Category Archives: nonfiction

General nonfiction books.

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

——————
“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
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Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 200: I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High by Tony Danza

If you’re my age [1], the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza’s name is the show Who’s The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothing about that show except that it was set in Connecticut (which I only remember because that’s where I was living when it was on) and that Danza played some kind of live-in… servant? Housekeeper? For a divorced career woman?

Hold on, let me check Wikipedia to see if I even got that much right.

I did? Oh, good.

I really have no memory of this show. That might not be a bad thing.

Anyway, Danza kind of slipped out of my cultural viewfinder for a long while, so I was surprised to hear that he had not only written a book, but had done a stint as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Being a teacher myself, I was interested to see what his impressions were. He was, after all, coming to it from a very different background than most teachers, and with a different set of perspectives. On top of that, he had been convinced to do it as part of an A&E reality show – something I certainly don’t approve of. Not just because the business of running a reality show would interfere with the class, or because they take work away from actors like my brother [2], but because I think reality shows are a scourge upon modern television.

After going through training and orientation, Danza was put in charge of a double-period English class in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. It’s a huge public school – about 3,600 students – and is made up of kids from radically diverse backgrounds. Some kids were motivated and hard-working, others saw school as an imposition on their lives. Some kids had stable, supportive families, some kids were being bounced from foster home to foster home. To say that Danza had his work cut out for him would be an understatement. He not only had to find ways to engage the students (a buzz-phrase that he – and every other teacher – would come to resent at some level) and make sure they were all committed to their education, but also handle the byzantine bureaucracy that comes with running a school, the politics of the teachers’ office, union issues, getting parents involved, and negotiating the complex moods and interrelationships of hundreds of teenagers. He very quickly learned that being a teacher not only involves a significant investment of time and energy, but also of emotion.

And this is all I remember about “Of Mice and Men.”

Reading through the book, there were a lot of moments where I nodded in complete understanding. Like Danza, I teach literature in a couple of my classes. He was working on making Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird relatable to his students through constant activities and lecture sessions. I do the same with the books I teach. I might have the kids work on a timeline, or produce a short skit based on the story. They might make a poster or even a movie, if we have the time and the ideas for it.

He often runs afoul of the basic principles of being a teacher in such a large community. For example, there’s a section where he takes the students on a field trip to Washington D.C. It’s a wonderful excursion and the kids have a great time, but when he returns he gets a wrist-slapping because he hadn’t notified any of the kids’ other teachers that they would be gone. As far as the rest of the school was concerned, the kids had skipped class. Danza’s response was, “Well, I just assumed…” And that’s where I felt very close kinship with him. One of the things I learned very, very fast when I started this job was to assume nothing. And that’s hard to do, because the school assumes everything.

In another section, the school is practicing for the big achievement tests that will basically determine the school’s status as a failing or a successful school. During one of the tests he’s proctoring, Danza goes out to get more calculators, and is immediately ripped into by the teacher who’s running the test. This teacher says that if it had been the real test, Danza’s carelessness could have invalidated the whole thing, costing the school time and money, and running the risk of making it a “Renaissance School” (a nice euphemism for a school that’s failing so hard it has to be gutted and re-staffed from top to bottom.) My first thought when I read that was that the teacher in charge clearly didn’t communicate the testing protocols clearly enough – he just assumed every teacher would know what to do.

Oh. An apple. Thanks, that makes everything better.

I think a large reason for this is because of the incredible investment in mental and emotional energy that every teacher must make if they’re going to do their jobs properly. As human beings with puny human meat brains, there are only so many things we can keep track of at any given time, and for most teachers their students occupy the largest chunk of that attention. When you’re thinking about a hundred kids or more, invested in the success or failure of each and every one of them, remembering who does and who doesn’t know about some administrative detail is pretty far down on your list of things to care about. Near the end of the book, when Danza was asked if he would be interested in coming back the next year, he said, “At my age, I’m not sure I want to care this much about anything.” And the teacher he’s talking to just smiles and says, “That’s what it takes.”

And it’s true, that is what it takes. No one else would do it otherwise. Throughout the book, Danza looks at the reality of his colleagues’ lives and compares it to the public perception of teachers in the media of the day. The fact is that teachers are in incredible positions of responsibility, yet they don’t gain nearly as much respect and admiration (and money) as they deserve. When the students succeed, people praise their parents and their homes. When they fail, they blame the teachers, or call them “glorified babysitters.” Programs like No Child Left Behind added to the already unbearable burdens of teachers by creating the constant threat of unemployment should the schools not pass a set of standardized tests that may or may not have anything to do with what the kids are already learning.

You forgot your homework? I can’t work like this! I’ll be in my trailer!!

I could go on, but I won’t, since I have another blog where I bitch and moan about things that make me angry. What I will leave with is this – Danza did this as part of a reality show, one that was just as massaged, ordered, and manipulated as any other, though perhaps a little less than most. He was luckier than most at Northeast – only two classes a day instead of five, and he got the room with air conditioning, thanks to the influence of his network. His kids were chosen for the class, and he did the job without the threat of his career being brought to an ignominious end by some bureaucratic federal process. His experience was in no way representative of the other teachers at Northeast High or in fact many other teachers around the world.

All that said, however, it is clear on every page of this book that he cared deeply about the kids in his class and their progress. He cared about how the school worked, about how the other teachers viewed him, and about how the parents were – or were not – involved in their children’s lives. He almost immediately identifies and begins to struggle with one of the hardest problems in teaching – how to make the kids understand that they must be invested in their education. As easy as it is to tell a teacher that he or she must “engage the students,” it is just as important that the students engage themselves. Throughout the book, Danza looks for ways to do this, and it’s a constant theme.

I also don’t wear a tie – but I do wear a cardigan, so it balances out.

I finished the book with no doubt in my mind that Danza did the project in good faith and with full devotion to duty, just as any other first-year teacher would have done. He struggled and triumphed just as any teacher would do, and his sincerity comes across on every page. The title, too, resonated with me immediately, since that’s exactly what I thought when I started teaching. On top of all that, he cries almost constantly, something I’ve never done in my career, so he’s one up on me.

It’s a fast read, and very familiar to anyone who’s become a teacher or knows a teacher, no matter where you are. Plus, there are a ton of ideas to steal, which is a tradition amongst teachers around the world, so I’m grateful for that.

——
“Teachers and students need help, not accusations and pay cuts. They need to be a national priority, not an experiment stuck into a late time slot and then canceled for underperforming.”
– Tony Danza, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

—-
[1] ThirtyCOUGHCOUGHCOUGH
[2] What, me? Oversensitive? Never…

—-
Tony Danza on Wikipedia
I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had on Amazon.com
Tony Danza’s homepage

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Filed under education, memoir, nonfiction, school, teaching, teenagers, television, Tony Danza

Review 193: Origins of the Specious

Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman

I, for obvious reasons, have a great affection for the English Language. It’s a rich and exciting tongue, with a history as tangled and strange as they come. Over the last millennium or so, the language has gone through so many shifts and changes that people spend entire lifetimes trying to figure it out. Once they do, more often than not, they find that what once was true about their beloved mother tongue just doesn’t hold up today.

So there’s a choice to be made by lovers of language: deal with the ever-fluctuating nature of English, adapt yourself to its changes and go on with your life, or do your damnedest to hold back the tide of error that is slowly overtaking your beloved tongue.

For reasons that should be obvious, the former type of person is far less likely to write books like this. Their laid back, laissez faire attitude towards the world is less inclined to make them mad enough to sit down at a computer and pound out thousands of words on the state of the language today. The latter type of person – and I do occasionally count myself among them – are far more likely to sit up late at night and write scathing tracts about the utter and complete degeneration of today’s language – about split infinitives and buzzwords and the ungodly Frenchification of English. If you listen to the sticklers, you might be forgiven for thinking that the very fabric of the English Language is in a state of decay, rotten and putrescent, and ready to fall apart any moment.

Mind you, some mistakes are really entertaining…

Patricia O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman are here to give you some perspective, something in which language sticklers are usually lacking, and perhaps lessen the incandescent rage that overtakes you when you hear people use “infer” to mean “imply,” or “unique” to mean “special,” or say, “I could care less,” even though you know it’s supposed to be “I couldn’t care less,” because I mean my GOD, even a CHILD, even a half-trained, concussed MONKEY could see how that phrase works, what’s so hard about a simple word, you MORONS, you gibbering pack of….

****We are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment. Please stand by. We apologize for the inconvenience.****

And we’re back. Sorry about that.

This book is about errors in English, and not only the legitimate ones. It’s also about how some of those errors aren’t really errors, or how they used to be, but now they aren’t. O’Connor and Kellerman are looking to give us a historical sense of how the language has evolved and changed over the centuries, and let us know that the rules of language can’t be set by prim and stuffy grammarians from two hundred years ago.

Those Grammarians, for example, are often called The Latinists, and a great many of them come from the 18th century. In those days, Latin was held up as being some kind of “perfect tongue,” and there was a certain fetish for making English play under Latin rules. The authors wryly note that this would make “about as much sense as having the Chicago Cubs play by the same rules as the Green Bay Packers.” For those of you who are rusty on your linguistic history, Latin split off into what are called the Romance Languages, which includes Spanish, French and Italian. English, on the other hand, has its roots in the Germanic side of the great language tree, and so is more similar to German, Dutch and Frisian. The vast number of Latin-based words we have are, technically, imports, as English is merely a cousin to Latin, not its descendant.

TO GO BOLDLY, DAMMIT!! TO GO BOLDLY!!

But no, there were Those who wanted us to be more Latin-like, and so they imposed rules on English that made no sense whatsoever. Such as the Split Infinitive Rule (i.e. not putting a word between to and a verb – to boldly go would be considered an utter abomination to these people.) In Latin (and Spanish, and French, and Italian), the infinitive form of a verb is a single word – it is literally impossible to split. English, however, has two-word infinitives, and plenty of room to joyfully put in modifiers.

Another good example is using the word “none” as a plural – “None of the ninjas are dead.” The old grammarians would insist that the sentence be, “None of the ninjas is dead,” because “none” is a compressed form of “not one.” Even the venerable Stephen Fry can be caught pushing this one, in a rather hilarious outtake video from his wonderful quiz show QI. Fact is, people have been using “none” as a plural for centuries, and it was accepted language back then. The current fracas about it rose up in 1795 when a guy named Lindley Murray suggested that while “none” can be used as either a singular or plural, it is really best used as a singular. Which English sticklers all took as, “It really must be used as a singular.” A hundred years later, and it’s become an ironclad “RULE,” with no more foundation than one grammarian’s half-hearted opinion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Eugene the Jeep.

There’s also a great section on bad etymology – these are the stories about word origins that everybody knows, but which are most certainly wrong. For example, the origin of the word “Jeep” is usually attributed to a reading-aloud of “G.P.,” meaning “general purpose,” an appellation allegedly applied to these indestructible vehicles. Nope, sorry – it comes from Popeye comics. Or think about the Xmas season – whoops! I mean, Christmas season. Use “Xmas” today and you’ll get lambasted for taking the Christ out of Christmas. The abbreviated word is now looked upon as a Secular Humanist Plot to ruin Christmas for all the good god-fearing folks. Nope – the letter X has been representing Christ for more than a thousand years, and comes from the Greek letter X (chi), which is the first letter of Χριστός, which means, yes – Christ. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary can trace “Xmas” as far back as 1551, in fact.

One part of the book that really got my attention (other than Chapter 5 – the one on swearing) was the chapter on words that have fallen out of favor due to hyper-sensitive political correctness. Remember when Some People (they know who they are) started spelling the word for a female human as “womyn,” so as to remove it from the male-dominating “man”? Well, as it turns out, back in the good old Anglo-Saxon days, “man” referred to a person, regardless of their sex. Over time, distinctions began to emerge, giving us waepman for males (lit. “weapon-person”) and wifman for a married female. Change happens over time, and wifman became woman. Guys lost half their word and just ended up with “man.” Poor us.

The authors also touch on more charged language as well. For example, they recount the tale of a white city official who used the word “niggardly,” meaning “stingy” or “tight with money” in a conversation about expenses.

I’m in trouble, aren’t I?

This caused a massive media storm because the word “niggardly” sounds really close to “nigger,” a word that white people have to be really, really careful about using. For good reason, of course, but the fact is that “niggardly” and “nigger” are completely unrelated. The former goes back to old Scandinavian and the word “nygge,” which meant a miser. The latter is a corruption of the Latin niger, meaning “black,” which is turn gave us the Spanish and Portuguese “negro.” Long story short (too late), that city official used the right word in the right context, but it wasn’t a word that we let people use anymore. It’s a a Fallen Word, joining other words and phrases such as “Call a spade a spade,” “Rule of thumb,” and “shyster.” All of them have innocent origins, but have been inextricably linked with some of our worse human prejudices and practices.

I could go on. The point is that this book is a great pleasure to read, and will give you a fresh new perspective on the English language. It’s non-academic, so you have nothing to worry about there, well-organized and just plain entertaining. More importantly, while it may not be able to prevent you grinding your teeth when you see “Ten Items or Less” at the local supermarket, you may be less inclined to try and strangle the manager.

Maybe.

———————————————————————
“The truth is that English is all about change. It’s as absorbent as a sponge, as flexible as a rubber band, and it simply won’t stand still – no matter where it’s spoken.”
– Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious
——————————————————————–

Patricia T. O’Connor on Wikipedia
Origins of the Specious on Amazon.com
Patricia T. O’Connor’s website

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Filed under history, language, nonfiction, Patricia T. O'Connor, Stewart Kellerman

Review 191: The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

There is an essential flaw in human nature that makes us think we’re special. It used to make us think that we were literally the center of the universe, which it turns out we aren’t. It makes us think that we’re all going to grow up to be movie stars and astronauts, which we aren’t; our children are all brilliant and well-behaved, which they aren’t; and that God is on our side, which It isn’t.

Oddly enough, though, there is one place where this boundless optimism is flipped on its head. Every generation is absolutely convinced that this is the nadir of human accomplishment, that we are well and truly screwed and that there has never been a more messed-up, terrible time to live. The past was better, we think, and we look back on the days gone by as a golden age when things were simpler and no one had the kind of troubles that we have today.

When you join us, all will be perfect. Join us. Join us.

Of course, that’s not true. We are healthier, freer, and generally better off than generations before us, who were healthier, freer, and generally better off than the ones before them, and so on. While things certainly aren’t perfect, they’re not nearly as bad as we like to think that they are. If people were able to look at their world with an unjaundiced eye and a fair heart, we would realize that and maybe start living our lives accordingly.

Of course, if we were able to do that, then Matt Taibbi wouldn’t be able to sell his books.

To be fair, the first decade of this century was messed up on a grand scale. Not the same way the 60s were, or the 30s, or the 1860s, but truly twisted and burdensome in their own special way. We had been attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a shadowy cabal of extremists who managed to make a laughingstock of our supposed invulnerability. We reacted by flipping out and invading the wrong country and passing reams of knee-jerk legislation designed to chip away at civil liberties wherever they could. Our government, when it wasn’t handing us lies that were about as transparent as a window where the glass has been removed and replaced with nothing but pure, spring-fresh air, was telling us that there was nothing to see here and that the best way to get involved was to go shopping. And if you did have to get involved, you’d better be with us.

Because we know who’s against us. The tehrists.

Overseeing all of this was a simplistic frat boy idiot manchild of a President and the band of Washington technocrats who had been itching to bomb the hell out of the Middle East since the 70s. The media, for its part, was playing along, doing what it was told, and making sure that the people, with whom sovereign power resides in the United States, had no way of knowing what its government was actually doing at any given time.

This could probably be a campaign sign for whatever politician is running near you.

Americans had been lied to over and over again for decades, starting with the post-ironic age of advertising (which Taibbi pinpoints as the Joe Isuzu ads) up to the utterly unswallowable “They hate us for our freedoms” line that we were supposed to believe when it slid, wet, horrible and putrescent from the mouth of George W. Bush. And then, if you raised your hand and asked questions about the story you were expected to buy into, people turned around and accused you of being a faithless traitor. So what are people to do when they can’t trust the narrative that their leaders are giving them?

Why, they turn inward, of course, and build their own narrative. Their own bubble, as it were – a space within which everything makes sense. Everything can be explained, people can be trusted, and all the rules work. It is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but that’s okay because outsiders are the whole reason the bubble exists in the first place. As Taibbi discovers, there is far more in common between the far right hyper-Christians and the far left conspiracists than you might expect, and that there are far more of them than you really want to know.

This book is basically two interwoven parts, with a few interludes to keep the story on track. In one part, Taibbi goes down to Texas, uses a fake name and gets involved with a Megachurch in San Antonio. He joins the church to find out what brings these people together in a time when the government and the media can’t be relied upon, and what attracts people to a life of fundamentalist Christianity in the first place. He goes to meetings where demons are cast out, to small group discussions in beautiful Texan homes, and listens to people explain why it is that they’ve given their lives to Christ, something that Taibbi would never do himself, were he not researching a book.

Woah.

He also finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes that – to varying degrees – the Bush administration bears some of the blame for the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Some believe they knew about it but chose to do nothing, so that they would have a reason to launch their war against Iraq. Others believe that they directly caused the attacks, mining the collapsed buildings and aiming the aircraft. The more elaborate theories involve holograms, missiles and a conspiracy of silence that is continually upheld by thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.

Much like the fundamentalist Christianity, Taibbi immerses himself in Truther culture, trying to find out what it is that keeps them going, even when they – like the Christians – have no real evidence to support what they believe. Even moreso for the Truthers, there is actually a lot of logical, circumstantial and physical evidence that outright debunks their theories, but they soldier on anyway, utterly convinced that they are the only ones in America who haven’t surrendered to the lies of the political and media machines.

So what do these two groups have in common, and what do they say about America?

American politics are, generally, about Us versus Them. All politics, really, but we do it really well. The parties in power do their best to say that they stand for Us against Them, regardless of which party you vote with, but it’s become increasingly evident that the parties in power are not really for Us – they’re for Themselves. They push the same canned platitudes and wedge the same minor issues every election cycle with the sole purpose of keeping their jobs, and that is finally becoming evident to the public. Rather than governing, which is ostensibly their jobs, Our Representatives in Congress are doing what they can to help themselves, their parties and their friends, and this is more and more evident the closer you look. To have them then turn around and say, without a trace of irony, that they’re doing their best for the country they love, that they actually care about the concerns of the voter, is enough to make even the most optimistic Pollyanna turn into a Grade-A cynic.

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time zat ve had vun!!” – Inspector Kemp, Young Frankenstein

But rather than rising up as one and kicking the bastards out, the public turned inwards and went into their bubbles. If the game we’re playing is Us versus Them, then let’s do it right. Now we’re not just one group of people with a certain set of political views, we are the anointed of God or, depending on where you are, the only intelligent people in a world of sheep. And who are They? They are not just corrupt politicians. They are agents of Satan, sent to bring about the end of the world. They are power-hungry chessmasters, bent on ruling with an iron fist.

It’s a world view that makes sense to the people who have chosen to live in it, more sense than the “real” world does.

Now this book was written back in 2006 and a lot has happened since then, so it is very much a book of its time. Since then, we have seen our political theater change in many interesting ways, not the least of which is the Tea Party, which is kind of the coming-out party for a lot of the people who felt they had been left out of the discussion for so long. They’ve had their chance to incubate in the churches and on the internet, and now they’re out in force and ready to change the way politics works. A later addition to the party is the Occupy movement, bound together in its view of a nation run by plutocrats and their puppet government. They’re what happens when the Left sits in the echo chamber for a while.

Whether they will ultimately be successful is still up for argument, but so far, well… They’re all kind of freaking me out.

The take-home message from the book is this: There have been far worse times to be in the United States, and our nation has seen its way through far greater trials. But each one is different, born of different causes and with different effects, and we do not have the benefit of being able to look back and see how everything works out. It is much easier these days to find people you agree with and isolate yourself with them, and every time Congress or the President or the Media lets us down, it’s more and more tempting to do so.

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?!?!

But that way lies madness. The madness of an evangelical movement that is anticipating the end of days, the madness of a conspiracy of vast and perfect proportions. The answer is not to isolate ourselves with the like-minded but to seek out those with whom we disagree and make sure that we’re all living in the same world, no matter what it’s like. Rather than dividing ourselves into two giant camps of Us and Them, pointed and aimed by people whose only interest is in seeing us rip each other to shreds, maybe we can finally see what it is that unifies everyone.

Once we can do that, once we can fight the derangement, perhaps we can see our way to making our country into the one we want it to be.

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“Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their power to take away politicians’ jobs… When the government sees its people as the enemy, sooner or later that feeling gets to be mutual. And that’s when the real weirdness begins.”
– Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
The Great Derangement on Amazon.com
Matt Taibbi’s blog at Rolling Stone

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Filed under american history, analysis, Christianity, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, memoir, nonfiction, politics, religion, society

Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

—–
“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
The Lacks Family website
Rebecca Skloot homepage

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Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

—–
“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 169: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. “Everything you can drop on your foot,” as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It’s a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have – especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they’ll be old enough and canny enough to ask, “Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?” That’s the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

Ytterby. By all accounts, a lovely place. Photo by Bertil Nelson on Flickr.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don’t pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Oh, mercury, How can anything so pretty be so dangerous? Photo by Len Gatey on Flickr.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills, a “cure” for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn’t hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men’s bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology – the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology – the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means “silver water.” It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. “As we know,” he writes, “90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error.” Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

One look from this bearded madman and the elements fell into place right quick.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don’t react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn’t yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean’s book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

A quantum jump is exactly like this, except in that it's nothing like this. Not even remotely. But otherwise, yes.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean’s elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions – how do we know atoms exist if we can’t see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it’s also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It’s “gateway science,” one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What’s more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

———————————————————–
“We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.”
– Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon
————————————————————

[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?

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Filed under chemistry, history, nonfiction, Sam Kean, science, technology