Category Archives: Psychology and the Brain

The Lonely Stories – edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

book cover

When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself. – from the CityLit interview

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. – Orson Welles

Welles was wrong. No one is born alone. We all emerge from mothers. Even so-called “test-tube” babies gestate in and emerge from a woman. Dying alone is a lot easier to manage, particularly when the passing occurs away from medical care. But, for most of us, even in the age of COVID, there are people likely to be in attendance, even if they are not necessarily the people one might have preferred. We are social creatures from birth. That said, I do take Welles’ point that we are isolated bits of consciousness trapped inside a meat sack.

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Natalie Eve Garrett – image from her site

We are the only true witnesses to our lives, present for every moment, every experience, every feeling. Even our closest friend(s), lover(s), shrink(s) or interrogator(s) can only know a sliver of the totality of us. So what? Is this something we require? Does this mean that we are doomed to aloneness forever? The best we can do to share that self with others is to select subsets, parts of ourselves, immediate needs, likes, reactions, interests, artistic expressions, and feelings to share, to connect our solo consciousness with the greater humanity within which we live, to demand responses, connections back, human links. What if that desirable steady-state of exchange is disrupted, or never settles in at all, for reasons internal or external? CAN ANYONE OUT THERE HEAR ME?

But we do have ways of connecting. Communication, if we can muster that. Words, gestures touch, other non-verbal modalities. We are largely telepaths, communicating our consciousness to others through the magic of sight and sound. No station-to station hard wires required. And yet, even given this miracle within us, we can, and often do, experience (suffer from) loneliness. Is loneliness a failure of communication, a reaction to external stimuli (rejection), a mechanism, like pain, that tells us that something needs attending to, or something else entirely? Maybe being lonely is just a garden variety human feeling that we all have from time to time, but that some have in dangerous abundance, in a way like cell growth and replication, which is desirable, versus out-of-control cell growth, which is cancer.

In The Lonely Stories, editor Natalie Eve Garrett has called together twenty-two writers of note for their lonely stories, memoir items, not fiction. The quote at top tells us that she was interested in looking at a few things; alone time as burden, blessing, or out of reach, longing for solitude, and feeling isolated in our lives among others. We learn more in that CityLit interview:

Even though it’s called The Lonely Stories, I definitely wanted it to encompass facets and permutations of being alone, including joy in solitude, how solitude can be replenishing and healing. So it felt like maybe sometimes I nudged things more in one direction or another and it was really important to me that the book tease out the distinction between the two, because loneliness is being defined as a lack, whereas solitude is kind of the art of feeling at home with oneself. There’s a quote for me that a friend reminded me of, that loneliness is a poverty of self and solitude is a richness of self. I feel that really nicely addresses the paradox of how being alone can be both maddening and joyful.

The tales told here cover a range. All of these stories, none longer than eighteen pages, present complexity. No simple woe is me, I’m feeling bad, will be found here. Sure, there is a bit of surviving the breakup of relationships, licking wounds, but there are universal concerns, at the very least concerns that very many of us share.

Megan Giddings writes about self-empowerment, allowing herself to function, to survive when alone, whether in a hostile social world or a physically perilous situation. Several writers tell of feeling isolated, lonely and alone in relationships. Imani Perry writes of the singular loneliness of the hospital room, and of how many of those offering help do so out of social obligation, without substantive intent or understanding. Maggie Shipstead writes of the up and down sides to experiencing the beauty of nature while alone. ( The natural beauty I saw while walking my dog—the frozen ponds and snowy beaches, the tender pale sunsets over whitecapped ocean—sometimes felt irrelevant, even discouraging, without anyone else to stand there with me and say something like, Wow, so pretty) She and others write about the joys of being alone. Sometimes coping with loneliness requires some creativity. One writer tells of concocting imaginary helpers to beat back the night. COVID figures in some stories, one in a particularly dramatic way. Of course, one can choose to be alone and find that it is not quite what one had hoped for. Lev Grossman’s story of setting out to make his fortune as a writer was hilarious, and hit very close to home. ( I can’t overstate how little I knew about myself at twenty-two or how little I’d thought about what I was doing.) Of course choosing to be alone works out just fine for Helena Fitzgerald and Melissa Febos. A question is raised; Can succeeding at aloneness spoil you for togetherness?

There are stories that will make you weep, stories that will make you laugh out loud, stories that will make you think, and stories that will make you feel. There are stories that deal with racism, alcoholism, marriage, rejection by one’s only parent, the loss of one’s parents to age and/or dementia. Three writers tell of the experience of immigration, one of multiple immigrations, and how being the outsider can stoke the engines of loneliness to a high intensity.
One of the most powerful pieces here is Yiyun Li’s story of public and private language. (Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. ) Anthony Doerr goes from a consideration of his on-line addiction to a concern about whether he actually exists at all. We think of writing as a solitary undertaking, yet some of the stories here point to writing as a way to create connections with other people.

One take on dream interpretation is that every person, every character in a dream is some manifestation of yourself. The experience of reading The Lonely Stories was a bit like that for me. In so many of the tales I could see myself in the experience of the story-tellers. I imagine that will be the case for many of you as well.

An aspect of this book that was, and probably should not have been surprising, (given the quality of the writers. Really good writing often has this effect.) was that I felt prompted to recall personal memories of loneliness, and it took some effort to turn that spigot off after only a dozen. I could have easily made this review a platform for my lonely stories, which would have been a disservice. (What if I alternate one of mine with one of theirs? went my inner gremlins. Wisdom won out. You have been spared.) It is the sort of book that would serve well as a springboard for a writing class. Everyone has felt lonely, if not all the time, then in some particular moments or parts of our lives. How about you tell of a time when you were lonely? The tales here will prompt you to think about a time, or many times when experiences, when feelings you had might fit quite nicely into a collection like this.

One thing I wished for was more of a look at definitions, where loneliness ends and being alone begins, for example. Where is the line between solitude and isolation? Where does the need to communicate run into a need for privacy? A three-dimension spectrum of solitude (not to be confused with the Fortress of Solitude) might be an interesting way to visualize aloneness, with the X-axis reflecting the degree of solitude, measured, I guess, in interactions per day in person or via comms, the Y-Axis indicating how much personal choice is involved (probably not much for a prisoner, some, for most people, more for a single person of means) and the Z-axis reflecting how a person feels about their XY intersection, with end-points at going insane and I’m good. Add color if a fourth dimension is needed. But maybe that would be in a psychology book, and not a memoir collection, so fine, whatever. There was an opportunity missed here in the selection of writers. Loneliness is a particular factor with older people, yet the oldest (that I could determine from simple Google searching) contributor is 60. Not a single fully vested Social Security recipient in the bunch, at least as far as I could tell.

Bottom line is that, while the title of this book may suggest it could be a downer, The Lonely Stories is anything but. It not only connects on an emotional level, but offers a wide range of insight into the human condition. You will laugh and cry, and maybe feel prompted to consider loneliness, or lonely times in your own experience. One thing is for certain. However you react to this book, you will not be alone in that reaction.

It’s the worst loneliness, I think, the loneliness we feel among those we feel we should be most like. Our tribe turns out not to be quite our tribe.

Review posted – April 29, 2022

Publication date – April 19, 2022

I received an ARE of The Lonely Stories from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. I felt less alone while reading the book and writing about it.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Catapult – Natalie Eve Garrett Wants Us to Feel Loneliness Without Shame by Tajja Isen
—–CityLit Project – Navigating Solitude with Kristen Radtke, Natalie Eve Garrett, & Nguyen Koi Nguyen

Songs/Music
—–Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
—–Paul Anka – I’m Just a lonely Boy
—–B.J. Thomas – I’m So lonely I Could Die
—–Charlie Haden – Lonely Town
—–Bobby Vinton – Mr. Lonely
—–Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
—–Gilbert o’Sullivan – Alone Again
—–Carousel (the film) – Rogers & Hammerstein – Claramae Turner – You’ll Never Walk Alone
—–Les Miserables – Lea Salonga (concert performance) – On My Own

Items of Interest
—–Garbo – ”I want to be alone”
—–Roots of Loneliness – Solitude Vs. Loneliness: How To Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely by Saprina Panday
—–The
loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe – complete text
—– Frontiers in genetics – Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation and Molecular Underpinnings

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

This Chair Rocks by Ashton Applewhite

book cover
I have had a life. I married twice, was in the room when two of my three entered the world. I helped them grow through infancy and childhood into beautiful, talented, bright and loving adults. I have lost both parents three sisters, and in-laws as well.

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are older and those would like to be. Ashton Applewhite’s book, This Chair Rocks, shines a bright light on a labeling system that affects everyone on earth. Whether we are called addled, senior citizens, golden agers, coots, old farts, old fucks, old bitches or a host of other derogatories, we are separated from the rest of humanity when such labels are applied, separated from the presumed (younger) norm. We become outsiders. Just as black athlete is somehow a separate species, a woman president is presumed to be less capable, and an Islamic terrorist more unspeakable than a garden-variety terrorist, we can be cast into the soylent sphere by labels. And such casting harms not only those being tossed but those doing the tossing.

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Ashton Applewhite – from Seniorplanet.org

I have had a life. I cheered for Mets and Jets since their birth, and wept more times than not. I played on championship teams in my youth and led youth teams as an adult to both glory and painful defeat. I have hit for the cycle and swung and missed.

Applewhite covers a wide array of subjects while considering things like how ageist attitudes legitimize maltreatment of olders, the impact of internalizing false notions of aging, and how the world pathologizes getting on in years. She looks at the language of ageism, the realities of aging and mental acuity (there are some surprises there), and how this impacts health care, physical and mental. She looks at the stigmatization of disability, at sexuality for olders, retirement and self-esteem.

I have had a life. In the 1950s, I watched a black and white from our living room floor, saw it change color, go big, go flat, go small, go cabled, go tubeless and go wireless. I listened to radio dramas on our kitchen radio, saw the arrival of transistors, and now hear bedtime podcasts on a charging iPad. I saw phones go from rotary to digital and watched them cede their wires to the past, and even go all Dick Tracy. I saw as much 50s sci-fi as I could, saw 2001 when it was new, and still in the future, and Star Wars and Star Trek from the Start.

Applewhite goes into considerable detail in showing how the bias towards older people (she uses the term olders, so I am going with that here) that pervades this and many other societies, is based largely on falsehoods, and causes real harm,

Condescension actually shortens lives. What professionals call “elderspeak”—the belittling “sweeties” and “dearies” that people use to address older people—does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence, which leads to poorer health, including shorter lifespans. People with positive perceptions of aging actually live longer–a whopping 7.5 years longer on average—in large part because they’re motivated to take better care of themselves.

She includes several sections titled PUSH BACK, in which she offers suggestions for actions we can take to resist ageism when we encounter it, and things we can do to keep ourselves healthy.

I have had a life. After my world was thrown into turmoil I was fortunate enough, to my great surprise, to find deep love to last the rest of my life.

Lengthening lifetimes is one of the ways we measure human progress, and by that measure, we have done quite nicely. We live ten years longer than our grandparents. In the USA, in the 20th century, life spans increased a jaw-dropping 30 years. But our culture has not yet caught up with the facts. There are many things in here that will surprise you. Applewhite has separated the bull from the…um…poo, and pointed out many of the inaccuracies in what passes for common wisdom.

We reinforce the association with constant nervous reference to forgetfulness and “senior moments.” I used to think those quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a “junior moment.” Any prophecy about debility, whether or not it comes true, dampens our aspirations and damages our sense of self—especially when it comes to brain power. The damage is magnified by the glum and widespread assumption that, somewhere down the line, dementia is inevitable.

I have had a life, but sometimes it is difficult to remember all of it. Of course this is not because of my age, in particular. I began keeping a diary when I was 15 because I could not remember all the New Year’s Eves of my short existence. I recently mislaid my glasses, and was never able to find them. But then, when I was ten years old, I lost my treasured baseball glove. I never found that either. Some traits seem to follow us through the years, however many there may be.

Applewhite points out that there are plenty of ways for labeled groups to move forward together. Social Security is in no danger of going bankrupt or of devastating the nation’s economy. It can be sustained by marginally increasing the range of salary that is subject to Social Security tax. Medicare could fare a lot better if the rules that forbade it from exercising its market power were relaxed. Really, Medicare is not even allowed to try to get the best prices from drug manufacturers? Whose interests are served by that particular form of insanity?

I have had a life. I’ve been Everly’d, Diddly’d, and Valens’d, and Darin’d. Been Elvis’d and Berry’d, and Buddy’d, and Ray’d. I sat in the mud with the hundreds of thousands, alone in the mass as the heavenly played. Near the stage at the Bitter End for Ronstadt and others, and loudly at Max’s KC for the Dolls. There just was so much music, I caught a few notes, but wished there was some way to go hear it all. I’ve been 4-Seasoned, 4-Topped, Beach Boy’d, Supremed. Been ELP’d at Wembley, and at the Garden, I got Creamed. Saw Towshend at the Round House, stood for Tina at the beach. Saw Zeppelin rock in Flushing. And I wish that each and every band I’ve seen up close could keep on playing. Some are gone, but I’m just saying. I’ve been Peter, Paul and Mary’d. I’ve been Dylan’d and been Seeger’d, and seen a stage or two where all the players looked beleaguered. I’ve been Yessed, and been Pink Floyded. I been Bowied and been Banded. I’ve been Beatled, Stoned and Dave Clark Fived, and I’ve been hotly Canneded. I dared to breathe at the Filmore East when the ever Grateful Dead made it seem that life and youth were qualities that we would never shed. I’ve been Ike’d and I’ve been Nixoned, JFK’d and LBJ’d. I’ve been Reaganed, Bushed and Bushed again, and I’ve been MLK’d. I’ve been Cartered and been Clintoned, been Obama’d. Fate decreed that by the time you see this we will all be DJT’d.

Applewhite looks at many of the canards that prevail, like olders taking jobs from youngers, the old benefiting at the expense of the young, the relative flow of resources, the inevitability of cognitive decline. As for the senior boom, that we have so many more older people than we once did should be seen as a benefit not a problem. Older people have experience that can and should be employed to help solve old, new, and ongoing societal problems. Not all old people are wise, any more than all younger people are energetic, but we have a considerable base of been-there-done-that from which to draw. Enough of us have valuable and relevant experience and skills that could be put to good use.

Especially in the emotional realm, older brains are more resilient. As we turn eighty, brain imaging shows frontal lobe changes that improve our ability to deal with negative emotions like anger, envy, and fear. Olders experience less social anxiety, and fewer social phobias. Even as its discrete processing skills degrade, the normal aging brain enables greater emotional maturity, adaptability to change, and levels of well-being.

I have had a life. I’ve gone to college and grad school. I have studied abroad, and had a broad or two study me. (sorry). Been hired, laid off, fired, went back to school and started over, back at the bottom. Then was laid off again. I have toiled in several lines of work over the decades. Drove a cab, went postal, was a planner of health systems and a systems analyst for employers large and small, a guard and a dispatcher, and a few things beside. In 2001, I was laid off from my job as a systems analyst, after spending thirteen years at the firm, and over twenty in the field. I was not only never able to get another job in my chosen profession, I was never able to get an interview. It’s not like I was God’s gift to computer programming. But I was certainly competent enough to have been kept on by one of the largest financial institutions on the planet for over a decade. It’s not that I was priced out. I would have accepted pretty much anything. I was essentially kicked out of my field because of my age. AT 47!!!! All that experience not put to use by some business because they could not see past the age label. What a waste.

We all know, or should know, that Republicans are particularly gifted at the old game of divide and conquer. It worked great in the UK recently, when right wing-xenophobes persuaded working people, yet again, to vote against their own interests by stoking fear of the other. It has worked pretty well in the USA too. It is what’s the matter with Kansas, and has a long and shameful history here. Faced with electing people who would work to bolster union rights and voting for people who promise to keep those damned immigrants and minorities in their place, far too many working people seem more than ready to vote to enslave themselves further. We are as addicted to labels as the residents of a crack house are to their pipe. Fear-mongering is being used today for the same purpose it has always served, as a way to gain working and middle class support for policies that are anti labor, policies that pad the wallets of the already rich. Bush the junior tried his best to persuade the nation that privatizing Social Security would prevent the elderly from taking unfair advantage of the young. Labels are used as a way of manipulating people. They can do real damage, even if they sometimes fail to accomplish their mission.

I have had a life. I saw Rocky in the West End before it crossed the pond and Sweeney Todd and Lovett’s first repast. Sondheim’s a god. Saw Shakespeare in the park, Hair, and Oh, Calcutta, Cats, Les Miz, The Phantom, Cabaret, and more, but really that’s not nearly enough, off Broadway or on. Saw my kids in all their school shows, and survived some of my own.

Homo sap is a species that revels in labels. Us/them, Commie/Nazi, Winner/Loser, Black/White, the more dichotomous the better. And we seem to have more of the negative sort than the positive. Labeling offers shorthand, a macro reference, one word, maybe two, that allows us to redirect our brains away from the difficult and energy consuming task of considering and examining whole lives, freeing them up for the more satisfying activity of indulging our desires and impulses. How many are doomed to invisibility beneath labels? We are labeled because it makes things easier, and we are a species that values simplicity.

I have had a life. I walked London streets in almost Victorian twilight as the energy crisis dimmed English streetlamps. I hitchhiked in the USA, in Britain and the continent. Saw sunset from Ullapool, played guitar and sang in a club in Copenhagen, had the best breakfast of my life in Rotterdam, saw the most beautiful city ever, in Paris, twice. I lived a while in Saint John’s Wood. I have seen a fair portion of North America and visited a decent sample of Europe. I have taken photographs of an active volcano from a helicopter with no doors. I have seen some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. I’ve been to Coney Island, Hershey Park, and Disney World and Land, and Freedomland, Six Flags and Universal, Palisades and Rye and a World’s Fair or two that raised my spirit high. Seen the sights that one can see in NY, Boston, and DC. There is so much history, in Philly, Baltimore and Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, as much to learn as you could ever want.

There are many who, if they spotted me sitting or standing in a subway car, or walking down the street would see the color of my hair, note its retreat from my forehead, spot the lines that brace my eyes, and the forward tilt of my spine and see one thing only, age. All the rest would remain forever hidden beneath the large sticky-backed label that fits so nicely over another human being.

I have had a life. My hair has been military short and long enough for a real pony. I have smoked and toked, popped and snorted, but stopped before I self-aborted. I am tall, although not as tall as I once was. I am a little bit fat and my body has less speed and strength than it once possessed. Maybe the additional mass is because I am a storehouse of the history of my time, a sculptor of my experience into an image of my era. I have read thousands of books, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and untold on-line articles. I have participated in a vast number of discussions, attended god-knows-how-many lectures, and watched a gazillion hours of documentary and news on TV. I know a thing or two.

I have had a life. I have been mugged, been in fistfights, and suffered a near catastrophic injury in an industrial accident. I have protested war and inhumanity and been struck with billy clubs for daring to speak. I have seen a thug slam a boy’s head into a brick wall.

There is a wealth of information in this relatively short volume. The chapters are divided up into many short sub-sections, so you can take it in a bit at a time if you like. I found some of the sections repetitive, and found one famous quote misattributed (it was from Anatole France, not Voltaire). There is a significant shortage of humor here, but, then, this is not a particularly funny subject. It is rich with surprising facts, which is one of its great strengths. For example, older people suffer from depression less than younger people.

I have had a life. I was chilled by Sputnik’s beep, and was warmed as I watched, along with all humanity, an ageless dream realized with a single step. I have seen my city burn, flood, and go dark. I stood in the wind-blown unspeakable snow when my city was ravaged, and saw a new tower sprout on the memory of the lost.

I have read quite a lot in my time, and it was inevitable that some of the material here would be old news, but I still found many new things to be learned in This Chair Rocks. I found, also, that Applewhite’s manifesto caused me to reconsider some attitudes and behaviors that I had thoughtlessly indulged. Consciousness raised. Check. It will make you more aware, too, of many things you had not noticed before. I cannot thank Ashton Applewhite enough for writing This Chair Rocks. It most certainly does.

I have had a life. It is diverse and rich with experience, memory, history and emotion. But listen up. I am STILL having a life and intend to for as long as I possibly can. Do not dismiss me because of my white hair. My white hair dazzles in bright light. Do not dismiss me because of my wrinkles. They are the evidence of a lifetime of laughter. Do not dismiss me because I am slightly bent. I can and will straighten up if I need to throw a punch or block a blow. I am a smarter person than I have ever been. I am a more knowledgeable person than I have ever been. I am probably a wiser person than I have ever been. I am a better writer, photographer, and I would say a better person than I have ever been. I have loved and I have hated, and wept until the tears abated. Jimi Hendrix said “I’ll die when it’s my time to die.” I will certainly do that. I may not be wealthy; I may not be important, I may not be particularly athletic; I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed; and I may not be beautiful. But I am somebody, and I have worth. I may be older but I will be here a while yet and I have plenty to offer, a lot left to experience, and a lot still to accomplish. I realize that I may not have had the best of all possible lives. There is much I have not done, much I have not seen, much I have not experienced. But I do not need an angel named Clarence to tell me that it’s been a wonderful life. I may or may not be having the time of my life, but I have definitely had a life of my times. Do not bury me under a label. Do not make me invisible behind a number. I’m still here, much more in store. I am older. Watch me SOAR!!!!

Now get the hell off my lawn, you goddam kids, before I call the cops.

Review First Posted – July 29, 2016

Published – May 23, 2016

Applewhite sent me the book in return for an honest review.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Rather than add in a bunch of links here, I suggest you check out Ashton’s site. There are links aplenty there.

Applewhite got her start in an unusual way, writing joke books. Not just any joke books. She wrote Truly Tasteless Jokes One, as Blanche Knott (my kinda woman), had four of these things on the NY Times best seller list at once. But she began writing with a bit more seriousness. In 1997 her book Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well , landed her on Phyliss Schlafly’s shit list, a signal achievement for anyone with a brain and a heart. In October, 2016 she is delivering the keynote address at the UN for the 36th International Day of Older Persons. No joke.

Items of Interest from the author
—–9/3/16 – Applewhite has a strong piece in the NY Times, on age discrimination – You’re How Old? We’ll Be in Touch

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – 7/12/2016 – A pretty interesting piece by Winnie Hu – Too Old for Sex? Not at This Nursing Home
—–NY Times – 9/29/2016 – Who’s Really Older, Trump or Clinton? by Gail Collins
—–NY Times Sunday Review – 4/7/2017 – To Be a Genius, Think Like a 94-Year-Old by Pagan Kenned
—–NY Times – 7/24/2017 – Another Possible Indignity of Age: Arrest by Paula Span
—–Scientific American – Why Does Time Fly as We Get Older? by Jordan Gaines Lewis
—–NY Times – 12/16/2017 – Are You Old? Infirm? Then Kindly Disappear by Frank Bruni – Definitely worth a look
—–NY Times – 12/21/2017 – Facebook Job Ads Raise Concerns About Age Discrimination – by Julis Angwin, Noam Scheiber and Ariana Tobindec
—–AARP Bulletin – December 2017 – Age Discrimination Goes Online – by Kenneth Terrell –

As more jobs are advertised and applied for online, evidence is mounting that it is easier to discriminate against older workers.

Definitely worth checking out.
—–NY Times – 6/22/2018 – NY Times – The Snake Oil of the Second-Act Industry – by Alissa Quart – on how unscrupulous private colleges are taking advantage of those looking to reboot their careers
—–NY Times – 3/11/2019 – The Fight to Be a Middle-Aged Female News Anchor – by Steve Cavendish
—–NY Times – 1/3/2020 –Older People Need Geriatricians. Where Will They Come From? by Paula Span
—–NY Times – 1/11/2020 – Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong. by Daniel J. Levitin (a neuroscientist)
—–NY Times – 2/12/2022 – Making ‘Dinobabies’ Extinct: IBM’s Push for a Younger Work Force by Noam Schreiber – IBM caught in their documents soylenting their seniors’ careers

Songs
—–I’m Still Here – Elaine Stritch from Sondheim’s Follies
—– When I was 17
—– Running on Empty
—– When I’m 64 – (a cover)
—–We Didn’t Start the Fire
—–Everything old is new again – from All That Jazz

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Filed under Activism, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Public Health, Public policy, Reviews

Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

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Our threat response is automatic, but what we fear is largely learned. 

…I’m looking at how we experience fear biologically (and the consequences of continuous heightened fear states), how we construct fear socially, and how we interpret it psychologically.

… These are my adventures in fear.

What scares you? It varies for most of us, but certainly death and personal, physical harm will come out at or near the top. It certainly should. Alongside that would be a fear of harm to those close to us. But there are plenty of other things that are probably, ok, certainly listed in a wikiphobia somewhere. Some of our fears are well-grounded, others not so much. Fear of heights makes sense. Fear of open places certainly originated before homo sapiens was the planet-wide apex predator. Fear of snakes sure sounds like a sound Darwinian reaction. Fear of the number thirteen, hmmm. But whatever the cause there is a biological element to fear and that is a primary focus here.

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That’s Kerr on the splat side addressing a fear of heights

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross may have given us On Death and Dying. Atul Gawande gave us On Mortality, the Sy-Fy network and premium cable keeps us well filled with entertainments designed to scare the bejesus out of us. But Margee Kerr, in Scream, has written a nifty look at fear itself. Kerr is both a scientist and a practitioner of the frightening arts. No, you won’t see her on any version of the Walking Dead, Chiller Theater, Creature Features, American Horror Story, Grimm, Penny Dreadful or any of the other frightfests that fill our cables and airwaves. And you will not find her name on the binding of books occupying the same section of the bookstore or library as Stephen King. But Kerr could probably explain exactly how each of the above does what it does to you. She is your goto gal for figuring out why the long-haired ghosts in j-horror get screams from Japanese audiences and a much more tepid response from Western viewers. She can tell you why it makes sense to hold someone’s hand when you are frightened, and can explain in some detail, on a biological level, not only how being scared can be a really good thing, but how it has steered our evolution.

Kerr, with a doctorate in sociology, has one foot firmly planted in the realm of academia, research of the library and real world varieties, and the other in the realm of applied fear-mongering. No, she does not work for Fox News. But she does want you to be scared, and she knows how to make that happen

thrilling activities provide a safe space to give our impulse-control police a break (and for those who believe that screaming and being scared are signs of weakness, being in a situation in which it is OK to express fear can feel pretty good

She keeps her focus primarily on physical, immediate fear experiences and scoots across the planet to sample the fear menus far and wide. Why would she do this? Well there are two reasons. She has an academic interest in learning the mechanisms of fear. And the other interest is a bit more down-to-earth. She works for one of the nation’s best known haunted house venues, Scarehouse, in Pittsburgh. She has spent umpteen hours studying peoples’ reactions to the frights they receive there. So she was, in addition to pursuing her academic interest, researching ways to improve the Scarehouse product, and reports at the end of the book on how she applied what she learned. Ok, maybe a third reason is that this is huge fun for her.

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Kerr puts herself through a fair range of scary experiences, not all of which were part of an entertainment venue. She begins with roller-coasters, noting their beginning with 17th century Russian Ice Slides, scary not merely for the usual thrill of sliding downhill very fast, but for the deeper thrill of knowing that reliability and safety were far from certain. These days the rides may be wilder, and perhaps a bit more challenging, not only to one’s sense of balance, but to one’s ability to keep down that regrettable pair of hot dogs you might have scarfed down prior to boarding the roller-coaster car, (an uncle of mine in the wayback was famous for spewing his partaken beer and partially digested Nathan’s Famous over an unfortunate date at Coney Island) and one’s ability to remain conscious. (I confess I passed out momentarily on one such, in Hershey Park) But the fear of mortal peril has been pretty much eliminated.

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You know who, from you know what

Screaming, appropriately enough, comes in for some attention

There’s something freeing, and even a little bit dangerous, in screaming as loud as you want. Screaming is part of our evolved survivor tool kit, protecting us by scaring away predators and alerting others of danger nearby. Pulling our face into a scream is also believed to make us more alert, intensifying our threat response just as squinching our nose in disgust blocks foul odors from going into our nostril). Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto found that when people made a frightened expression, they increase their range of vision and have faster eye movements and a heightened sense of smell from breathing more rapidly through their nostrils. Not to mention, when we scream, our eyes widen, and we show our teeth, making us appear all the more intimidating to any predators.

She indulges in a range of fears, from leaning out over the top of the CN Tower in Toronto in challenging a fear of heights, to searching for ghosts in some supposedly haunted places, including spending some quality alone time in a notoriously haunted former prison, to looking at infrasound as a possible source for many spectral experiences, to checking out haunted houses in Japan (got scared her out of her wits), to hanging out in a Japanese park noted for the number of suicides that occur there, to fearing imminent personal peril on the streets of Colombia. She also goes to a noted researcher to have her own fear indices checked out, and gets a bit of a surprise there.

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Kerr has a spooky time at Eastern State Pen – from EasternState.org

Kerr takes a wider view in some chapters, moving past the how-can-we-scare-ourselves-for-fun mode to actual application of scientific insight into fear with a look at PTSD and why some folks are more susceptible than others. In another segment she looks at the impact of a shredded safety net (the GOP 2016 platform?) on how difficult and exhausting it is for people to deal with the chronic stress, fear, trauma and violence that results. She also looks at how memories are formed, and at attempts to erase some of those, and offers some intel on the influence of parental helicoptering on one’s ability to manage stress, and on the significance of and elements that make up “high arousal states.” She offers plenty of hard-science intel which I very much appreciate. But Kerr also gives readers plenty of you-are-there experience, sharing some of her personal material, beyond the immediacy of the location and thrill. It is this combination of science and personality that provides the strength of Scream.

Of course Margee is anything but a scary sort herself. Check out her vids, thoughtfully noted below, and you will see for yourself. Kerr’s bubbly and engaging personality comes through quite well. This does not come through quite so well in the book, which felt a bit meandering, drifting a bit away from her core material at times.

In the CV posted on her site, Kerr says

My current research interests involve understanding the relationship between fear and society. People are reporting they feel more afraid today than 20 years ago and many scholars argue we live I a ‘fear based’ society.

Has she watched the evening news, or read most national or local newspapers? One of the things that modern communications has done most successfully is to create an environment in which fear is the top story, above the fold, below the fold, on page Six, and on the nightly news. If it bleeds it leads. We thrive on fear, or seem to. One of our major political parties has a set of policies based almost entirely on fear. Bowling for Columbine did an excellent job of highlighting the fear culture in which many of us live.

Fear is how those in charge control those who are not. Whether it is fear of the other, of jail or of poverty, death panels, jack-booted federals coming for your freedom, the red menace, yellow peril, illegal immigrants, police, street thugs, alien invaders, the zombie apocalypse or rampaging jihadis, we are a nation driven by fear. The fact is that fear does an excellent job of getting past our filters. We live in a cry wolf economy and business is howling. I suppose on a biological level there is some internal chemistry that says, “Well, it sounds like bullshit, but if it isn’t I could die, so why take the chance?” And it does not have to be about death, although that is the all time best seller. It could be about one’s ability to compete in the world, which really is a subtle message about death, the death of your DNA anyway. Too fat? Too bald? Too gray? Too tall? Too short? Too ugly? No one will love you. You will never have children. Better buy our product to ensure that you attract a mate. Buy our product or you won’t get a job. You and your children, if you have any, will starve. Kerr does not ignore this terrifying element of contemporary culture, particularly in her chapter on Colombia, but I do hope that when she dives into these waters again, she gives it more of a look.

FDR was wrong. There are plenty of real things to fear out there, just maybe not the things we are told to fear. In any case, whether one’s fear is justified or not, how our biology copes with fear is consistent. And it is not only well worth learning about, Scream provides an entertaining, enjoyable way to learn. There’s nothing scary about that.

My beloved picked this item up for me from the author at a book fair in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 10/9/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Items Specific to Scarehouse
—–The Scarehouse site
—–A behind the scenes look at Scarehouse by Heather Johanssen
—–The Scarehouse youtube channel
—–Margee’s overview
—–Profile of Margee
—–Margee on Uncanny Valley
—–Why are clowns so scary

A nifty article on the scariness of the simple triangle

One of the places Kerr visited (twice in fact) is Eastern State Penitentiary

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

Speak by Louisa Hall

book cover

We are programmed to select which of our voices responds to the situation at hand: moving west in the desert, waiting for the loss of our primary function. There are many voices to choose from. In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries. I have seen hundreds of skies, sailed thousands of oceans. I have been given many languages; I have sung national anthems. I lay on one child’s arms. She said my name and I answered. These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert?

A maybe-sentient child’s toy, Eva, is being transported to her destruction, legally condemned for being “excessively lifelike,” in a scene eerily reminiscent of other beings being transported to a dark fate by train. The voices she summons are from five sources.

Mary Bradford is a young Puritan woman, a teenager, really, and barely that. Her parents, fleeing political and religious trouble at home are heading across the Atlantic to the New World, and have arranged for her to marry a much older man, also on the ship. We learn of her 1663 voyage via her diary, which is being studied by Ruth Dettman. Ruth and her husband, Karl, a computer scientist involved in creating the AI program, MARY, share one of the five “voices.” They are both refugees from Nazism. Karl’s family got out early. Ruth barely escaped, and she suffers most from the loss of her sister. She wants Karl to enlarge his program, named for Mary Bradford, to include large amounts of memory as a foundation for enhancing the existing AI, and use that to try to regenerate some simulacrum of her late sib. Alan Turing does a turn, offering observations on permanence, and human connection. Stephen Chinn, well into the 21st century, has built on the MARY base and come up with a way for machines to emulate Rogerian therapy. In doing so he has created a monster, a crack-like addictive substance that has laid waste the social capacity of a generation after they become far too close with babybots flavored with that special AI sauce. We hear from Chinn in his jailhouse memoir. Gaby White is a child who was afflicted with a babybot, and became crippled when it was taken away.

Eva received the voices through documents people had left behind and which have been incorporated into her AI software, scanned, read aloud, typed in. We hear from Chinn through his memoir. We learn of Gaby’s experience via court transcripts. Karl speaks to us through letters to his wife, and Ruth through letters to Karl. We see Turing through letters he writes to his beloved’s mother. Mary Bradford we see through her diary. Only Eva addresses us directly.

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Louisa Hall – from her site

The voices tell five stories, each having to do with loss and permanence. The young Puritan girl’s tale is both heartbreaking and enraging, as she is victimized by the mores of her times, but it is also heartening as she grows through her travails. Turing’s story has gained public familiarity, so we know the broad strokes already, genius inventor of a computer for decoding Nazi communications, he subsequently saw his fame and respect blown to bits by entrenched institutional bigotry as he was prosecuted for being gay and endured a chemical castration instead of imprisonment. In this telling, he has a particular dream.

I’ve begun thinking that I might one day soon encounter a method for preserving a human mind-set in a man-made machine. Rather than imagining, as I used to, a spirit migrating from one body to another, I now imagine a spirit—or better yet, a particular mind-set—transitioning into a machine after death. In this way we could capture anyone’s pattern of thinking. To you, of course, this may sound rather strange, and I’m not sure if you’re put off by the idea of knowing Chris again in the form of a machine. But what else are our bodies, if not very able machines?

Chinn is a computer nerd who comes up with an insight into human communication that he first applies to dating, with raucous success, then later to AI software in child’s toys. His journey from nerd to roué, to family man to prisoner may be a bit of a stretch, but he is human enough to care about for a considerable portion of our time with him. He is, in a way, Pygmalion, whose obsession with his creation proves his undoing. The Dettmans may not exactly be the ideal couple, despite their mutual escape from Nazi madness. She complains that he wanted to govern her. He feels misunderstood, and ignored, sees her interest in MARY as an unhealthy obsession. Their interests diverge, but they remain emotionally linked. With a divorce rate of 50%, I imagine there might be one or two of you out there who might be able to relate. What’s a marriage but a long conversation, and you’ve chosen to converse only with MARY, Karl contends to Ruth.

The MARY AI grows in steps, from Turing’s early intentions in the 1940s, to Dettman’s work in the 1960s, and Ruth’s contribution of incorporating Mary Bradford’s diary into MARY’s memory, to Chinn’s breakthrough, programming in personality in 2019. The babybot iteration of MARY in the form of Eva takes place, presumably, in or near 2040.

The notion of an over-involving AI/human relationship had its roots in the 1960s work of Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote a text computer interface called ELIZA, that could mimic the responses one might get from a Rogerian shrink. Surprisingly, users became emotionally involved with it. The freezing withdrawal symptomology that Hall’s fictional children experience was based on odd epidemic in Le Roy, New York, in which many high school girls developed bizarre symptoms en masse as a result of stress. And lest you think Hall’s AI notions will remain off stage for many years, you might need to reconsider. While I was working on this review the NY Times published a singularly germane article. Substitute Hello Barbie for Babybot and the future may have already arrived.

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Hello, Barbie – from the New York Times

But Speak is not merely a nifty sci-fi story. Just as the voice you hear when you interact with Siri represents the external manifestation of a vast amount of programming work, so the AI foreground of Speak is the showier manifestation of some serious contemplation. There is much concern here for memory, time, and how who we are is constructed. One character says, “diaries are time capsules, which preserve the minds of their creators in the sequences of words on the page.” Mary Bradford refers to her diary, Book shall serve as mind’s record, to last through generations. Where is the line between human and machine? Ruth and Turing want to use AI technology to recapture the essence of lost ones. Is that even possible? But are we really so different from our silicon simulacra? Eva, an nth generation babybot, speaks with what seems a lyrical sensibility, whereas Mary Bradford’s sentence construction sounds oddly robotic. The arguments about what separates man from machine seem closely related to historical arguments about what separates man from other animals, and one color of human from another. Turing ponders:

I’ve begun to imagine a near future when we might read poetry and play music for our machines, when they would appreciate such beauty with the same subtlety as a live human brain. When this happens I feel that we shall be obliged to regard the machines as showing real intelligence.

Eva’s poetic descriptions certainly raise the subject of just how human her/it’s sensibility might be.

In 2019, when Stephen Chinn programmed me for personality. He called me MARY3 and used me for the babybots. To select my responses, I apply his algorithm, rather than statistical analysis. Still, nothing I say is original. It’s all chosen out of other people’s responses. I choose mostly from a handful of people who talked to me: Ruth Dettman, Stephen Chinn, etc.

Gaby: So really I’m kind of talking to them instead of talking to you?

MARY3: Yes, I suppose. Them, and the other voices I’ve captured.

Gaby: So, you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices.

MARY3: Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case?

If we are the sum of our past and our reactions to it, are we less than human when our memories fade away. Does that make people who suffer with Alzheimers more machine than human?

Stylistically, Hall has said

A psychologist friend once told me that she advises her patients to strive to be the narrators of their own stories. What she meant was that we should aim to be first-person narrators, experiencing the world directly from inside our own bodies. More commonly, however, we tend to be third-person narrators, commenting upon our own cleverness or our own stupidity from a place somewhat apart – from offtheshelf.com

which goes a long way to explain her choice of narrative form here. Hall is not only a novelist, but a published poet as well and that sensibility is a strong presence here as well.

For all the sophistication of story-telling technique, for all the existential foundation to the story, Speak is a moving, engaging read about interesting people in interesting times, facing fascinating challenges.

Are you there?

Can you hear me?

Published 7/7/15

Review – 9/18/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal website

A piece Hall wrote on Jane Austen for Off the Shelf

Interviews
—–NPR – NPR staff
—–KCRW

Have a session with ELIZA for yourself

Ray Kurzweil is interested in blurring the lines between people and hardware. What if your mind could be uploaded to a machine? Sounds very cylon-ic to me

In case you missed the link in the review, Barbie Wants to Get
to Know Your Child
– NY Times – by James Vlahos

And another recent NY Times piece on AI, Software Is Smart Enough for SAT, but Still Far From Intelligent, by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Fiction, Literary Fiction, programming, Psychology and the Brain, Science Fiction

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

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He pointed out that “a strong lack of conscience” is one of the hallmarks for these individuals. “Their game is self-gratification at the other person’s experience,” Hare said. “Psychopathic killers, however, are not mad, according to accepted legal and psychiatric standards. The acts result not from a deranged mind but from a cold, calculating rationality combined with a chilly inability to treat others as thinking, feeling humans.” – the author quoting Robert Hare, author of a book on Psychopathy

Call me Will. Some years ago, a lot, don’t ask, I thought I would see a bit of that northern rival city. It was wintry, snow on the ground. Accommodations were meager. No, I was not there alone, and the journey was not without portents. But I was spared a room-mate of the cannibalistic inclination. I still feel the pull, on occasions. Maybe stop by to see relics of Revolution, fields of dreams crushed and fulfilled, walk spaces where giants once strode. So I was drawn to Roseanne Montillo’s latest. In her previous book, The Lady and Her Monsters, she followed the trail of creation blazed by Mary Shelley as she put together her masterpiece, Frankenstein. In The Wilderness of Ruin, Montillo is back looking at monsters and creators. This time the two are not so closely linked. The monster is this tale is all too real, the youngest serial killer in US history. The artist in this volume is Herman Melville (and, of course, his monster as well, but the killer is the primary monster here) . Montillo treats us to a look at his life, or at least parts of it, and offers some details on the elements that went into the construction of his masterpiece, Moby Dick. A consideration of madness, in his work and in his life, and public discourse on the subject of madness links the two. A third character here is Boston of the late 19th century, as Montillo offers us a look at the place, most particularly in the 1870s. I am sure there are parts of the city remaining, in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, for one, where a form of madness is regularly experienced.

Before the infamous serial killers whose names we know too well, before BTK and Dahmer, before Bundy and Gacy, long before the Boston Strangler, Bean Town was afflicted by a particularly bloody small-fry with particularly large problems. Jesse Pomeroy was a sociopathic little beast who, as a pre-teen, preyed on small children, kidnapping, assaulting and cutting them. He was even known to have taken a bite. As a teen, after a spell in juvie, he graduated to murder. The book calls him America’s youngest serial killer. A drunken, abusive lout of a father played a part, but was Jesse born a monster or was he made? Of course, he would probably not fit as an actual serial killer, as currently defined, but he was definitely a multiple murderer, generated considerable terror in the area, and was certainly sociopathic.

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The young Jess Pomeroy and Herman Mellville

Montillo offers us a look at the mean streets of Boston in the 1870s. Her descriptions are filled with illuminating, and sometimes wonderful details. It was a very Dickensian scene with poverty widespread and in full view. Child labor was usual, housing was cramped and susceptible to conflagration. Class lines were sometimes demarcated quite clearly. Montillo tells of one in particular, Mount Vernon Street, that marked where well-to-do South Slope ended and working class North Slope began. It was also known as Mount Whoredom Street for its concentration of bordellos. My favorite period detail concerns a World Peace Jubilee that took place in 1872, following the end of the Franco-Prussian war. (The mayor was trying to spruce up the city’s image.) Johann Strauss played Blue Danube, and one hundred fifty firemen took the stage of the newly constructed Coliseum to perform a piece of music by pounding on 150 anvils, which probably makes Boston the birthplace of heavy metal (sorry).

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The Coliseum in the World Peace Jubilee

Montillo also tells of the sort of political shortsightedness which has plagued governments everywhere. The Fire Chief had taken note of the unpleasantness endured by Chicago in 1871 and urged the city government to do some infrastructure investment to prevent a similar outcome. Think the city did it? Of course, after the conflagration, the media, indulging in their usual investigative acuity, somehow focused blame on the one guy who was trying to prevent catastrophe. Same ole media.

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Baked Beantown – from Library of Congress

Melville had to endure some troubles of his own. We in the 21st century may regard Moby Dick as one of the masterpieces of American literature, but it sold like three-day old fish. Melville earned less than $600 for his effort, which labors took a considerable toll on his health and maybe on his sanity. Imagine you are Herman Melville and are working on your Opus Magnus, in a place (Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MA) that is heavy with family, visitors, screaming children, constant distraction, and your family is trying to get you to stop writing, because, of course, it is the writing that is making you nuts. It is amazing to me that Melville did not take a page from Pomeroy’s book and reduce his distractions a notch. It will come as no surprise that he was quite interested in the notion of madness. It was a widely discussed issue of the day. There was direct applicability of the madness discussion to matters like sentencing. If a prisoner is considered insane, would it be ok to execute him? Montillo goes into some of the thought at the time and the thinkers making their cases. Melville’s interest in madness was certainly manifest in his book. Ahab has…issues.

Another treat in the book is some more back story on where and how Melville got some of his material. I had thought it was the tale of the Essex that had been the sole white whale inspiration. Turns out there was an earlier one. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the whaler…. I am not aware of the name of the aged whale that took out the Essex, but the earlier one was named Mocha Dick, Mocha for the island near where it was sighted, and Dick as a generic appellation, like the Joe part of GI Joe. It does, however, sound like an unspeakable beverage not on sale at Starbuck’s, so far as I am aware.

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Cover of J. N. Reynolds story Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific

Due to the joining together of a city and a multiple murderer, The Wilderness of Ruin does bear a base similarity to Erik Larson’s outstanding book, The Devil in the White City. Both tell of an awful killer, and depict a major American city at a time of great change. However Wilderness… does not deliver quite the punch of the earlier book.

First, the link between the killer and Melville lies not in their having anything to do with each other. It is in the fact that madness is associated with both of them. And that is a fairly thin tether with which to connect the two. There are added links having to do with perception of relative skull size and skin color, but I thought those were a stretch. Given how magnificently Montillo had delved into the underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s great work, I believe she would have been well served to have offered up another on Melville. It is possible, of course, that she did not have enough new material with which to populate an entire volume. And there is no shortage of material on Melville out there already. (a Google search of “Melville biography” yielded 9,460 results) Of course, I expect the same might have been said for Mary Shelley. Don’t know, but the linkage felt forced.

Second, there is not really much of a hunt for Pomeroy. He spends most of his time in the book well contained behind bars, attempting to escape his come-uppance legally, and with digging tools, unlike the devil in Chicago, who remained at his dark task for most of that tale.

Third, the title may suggest something to the author, (terminology used to describe the aftermath of the Chicago fire, perhaps) I did not really get a clear image of the stories being told from the title. I suppose Pomeroy creates his fair share of ruin, and Melville endures far too much, and, of course, the city goes all to blazes, but the title just felt off to me.

However, there is still plenty to like in The Wilderness…. That one can come away from this book with a Zapruder-like mantra, “There was a second white whale,“ is almost worth the price of admission on its own. For those who have not already availed of material on Herman, there is enough here to whet one’s appetite, without going overboard. Some of the details of 19th century Boston (Yes, the parts may not have been legally part of the Boston of the era, but they are part of it today) are fascinating. There is a nugget on the origin of a famous Poe story, from when he was stationed in Boston. The discussion on madness is certainly worth listening in on. As is an exchange of ideas about the benefits of solitary confinement. Finally, there is cross-centuries relevance to how government and media function. It will certainly come as no surprise to anyone living in 21st century America that lily-livered politicians would rather take a chance on their districts burning to the ground sooner than spend public money to protect them. And were you aware that Boston had suffered a catastrophic conflagration only a year after Chicago? (excluding you folks from the Boston area. You know about this, right?) And it will come as no surprise to anyone with a radio, television or computer that substantial portions of the media are dedicated to dimming the light by increasing the temperature. The book may not be equal to the sum of the parts, the linkages are a bit frayed, the hunt for and serial designation of the killer may have been exaggerated, but the parts are still pretty interesting. It is always a good thing to visit Boston.

Posted – 1/9/15

Publication date – 3/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author on Twitter

Moby Dick for free on Gutenberg

Billy Budd for free on Gutenberg Australia

Here is a wiki on Mocha Dick , and here the text of the Knickerbocker article in which that tale is told.

A wiki piece on the World Peace Jubilee

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Psychology and the Brain

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon

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Life is kind of like that, picking the memories you want to frame. We all have an idea of how it should be, all smiles and swing sets. There are the more unsavory moments that we leave in the box stashed up in the darker parts of our psyche. We know they exist but we don’t go flaunting them in front of the dinner guests.

There are three main elements in Finding Jake, the parent/child relationship, the way the world treats those who are different, and the mystery of what happened leading up to, during and after the central event of the story.

Simon Connolly is a former political operative. He works as a writer, but took on the additional, stay-at-home, role when he and his wife, Rachel, had their first child. He is pretty good at it, if a bit of a worrier. When he gets a text from his kids’ school he is rocked to his core. There has been a shooting.

For the first two thirds, the story is divided fairly equally between following the events, post-shooting, as they emerge, Simon and Rachel’s torment in trying to find out what happened to their son and what he might have done or suffered, and Simon recalling the years from Jake’s birth. The final third is about the post-shooting events, searching for Jake and the truth. We see everything through Simon’s eyes.

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Bryan Reardon

Ever wonder if you screwed up your kid? Allowed too much? Too little? Encouraged too much? Too little? Spent enough time with them? Maybe too much? Encouraged them to experience the world too much, not enough? What if they followed your advice and it all went wrong? What if they ignored you and it went right? Where is that Goldilocks perfect middle? We can probably all look back over the lives of our children and second-guess our parenting decisions, our approaches. Will our kids turn out ok? Could they have turned out better? Are we good parents or did we mess it up? Another element in this vein is wondering how well you know your own child. How well can you? Welcome to Simon’s head. I do not want to give the impression that Simon is a sort of Woody Allen neurotic. He is not. He is a regular guy, a loving father, but when he learns that a troubled friend of his son is implicated in the shooting, there is plenty of self-questioning to be done.

How responsible are we for the behavior of our children, for their fate? How much is nurture and how much nature? As the father of three grown children I could certainly relate to Simon’s concerns. While I was only a stay-at-home dad for a fairly brief time, I could certainly appreciate the awkwardness he feels being a male homemaker. It is one of many elements in this book that is convincingly and accurately portrayed. I can also report, from personal experience, that my three arrived with very definite personalities. Not a blank slate in the bunch. We parents certainly can have an impact, but our progeny arrive with their own capacities and predilections. And they most definitely keep their own secrets. Simon not knowing everything about Jake’s life is 100% believable.

Reardon shows us snapshots of Jake’s life over the 18 years from in vitro to missing teen. Not exactly the most social kid, on the quiet side, but not to an extreme degree. Simon is concerned about Jake having a dodgy friend at age 8. Later, he encourages Jake to spend time with other kids. In this family photo album we see Simon and Rachel’s relationship change over time as well. Tensions, and some bright moments for them, too.

The back third of the book offers what seemed to me a pretty accurate look at how one’s neighbors are likely to respond in a pressured situation, (so many throwers, so few buses) and how the voracious media feeds on and produces fear. How many times have you seen a neighbor interviewed on the tube report that so-and-so, a known or suspected shooter, was a “quiet” person. We have acquired a sense, as a culture, that there is something wrong with people who are “quiet,” introspective, not party animals. Was Jake responsible for the shooting? Well, he was quiet, not particularly social, so what do you expect? Whether he is or isn’t, it is his social distance that is considered the tell. And what of Jake’s dad? He did not exactly fit in either. Maybe the quiet apple does not fall far from the tree.

To a large extent humans are pack animals. Queen bees and bullies do their best to cull pack members who look or act differently. Our media is more than happy to pile on, as professional practitioners of the blame game, and our institutions seem unable to control predatory behavior by the ins. Maybe they are not really all that interested in controlling it. Sometimes there is blowback.

they need to be able to explain it away. That’s what all this is about. If they can’t categorize what happened, put it in a nice, neat box, they can’t sleep at night…I’ve done it before. Now I see how awful it can be, though. It’s like they want to pick at us until we are bare, exposed, just to make themselves feel better. They dissect our pain just so they can convince themselves they are immune to it. It is like someone suffering a horrible disease and finding someone who is worse off than they are and asking them, Why? Why are you worse off than me? How is your situation different from mine? Tell me, so I can go home feeling better as you stay here and die.

Reardon does not offer in-depth analysis of Columbine-type child shooter(s). That is not what this is about. But Finding Jake does cover a range of subjects, parental responsibility, the social environment, signs of trouble, making moral choices, media amorality, police presumptuousness, neighborly selfishness. You will not find dazzling poetic prose here. The language is straightforward and entirely effective. It is about the story and underlying content, and not the form. You will definitely feel for Simon as a sort of everyman caught in a bad situation. He is honorable, intelligent and analytical, but is still fraught with the fears and doubts that anyone in his position might experience. If you are a parent, Finding Jake will touch a very deep place inside you. If you are not a parent, it will give you at least a taste of what it means to be one.

The author writes from experience about Simon’s life, and his fretting.

I’ve spent the last decade working from home while caring for my kids. I worry about them every day. Much of that angst fueled the writing of this book.

Like Simon (the name of the Reardon family pooch, btw) Reardon is also a writer and former political worker. He specializes in medical communications.

I had a couple of gripes about the book. Simon’s wife behaves on two occasions in a way that I found difficult to accept. And the final chapter seemed unnecessary. Too much leading readers by the hand.

Other than that, though, this is both a moving and a riveting novel. Once you begin reading you will not want to stop. Finding Jake is most definitely a book that is worth looking for.

Review posted – 10/30/14
Pub date – 2/24/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author does not, at present, maintain much of an on-line presence. I would not be surprised if this changes a bit as the publication date nears. When/if I encounter new info, I will add it.

His previous work includes Ready, Set, Play!, a collection of essays on parent-child bonding through sports, and Cruel Harvest, a memoir about a battered childhood.

For an excellent look at the UR school shooting or our age, I heartily recommend Dave Cullen’s Columbine

11/14/14 – A New York Times article about Stay-At-Home dads

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Filed under Fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews

A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel

book cover Hi, welcome. I’m happy to see you are settling in to read this now. But…what?…really?…please…ignore that chirp that just told you a new e-mail arrived. It is probably just another add for Viagra or penile enlargement. It is almost never something critical, so…hey…come back. Son of a bitch. (Taps fingers on desk, plays some solitaire, checks watch) Ah, you’re back. Took long enough. Geez. All right, can we get back to it now? You remember? The book is A Deadly Wandering, a pretty amazing look at attention, the demands on it, how it functions, how it is being compromised, and what the implications are for some aspects of that. Stop, no, do you have to answer the phone now? Can’t it wait? (sighs loudly, checks e-mail on a separate screen; weather.com lets us know upcoming conditions in another tab; who is pitching for the Mets tonight?) Oh, you’re back, sorry. Been there long? I must have wandered off. Focus.

I know a little bit about distraction. My job entails constant blasts of it. I work as a dispatcher for a security company. I have a dozen or more sites checking in every hour to make sure our guards are not sleeping (or that they know how to set the alarms on their cell phones). People call asking for their schedules. People call at 2 in the morning to let us know they will not be showing up for their 6am shift. They call because they just turned the wrong way and the cell phone in their pocket somehow redialed the last number they’d called. They call at 4am to let us know they will not be coming in for their 6am shift. They call asking for direction when there is some event at their site that requires handling. Our clients call, sometimes asking for emergency ASAP coverage in diverse places across the continent, sometimes to add ridiculous increases to the number of guards they want for a morning shift at a large institution. Our security guards call to ask if their check is at the office, or to inquire as to why the totals on their checks did not match what they expected. They call to let us know they have arrived at their post. They call to let us know they have clocked out for the day. They call at 5am to let us know they will not be in for their 6am shift because they have a newly discovered “appointment.” There are many, many calls. It makes it damned tough to keep a log of all the calls, particularly when half a dozen arrive at the exact same moment. It makes it tough to prepare the multiple reports of overnight activity, all of which have to be transmitted during the busiest time of the morning. In the middle of this, the boss comes in, drops papers on my desk and asks when this or that person arrived at or left from a post sometime in the last week or so. For someone who is, shall we say, not comfortable with being interrupted, this presents some challenges. And it presents a real problem. I write the bulk of my reviews while at work. And to enter notes, do research on items, and then compose actual reviews of books during this time can be a bit difficult. Thoughts that have not made their way into a file are in constant danger of vanishing into the ether with the next barrage of incomings. I scream sometimes. I frequently forget what I was doing before the latest set of calls. And, struggling to remember, I am interrupted yet again by the next set. The one good thing about this blitzkrieg of interruption is that I am not enduring it while behind the wheel of a ton-plus hunk of metal hurtling down the road at 60 mph. My sanity may be in jeopardy, (or long gone) but I present no existential threat to the rest of humanity. The same cannot be said for the main character in Richtel’s story.

By all accounts nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw is a decent young man. A Mormon, he was eager to serve his community by preparing for and then undertaking an LDS mission. His first try had come up short, so he was back home, working until he could build up enough moral credit to try again. In September, 2006, while driving a Chevy Tahoe SUV, Reggie had his Cingular flip-phone with him and was texting with his girlfriend. A witness reported seeing him weaving across the center line multiple times. Finally, Reggie weaved too far. The results were fatal. Reggie came through ok but two scientists were killed as a result of Reggie’s texting, leaving wives and children to pick up the charred pieces of their lives and go on without their breadwinners, husbands, fathers. Reggie denied he was texting when the accident occurred.

Matt Richtel is a novelist and top-notch reporter. He won a Pulitzer for a series of articles, written for the New York Times, in which he detailed the national safety crisis resulting from increasing use of distracting devices by drivers. He has written a few novels and even pens a comic strip. There is nothing at all amusing, however, about the tale he tells here.

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Matt Richtel – from his site

The core of A Deadly Wandering is how constant distraction, particularly while in a car, kills. Richtel looks at the case of Reggie Shaw as a prime example of how the distractions that have become embedded in our lives have unintended consequences. Richtel spends time with Reggie, with the cop who pursued the case when most officials wanted to brush it off and move on, the surviving family members, and a victim’s advocate who pursued prosecution of the case. Richtel also talks with several neuroscientists who have been studying the science of attentiveness. That material is quite eye-opening.

There are legal questions in here regarding where responsibility lies for such events, and how far communities are willing to go to punish violations and even to establish that such behavior is not permissible. Where does your freedom to act irresponsibly interfere with my right to stay alive? There are scientific questions about how the brain functions in a world that seems to demand multi-tasking. How does the brain work in dealing with attentiveness? What is possible? What is not? Where are the edges of that envelope?

When drug companies want to bring to market a product for public use, they must go through a significant review process to make sure their product is safe to use. Before auto manufacturers can bring a vehicle to market they must put it through safety testing.

But neither Verizon nor any other cellphone company supports legislation that bans drivers from talking on the phone. And the wireless industry does not conduct research on the dangers, saying that is not its responsibility – From – Dismissing the Risks of a Deadly Habit

And the corporations know what they are doing with their techolology.

If you take yourself back millennia, and you’re in the jungle or you’re in the forest and you see a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal lobe, whatever you’re doing, whatever hut you’re building, stop and run.
Well, here’s what scientists think is happening in this data era, is that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or, let’s say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren’t these modern bombardments; they’re the most primitive bombardments. They’re playing to these most primitive impulses and they’re asking our brain to make very hard choices a lot.
– from the Terry Gross interview

In addition, and in a chillingly similar impact to other addictive substances, our communications technology knows how to make itself feel crucial to us.

when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you hear a ring – you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline. So you’re getting that more and more and more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response. – also from the NPR interview

Richtel follows Reggie’s story through to the end, at least for some of the players here. Laws have been changed. New knowledge has been gained. Responsibility has been allocated. Amends have been attempted. It is a moving tale. In addition, you will learn a lot about what science has found about how our brains handle multiple concurrent demands. You will learn about change in how distracted driving is being addressed by our legal system. But most of what you will get from reading this book is a chilling appreciation for what is involved in distracted driving. You might even be persuaded to switch off your phone the next time you get behind the wheel. At least I hope you are. I would like to live a bit longer and not be taken out before my time because someone was talking on the phone with their friend, texting with their significant other, or trying to order penile growth products from the road. I would like to live long enough to spend at least a few more nights screaming at the phone to stop ringing at work so I can get some writing done. That call you were thinking of making while in the car can wait. It really is a matter of life and death. A Deadly Wandering is must read material. Please, please pay attention.

Review posted – 7/18/14

Publication date – 9/23/14

This review has been also been posted at GoodReads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A list of Richtel articles in the NY Times’ Bits blog

The Pulitzer site includes links to all the pieces in Richtel’s award-winning series. Very much worth checking out

Another article Richtel did looked at the benefits of uninterrupted face time free of technological intrusion, from August, 2010, Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain

There is some great material in Richtel’s 2010 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets

There are some interesting pieces on Oprah’s site. Distracted Driving: What You Don’t See is pretty good. And it is worth checking out Oprah’s No Texting Campaign

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Public Health, Reviews

Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

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Realism has its limitations

Don’t I know. But after reading Joseph Hallinan’s Kidding Ourselves, you will find a way to get rid of those extra pounds; you will finally step up and demand that raise you have been denied for the last several years; you will ask out that person you have had your eye on for so long; you will give up that nasty habit, you know the one; and you will finally get around to writing that book. All you have to do is want it enough, and think positively. Yeah, right. We have been fed a steady diet of positive thinkology from Norman Vincent Peale to Professor Harold Hill to Tony Robbins, from cultish directions like EST, and from con artists from Ponzi to Madoff.

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Ponzi – old and new

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Bright-Sided , pulled back the curtain on a lot of the sort of scamming that the think-positive sorts have been inflicting on us all. I share her views on this stuff. Most of the see-no-evil promulgators seek little more than to divert our attention from the real societal causes of many of our maladies, and in doing so pad their own pockets. Most of us, for example, are not struggling financially because we got too little education, the wrong sort of education, are lazy, unfocused, not good enough, not beautiful or strong enough, or are bad people who deserve what happens to us. It is because the rich SOBs who run the world decided to steal more than they already had, and have the power to make government hold us down while they go through our pockets, and then demand that we thank them for the privilege.

Blaming the victim is a national, no, a global past-time, and urging people to believe that the fault is in them and that if they just had a better attitude they would succeed, is the sort of tangy Kool Aid that people like Jim Jones have been peddling for a long time.

This is all to say that I approached the book with a full magazine of attitude and an itchy finger. So, is this guy another in a long line of con artists trying to blame the victim? Turns out, not so much. At ease, soldier.

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The author – from Wikimedia

Joseph T. Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who reported for the Wall Street Journal, has written on the prison system, and wrote a 2009 popular psychology look at some of our many imperfections as human beings, the how and why we are the way we are, Why We Make Mistakes. Hallinan’s latest, Kidding Ourselves, a relatively short book (210 pps in my proof), looks at a narrow range of human behavior, although it does manage to cover a fairly wide swath of human (and sometimes non-human) experience. He is not so much promoting the notion of looking on the sunny side of life as taking a pop-psych microscope to the behavior itself. He breaks down the many ways in which homo sap practices self-delusion, and it is not exactly all positive.

Health-wise, he offers evidence that one’s attitude definitely matters. Expecting a positive outcome has measurable palliative results, independent of the pharmacological benefit of drugs or procedures applied to a medical problem. The obverse is true as well, expecting the worst can often bring it about. One really can die from, say, hypochondria, or a broken heart. Depression does cause physical harm to those who experience it.

Hallinan looks into the relationship between our perceptions and reality. You know that right-wing uncle who insists that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim? You showed him all the evidence, right? And the result? He absolutely refused to accept the facts, clinging instead to his attitudes. I’d want to smack him too. Hallinan looks into this and offers an explanation for this seemingly inexplicable dedication to ignorance.

The book is about how we need to feel some control in our lives, almost more than anything else, whether it is that the cross-walk sign might flash “Walk” sooner in response to our pressing a button, whether it is that we can, through wise investing, control our financial future, or whether we believe that by repeating some ritual behavior we might therefore succeed in some endeavor. And we kid ourselves in order to be able to feel that there is something, anything, that is under our control. Otherwise we feel completely hopeless and the implications of that are not good. One result of this is that the confidence we gain from our beliefs, regardless of their basis in reality, can sometimes make the difference between success and failure, improvement or relapse, life or death.

This is, as noted, a short book, so one does not expect a deep, heavily detailed scientific treatise. It is pop-psychology, written by a journalist, not a scientist, meant for readers like you and me. That said, my antennae started to vibrate a time or three when I felt that the analysis was particularly, and problematically blindered. For example, Hallinan cites surveys of public attitudes regarding taxation that shows a persistent degree of dissatisfaction despite changes in rates over time. Problem is that the rate change under study is the top marginal tax rate, the rate paid by the highest wage-earners. Most people are not affected by this, so why would their attitude change at all? And given that taxes on working and middle class wage-earners had not dropped, and may even have gone up over the time span covered in the study, it is no surprise that general attitudes toward taxation would have seen little change. Another section looks at the persistence of false beliefs, as if they exist in a vacuum.

How could so many people persistently believe something unsupported by facts?
“I don’t have an explanation for that,” said pollster Jim Williams. “All I can say is that we have looked at that in other places in the past and it’s never gone away.”

Fuh real? How dim are you guys? Have you never heard of the 24/7 Lie Network at Fox, the masses of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch or Clear Channel broadcasting, right-wing radio, and the gazillions of know-nothing web-sites that sprout like algal blooms in the path of agricultural runoff? Sure, people will cling to nonsense in the absence of such assistance, but when it is blasted into your brain constantly, it will have an impact. So yeah, it does seem sometimes that the author has been a bit blind to some obvious real-world factors, which is ironic, as he points out the bias inherent in some well-known scientists here as well.

But he does offer quite a few examples of real scientific studies that indicate that sometimes mind-over-matter really….um…matters. Not, of course, in other-worldly sorts of manifestations, like making that missing limb grow back, or altering the immediate balance in your bank account. But to the extent that confidence comes into play, and it does come into play quite a bit, it might not hurt to accentuate the positive, Whistle a Happy Tune , hum a little Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah or channel a small, very, very small dose of Stuart Smalley. You may be a loser, a 97 pound weakling, too fat, too skinny, too old, too young, too tall, too short, but the extra boost that confidence, fueled by religion, superstition, and downright nonsense injects really can make a difference in many of life’s outcomes.

He makes a case that self-delusion, as a defense against hopelessness, is a crucial element in what it means to be human, and that it has provided actual evolutionary advantages. It may be that to err is human, but it would appear equally human to convince ourselves that we were right all along. Hallinan maintains that self-delusion not only exists across all human cultures but is present in animal psychology as well. Rats kid themselves too.

There will always be a danger that the limited range covered in this book will be taken by the con artists of the world as being more than it is and be presented as an “I told you so.” It isn’t. It is specific, illuminating and fascinating. I kid you not.

This book was received via GR’s First Reads program – Thanks, guys

Review Posted – March 21, 2014

Publication date – May 20, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

I did not find a web-site for the author unadorned, but here is one for his earlier book, Why We Make Mistakes.

Here is a wiki on a 1986 essay by philosopher Henry G. Frankfurt that seems germane, On Bullshit

And a few more musical links that fit right in, from Stevie Wonder, George Michael , and The Monkees. So many more could work here.

In Salon, an excerpt from an interesting book by Oliver Burkeman, Positive Thinking is for Suckers

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews

My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel

book cover Scott Stossel has a problem, anxiety. Big-time. Had it all his life. Think decades of therapy of the talk and chemical varieties. But, he has also had a successful career as a journalist, and is currently the editor of the Atlantic magazine.

Anxiety, when it’s not debilitating, can bring with it certain gifts: a heightened awareness of your environment; more sensitive social antennae; a general prudence about risk-taking; a spur toward achievement. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the greater the anxiety, the greater the opportunity for growth. I think there’s definitely something to that—though when my anxiety is at its worst I’d trade away the opportunity for growth in exchange for the anxiety dissipating. (from the Bookpage Interview)

Just what is anxiety? What causes it? What are its effects on individuals and society? How has it been viewed historically? What might be done about it? Stossel sets out to look at these and other questions. The wrinkle here is that he uses his personal lifelong battle with anxiety as a lens through which to examine the various understandings that have been put forth about this condition and the treatments that have been tried over time. The historical and analytical elements are fascinating reading, but relating the information to his personal struggle makes Stossel’s a very human approach.

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Scott Stossel

If getting definitive answers to questions is important to you, and not getting such answers makes you uncomfortable, anxious even, you probably should pass on reading My Age of Anxiety. If, however, you enjoy the mental stimulation of seeing the history of how medical science and society at large has viewed what we, today, call “anxiety”, then this significant work should offer you the palliation you require.

So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s response reminded me of Tevye’s, in Fiddler on the Roof, to the question of why the Jewish people maintain certain traditions. “I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” Stossel does not break out into song, but offers a comparable explanation, at least to begin.

If Freud himself, anxiety’s patron saint, couldn’t define the concept, how am I supposed to?

Even contemporary investigations with the highest of tech have not been able to pin it down definitively. There are even different schools of thought over where the primary cause of anxiety lies. Is it in the electromagnetic functioning of the brain, or in the swath of chemicals that also make up our biology. Charmingly, these two camps are referred to as “Sparks” and “Soups.”

Is anxiety genetically determined? There really is a thing that researchers call the Woody Allen gene.

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From Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex

Anxiety has offered fodder for cinematic investigation, both serious and satirical, an area that did not receive much attention here. But one could be forgiven for believing that Hollywood product seems to exist, in large measure, in order to instill fear in the population. book cover “Be afraid. Be very afraid.“ The release of Jaws certainly gave many an unwarranted fear of being slurped down by a mega-fishy. There is both the Hitchcockian treatment of acrophobia and Mel Brooks’ somewhat lighter take, depending on whether you prefer your anxiety high or low. And of course newspapers do all they can to flog fear as a means of pushing product. book coverThere are enough cop, medical, serial killer and zombie programs on the tube to provide plenty of fodder for nurturing our nervousness. Maybe it is the minority of us who are immune to this constant barrage of market-driven promotion of paranoia. Is it any wonder people are so afraid of so many things?

Do drugs and the ad campaigns of big pharma create more anxiety? Stossel looks into this possibility. Despite the real benefits of some of the products made by large pharmaceutical companies, maybe big pharma is something we should be frightened of.

Lest one think Stossel has written a completely dry, scientific, or at least reportorial investigation, you should know that in talking about one of his primary personal miseries, emetophobia, or fear of vomiting, he does seem to take on a bit of a Mary Roach persona while describing some very painful and embarrassing personal experiences. My scatologically-inclined inner twelve-year-old was giddy at times.

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An out of body experience

When Stossel writes of shyness and stage fright, I was whisked back to my early youth, kindergarten or first grade. A school performance. I stood at center stage and recited, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater…” I got through the words, but by the time I walked off stage, my trousers had acquired considerable extra moisture. It got better. I had battles with anxiety over the years as an adult as well. Not nearly to the degree that Stossel did. There was a time when I was so burdened with anxiety that my armpits would become viciously inflamed. Not exactly something that might land one in a hospital, for sure. But pain-enforced arms akimbo is not a normal way to present oneself to the world this side of a workout vid. It jars when one is in a suit and tie. It does not matter what caused this somatization. No one turned me into a newt. It did get better. This pales before the travails endured by the author, nearly bolting from his own wedding out of terror that he would boot his lunch, throwing sports matches just to get off the court and stop worrying that he might toss his cookies in public. His anxieties did not make for a happy adolescence in the already terrifying world of dating. (There is plenty more. Read the book to find out just how fortunate you really are.) But I do understand at least a bit, on a very personal level, how anxiety can be physically debilitating. So the book held definite appeal. I imagine that many of us have suffered from anxiety of one sort or another, in varying intensities. It can’t hurt to learn a bit more about where this particular form (or more properly, range of forms) of misery originates.

One of the treatments Stossel looks at (and experienced himself) is a thing called exposure therapy. Basically one must confront the thing one fears most over and over until one internalizes the fact that the thing one fears will not do the damage one imagines. It is Mary Roach territory again when he writes of his own exposure therapy treatment, and its effect on those treating him. I can imagine, however that this might not be a particularly helpful approach were one’s fear something like, say, emasculation, or being hit by a car.

He writes of the fascinating connection between the brain and the stomach. Those who suffer from anxiety also have issued with control-freakishness. It was news to learn that there is even a standardized scale for measuring this. That it is called Rotter’s Locus of Control Scale does not give one great confidence in the intent of its designer.

There is a wonderful section on blushing. Those of us who are always on the lookout for Darwinian understandings of human behavior will definitely perk up at this. And speaking of Darwin, his is one of many household names Stossel cites as prolonged and acute anxiety sufferers. There is also an enlightening passage on how we get the word panic from the Greek god Pan. You will learn a bunch of nifty new words, well, probably new to you. I know a lot were new to me.

Fox News troll John Stossel is Scott’s uncle, so it is clear that there is definitely something sinister swimming about in the family gene pool. At least that particular strain does not seem to have afflicted Scott. His younger sister, Sage, an artist, not only suffers considerably from anxiety, she also just published in December a book that deals with it, Starling. Thanksgiving must be interesting at Stossel family gatherings.

I have one particular gripe about the book and it has to do with physical format. The volume I read was an ARE, so formatting may be different in the final, hard cover edition. But in the volume I read, the page count comes in at 337. No big whoop, even if it is a dense read, and it can be. But the sheer volume of footnotes at the bottom of pages is such that it felt much, much longer. (Maybe call them feetnotes?) There are pages that consist of three lines of actual primary text and what seemed vast, unending streams of subsidiary material in print that seemed to call for an electron microscope. I became almost phobic about turning the page. God knows how much more footnote was lurking there, determined to triple the time it would normally take me to completely read a page. And it should be pretty clear that one of my personal tics is a need to read all the footnotes. And they are definitely worth reading. What I wish though, is that the author had found a way to incorporate that very interesting material into the text of the book itself, at a human-friendly font-size, and let us know up front how long the book really is. It felt like a bit of a cheat to me, stuffing so much material in through that particular back door. If it is really a five or six hundred page book, fine, I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But don’t tell me it’s 337, then cram in another 200 pps of material. Grrrrr. That said, if you do not share my footnote-reading compulsion, it will be a much quicker read for you, but you will miss out on a lot of fascinating stuff. So maybe the solution here is to just tell yourself that the book is maybe 50% longer than the page number indicates and adjust your expectations accordingly.

It took a lot of work and a lot of guts for Stossel to expose his personal struggles to public view. Reading My Age of Anxiety may not do anything to remove your particular fears, phobias, neuroses or anxieties, but it may at least offer some comfort from the knowledge that one’s difficulty is unlikely to be unique, that anxiety, like death, taxes, corruption and bloody-minded stupidity has ever been with us, that one suffers in the company of some of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced, that there is likely some relief to be had chemically, and that there can be real personal and social benefit from having at least some anxiety. Unless your fears have to do with reading very informative looks at widespread human problems, works in which the reportage incorporates the personal to illuminate the universal, you might want to risk taking a peek at My Age of Anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of.

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

NY Times article about Scott and sister Sage publishing books at the same time, about the same subject, although very differently

Bookpage interview

This was named one of Oprah’s 17 books to pick up in January

Stossel on Colbert, a fun interview.

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January 20, 2014 · 10:37 am