffindor) and one of baddies (Slytherin). It also ensures that we pay no attention to the two other houses at all. I don't see why the four houses couldn't have shared out a variety of behavioural characteristics, but with goodies and baddies evenly distributed across them all. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs feature almost not at all in the films, and even in the books, where this is more room for extra material, there is precious little about the other half of the school.

Getting this web-log out with any frequency this month is proving harder than I thought. This, coupled with the fact that I'm getting through more books than I might otherwise, means that I'm just going to produce book review entries for the immediate future I think.