Category Archives: nonfiction

General nonfiction books.

Review 159: Alphabet Juice

Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr.

When I was last home for Christmas, my mother pretty much shoved this book into my hands and said, “You have to read this.” And far be it from me to ignore my mother’s advice, except possibly that little tidbit about being trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space. I kinda spaced out on that one. Probably wasn’t important….

Anyway, Mom was right. Like nearly everyone else in my family, I am a lover of language. I read voraciously (as you well know), I’ve dabbled in writing – songs, stories and poems – and I make a living teaching non-speakers the joys of being English speakers. I grew up in a literate household, with a mother who used to teach me Latin roots whenever I asked “What does this mean?” My words are the way I express my thoughts and the way I understand the world, and as such they are as precious jewels – to be cherished and admired, used with elegance and style, and not wasted on fripperies and tacky indulgence.

He's much funnier than he looks. Really.

Roy Blount Jr is a kindred spirit indeed. He’s a humorist, the author of about two dozen books and a regular panelist on one of my favorite radio shows – Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…. He talks with a slow southern drawl and never seems to hurry. This is the kind of person who savors his language and treasures his words. He’s not only interested in the meanings of words, or the sounds, but in the very feel of them. And if you’re the kind of person who never thought about how words feel when you say them, this book might do you some good.

Think of a word. Any word. How about doldrums? It’s a great word, a “sonicky” word, to use the term that Blount coins in this book to mean “a word whose sound doesn’t imitate the concept it represents (like boom or poof), but rather evokes the essence of the word.” Say that word out loud – doldrums. Doldrummmmsss…. If you were asked to come up with a word that describes a seemingly endless, unchanging environment, you could do worse than this one. It’s got flat vowels, heavy and pendulous, that practically sit in the bottom of your mouth, defying your tongue’s attempt to shift them. Then it ends in a flat hum that becomes a thin and lifeless hiss. Doldrums.

It is clear that Blount takes great pleasure in the sounds of words and the feelings of words as phonemes slide, crash and bump together, but he’s also interested in the etymology of words. He looks into the origins of some of the most innocuous words in the language – and some of the most useful – and looks at how they descend from the same ancient Proto-Indo-European roots. Take the P.I.E. room pag- which has given us such a diverse crop of words as pagan, compact, pole, pace and pageant. All this from a little word that meant, roughly, “to fasten.” The words that we speak have taken a long and wild journey to get into our minds and our mouths. Some were ported directly from Latin, others took a longer route. But every word that you speak has great history behind it.

There is no other name that this man could have. Not a coincidence, I'm sure.

Finally, of course, there is meaning. Without meaning, words are just sounds and aggregations of letters. One of the big questions that Blount hits over and over again is whether words mean something for a reason or if they’ve just been arbitrarily assigned to ideas and things. There are those who hold to that idea – that a word like “go” is no better or worse suited to its job than iku or jít or aller (Japanese, Czech and French, respectively). There’s something to that, I suppose – after all, if one sound really were perfectly suited to a concept, why would other languages bother to use so many variations? Or, y’know, exist? You would think that eventually the speakers of other languages would hear “Go” and think, “That’s IT! That’s the word!” If that were the case, it would probably have put me out of a job.

So there probably is some element of arbitrariness in language, but Blount isn’t very convinced by that idea. He says that there are so many words – such as doldrums or go, which fit their ideas so very, very well – how could such an appropriate set of sounds have just been arbitrarily given to these ideas? Words like scribble, itch, wrest, pool – words whose sounds and meanings match so very well, how could they be arbitrary?

The most likely answer, of course, is that language defines how you understand the world. As an English speaker Blount has inextricably connected these words and ideas in his head, and to suggest that, say, berceuse is perfectly suited to describe a soft song sung to children to get them to sleep would be asking an English speaker to put aside a whole lot of the associations he or she had made about lullaby.

This isn’t an academic book, though, so don’t worry about that. Blount has made a career out of entertaining with his words, and he doesn’t put that aside just because he’s doing language analysis. He brings up common words, unusual words, thought-provoking and laugh-inducing topics, all arranged – of course – alphabetically. You can jump backwards and forwards through the book, following the cross-references, and still enjoy it to its fullest. In fact, Blount recommends that you do so.

Genius!

Language is our way of making the world make sense, no matter what language it is. For those of us who are native English speakers, we look at the world through a complex and sometimes baffling language. It’s hard to learn (and hard to teach), sometimes frustrating to deal with and occasionally incapable of doing what we need it to do. But it’s part of our cultural heritage – our cultural DNA, if you will – and deserves appreciation. So take a gander at this book – read it, savor it, enjoy it, and then look at your language afresh. You’ll be glad you did.

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“English is an outrageous tangle of those derivations and other multifarious linguistic influences, from Yiddish to Shoshone, which has grown up around a gnarly core of chewy, clangorous yawps derived from ancestors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies.”
– Roy Blount, Jr., Alphabet Juice
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Roy Blount, Jr. on Wikipedia
Roy Blount, Jr.’s website
Alphabet Juice on Amazon.com

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Review 158: Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents AND Hail to the Chiefs

Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents by Cormac O’Brien

Yes, a double-header today, mainly because it’s what makes the most sense with these books.

As we come up to another Presidential election, we’re being asked to make a very important choice. We’re electing someone to join a very powerful and elite group of men who have shaped the history of the world in the last 200-odd years. It’s an important decision, to be sure, and not one to be taken lightly. Will our next President be a political powerhouse, a man who is able to take the reins of the country and lead it into a better and more just future? Will he be inept or corrupt, allowing his cronies and his pals to use the nation for their own personal gain? Or perhaps he’ll simply be a cipher, one of those Presidents who is forgotten by everyone except for over-achieving elementary school kids who think that everyone will be impressed that they know who Zachary Taylor was.

We don’t know, and we can’t know, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this book. Every President, from Washington to Obama, was elected by the people in the hopes that he was the right man to lead the country. Every President was praised and damned. Every President was, before the election, sold as the one man who could save the nation from ruin and despair. If not all of those Presidents lived up to their hype, well, therein lies the lesson….

This is the kind of history I like... (image by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

For people who like their history to be amusing and bite-sized, this is the book for you. It’s a “gateway book” for Presidential history – you read this and then go on to read more serious treatments of the Presidents, hopefully becoming more appreciative of the vast spectrum of personalities that have guided our nation. And what an interesting group it’s been.

There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that everyone knows. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew), all men who made their marks on America. Washington, of course, set the entire tone of the Presidency. He demanded formality, and the acknowledgment that the office of President was one that should be treated with respect. At the same time, he didn’t want to be revered, or treated like American royalty. His decision to serve only two terms of office became unbreakable tradition, at least until FDR, and then law with the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. While the stories that are attributed to him are mostly apocryphal – chopping down the cherry tree, throwing a dollar across the Rappahannock, wooden teeth – the real stories are even better. He spent vast sums of money on alcohol, had a terrible temper, and probably wouldn’t even have been the President if he hadn’t married Martha Custis. In short, Washington was human, just like the other forty-two who followed him.

Then there are the infamous – the Presidents who are excoriated for their misdeeds and who are the ones we all wish never actually happened. Nixon, Hoover, Buchannan, Harding, Pierce…. These are the ones you tell your children about when they turn 18 and they’re wondering who to vote for. Warren G. Harding, for example, was only President for two years before his death, but manages to make the bottom of the “Best Presidents” list nearly every time. For one thing, he never wanted to be the President – it was all his wife’s idea. But Warren didn’t like to say no, didn’t like to stand up to people, so he let her railroad him into running for and winning the office. Once he was in the White House, he was perfectly happy to let Congress govern while he had sex with his mistresses and lost vast sums of money – and the occasional priceless White House tea set – to his poker buddies. It’s said that his father told him he was lucky not to have been born a girl, “because you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” While he amused himself, his cabinet and his friends did their best to rob the government blind. He was lucky that his ineptitude wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1923.

There are, of course, the ciphers. These are the Presidents that no one really remembers much about. The middle-of-the-pack Presidents, neither good enough nor bad enough to be really memorable. James Polk, for example. Ever dress up as him for a history class skit? No, I didn’t think so. This is because he was a boring, humorless workaholic who had about as much personality as a table lamp. Still, he did get us into a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of what we now know as the American Southwest, so there is that. How about Chester Arthur? He became President when Garfield was shot, and was most renowned for the fact that he was a very snappy dresser. He restricted Chinese immigration, so there’s a point against, but supported the Pendleton Act, which made it harder to appoint unqualified drinking buddies to important civil service posts. Other than that, he had parties, drank a lot and was kicked out after finishing his term.

Forty-three different men, forty-three different stories. It’s very easy to forget that these were Real People, complex human beings with incredible merits and flaws. Franklin Pierce was so despised that his own party came up with the slogan, “Anybody But Pierce.” John Tyler was so hated that he was burned in effigy and was the first President to receive a full-time bodyguard. On the other hand, Lincoln had a soft spot for pardoning soldiers who were to be shot for unmeritorious conduct, and Theodore Roosevelt once opened a speech with: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.” Now THAT is hard-core….

It’s also hard to remember that, for all the mistakes made by Presidents in our lifetimes, they’re hardly new ones. Clinton was not the first guy to be unfaithful to his wife while President – in fact, compared to what some others got up to, a little hummer under the desk is practically innocent. And Bush is not the first dim bulb with delusions of grandeur either.

Bush has said, many times, that history will be the final judge of his administration, and I think he’s right about that. Very few people in President Monroe’s time would have known the horrors that would eventually emerge from the Missouri Compromise, and there were countless people who thought that FDR’s New Deal would spell the end of American capitalism. It’s hard to objectively judge the Presidents we still remember so vividly, but we can compare them to the ones who have gone before them.

I'm sure this really happened. It must have. (art by SharpWriter on DeviantArt)

If you’re new to Presidential history, or if you want an easily accessible refresher, this is an excellent text to have. Mind you, it’s slightly incomplete – it was published prior to Bush’s second term, so there’s a little bit missing at the end, but I think we can all remember four years back. And maybe, just maybe, our next President will be so special that Mr. O’Brien will be moved to update and re-publish in, say, four to eight years.

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“As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
– Martin Van Buren
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Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland

What was true for Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents is just as true for this one: we’ve had 43 incredibly interesting and varied men in the White House in our 221 years as a nation. We’ve had men of passion and energy, men who were weak-willed and lazy, men who preferred golf to governance and men who worked themselves to death. Good men, bad men, tall men, short men – this book reminds us of something we need to recall from time to time:

The President is a human being, with all that goes with being one.

Being the President inevitably means becoming a larger-than-life figure. People despised Bush, people adore Obama, venerate Reagan, abhor Clinton, all for what they see as virtues or flaws that only they possess. As if being the President not only means you have to be better than everyone else, but that your failings must be that much deeper.

The point of this book, and of any book on the Presidents, is that they were human beings just like the rest of us. Being President doesn’t make you immune to the fundamental flaws of being human – greed, apathy, short-sightedness – nor does it bless you with any trans-human virtues. Learning about and humanizing these 43 men is a grounding and humbling experience, and can keep you from both setting your expectations too high and allowing your disappointments to overwhelm you when your President doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Having said all that – if you want to read a book on the Presidents, this is a very funny one to read. The style is more narrative than O’Brien’s, and exceptionally snarky. Holland wields her pen like a dagger, stabbing and poking as she goes. She’s not really mean, but she has no problem making fun of these men when it can get a good laugh. And I certainly laughed a lot while reading this, much to the dismay of my co-workers. They come in short shots: “[Clinton] was a big affable fellow who hugged total strangers and felt their pain, like some ancient Norse bear-god, probably named Potus, good-natured but with a weakness for milkmaids.” And they come in longer passages, i.e. the Spanish-American War and the rather clever means by which we got the Panama Canal.

"The Great Communicator" indeed...

It’s a hilarious, irreverent read… until she gets to Reagan, which is where either she’s being so sarcastic that it’s impossible to be sure what’s serious and what isn’t, or she’s absolutely gushing over the Great Communicator. She imbues him with the same invulnerability that he seemed to have while he was President – showing the complaints of his critics, but then deftly removing the sting. George W. Bush gets much the same treatment, which disturbs me a bit, although since the book was published in 2004, I might be willing to chalk that up to post 9/11 fervor. But it does seem that, from 1981 to the present, she’s not being quite as fair and balanced as she was to the other Commanders in Chief. Perhaps it’s harder to be objective when you actually had to decide whether to vote for the guy in office….

Anyway, the final four Presidents aside, it’s a fun book to read and another way to bone up on your Presidential history. They really all were interesting people, in their own ways. Even William Henry Harrison, who may have been too sick to be in interesting President, but still made for a fascinating person.

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“Many people consider James Buchanan the very worst President ever. I suppose they think they would have done better. I suppose they wouldn’t have let Dred Scott happen, or John Brown, or secession, and there wouldn’t have been any Civil War and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Too many Monday-morning quarterbacks, that’s what we’ve got.”
– Barbara Holland, Hail to the Chiefs
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Filed under american history, Barbara Holland, biography, Cormac O'Brien, history, nonfiction, politics, presidential history

Review 157: The Elements

The Elements by Theodore Gray

When I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that covered all kinds of topics – history, science, literature, you name it. The idea was that you sign up and they send you books, once a month, until the series was finished or you decided you no longer wanted to receive it.

The Science series focused on, of course, science, with books devoted to every facet of physics, medicine, chemistry, biology…. It was a fantastic compendium of human knowledge in those pre-internet days, and I just loved it. I learned about how traveling at lightspeed squashes things by reading a story about spies chasing each other on the Lightspeed Express. I learned about how different drugs affect the mind and body. I learned about how important the wheel was, what water could do, and how the food we eat determines almost everything about our lives.

My favorite volume of all of them was titled Matter, and it was about all the stuff there is. At the center of it was a pictorial representation of all the elements known to science in 1968. Everything from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond. I could pore over those pages for hours, amazed by the idea that these things were all there was, made up everything around me. Learning that just six of them (Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorus) made up most of, well, me was just mind-bending.

I don’t know where that book is now – probably in a box at my mother’s house – but the effect that it had on me has lasted ever since my childhood. In fact, as I was researching this review, I found the place that sells coins stamped from elemental metals and got completely distracted by the struggle to not buy any of them. So that’s how Time/Life made me into a science nerd. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I saw this book, and had to snap it up as soon as I could. It cost a whole lot less than a 1/10 troy ounce Rhodium coin

Theodore Gray is an element hunter – something I didn’t even know existed when I was a kid. He has made a hobby of trying to collect samples of every element that is is possible to (legally) own, and he’s even built a special table to hold them all. A periodic table, as it were, which won him the IgNobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002. He and Nick Mann went through the collection to make outstanding, high-quality photographs and compile them into a fantastic book about “everything you can drop on your foot.”

My old chemistry teacher would have had these all over the classroom, I'm sure...

It starts, of course, with a basic rundown of what an element is – a substance made of only one type of atom – and what the Periodic Table is – an organization of the elements by their common properties. There’s also a page explaining the physics behind the shape of the table, what an “electron filling order” is, and why the atomic emission spectrum is so important. Fortunately for us non-professionals, he does this is a way that is amusing and understandable. Gray knows that his audience isn’t professional chemists or grad students – it’s people like me. People who are fans of science, but who, for one reason or another, never got into the real nitty-gritty of it. All of this means that it’s a book you can enjoy even if you remember nothing from high school chemistry other than “BIFF=WANG.” [1]

The book starts, of course, at hydrogen, the element that makes the sun burn (“Even at night,” alleges the author, but I’ll believe that when I see it) and ends with Ununoctium, which will no doubt get a proper name once those crazy kids in the high-energy physics lab get around to assembling it. It includes the spectre of the modern age, Uranium, and its evil twin Plutonium. There’s Carbon, without which none of us would be here, and Arsenic, which does a fine job of seeing to it that we cease to be. There’s Iron, which we use in abundance, and Dysprosium, which has almost no uses that you’ve ever heard of. Cesium tells us what time it is, and Krypton, which used to tell us how long things were (before we figured out the speed of light.) Strontium and Calcium, Sodium and Americium, Gold, Silver, Copper and Lead – every element is in here, waiting for you.

All the kids in the playground called me mad - MAD!!!

They’re accompanied by wonderful photographs that illustrate the applications of each element, as well as diagrams showing its emission spectrum, crystal structure, and other information that you may or may not be interested in. Regardless of how much you know about chemistry, you should find this to be a fascinating and enjoyable book. Moreover, if you have kids and you want them to be exposed to science in a way that engages their fascination and imagination, then this is the book for you. Just be ready to raise a science nerd, and if they ask for an elemental coin for their birthday, remember – Lead isn’t just for toys anymore!

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“When you throw a large enough lump of sodium into a lake, the result is a huge explosion a few seconds later. Depending on whether you took the right precautions, this is either a thrilling and beautiful experience or the end of your life as you have known it when molten sodium sprays into your eyes, permanently blinding you. Chemistry is a bit like that: powerful enough to do great things in the world, but also dangerous enough to do terrible things just as easily. If you don’t respect it, chemistry bites.”
– Theodore Gray, The Elements
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[1] Thanks, Mr. Hiza!

Theodore Gray on Wikipedia
Theodore Gray’s homepage
The Elements on Amazon.com

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Review 154: :59 Seconds

:59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

(If you want, I’ll give you one marshmallow now. If you read through the whole review, however, I’ll give you two. Ready? Let’s go!)

Do you have problems? Of course you have problems. We all have problems. Maybe you want to land a new job, or lose weight or finish a project you’re working on. Maybe you find that you procrastinate too much, or you don’t get along with people, or you can’t be creative. Maybe you just want to be happy, you poor, sad little person.

These are the kinds of problems that have spawned an entire industry of books – the Self Help genre. Go to your local bookstore and look around. There are countless books that tell you how you can make yourself better through positive thinking, creative visualization, listening to Mozart or joining up with groups. They’ll tell you that if you want to find romance, you should look for an opposite, you should play hard to get, or you should plan a perfectly romantic evening. They’ll cite ancient wisdom or have countless testimonials from people who have tried their methods, and almost all of them have one thing in common: they don’t work.

The self-help genre rests on a foundation of common sense ideas, things that sound like they should work, rather than an understanding of how the human mind actually does work. Often, much to our chagrin, our minds don’t follow the rules, and we fail. Take positive thinking, for example. The general gist of positive thinking is that you should never allow a negative thought to enter your mind. If one pops up, just push it away and focus on the positive.

Quick experiment: I want you, for the next minute, to not – I repeat not – think of a pink hippopotamus. Ready? GO!

(Waiting… waiting… waiting…)

How’d you do? I don’t know about you, but my pink hippo is rather contentedly sitting on my sofa right now. The fact is, the more we try not to think of something, the harder it is to not think about it. You then end up obsessing over the thing you’re trying not to think of, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place!

It’s an idea that sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t, and that’s what Wiseman has collected in this book. Wiseman is a psychologist from the UK, and he has a particular interest not only in the science of self-help, but also magic, optical illusions and the paranormal. In other words, he’s very good at knowing how we humans fool ourselves. And boy, do we know how to fool ourselves.

We want to believe that humans are rational creatures, intelligently designed evolved to make the best decisions. We spent years studying the world around us, trying to figure out how to motivate ourselves and others, and operating under the assumption that we know what our brains are doing at any given time. Problem is, we don’t. We have no idea what our brains are doing while we’re trying to get things done. The good news is that there’s are entire branches of psychology that are doing their damndest to figure it out. Wiseman combed through the literature, looking at scientific studies on human psychology and behavior to try and find simple, clear and effective ways of making your life better. The bonus is that many of these things can be done in under a minute.

Some of the things he presents are so simple that you don’t want to believe they’d work. For example, do you want to be a little more cheerful, to have a brighter outlook on life and be generally more pleasant to be around? Go get a pencil and hold it with your teeth, making sure your lips don’t touch the pencil. Your mouth will basically be making a grin, which will have a positive impact on your mood. Seriously. While you’re at it, sit up straight, use more expressive gestures when you talk, and try to use a wider range of pitch in your speech. Your body and mind are hooked up in such a way that your body can tell your mind what it’s feeling. So if you have a grin on your face, and you’re talking in an animated and upbeat way, your brain will think, “Well, these are all physical conditions that are associated with happiness, so… I guess I must be happy.”

You can use the same trick on a first date. Instead of a nice, placid picnic in the park or a boat ride on the river, go to an amusement park and hit the roller coaster together. The fear and excitement will make your date’s heart beat faster, breathe harder, and generally be more excited. These are also physical reactions to being attracted to someone, and your brain really can’t tell the difference very well. It feels your heart pounding, your blood rushing, your adrenaline flowing, and it thinks, “Huh. I guess I must really like this person.” So, once you get off that ride, you have a little window of opportunity to increase the attraction you have for each other.

Now let’s say you’re angry about something. I mean, you’re hitting George Constanza levels here, and all you want to do is just hit something. There is a way of thinking that says you should go hit your pillow. Or go to the gym and do some work on the heavy bag, punching your anger away. If you live far enough away from others, maybe you could do some primal screaming or something. It makes sense, right? You have to let your anger out somewhere, right?

Wrong. Studies have shown that kicking and screaming and beating up your pillow will make you more aggressive and irritable, not less. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline. What you should do, then, is to look for the benefits to your experience. Researchers asked subjects to think about a painful and unpleasant incident in their lives and to focus on their anger. Another group was asked to instead focus on the benefits – they had learned an important lesson, had become an emotionally stronger person, or had otherwise changed for the better. When questioned later, the second group turned out to be much less angry than the first, and to be more likely to forgive the person who had hurt them.

Okay, one more – you want to be creative, right? We all want that. So, should you brainstorm with your colleagues? Focus on the creative task at hand? Listen to Mozart? No, no and no, although there’s really never any reason not to listen to Mozart. Again, research has shown that people tend to work less hard in groups than they do on their own. Being in a group makes you lazier, so if you want to get good ideas from a whole bunch of people, have them work alone first. You’ll get more and better ideas that way. As for focusing on the problem at hand, other studies have shown that the best thing to do is to distract yourself with something totally unrelated so that your unconscious mind can get some work done. Work on a puzzle, draw a picture, think of a hundred ways to use a brick – anything but the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, when you come back to the problem, you’re more likely to generate better ideas.

As for the Mozart, it turns out that listening to Mozart does make you slightly more creative and intelligent…. for about fifteen minutes. Neither you nor your baby will become a genius if you listen to Wolfie’s music every day. What’s actually more effective is modern art – especially art that breaks our expectations. In one study, two groups were given a creativity task. One was seated in a room with a large print that featured twelve dark green crosses on a light green background. The other had almost an identical picture, except that one of the crosses was yellow, and they came up with the more creative ideas. Why should this be? The idea is that the impression of unconventionality, of a pattern being broken, may be enough to stimulate our own creativity. Now it won’t turn you into DaVinci or anything like that, but it should help at least a little.

And that’s what this book is – lots of little ideas that are designed to help you out. Put a mirror in your kitchen, put a baby photograph in your wallet, buy small gifts for no reason. Put a plant on your desk, start keeping a journal, and don’t praise your kids for how clever they are – praise them for the work they’ve done. Everything Wiseman puts in this book is a small thing, a little effort, but when put together they add up.

Even if you don’t really need a lot of alteration to your life – maybe you’re as happy as happy can be – it’s still a fascinating look into how our minds work, and the different ways that they can be hacked.

(Good work! Here are your marshmallows!)

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“Now if you take part in a study and the researchers explain that they need your telephone number in case of a hard-disk failure, they are up to something.”
– Richard Wiseman, :59 Seconds

All images in this post come from Despair.com – go and give them money. They’ve earned it.
Richard Wiseman on Wikipedia
59 Seconds on Amazon.com
Richard Wiseman’s homepage

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Filed under nonfiction, psychology, Richard Wiseman, science, self-help

Review 147: When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You’re a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people – fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, “Well, I’m a right bastard and I don’t care who knows it!”

So imagine that you – a good person – do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head – the good, honest, kind, humble (let’s not forget humble) person – directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They’re grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you’re not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you’re just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn’t have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that “business trip” that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was “in the hospital,” visiting “his sick mother.” As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn’t need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You ™ would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

Well, I can't argue with that. Light 'em up!

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she’ll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you’ll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

The monkeys in my head tell me you're CRAZY!

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you’re right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn’t been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn’t show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

They're here! They're here! They're... No, wait. They're not.

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn’t record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn’t end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn’t come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger’s five criteria. Look at people who cling to the belief that organic food is inherently better than conventional food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Wall Street Occupiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators…. I could go on all day.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you’re being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.

——————————————————

“When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn’t it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can’t educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”
“Fred Purden”, in When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails on Wikipedia
Leon Festinger on Wikipedia
Stanley Schachter on Wikipedia
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Filed under apocalypse, cults, disaster, Henry W. Riecken, Leon Festinger, nonfiction, psychology, skepticism, Stanley Schachter, UFOs

Review 145: Griftopia

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

This book made me want to get rip-roaring drunk, set a banker on fire, and kick a member of Congress square in the nuts, preferably from a running start. It put me one step closer to finally realizing my dream of living somewhere in the wilderness like the Unibomber (although without all the Unibombing). It took all of my already cynical ideas about how America works, patted them on the head and said, “You’re just adorable,” and then proceeded to tell me that Santa Claus is not only dead, but that his body was stuffed, covered in rhinestones and sold to the CEO of Goldman-Sachs to use as a towel rack in his guest bathroom.

Much like The Great Derangement, wherein Taibbi explains how Americans have built new realities for themselves based on their politics, this book really seems to be aimed right at me. My natural distrust of the government and especially of business makes me a natural reader for this kind of thing, and that sets off my bias alarms. So keep that in mind – I’m probably having a hard time evaluating Taibbi and his claims fairly, in that I think they’re all absolutely correct. They may not be, but that’s how they felt as I read the book.

"I'm sorry, but this diamond-encrusted nut-scratcher is clearly made of 14-karat gold, NOT 24-karat as I specified. I wouldn't give this to my stableboy's cheapest whore. Throw it away!"

Taibbi’s premise is disturbingly simple: the American political and economic system is set up to reward lying, cheating and grift. From the fraudsters who convinced poor families to take out loans on McMansions to the Great Greenspan himself, our economic engine has been running for years on an unstable fuel of high-octane mendacity. Every now and then, there is a hitch – the tech bubble of the late 90s, the housing crash, the oil price spike of 2008, the Great Financial Meltdown – but the engine keeps going. What’s more, the people who caused the bubbles and crashes manage to skate clear of damage and punishment, rewarded by lawmakers who are beholden to them. It’s a self-corrupting system that values short-term profit over long-term stability, and it’s probably going to be the ruin of us all.

The mortgage fiasco is well-described here. Taibbi takes us from the bottom of the financial food chain – a low-income homeowner who thought he was getting a great chance for a home of his own, and follows the chain of deceit up and up and up, from the mortgage broker who sold the deal (and, incidentally both lied about his client’s credit score and got him an adjustable mortgage in order to garner a higher finder’s fee) to the banks that put all these rotten mortgages together, to the insurance companies and financial institutions that bought them, sold them and traded them. All across the board, they lied about what they had and made sure that they passed their rotten goods off to some other poor sucker before the whole thing went wrong. And when it did, it was like some horrible chain of dominoes that started with people who discovered they couldn’t pay $1,500 a month for their home, and ended with the failure of banks that had ruled the financial sector for decades.

"Well, Congressman, I'm just going to put this down over here - it's heavy, you see - so just put it out of your mind. Don't worry about it at all."

What’s more, the US government let this happen. Under the guise of being “pro-business,” politicians have been loosening restrictions and adjusting interest rates for decades under the willful delusion that the free market can manage itself just fine. Under the direction of Ayn Rand disciples such as Alan Greenspan, the power of the government to manage corrupt banks and insurance companies is about as impressive as an elementary school crossing guard. They wanted business free of its regulatory fetters, and that’s what they got. What everyone else got, of course, was screwed.

Another example: during 2008, Taibbi noticed something weird. Gas prices were skyrocketing, but supply was keeping pace with demand. There were no lines at gas stations like there had been in the 70s, when OPEC refused to sell us oil. If you wanted to fill up, you could, as long as you were willing to pay a price that went up moments before you pulled into the station. Even people with the barest understanding of economics understands supply and demand – if the supply is lower than the demand, the price goes up, and vice versa. But here, neither the supply of gasoline nor the overall demand for it changed, yet prices were shooting up past $4 a gallon. What, as they say, the HELL was going on?

Our politicians – especially the ones battling for the White House – had pat answers ready for the cameras. Obama blamed the Evil Oil Companies and wasteful SUV drivers. McCain blamed anti-drilling legislation and environmental regulation. Everybody blamed China for its accelerating growth. All of that, as it turns out, was misleading at best, bullshit at worst.

Well how else are we going to get the bathroom redone? I mean look at it, the place is a sty!

The answer: oil speculation, the use of commodities futures to make a ton of money by driving the price of oil ever higher. Futures were originally intended to provide a safety net for buyers and sellers of commodities, so that neither one would lose too badly if supply or demand shifted unexpectedly. But a way was found to exploit this system, for profiteers to buy and sell massive amounts of stuff to each other, raising their profits to obscene levels.

While a few clever people on Wall Street were getting rich through oil money, thousands of regular people were getting boned. The higher price of gas meant people with long commutes had to quit jobs and leave schools, which put them in ever-deepening financial straits. The price of oil has a very real effect on lives, but that was all ignored so that some high rollers could get rich. The close ties between the banking sector and the US government were what allowed this to happen, after decades of “pro-business” deregulation.

The health care overhaul, the sale of American cities to foreign investors, the collapse of the stock market and the erasure of untold billions of dollars of savings and investments are all given a close, angry look in this book, and Taibbi does a good job at making it understandable to those of us who aren’t really good with the intricacies of the financial sector. He takes his time, breaking down each scam into its component parts, and makes sure you can see every piece of the puzzle as he puts it together.

But what he also does – and I don’t think this is necessarily intentional – is paint a picture of hopelessness. At least, that’s how I saw it. The “great vampire squid” of the financial sector (a metaphor he used specifically with Goldman-Sachs) is inextricably attached to our government and the people who run it, sucking the blood out of the country that we thought we had. The more you see the connections, the more it seems like that squid simply cannot be removed and will never be sated.

Such a vivid image, isn't it?

What’s more, our elected officials are doing a brilliant job at convincing the American people that removing the squid is not necessary. The Tea Party chants its simplistic message that the Constitution is all the law we need, and our leaders smile and nod and watch the money come in. Lawmakers rail against the evil of “earmarks” right up until the day they get elected, and then make sure they reward the people who got them into office. Every time someone tries to loosen the tentacles a bit, they’re attacked as anti-business or anti-capitalist or just out and out socialist, and they’re either shamed or threatened into submission. They tell us that it’s all really complicated, and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it – here’s another season of Jersey Shore.

And the American people? We are, after all, the holders of sovereignty for the country – what about us? We’re idiots. We don’t want to spend the time necessary to understand a problem as ridiculously complex as the fraud that’s being perpetrated in our names, and the leaders we elected aren’t at all interested in making sure we’re educated. We’re instantly distracted by the new shiny thing and forget what happened only a few months ago thanks to smooth talking fraudsters who want us upset about gay marriage and Mexicans in our schools. We trust a media that needs us to be angry, but only just angry enough to keep watching. We’re tied up with businesses that see us as nothing more than a resource to be exploited.

Contrary to popular belief, money does not always make it easier to get your message across.

As of this writing, the “Occupy Everything” movement is still going strong, and I think that’s great. If nothing else, it will cause people to ask questions about how the government is run and why, but I fear it will have little effect in the long run. Why? Because the Occupiers are going after the wrong people.

Corporations make money. That’s what they do. And they’ll do it good and hard if they can. Much like a tiger, they’re just obeying their nature. Chris Rock put it best when he was talking about the Sigfried and Roy incident where one of their show tigers nearly bit off Roy’s head. Everyone said that the tiger had gone crazy, but Rock disagreed – “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”

"I said GOOD DAY, sir!"

Well, Wall Street is the tiger. Chant and occupy and wave your signs all you want, you’re not going to change the fundamental nature of corporate America and how it works. Where all this energy should be going is into Washington, to the people who let the tiger run loose through our villages and happily picked up whatever it left behind. The lawmakers are the ones who can stop this, but right now it’s not in their interest to do so. The status quo has kept them safely employed and empowered, and until they see a real threat from the voters, there’s no way they’re going to turn their backs on their plutocrat supporters.

When the whole thing finally becomes unsustainable, when that final bill becomes due, they will slip away in the night with the wealth of nations in their pockets, leaving the rest of us to kill each other over refrigerator boxes and dogmeat.

See? Told you this book made me angry…

—————————————–
“This story is the ultimate example of America’s biggest political problem. We no longer have the attention span to deal with any twenty-first century crisis. We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it – who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.”
– Matt Taibbi, Griftopia

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
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The Taibblog at Rolling Stone
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Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

————————————————–

You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

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“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 131: The Earth

The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Is it possible for a book to be utterly fascinating and yet, at the same time, a perfect cure for insomnia? I never would have thought so, until I read this one.

That does sound horribly contradictory, and yet it is true. Reading this book, I found myself drawn in by the power of Fortey’s words and this obvious enthusiasm for the subject. He’s a paleontologist by trade, but his era of expertise goes so far back that it’s practically geology anyway. And geology is what this book is all about.

There are those who believe that there are forces beyond our ken that shape our lives. Some believe that the universe itself is alive, filled to the brim with some kind of formless substance that wants us to have what we want. Others attribute great influence to the motion of non-terrestrial planets – just recently I saw a warning the Mercury was in retrograde, and that such apparent motion would spell disaster in communications-related endeavors. Other people believe there are gods, or ghosts, or fairies whose wishes and whims have decided who we are and who we will be. But Fortey knows what’s really going on.

Not this guy, no. But close. (photo by Jenn and Tony Bot on Flickr)

Fortey knows it’s the rocks.

Not just the garden-variety ones you pick up in your garden, no – the real rocks. The gneiss and the schist and the granite, the great, lumbering tectonic plates, relentless in their motion across the face of the Earth, carrying the continents on their backs. The churning, unknowable mantle that holds it all up, revealing only the tiniest glimpses of itself through the effluvium of volcanoes. The Earth tells us who we are and who we will be, for it is the motions of the Earth that made our world what it is. It gave shape to the continents, it has raised and lowered mountains, created and unmade deserts a hundred times over. The rich and fertile fields in which we grow our crops, the barren wastelands that we avoid because we know that they are places where we do not belong – all of those were created by the engine of plate tectonics. Billions of years of relentless motion, of continents smashing into each other, coming apart and then colliding again, have conspired to create the thin, almost evanescent period of time in which we live. And it will continue, long after we are gone, without ever having bothered to notice that we are here.

If these boulders could talk... Man, I'd be really freaked out.

This book is humbling, to say the least. When you think that the Appalachians used to be mountains that rivaled the Alps and the Himalayas, that they were the product of not the most recent supercontinent, Gondwana, nor the one before that, Laurasia. The gentle, rolling hills of the Appalachians, along which thousands of summer and weekend hikers travel, were born three hundred million years ago in the creation of Pangaea. Time, wind and rain wore them down to what they are today, but they stand as evidence of Earth’s deep history. Though not quite as old as the Grenville rocks of Central Park, remnants of mountains formed a billion years ago, before life was more than a thin film of algae on a hypoxic sea.

Fortey writes well. It’s hard to overstate how important that is when considering a book meant for the general audience. Not only can you tell that he obviously loves his subject, but you can see that he is a good and devoted writer, who spent a great deal of time thinking of ways to communicate the literally unthinkable amount of time necessary for the motions of the Earth to have put things where they are today. Geologic events are slow and hard to picture in our minds eyes, but he tries. He tries to get into your head the vast temperatures and pressures that operate just a few miles below where we sit right now, and the utterly alien environment they create. He brings to life the arguments and battles that went on between geologists who tried their best over centuries to untangle the folded and twisted stories of the rocks and figure out how they came to be the way they were. The story that Fortey is telling is four and a half billion years in the making, a timespan that we simple humans cannot truly grasp.

I got your mystical geology right here.... (photo by mtsrs on Flickr)

And he does have an excellent way of phrasing his points. In talking about the hot springs of Italy in which the ancient Romans lounged, he says, “These springs were the exhalations of the magmatic unconscious.” In reminding us that the movements of the Earth determine where we can live, what animals we can raise and what crops we can grow, he says, “The geological Unconscious cannot be denied, for it still guides the way we use the land, and rules the plough. We are all in thrall to the underworld.” Finally, in a phrase that evoked Sagan in my mind’s ear, he says, “In this way, the depths intercede in our superficial lives: there are unseen and unbidden forces, as indifferent to the fate of the sentient organisms living above them as the distant stars.” The man has a way with words, that much is for sure.

For all that this is the story of our world and, therefore, ourselves, it is a hard book to keep up with. Indeed, I found myself nodding off more than once, no matter that I wanted to keep reading about the manner in which the Colorado River cut through the ever-rising plateau through which it coursed. The book, I believe, skirts the edge of Popular Science and Specialist Science. Fortey doesn’t skimp on the technical language, and seems to be talking to an audience that already has a pretty good grasp on the terminology and concepts of geology. The readers that he’s after in this book are the ones who used to be called “rock hounds” when they were kids, and who know a gneiss from a granite. Which I, technically speaking, do not.

This was not me as a kid. (photo by woodleywonderworks on Flickr)

While I do love science, and find the whole history of plate tectonics fascinating, I never got into geology as deeply as I did other sciences. And that’s not to say that I never will – if anything, this book made me look more closely at the rocks I see around me and wonder at their provenance. The granite facing of buildings all the way to the simple sand of a baseball field – they’re all ancient in different ways and have fascinating stories. When I read the book, though, I was lacking in a certain entry-level understanding of the science, and that was probably what made it such a tough book to get through.

So if you’re a rock hound, or know someone who is, pick up a copy of this book. If you like to break your brain thinking about the vast expanses of time required to make a planet on which Homo sapiens can be the species it always wanted to be, this is the book for you. If you are having trouble getting to sleep and you aren’t fond of using medication to send you off to slumberland, well… This book probably wouldn’t hurt.

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“If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay.”
– Richard Fortey, speaking of a bar countertop in Paddington Station, The Earth: An Intimate History
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Filed under geology, nonfiction, Richard Fortey, science

Review 130: The Wave

The Wave by Susan Casey

Okay, I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.

Wait. No, that won’t work. Open your eyes again.

Eyes open? Good. Now imagine you’ve closed your eyes, but don’t actually close them because that will rather impair your ability to read this review.

So, you’re imagining that your eyes are closed. Now imagine you’re on a cruise ship. It’s a lovely place – blue water, blue skies, the faint scent of salt in the air, the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat in a soothing rhythm. It’s a perfect way to spend a vacation.

You get a daiquiri and lean on the railing, looking out towards the horizon. This is nice, you think. Just what I –

Wait. What is that?

You shield your eyes from the sun to get a better look and see what looks for all the world like a shadow on the horizon, stretching long and with flecks of light shimmering off its top. As it gets closer, it gets bigger, and you can feel the boat drop under your feet. The water gets higher and higher, and you know this can’t possibly be happening because for the wave to be that high, it would have to be at least sixty or seventy feet. In thirty-five foot waters.

Hokusai wasn't kidding around....

A shadow is cast over the boat as the wave crests above you, and the last thing you think before the top comes down, shattering the cruise ship like it was made of so much balsa wood, is, “I wonder what it would be like to surf that….”

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our own oceans. I have no idea who first said it, or in what form it was said, but reading this book drives home that it is absolutely correct. What’s more, that ignorance may well kill us. The oceans are full of relentless mysteries and hypnotic beauty, but also terrors and dangers the likes of which we shorebound humans have trouble understanding. The sea has always been a dangerous place, really. We know that. What we don’t know is what all of those dangers are.

Tales of giant waves have been around since antiquity, but until recently, people didn’t really believe them. It defied everything that was known about the ocean – to say nothing of common sense – to have waves appear out of nowhere, rise to heights of up to a hundred feet or more, wreak havoc on oceangoing vessels, and then vanish. These were the tales of sailors, whom everyone knew could not be trusted to tell the truth about their journeys.

"First Mate! Fetch me my brown pants!" (photo by MyFram Expedition blog)

Perhaps that is why Casey chooses to open with a scene from a research vessel in the North Atlantic. The RRS Discovery was on a routine mission to gather data about the sea between the British Isles and Iceland when it found itself under attack by the ocean itself. The ship was hit over and over again by waves reaching up to sixty feet, then dropped down into the void between waves and lifted up again, over and over for five days. Things that weren’t bolted down flew in mad directions all over the ship, and many things that were bolted down – like lifeboats – were ripped off their moorings. It was so terrifying that the scientists on board, after they had gotten home, wrote one of the very few research papers that included a note at the end thanking the captain for bringing them back alive. Only great skill and good luck saved that ship from oblivion in waters that seemed to have risen up for the sole purpose of destroying it.

No one – no weather forecaster or meteorologist, oceanographer or climatologist – no one thought that waves of that size could exist under those conditions. And yet there they were, and the Discovery’s instruments captured it all.

Scientists who study the oceans are just beginning to understand how waves work on the ocean, but the almost infinite number of variables that contribute to making waves is so overwhelming that it’s hard to conclusively predict where and when these rogue waves will appear. Other people who work with the sea – salvage operators, ship captains, insurers – know that this kind of thing is possible, and that the sea carries risks with it that no other form of transportation faces. Every year, dozens of ships are lost, and with them go many lives and countless dollars worth of merchandise. Some of these losses come from human error, but others come because the ocean is an inherently dangerous place for us to be. It is vital for our safety and our economy that we know how the ocean works, but we are nowhere near being able to do that.

What’s worse, the onset of climate change could make current models obsolete as the seas become higher, rougher, and more unpredictable. We are racing against the clock – and losing.

But for all the scientists who are trying to map the behavior of waves, there is a community of people who seek them out. People who know the waves intimately, even if they can’t write an equation to tell you what it is they know, exactly. These people are the surfers, and if there was ever a group of people more attached and attuned to the sea, they’d have to be mermen.

To find this picture, just Google "Laird Hamilton" and "Oh my god"

Casey spends a lot of time with surfer Laird Hamilton. I wanted to say “the famous Laird Hamilton,” but I didn’t know the man existed until I read this book, which makes him one of those people who is very famous, but only to the kind of people who would find him famous. Now that I know more about him and his community, though, I can certainly understand why he has the prestige that he does. Among big-wave surfers, he is a legend. And that takes some doing.

To ride a regular wave, you see, you get out there with your board, get behind the point where the waves start to break, and paddle to catch up. With the big waves, though, they’re moving much too fast for a paddler to get into position, so the big-wave riders have someone on a jet ski to pull them along. Once in position, the jet ski goes down the back of the wave while the surfer heads down the front where, hopefully, he won’t be killed. If he falls off, his partner has to come in, find him, and get them both out before the next giant wave – and where there’s one wave there are always more – comes in to crush them both. Regular surfing has its share of dangers, but the perils of big-wave surfing are orders of magnitude worse.

There is a whole community of surfers looking to ride these great waves. They travel across the world on the mere possibility of great surfing, heading to places with names like Jaws, Mavericks, or Egypt, all in the hope of catching the biggest waves. Injuries are common, and sometimes terrible. Death is always an option. But they come anyway, just for that moment of zenlike awareness of the Eternal Now that you can only truly achieve when you’re riding down the face of a wave and trying not to die.

Bronze surfers are surprisingly successful. Just not at surfing. (photo by atomicity on Flickr)

I don’t like the ocean, myself. I find it too big, too impersonal. It’s a place that could swallow you whole and leave no trace you were ever there. It’s a place that cares nothing for us puny humans and will, on a whim, try to destroy us. I certainly appreciate the ocean and what it does for us, and it’s nice to look at. But I certainly don’t trust it, and this book really didn’t help in that regard. From tales of ships crushed by rogue waves south of Africa to waves so large and so powerful they could strip the bark off the trees they uprooted, it was a testament to the fact that the moment we underestimate the ocean is the moment it kills us.

What’s more, with climate change being what it is, our problems with the ocean are going to turn into new and different ones. The models we have now – good though they are – are incomplete, and the changes that are coming in the future will keep scientists on their toes for years to come. As Casey notes, wave science is a very young discipline, but it is one that needs attention if we’re going to safeguard our coastal cities and global commerce.

This book is an exciting read about a topic you’ve probably never given much thought to. You fear for both the surfers and the scientists, and in the end realize just how much there is about the ocean that we still don’t know. I don’t know about you, but it kind of freaks me out….

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“If you can look at one of these waves and you don’t believe that there’s something greater than we are, then you’ve got some serious analyzing to do and you should go sit under a tree for a very long time.”
– Laird Hamilton
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Susan Casey’s homepage
Laird Hamilton on Wikipedia
The Wave on Amazon.com

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Filed under climate change, disaster, environment, nonfiction, oceanography, oceans, surfing, survival, Susan Casey