Tag Archives: Review

Book Review ‘Does it Fart?’

Dogs do it. Millipedes do it. Birds don’t do it, but humans definitely do it — some more than others. Of course, I’m talking about farting, one of the most natural biological processes, which is frowned upon in most cultures.

Does It Fart?: The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence
by Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti
Publisher: Quercus // 145 pp // Buy on Amazon

Does it Fart? is the best book you never knew you wanted to read — it’s the ultimate guide to animal flatulence, a compendium of gassy stories. But don’t let the whimsical approach fool you; there’s a lot of solid biological info you just don’t find in most books.

For instance, did you know that almost all mammals fart, but the sloth doesn’t?

Dani Rabaiotti, a Ph.D. zoology student at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the book, studies how climate change impacts African wild dogs. She teamed up with Virginia Tech ecologist Nick Caruso after facing an avalanche of Twitter questions regarding the ability of different animals to fart.

“We just had a mutual interest in farts,” Caruso recalls.

Farts come in different (how shall we put this) forms and intensities, and not all animals fart the same way. In fact, the two authors first had to decide on what a fart really is. They settled on a simple definition: gas that comes out of the end opposite to the mouth. But even so, things aren’t as simple as they might seem.

For instance, what do you do with creatures that don’t have an opposite end? What do you do with creatures whose farts aren’t associated with digestion, but with other processes? Well, then you just explore the story and see what comes out of it.

Herein lies the beauty of this book: sure, the subject is whimsical, but this kind of childish curiosity is too often missing in today’s scientific world. There are many things we don’t know about animal farts, and if you start to dig around, there’s a good chance you’ll find some very puzzling biological questions.

Biophysical processes, including some which seem quite funny — like farting — are important for many creatures of the world, and there’s still so much we don’t know. Does it Fart? takes a boyish approach to it all, but it makes a very compelling case in doing so — the straightforward curiosity takes us off the beaten path, and it offers a refreshing reading experience.

I read the book in two goes. I only stopped because I really had work to do — otherwise, I would have probably devoured it in one go. It reads a bit like Pokemon cards, or simple, animal-by-animal information tidbits. The book is masterfully complemented by simple drawings and also touches on human farting which, as I suspect you already know, is frowned upon in most parts of the world.

Book Review: ‘Universal’

“Universal”
By Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw.
Da Capo Press, 304pp | Buy on Amazon

It must be hard, even for veteran physicists, to imagine the universe from the smallest of particles to the vastness of outer space. Understanding it is an even more daring proposition. So I’ll be honest, when I first started reading Universal, I felt a bit of skepticism. A book that strives not only to present the universe for what it is, but also to explain why it is the way it is, and how we know it — that’s an ambitious goal if I’ve ever heard one. But page by page I sank into it and was thrilled. In a world of fast and superficial information, Universal is a breath of fresh air that goes right to the core of things. In a world of whats, it is a book of whys and hows.

“We dare to imagine a time when the entire observable Universe was compressed into a region of space smaller than an atom.”

From the very first page, it got me thinking. It’s a bit audacious, isn’t it? That we claim to know things about the very insides of the Earth. That we sent people to the Moon and back. That we see and understand stars at distances we can barely comprehend. As the authors themselves say, cosmology must be the most audacious of all sciences. But how does it work? How can we know so much about something that happened so far away, and so long ago? And what does it all have to do with a man on the beach in Ogmore-by-sea?

The problem with cosmology, as is the problem with particle physics, for instance, is that it’s often so very hard to comprehend. It’s all so foreign, so alien — the rules of day to day life don’t really affect quarks, and they don’t really affect black holes. So while many people are aware of the Big Bang and black holes as a concept, few really understand what these phenomena entail. We take them for granted, we read or hear something about them on the news or on Wikipedia, and we’re good to go. But seeing an apple and tasting an apple is not the same thing. You might know the apple exists, you might see its color and have some understanding of its taste — but until you sink your teeth into it, until you feel its taste flowing inside your mouth, you don’t really know what an apple is, do you? This is what Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw did. Many books will tell you that apples exist and describe them, sometimes in great detail. But Cox and Forshaw let you sink your teeth into it, and once you do you’ll have a whole new understanding of it.

More to the point, the book is structured in eight chapters that will walk you through the history of the universe. Each chapter has several practical gray boxes, where you can get a better understanding of the underlying science, and various experiments that you can do yourself (or at least read about). You’d probably be shocked to see just how many things you can do with over the counter technology. You could, for instance, calculate the size of the Earth. Or see that the universe is expanding. Or even get a glimpse into the sheer size of the universe. The book walks you through all the concepts you need to understanding and does a great job at facilitating your journey through the eons and the light years. Having a decent grasp of physics is not really necessary, though it certainly helps. But I feel that this book shines most when it encounters curiosity. Universal gives you a lot of information without really being demanding, but it’s especially rewarding to inquisitive minds who want to understand more and more. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you want to know.

I’d like to save a special mention for the Einstein’s Theory of Gravity chapter. Rarely have I read such a clear explanation of such a complex topic, and I’m happy to say it furthered my understanding of the concept. Though the entire book flows smoothly, this chapter shines especially bright.

In the end, Universal is a great book. Not because it’s written by two brilliant physicists, or because it tells a great story, but because of the way it is written. It focuses on understanding and not merely knowing things. I can only wish more books would do the same.

Book Review: ‘Birds of Kruger National Park’

Birds of Kruger National Park
By Christopher Keith Barnes and Ken Behren
Princeton University Press, 224 pp | Buy on Amazon

When people think of African animals, they usually think of lions, giraffes, or elephants. But Africa’s stunning biodiversity isn’t limited to mammals — there’s quite an array of birds too. Beautifully designed and easy to browse, Birds of Kruger National Park fills an important gap and will be useful not just in the park, but in many other areas with similar habitats, to everyone wanting to explore Africa’s avian wildlife.

Kruger National Park in South Africa covers an area of 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 sq mi). Kruger’s complex geology gives birth to complex ecosystems, hosting a stunning variety of wildlife. Most visitors of the park are interested in the “big five” — the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros. But as Keith Barnes and Ken Behrens suggest, birds also have an elite squad; a “big six,” actually, featuring the Lappet-faced Vulture, the Martial Eagle, the Saddle-billed Stork, the Kori Bustard, the Southern Ground-Hornbill, and Pel’s Fishing-Owl. These are the top attractions for birders, but of course, there’s an extremely wide array of species you can find in the park. This is where this book, serving both as a general guide and as an identification tool, comes in.

With over 250 described species. Birds of Kruger National Park will prove useful for newcomers and experienced birders alike. You get beautiful photos, physical characteristics, and a description of varying size for all of them. There’s all the basic information you could want, and a lot of extra stuff for the big six which particularly useful. In the case of the Pel’s Fishing-Owl for instance, that can be quite crucial since the species is notoriously difficult to locate.

All in all, the book checks all the boxes. It’s big enough to cover many of the park’s species and small enough to not be a drag to carry around. It blends in lovely, detailed images, and quite a bit of text. Even if you’re not into birds at all, it’s just a great book to get you started and know what you’re looking at.

It’s as good a bird book as any, and I’d recommend it to everyone visiting Kruger Park as well as other, similar, habitats across the continent.

Book Review: ‘The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity’

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity
By Daniel Callahan
Colombia University Press, 393 pp | Buy on Amazon

The original four horsemen of the Bible stand for some of humanity’s oldest fears — war and conquest, famine or disease, ultimately death. Each one symbolizes a deeply instinctual dread, of a kind that all life has hard-wired to avoid, literally, under pain of death.

In modern societies, these specters don’t hold as much sway as they once did. Compared to our ancestors, we have plentiful and easily accessible food sources. Science and technology supply drugs and techniques that make us live longer and better than ever before. Wars all take place on TV, with stories of “somewhere else”. We have put systems in place that largely corral these ancient evils.

But we’re not beyond their reach. In The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, american philosopher and biomedical ethicist Danial Callahan takes on these issues in the modern day. The book is divided into three sections comprising 11 chapters and focuses on five modern horsemen — climate, food, water, disease, and obesity.

Section one attempts to identify and quantify each problem in turn. Here Callahan does a superb job of presenting each issue in its fullest extent, withholding personal input in favor of hard facts. Starting with Climate, he shows that heavy exploitation of natural resources has pushed the environment to the brink of collapse. These changes, he writes, will impact all of us one way or another — yet there has been almost no reaction from politics or industry. Callahan takes a look at the role scientific misinformation, as well as political and economic interests play in the issue. In the end, we can’t rely on technological quick-fixes, he writes, but will have to re-think our and our society’s relationship to nature.

“Humans must learn how to live sustainably in harmony with nature and cease believing we can with impunity master and dominate it, and that from an environmental perspective human life on [Earth] may be crippled or even destroyed unless we become nature’s stewards.”

The chapters on Food and Obesity, although separate, treat two chilling ends of the same problem. Part of the world is dying for lack of food, while the other is dying from over-consumption. The rise of a global food market squashes local farmers under a deluge of produce. Combined with a growing fiscalization of the market, this leads to greater energy costs for transport, less food security, raising rates of malnourished and starving people, as well as a growing environmental strain. Callahan also examines the faults in today’s economic models in addressing the food problem. Price fluctuations, he writes, often leave poorer countries unable to afford basic food.

At the same time, developed countries struggle with too much food. Cheap but salt-, sugar-, and fat-rich fast-food powers growing obesity (and death) rates in these countries. Taking the example of China, he warns that an ever-growing population in developing countries will place an exponential burden on our agriculture — they demand more milk, eggs, meat, and other animal goods which require ever more farmland.

Water looks at the growing scarcity of fresh water and the alarming rate of aquifer depletion. Rampant drilling has left may areas, such as India, in risk of drying out. Callahan also details the ethical dilemmas with fiscalizing water, and the unavoidable tragedy of the commons if we don’t regulate water use.

Disease illustrates the divide between the developed world and the rest. The former suffer from bloated medical systems in which huge sums of money are spent on prolonging the life of elderly and treating chronic diseases. The latter simply lack the economic resources to do so, and attempt to focus on prevention.

In the second section, “Examining the Pathways through the Thickets”, Callahan looks at the issues which perpetuate these five problems. Is it ethical to tell people what and how much they can eat, even if you do it to prevent obesity? Is it right for the state to intervene in such personal decisions? And what is the role media and industry play in shaping these personal choices? Can we rely on technology to solve our problems? In the end, these are not simple questions and they do not have simple answers. The book gives all the sides implicated in these issues a chance to present their arguments.

The last section, “Toward the Future: Progress, Hope, and Fear” is in Callahan’s own words “a theory about how and why the five horsemen came into existence.” He points to our need for progress as the root cause of all these issues — the need to live better, and feel that we live better. Globalization of the market, affluence, and wealth inequality are what caused these problems to arise in the first hand.

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World is a work of global scope that takes into account science, politics, economy, and society when analyzing the greatest threats we face today. It dissects these extremely tangled issues in some of the clearest writing I have ever laid eyes upon. Callahan isn’t afraid to go against some of your political, economical, even ethical values at times — but it will do so with solid arguments.

In the end, The Five Horsemen is a book that will challenge you. It will challenge you to change your understanding of “progress”. It will challenge you to look at how everything you know fits in a much greater whole. And most of all, it will challenge us to face the horsemen before they catch up to us.

Product Review: ILife Beetles A4 Smart Robotic Vacuum Cleaner

Ah, chores. Some people hate them, and I hate them even more. So you can imagine my joy when we got a smart robotic vacuum! Now we had someone to keep the place clean while we languished around like kings. That vacuum is the ILife Beetles A4, courtesy of our friends from GearBest, and I’m here to tell you all about our experience with it.

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The unboxing

They say don’t judge a book by its cover but this isn’t a book and it looks awesome. We got the one in metallic gray and while the overall shape and design aren’t that different from other robot vacuums on the market, it’s sleek, elegant and looks really nice.

The front half of the robot is fitted with a bumper so that when it inevitably runs into furniture on its first few runs, neither will be damaged. And just to be extra safe, there’s an added layer of cushioning in the form of a soft rubber band all around the bumper. On the underside, the A4 has its motor and driving wheels, two sets of cleaning brushes (a pair of side brushes to sweep the floor and one larger drum brush to scoop everything up) a set of IR sensors and the dust bin.

The device comes with a manual, a remote, and a spare filter and side brushes. You’ll also find its charging station and the tools you can use to clean and maintain the bot in the box.

The first thing we did was let it charge overnight.

So how does it run?

We didn’t even read the manual before our trial run, but thankfully the device is pretty intuitive to use. Once you power it up all you have to do is press the “Clean” button on the top cover and the robot will take care of the rest. We watched it cleaning the floor and bumping into stuff for about 10 minutes. It’s slim enough to get under almost any piece of furniture, and it left a very satisfying line of cleanliness behind it. We folded some pieces of paper to test what it could pick up and, apart from chunky pieces of trash or stuff that we embedded in really fuzzy mats, it got everything on the first go. The side brushes can sometimes throw pieces of thrash away but if you leave the A4 to its own devices it will eventually scoop these up too. It handles dust and pet hair very well and doesn’t blow them up all over the room, either.

The A4 does have some difficulty navigating cables — more exactly, if you happen to have a lot of cables on the floor, the robot will snatch them up with its wheels. It will register them as an obstacle and move eventually, but it will drag the cable after it.

On its second run (so this would be around 15-20 minutes of use in the same room) it started to follow the outline of the furniture neatly, though by this time the cats started hunting for it and giving it all kinds of trouble — so we decided to test the IR sensors. The A4 model comes equipped with “Intelligent Drop Avoidance Induction,” a system that relies on the sensors on its underbelly to stop the robot if it reaches a high gap so it won’t fall to its doom — pretty handy. So we cleared a desk, put the bot on it and let it reach every margin a few times, but it didn’t fall once.

By now we were pretty happy with how it moved and cleaned so we wanted to test its cleaning modes. There are a lot of different settings you can pick — we settled for the scheduled auto cleaning mode and automatic re-charging. This is the most versatile mode, and it allows you to set a time each day when the A4 will leave its station and clean everything in sight, then come back to re-charge.

The robot’s battery is powerful enough to allow it to clean our (two-bedroom) flat in one go. Truthfully I don’t know how much it takes the little thing to recharge after — it does it all by itself. But if something’s bothering it it’ll let you know — the “Clean” button will flash orange if it’s low on battery or recharging, and a red flashing light means it’s run into an error. As long as the button’s green, you know it’s fine and going about its business.

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Oh, and it’ll even tell you — the bot is programmed to let you know, via some seriously cute beeps, about how it’s doing — such as accepting a command or routine problems it could run into. The tones are covered in the instruction manual.

Maintenance

The 0.45 L (15.2 oz) dust bin is big enough that you don’t have to clean it daily. However, if you plan to use the A4 in an environment that hasn’t been vacuumed in a while, I suggest you empty the bin a few times until it’s been all over the floor. Cleaning the bin is really simple and fast. It takes me around 30 seconds to do it.

The charging IR sensors and charging station’s pins should be cleaned regularly. I do it once a week just to be sure, but it really depends on how dusty your house tends to get.

One of the more time-consuming maintenance steps is cleaning the main brush. This can become a problem if you have pets that shed hairs (and/or long hair yourself) which can get caught in the main brush. The robot will still work but it’s gonna be harder for it to scoop up all the stuff on your floor. We had to do it after the bot’s first run when it got really tangled but after that, I found that once a week is often enough. Thankfully, removing the brush is really easy and straightforward.

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So would I recommend it? Yes, I would. It’s a solid design and the price-to-quality ratio is really good. Unless you have 50 cats and all your floors are covered in rugs it will get the job done. Just pick up the larger debris yourself and it will take care of the rest.

You can buy the ILIFE A4 Smart Robotic Vacuum Cleaner for $146.99 from GearBest.

Credits to Mihai Filip Alexandru for the photographs.