All posts filed under: Nonfiction

My Life Pouring Concrete

The ritual was to arrive at work half an hour early, so I could gradually wake up in the car listening to the radio, drinking coffee, and eating doughnuts. I’d park my Honda Fit beside the site foreman’s pick-up truck. His morning pre-shift was like mine, except that his breakfast was vodka-soda with painkillers. Another two labourers usually arrived after I did: an irritable six-foot-three indigenous guy called by everyone, including himself, the “BFI,” which stood for “Big F-cking Indian”; and a cocaine-addled Italian who split “a gram or two with the wife” nightly, pairing it with a three-litre bottle of red wine. He claimed to sleep only two hours, which I never doubted, since he had to commute an hour to get on site at 6am. Of my colleagues, only the BFI always worked sober, having survived years of alcoholism (not to mention some prison time). At age 20, I’d started my first week in construction, excavating a commercial space for a liquor store. The dark pits of freshly-dug soil gave the air a …

Humanity’s Great Urban Adventure Didn’t Begin With Greece and Rome

The spectacular story of the growth and withering away of ancient Mediterranean urbanism is often drowned out by the noise of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Cities had begun to grow and connect when Rome was just a cluster of villages. And at its height, in the second and third centuries CE, the ancient urban system stretched far beyond the political limits of empire. Traders, missionaries, and diplomats travelled through the caravan cities of northern Syria and Iraq to connect with ancient Greek cities, by then lying in the heart of the Persian Empire, in Babylonia (now southern Iraq), and even Afghanistan. Others set sail down the Red Sea in search of the entrepôts of East Africa, southern India, and Sri Lanka, or traded down the Nile beyond Egypt to Nubia. Amber was brought from the Baltic and ivory from south of the Sahara long before Rome’s imperial adventure got off the ground. Ancient historians and geographers such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy knew there were yet even more distant cities, …

Scandinavia: Can The New “Parental Team” Replace Marriage?

We all know the statistics: Children of divorced or separated parents underperform in school, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and have lower social mobility. A full list of the negative effects would require a lot of space. But the takeaway is that unless your partner is abusive or your home has become seriously dysfunctional, there are good reasons to stick it out for the children. But what if there were a way around these negative outcomes? Imagine some new, postmodern “parental team” that can take the place of a married couple when it comes to raising children. That is the new concept emerging from Sweden, where divorce has become common and socially accepted, with children moving frequently between two parental homes. According to the new book Divorcing With Children: Parents in Two Homes (Att skiljas med barn: föräldrar i två hem) by Swedish child psychologist, researcher and university lecturer Malin Bergström, research suggests that kids who move between two homes do almost as well as their peers with parents who live together. Her …

Academic Journal Publishing is Headed for a Day of Reckoning

Imagine a researcher working under deadline on a funding proposal for a new project. This is the day she’s dedicated to literature review – pulling examples from existing research in published journals to provide evidence for her great idea. Creating an up-to-date picture of where things stand in this narrow corner of her field involves 30 references, but she has access to only 27 of those via her library’s journal subscriptions. Now what? There isn’t time to contact the three primary authors to get copies directly from them. Interlibrary loan will take too long. She could try other sites that host academic papers – such as ResearchGate and Sci-Hub – but access to particular articles isn’t assured and publishers are cracking down on what they call copyright violations. This fictitious example illustrates the quandary in which many researchers find themselves today. Access to journals is crucial for how they do their work. But few research libraries can afford all the journal subscriptions needed by all of their faculty for all occasions. As the dean of …

Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” — A Review

A review of Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton and Company (January 2017) 272 pages.  “Scientism”. “Orientalism”. “Historicism”. The trouble with inventing a belief system and ascribing it to your opponents is that you might inadvertently have built a straw man. After all, nobody actively signs up to these supposed philosophies: they’re terms of criticism or abuse. One such nebulous belief system is the topic of psychologist Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex. Unconcerned by the straw-manning risk, Fine introduces the eponymous “Testosterone Rex” as the “story of sex and society” that holds that there are male brains and there are female brains, programmed by evolution to be irreconcilably different, with testosterone explaining males’ greater risk-taking, promiscuity, competitiveness, and dominance. Fine argues that modern science is the asteroid that wiped out this T-Rex, revealing subtler cultural—not biological—explanations for the sex differences we see in society. Fine’s first target is the ‘Bateman Gradient’, a seminal (excuse the pun) finding on sexual selection from 1940s experiments on fruit flies. Geneticist Angus Bateman found that the link …