What I’m reading this week: “The Soul of an Octopus”

What I’m reading this week: “The Soul of an Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery

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Strange and beautiful, weirdly intelligent, cold yet emotive, octopuses are in a word, fascinating. Octopuses see and feel the world around them in profoundly different ways then we do. Each tentacle has its own network of neurons—a mind of its own.

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What I love about this book is how the author describes her interactions with captive octopuses in tanks, caressing them with her hands and arms, holding and being held by them. She documents each experience in lavish detail and with deep emotion, much to the book’s benefit. The book’s middle section sags when she dives into lengthy, sometimes boring technical descriptions of her scuba diving trips.

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The big takeaway of this book for me is that octopuses are incredibly complex, intelligent and emotionally aware creatures. Montgomery emphasizes this fact over and over again, which naturally raises the question of whether these curious, self-aware creatures should even be kept in captivity. Octopuses are notorious escape artists, to the point of knowingly risking their lives to get out of aquarium tanks. She ultimately takes a position on the question, however indirectly, and I found myself disagreeing with her, even to my own surprise. I will leave it to you to read the book and decide for yourself.

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For aquarium lovers and animal rights enthusiasts alike, “The Soul of an Octopus” is a stimulating close-up look at one of Earth’s most interesting and enigmatic inhabitants.

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What I’m reading this week: “The Man in the High Castle

Conquered. Occupied. Stripped of power and privilege. Dick’s classic 1962 novel imagines life in an America that lost World War II. The Nazis and Japanese fascists have conquered the United States and divided it into territories, the spoils of war, over which they rule supreme. The Pacific States are controlled by fascist Japan– the South and East states, by Nazi Germany. The Rocky Mountain states lay in between, dismissed and overlooked, a no-mans land where the German and Japanese superpowers struggle for power in a diplomatic Cold War.

Much of the action takes place in San Francisco and the west coast. It’s a horrifying world fraught with deception, cruelty, greed and prejudice cloaked in banality and extreme cultural control. In this nightmare world, the dream of an alternative universe in which the United States England, and Russia won the war captures the imaginations of millions-— sparked by a wildly popular book-within-a-book that describes this mirror world in vivid detail. The book’s central characters struggle to reconcile these twin visions, which are more alike than not, as the plot drives them inexorably toward the climactic confrontation with the book-within-a-book’s author, the Man in the High Castle.

Written in the 1960s, Dick’s novel remains a work of genius however its blunt style and raw depictions of deep-seated racial animus raise the question of how it would be received if it was written in today’s world of reactionary divisiveness and identity politics. Another question is whether he intended his book to be a subtle indictment of the post World War II new world order of the 1960s, which at the time had its own forms of social control, cruelty, deception, greed, and prejudice. The novel’s descriptions of what American life might be like under fascist control leaves no question that a German/Japanese victory would have led to a dystopian hellscape of a society. Yet it subtly hints at a third way, between the darkness and the light, for which we all unconsciously yearn, yet which may only ever be a dream.

What I’m reading this week: “Everybody Lies”

The Google search box is the new confessional box for a digital age. A place where deepest fears and forbidden wishes find new, unfiltered expression. In this new confessional, we don’t seek salvation— we seek information. And the questions we ask it often reveal things about us that were previously hidden, or misunderstood.

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Subtitled, “Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are,” this book was written by a former Google data scientist who uses “confessional” search data on a vast scale to draw new insight into the human condition. It’s a fascinating and compelling work which kept me reading from cover to cover in one day.

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I could quibble with the author’s overconfidence in the power of internet search data to accurately depict people’s true selves, because I believe that our relationship with the digital world is fundamentally a charade, and will one day come to be seen as such. But for now, the newness and sheer volume of this new form of data is electrifying and groundbreaking, and has great potential to shed new light on the previously dark corners of the human psyche. I eagerly look forward to the author’s planned sequel in which he intends to dive deeper into the “small data” that lives between the topline trends. 🔎