Saturday, 16 September 2017

Ghosts of Gondwana (2016) by George Gibbs.

Really I acquired Ghosts of Gondwana (2016)  because it has a number of good pictures and included as its subject matter a number of species I was interested at the time. Its subject matter goes beyond my initial objectives and in this time of a predominant human centered world view with increasing urban population density, accelerating cultural change and overwhelming housing property prices this book represented a respite, looking into the natural world of which we are part of.

Ghosts of Gondwana (2016) can be understood as a book about the biodiversity of New Zealand. Its author introduces his subject by a reference to the landfall by Captain James Cook in 1769 at Poverty Bay, New Zealand, with Joseph Banks and David Solander noting the uniqueness of New Zealand flora and fauna. This is a book about the natural history of endemic life in New Zealand, detailing from evidence the various evolutionary origins of iconic and somewhat esoteric animals and plants in New Zealand, present before European colonization. The evidence is described in terms of historical biogeography, the processes of vicariance, dispersal and extinctions and relies on phylogenetic analysis, fossil evidence, tectonic geology and as Gibbs puts it "the clock hypothesis with all its faults" (Gibbs 315 : 2016).

One point that Gibbs makes early on is that the idea of New Zealand flora and fauna as being survivals from a supercontinent of Gondwana, is simplistic. He recognizes that each endemic organism in New Zealand has a unique explanation, with the joke being that all life has historical explanations that reach into the Cretaceous. His point is that the separation of the New Zealand Pacific plate from a shared Australian, Antartic and South American plate around 80 million years ago allows this distinction of endemic New Zealand life having Cretaceous origins.  Endemic organisms that do conform to a vicariance explanation with Cretaceous origins include flowing freshwater species, fresh water mussels Echyridela menziesii, Family Hyriidae (Kakahi), Scorpion flys (Family Nannochorista) and mayfly (Ameletopsis persescitus) (Gibbs 295 : 2016) due to restrictions on dispersal. Fresh water mussels (Kakahi) have an interesting relationship to Glaxiid fish (White Bait), as their parasitic larval stage relies on White Bait for nutrients and transport, introduced species do not transport mussel larvae (Gibbs 299 : 2015). Gibbs suggests a vicariance of the Hyrridae family prior to the disintegration of Gondwana, during the Jurassic.

The actual extent of endemism, can be illustrated by comparing at what taxanomic level (Linnean classification scheme) endemism occurs. In New Zealand this is described as

                 Vascular plants    Vertebrates     Invertebrates
Order         -                          3                    -

Family       -                          9                    6 

Species      2000+                 200+              20,000+      

So the most common taxanomic level of endemism occurs at species level, when I can make comparisons, I will.

The most probable dispersal sources of endemic New Zealand flora and fauna lay in Australia, due to proximity, yet aside from fossils, there are no snakes, turtles or crocodiles, no scorpions, no monotreme marsupials and no placental mammals. With the absence of placental mammals the niches that would be otherwise occupied are shown in endemic species such as the Ratites like the Moa and the emblemic Kiwi. The Kiwi is a carnivorous, nocturnal, burrow digging flightless bird that uses smell and has degenerated optic lobes associated with poor eyesight, which is unusual for a bird  (Gibbs 242 : 2016). In the northern hemisphere this niche would probably be occupied by a mole or vole. I think this suggests that the Kiwi is a rather humble icon.

The slow breeding rates of particular endemic species is noticeable, which is appropriate in cold environments where nutrition is a significant challenge and these include the Kakapo (parrot), Tuatara (Family Splendantia), endemic frogs (Family Leiopelmatidae) and endemic carnivorous land snails (Genus Powelliphantia) (Gibbs 284 : 2016).

The discussion of vicariance and dispersal involves a discussion about plate tectonics and the submergence of a land mass  described as Zealandia, (composition includes the Challenger Plataeu, Chatam Rise and Lord Howe Rise), during the late Oligocene around 23 million years ago of which unsubmerged Holocene New Zealand is part of. The degree of submergence has been debated, the presence of limestone indicates submergence (Gibbs 122 : 2016), Dr Hamish Campbell proposing that the geological evidence suggested a total or near total submergence with extinction events. George Gibbs mentions this theory but is critical of it. He discusses it in terms of the flora and fauna of New Zealand and a March 2013 Otago Daily Times article, "A Theory Flounders" appears to summarize this theories demise, or at least the movement towards a dialectical compromise.

This is a large book, at 416 pages, but it would need to be. Its chapters individually are easily read at an undergraduate level and it presents a natural history explanation, or hypothesis for the species it covers which may make it a good reference book, as part of a starting point for further investigations. At the very least it provides a reasonable scope for understanding the biodiversity of New Zealand and currently, may be unique in its subject matter.


George Gibbs. (2016). Ghosts of Gondwana. Published by Potton & Burton Publishing. Printed in Nelson. Pages 416.

Friday, 25 August 2017

A picture, observers correctly identified the pukeko in the picture, which is nice.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Girl with all the Gifts, (2014), by M R Carey.

So I picked up (bought, bought not picked up, that doesn't sound right) Mr MR Careys "The Girl with all the Gifts" from Whitcoulls, published by Orbit. One of its reviewers, Jenny Colgan is quoted as "Kazuo Ishiguro meets The Walking Dead". Which to me is an interesting quote, I have questions as to why she would say that. Joss Whedon is quoted as saying "as fresh as it is terrifying", which could be sarcasm, but probably isn't, but I get why he would be a person to quote with a book such as this.

According to a transcripted interview, at the back of the book, it's based on a short story that was collected in Paula Gurans Years Best Dark Fantasy & Horror Anthology (2013), Iphigenia in Aulis that had Melanie (one of the protagonists obsessed with the Illiad. There are book group questions at the back, including one which goes , "compared to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro how far does each book characterize children as grotesque and to be feared?". So that goes some way towards my question about that particular quote. Suspiciously so. Or not.

I have to say how slick the marketing and packaging of the book is. From the short story, Mr MR Carey wrote a screen play and a novel at the same time. The cover of the book and the posters to the movie echo each other and the transcripted interview, book group questions both address that process and serve to frame the book in an intellectual manner. I am sure my thought processes are going in the direction the marketers of the book intended.

The book reads like a movie, written in a passive third person  perspective and until page 29 the voice is all about Melanie, the protagonist. I've seen the movies version of Melanie, from shorts played by Sennia Nanua. The books version is a "very fair" girl with blond hair and "a good girl smarminess" (page 80 : 2014) that probably channels real life cynicism. I challenge you to see the movie short and then hold onto the books version of Melanie as you read it. I gave up, but I acknowledge there could be difference. The books ending is interesting, there is enough science in the book, in the same way that there is enough science in Brahm Stokers Dracula, to legitimize the fictional narrative and it echos real life concerns. Which to be clear, was good. In my opinion, which is just another voice in the wind, a lot of progress is kind of muddling along particular paradigms and if Hegel came up with dialectical materialism it's because societies tend to oscillate from one issue to another through the generations as circumstances alter. I'm not convinced that the books ending is a happy one but it is an ending and I guess that's the point.

The book was easy to read, it took me less that two days to complete but then again I'm not watching TV and I found it entertaining and liked what it did.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sextant : A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men who Mapped the Worlds Oceans. By David Barrie

In this book, published by William Collins (2015), David Barrie describes a compelling history of the development and use of navigational techniques in what he describes as the "heroic age of scientific hydrography" tied around a narrative of his transatlantic crossing from Halifax, Novia Scotia to Falmouth, England during 1973 in a 35 foot sloop called the Saecwen. This voyage included three other crew members, including the ensign Colin McMullen, during which the author learned navigational techniques using a sextant and chronometer.

His take on the history of the sextant, its invention by John Harrison (1731), is quite fascinating and he devotes a chapter to its development from Seaman's Quadrants, Cross Staffs and Back Staffs and explains its theory in a post Copernican world view. His narrative history is focused on the voyages of select navigators, going to some effort to describe their personalities and journal anecdotes of his subject, perhaps somewhat romantically. He covers William Bligh (1789), the explorer James Cook (1768), the amusing Bouganville (1766), the unfortunate La Perouse (1785), the under appreciated George Vancouver (1790), Flinders and his cat "Trim" (1796) and the voyages of the Beagle  under Stokes (1826) and under Fitzroy (1827). Fitzroy who had quite a practical scientific inclination invited the services of a young naturalist called Charles Darwin (page 225) and achieved a number of social and hydrological accomplishments, including Governorship of New Zealand in 1844.

Barrie ends with two chapters on the experience of Frank Worsely (1916), a merchant seaman from New Zealand, under Sir Ernest Shackleton in an attempt to cross the Antartic continent and their subsequent ordeal of survival. Barrie begins (chapter 4) and ends ( Chapters 15 & 16) his historical narrative with feats of endurance where survivors are faced with navigating though rough open seas in long boats with the threat of eminent danger, that of William Bligh (1789) and Sir Ernest Shackelton (1916). I believe that these narratives serve to illustrate the points he makes on the last pages of his book, that celestial navigation is becoming a necessary lost art. Certainly the average modern human doesn't look up at the night sky with the same comprehension as their ancestors, despite our post Copernican world view.

Inside the book are good illustrations of select navigators, the technologies they used and quite a number of maps, including the Straits of Magellan (Page 250), which Barrie goes to some length to illustrate why they are navigational hazards. It inspires me with a tendency towards looking at the night sky, and to stay away from large bodies of water.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

"Rotherwierd" is published by Jo Fletcher books (2017), from Great Britain. I picked it up primarily due to the artwork and lettering on the cover, which evoked "Bad Jelly the Witch" to me, a childhood book by Spike Milligan that scared me as a child. Childhood me was quite the wimp apparently. The cover and the artwork inside were enough for me to decide to read it, which suggests I am susceptible to advertising of this nature. The cover artwork is quaint and the  artwork inside the book, by Sasha Laika is abstract to figurative.

Anywho, the title of the book is the name of the town that is the setting of the book, ostensibly a town that during the Elizabethean period achieved its independence from external government on the condition that its citizenry do not examine or record their history, again for reasons. These reasons are a source of mystery throughout the story and contribute to the quaint English absurdity of the town and its citizens. It's the kind of absurdity that the English like to package and sell to tourists and tell stories to and about themselves about how charming they are, the mad dogs and Englishmen bit. Spike Milligan did this well, but the writing style is certainly not Spike Milligan and though the book is full of the dialogue of its citizens the absurdity is perhaps more part of an overall web, which is one of the points of the book. But it is sweet as books go.

The town and its citizenry are introduced by the journey of two groups of strangers to the town, a family of malevolent intent and a rather gormless history teacher down on his luck. Through them the reader transitions from a recognizable modern setting to the isolated, hard to find mysterious town of Rotherwierd with its absurd laws outlawing the study of history and its unusually gifted citizens and institutions who tend towards an empirical positivist outlook.

It is in many ways a detective novel, as most of the major characters are all doing kinds of detecting of the history, mysteries and prominent sites and artifacts of the town and it features puzzels and just enough latin for you to grab that dictionary you never use. I mean, its not Suduko, thank god, but it does feature moments or set pieces where you recognize the intent of the author and convergence of the various stories. It is sweet and whimsical.

Apparently there is a second book in the works, "WYNTETIDE" (2018) as advertised on page 453 and the author does go to some trouble to explain his experience of writing this book.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Boy on the Bridge. By M R Carey.

An often ascribed phrase from Sartre's No Exit is "Hell is other people", in context its meaning is rather complex, but the general interpretation is that sometimes people can occasionally suck, especially when confined to a single room, over a long period of time and also, it smells, damn it. This seems to be a consistent theme in M Carey's book "The Boy on the Bridge" (2017), of course the room in this book is a large multi-tracked vehicle named the "Rosalind Franklin" (think Amtrak Wars, but smaller), on a scientific mission, driving through a  cordyceps zombie apocalypse wasteland (think the setting of The Last of Us, but in Britain) collecting specimens in the hopes of finding a sample without fungal hyphae. The setting of the book is a continuation of the world presented in the "The Girl with all the Gifts" (2013), a book which I haven't read and is now a movie (2016).

Apparently some reviewers who have read "The Girl with all the Gifts" don't consider this sequel to be as good, such as Tasha Robinson (June 2017), but given that I haven't read the first book, or seen the movie I didn't have any preconceptions and enjoyed the book as a tight drama centred around the microcosm of the vehicle Rosalind Franklin (Rosie in the vernacular of the characters of the story), perhaps comparable to "The Hunt for the Red October" in setting. I am now going to ramble on about the setting while not discussing the plot in any real way. M Carey sets the scene in a passive third person tense that reads like documentation which was nice, succinct and also darkly comical.

 The Rosalind Franklin is from an outpost community called Beacon which is governed by a joint council of citizens called the "Main Table" and the remnants of the military called the "Military Muster". The mission of the Rosalind Franklin is this communities version of the Apollo moon landing, all their hopes and dreams go with the twelve individuals who crew this mission, it is a heavy responsibility.

The command structure of the Rosalind Franklin reflects the power structures in Beacon, the twelve crew of this vehicle are organized into a science division and a military escort, with overall command  by Dr Alan Fournier. The military escort is lead by Colonel Issac Carlisle who has by far the greatest experience leading a military expedition but the objectives of the mission are scientific and his appointment serves the objectives of the Military Muster. As M Carey writes on page 13, the crew of the Rosalind Franklin,despite the rhetoric, are not the best and brightest, but were chosen by the ruling bodies of Beacon in an attempt to achieve a balance that would give the community the most plausible shot at survival. The characters tend to be well written and the sense of the crew being a tight knit group of specialists, who all have essential skills and work well as a team (with the exception of one person, sigh) is conveyed. They are listed (on page 12) as

 Dr Alan Fournier  - Chief Scientist                Colonel Issac Carlisle - Military Escort Leader
Samrina Khan      - Epidemiologist                Lt Daniel McQueen     - Sniper/ 2nd Com    
Lucien Akimwe   - Chemist                            Lance Bombardier      - Sniper
John Scaley          - Biologist                          Private Brendan Lutes - Enginneer
Elain Penny          - Biologist                          Private Paula Sixsmith - Driver
Steven Graves      - Nobody is sure.                Private Gary Philips     - Quarter Master

The page I am practically quoting from can be found here. I found the motivations of the characters coherent and interesting, sometimes vaguely amusing because the author dwells on how the characters learn and how it influences their actions.

The setting would make a great RPG, possibly the author has used a comparable reflective process that a GM would use, a narrative centered around a journey in a vehicle. An entertaining science fiction thriller and when I get the opportunity to read "The Girl with all the Gifts" (2014), I will.