Thursday, December 13, 2018

#DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life

Jedediah Bila wrote #DoNotDisturb: How I Ghosted My Cell Phone to Take Back My Life after she came to the realization that she was spending far too much time--wastefully--poking around people' social media pages and not living her own life. Messages or alerts from friends of friends and exes of exes would buzz on her phone and she would jump to attention, her Pavlovian stimulus fully charged. These distant people demanded (and got) her attention even though what she got out of their posts or alerts was entirely useless information. Bila would stare into her phone all day and into the night. #DoNotDisturb shares her story of how she got her life back when she turned off her phone. She didn't only get her life back when she did so: she also got a husband. Talk about a reward for turning off your phone!

I approached this book with the prejudice that I was going to rip into the author and all cellular-obsessed people like she used to be. I still am going to be merciless in my condemnation of 95% of the population as weak and impulsive lazy non-thinkers. I use that percentage based on Bila's assertion that 95% of the American population now owns a cell phone. I do not believe this figure. I think that Bila just chose the highest percentage she could find when researching how many Americans who currently had cell phones. The larger the figure, the more dramatic the effect. My own opinion--opinion, mind you, not anything based on my own research--is that this percentage is about twenty points lower. In any case, the number of people who have a cell phone far exceeds the number who don't. And they're ruining the peace and quiet of those around them.

The disappearance of quiet is nothing new. I work in a public library, an institution that long ago ceased to be an empire of shushing. Our library used to have a no-cell phone policy. Can you imagine anyone enforcing that now? What sound irritates you the most? For me, it's that five-note high-pitched bird tweet that signals a new Twitter message. I hate that sound. It is too loud, too frequent, and always invasive. As I turn into a crabby old man I have no compunctions telling people who are being too loud on their mobile phones "You have a mobile phone. Be mobile." I must admit that I stole that line from a TV show. I recall watching Hyacinth Bucket walking around her house with her new cordless phone just because she could. I wish cell phone users would realize they don't have to be anchored to one spot--like landline users such as myself--when they are having a conversation. Noise, interference, interruptions...all part of the modern world and I realize that fighting it would be a losing battle. Some steps have been made to restore the peace, and I do appreciate the phone-free train cars I have travelled in. Bila however had to come to the realization that she couldn't wait for other people to design phone-free train cars for other aspects of her life. She had to restore the peace herself. And one way to do that was to go phone-free. 

She couldn't stop her phone use on the spot. She had some weaning to do. First of all she dropped scores of Facebook people (they weren't "friends" at all) and deleted some apps entirely. Bila grew amazed at how less stressed her life was when she wasn't devoting so much of her time in other people's lives. She could appreciate the blue sky, and the different shades of blue within it. She was aware of people, animals, sounds and not centred on her little screen as she shuffled from place to place. It was as if she had discovered the real world for the first time:

"...I now had my eyes open to it all and had made the decision to put my phone away. I was like the sober friend in a room full of drunk people, the only one seeing things clearly." 

Bila had an epiphany when she rejoined the real world and started to live life again in the moment. Her personality and overall outlook changed immediately. She was happy to walk around Manhattan, looking up, not down. She was living life in the moment, appreciating sunsets and not obsessively taking photos of sunsets. She was enjoying the beauty and serenity of sunsets, and not taking selfies with sunsets, or editing or filtering her photos of sunsets before posting them on Instagram. She is not kind to people who seem to let the pleasure of the moment pass them by for the sake of social media:

"Back then, before these digital doohickeys dominated our world, we lived the lives we were living, instead of constantly trying to capture a perfect representation of those lives to post on social media, for us to then check obsessively for views. Or likes. Or whatever. Over and over." 

She has no sympathy for parents who would prefer to watch their children's concert through a tiny phone screen versus watching the wide scope of the event in an auditorium:

"When I'm at a cousin's kid's middle school chorus concert, seeing all the parents there with their phones up in front of them, recording, taking near-constant photos and selfies, texting them, posting them on social media instead of actually listening to and feeling the music, I anyone ever actually just where they are at the moment, in the moment? Do we even know how to do that anymore?" 

When I saw the original lineup of Bananarama in concert this past February, I was the only person in the front row who was not filming the show on an iPhone. I might be overthinking this, but I did get special attention from Siobhan Fahey, my favourite group member. She smiled at me and gave me the thumbs-up. It could have been in response to me knowing all the words to their songs, but perhaps it was in appreciation for seeing me actually enjoy the show in the moment, and for not preoccupying my attention by recording it. Would I ever watch a video I took of the concert anyway? All YouTube clips of the Toronto concert are of horrible quality. How many parents play back--even once--the cell phone recordings they made of their children's concerts? They miss the show the first time in real life by recording it, and don't even bother to see a woeful recording on the narrowest of screen playbacks. It's one thing if you're not in attendance at a concert: you're not there. Nor are you even if you are present, ostensibly watching it in real life in real time, but if you're recording it all by watching it through a tiny screen, you're not there either:

"What I find unappealing: when I'm at a performance, and the audience is recording, checking their phones for something, taking a photo, sending it, posting it, FaceTiming their friend in the middle of it all. Awful. How about going back to the idea that--if you're not there, YOU'RE NOT THERE."

#DoNotDisturb was a rapid read because it was written in an oral style. Bila even included some dialogues. She used lengthy hyphenated phrases to excess, starting from page 2: 

"That said, I'm not one of those I-had-to-walk-five-miles-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphill militant memorialists..." 

and continuing almost to the end at page 233:

"Venmo often becomes yet another look-at-me, look-what-I'm-buying-and-doing, I'm-important-because-you're-paying-attention-to-what-I'm-doing sad by-product of the tech boom."

While indeed oral stylizations, this superabundance of hyphens was still an annoying sight to stumble across the printed page. I wish the author had restructured her sentences to express the same sentiments by avoiding all hyphens. 

Bila answers those who claim they carry a cell phone only in case of an emergency. I get that so-called concern whenever I explain why I don't have a phone:

"'But what if I'm needed in an emergency?'
"Which brings me back to the hundreds of years that people existed and survived without cell phones, emergencies included."

As a former teacher, Bila is worried about the next generation. Children are growing up using cell phones and laptops while still toddlers. Parents are nose-deep in texting rather than tending to their children. When she was a teacher, Bila frequently had to deal with interruptions in class:

"...the second a phone would buzz or light up, they'd stare at it momentarily, then lose all attention in the project or assignment at hand. Additionally, so many students I taught wound up being on medication for attention deficit disorder. I wasn't sure if the increase in this diagnosis correlated with the onslaught of devices, but I had a suspicion." 

Her suspicion is bang-on. I do not shy away from debating why I believe AD(H)D is a myth. Tough love from parents by removing their children's electronic devices will go a long way to save the underused brains of our youngest generation. No one, not just children, thinks anymore. People are not testing their memories or their power of recall. When I walk home from work I am obviously not plugged in. If I'm thinking about something and can't recall a fact or figure, I try to remember what it is. I test myself to try to recall it. I have twenty-five minutes to do so before I can check the Internet at home. Those who have Internet on the go on their devices would simply type their question into Google and get the answer within seconds. Do they even pause to think about anything? Do they have any skills of patience when the knowledge they want can be found in seconds? This continual state of having immediate information and providing only partial attention severely limits one's ability to focus, and could possibly also lower one's IQ.

Bila laments:

"It's been a while since I've seen a child hang out in a park, crouched over a puddle after a rainstorm, stick in hand, tracing through the surface area, watching the water ripple toward the edges, thinking, daydreaming. Or a kid on an airplane staring out the window, intrigued by the movement of the baggage handlers coordinating the freight on the tarmac. Nowadays, what do I see? Children glued to big tablets in their hands, clueless to their surroundings, entranced by the make-believe, engaged in a process that pulls them mindlessly along a predetermined trail engineered by some Silicon Valley twenty-something.
"But alas, who am I to judge those kids? I only started noticing so much of the world when I finally put my own phone down."

Indeed. No one has to totally give up his or her cell phone. Just put the damn thing down. You might--just like Bila--meet your future spouse because you looked up.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store

Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek was a weighty paperback about Canada's preeminent department store chain. At 464 pages, I approached the book thinking that although it would be highly informative, it would nevertheless be a slow read. My first impression was pleasantly disproved the moment I started reading. Kopytek managed to write a lengthy and super-detailed corporate history of the retail giant while maintaining a personal touch. The result was an addictive read, a page-turner, especially since I knew something about Eaton's and was waiting for the author to arrive at certain parts about the company's history. The author filled the book with testimonials from Eaton's customers and employees going back decades, which made the read all the more enticing.

The book started at the time of Timothy Eaton's birth in 1834 (although the Eaton family tree in Appendix B stated his year of birth as 1843) and his emigration to Canada as a young man of twenty. He was a merchant who built an empire literally from coast to coast in all ten provinces. Eaton's was not strictly a chronological read, which was fortunate because that would have made it a boring book. The first Eaton's Santa Claus Parade was held in 1905 yet the chapter about the parade only followed the chapter about store expansion and renovation in British Columbia in the 1970's. I knew that Kopytek had to write about the Eaton's parade tradition as well as the company's decision to cancel the parade in 1982. I just didn't know when he'd eventually get to it. This element of suspense--as I never rush ahead to peek at the pages to come--kept me on the edge of my seat as I ended each chapter. You could say I was waiting for Santa, and in a sense I was.

I can remember the Eaton's store on Queen Street in Toronto, and that the Queen subway platform had an escalator that led directly into the store. You did not have to leave the subway station first. If my memory serves me correctly, I remember the synesthetic pleasure of arriving from the subway platform into a bakery. Now wasn't that a smart idea for greeting customers? What better way to attract customers and to fill their heads with good thoughts than to tempt them with the aromas of freshly-baked goods? Timothy Eaton would have been proud.

Eaton's expanded from coast to coast, always trying to keep itself modern by updating its stock as well as renovating its premises. What might have seemed like a marketing blunder or over-the-top egotism was the establishment of a second major Eaton's store in downtown Toronto, merely blocks from its original location. The two stores managed to stay in business for over forty years, until the opening of the major retail colossus known as the Eaton Centre in 1977. Kopytek spent extreme detail on the architecture of each Eaton's building, whether it was the new Eaton Centre or a suburban mall anchor store. I do not have an architectural background so I had to look up some terms, such as "chamfered corners", but other structural terminology was satisfied by a photo of the store or design in question.

Kopytek filled his book with photos from Eaton's interiors, Eaton's catalogue images and store ephemera. I remember the store's metallic shopping bag dispensers, often found by the escalators. While one would certainly get a bag with every purchase, it wouldn't be one of these large shopping bags, which were made of a thicker paper and had U-shaped handles. One year in the 1970's I fell in love with the TV commercial and jingle "Eaton's Uncrates The Sun", and I bought one such shopping bag as a memento. I still have it:

I also have a small collection of old Eaton's boxes, going back to the fifties. I always place these boxes--unwrapped, of course--under my Christmas tree. I decorate "under" the tree until Christmas Eve when I place real wrapped presents there. Kopytek included photos of Eaton's ephemera from various decades. I only wish that he could have included colour pictures as some of Eaton's themes (green and, at the very end, aubergine) were quite vivid.

In the summer of 1982 Eaton's announced that it would be cancelling the Santa Claus Parade due to its extravagant costs. The store could not have foreseen the backlash of negative publicity it would receive. What the store did not realize was that people still fondly thought of Eaton's and knew the store by name as the sponsor. I enjoyed this recollection of the need for having multiple Santas on parade day:

"A dark-blue and red Eaton's van following Santa carried a second Santa, in case of a problem, along with a nurse and doctor should the excitement of the day overwhelm the parade's celebrity. In most cases, the backups were not needed, but mishaps during the parade were not unknown, ranging from an alcohol-soaked Santa who announced, 'Merry Christmas, you little bastards!' when greeting the crowd assembled to receive him to the sober but no less comical one whose 'jolly' stomach, padded out with a feather pillow, had become soaked by rain, causing his pants to drop as he ascended the ladder to the store."

Yet the downfall of Eaton's did not start with its cancellation of the parade. Eaton's ended its catalogue sales in 1976, not being able to compete with rival Simpson's. In effect Eaton's "handed over $300 million in sales to its greatest rival." The writing was on the wall. Consumer shopping was changing and Eaton's became less relevant with lower-priced retailers and having to fight a reputation that it was a store only your mother (or grandmother) shopped at.

The only criticism I had with the book was that the original newspaper advertisements were reproduced such that their text was wholly unreadable. That's what happens when you reduce a newspaper page to fit onto the page of a book. I could still read all the original copy with a magnifying glass. I am however most appreciative that Kopytek included so much detail about Eaton's culled from the nation's newspapers. He also filled the book with photos of every department store from across the country.

Kopytek ended his book with a timeline of the T. Eaton Co. Limited. It summed up major company events on a single line, but he erred with two dates. I know this, because the dates do not exist:

"1929 Calgary Eaton's opens (February 29)" and "1969 Eaton's Highfield Square (Moncton, NB) opens (February 29)".

Neither 1929 nor 1969 was a leap year. Did he mean 1928 and 1968? Or a different day in February?

The last book I read and reviewed was Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China by Jan Wong, and by coincidence Wong is quoted in Kopytek's book, where she shared her memories of shopping at Eaton's in Montreal (known in Quebec as Eaton) and Toronto. I am happy to say that I awarded five stars to Wong's book as well, and both she and Kopytek wrote to me after I complimented them on each of their books.

As with Eaton's merchandise, Eaton's: The Trans-Canada Store by Bruce Allen Kopytek comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China

Apron Strings: Navigating Food and Family in France, Italy, and China is the latest work by Jan Wong, an author whose work I thoroughly love. I read everything she writes. Apron Strings chronicled her experiences travelling with her adult son Sam as they roamed the world, looking for places where they could learn local home cooking in the three countries in the title. The Wongs didn't seek classes they had to enrol in, or registration in a famous culinary institute. Jan and Sam sought live-in arrangements where they would not only share the living spaces but also the kitchens and dining areas with the locals. Through extended networks of friends they managed to find such accommodations in all three places. They also shopped for the food they would cook and as live-in guests--nobody would take a euro or renminbi in payment--they were part of each family, taking part in intimate discussions and doing so with competence in each native language. Although not classed as a cookbook, Wong provided recipes for all the dishes she learned to make or witnessed others make. I even learned a cooking tip on how to prepare fresh mushrooms. I tried it and it worked.

Wong writes exactly as she thinks and this makes her writing seem alive: I feel her wit and often laugh out loud, wrinkle my nose at her dislikes and cringe with each word she put into italics. There were plenty of passages with words in italics; this rendered them thus visually as well as audibly distinct. I could imagine Wong's voice change in inflection as if she were reading her book aloud to me. I never wanted to end a reading session with any of Wong's books, and if I had no time restraints I could read her all day. My notes were full of passages that caused me to laugh out loud and read again. Wong's observances often left her dumbfounded and would make perfect cut-to takes if ever this book was made for television. Read about her encounter with the preeminent French cookbook, Je sais cuisiner by Ginette Mathiot, a giant tome at 773 pages:

"I flipped through the cookbook while Bernadette unwrapped the veal. Among its two thousand recipes were a hundred and twenty-six for sauces alone, everything from sauce à l'abricot to sauce Zingara, and even 'ketchup à la crème.' Each of the hundred veal recipes were only a single paragraph, even for blanquette de veau. Julia Child's nearly four-page recipe for blanquette de veau à l'ancienne made me want to lie down in a darkened room with a damp towel over my forehead. Child's 684-page tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I, would discourage all but the most enthusiastic novices. In contrast, Mathiot's was encouraging. Who couldn't follow one paragraph of instructions? At other homes in France and Italy, I discovered similarly minimalist cookbooks. They presumed a level of technical competency that everyone had learned at their grandmother's knee. Recipes didn't explain how to make a roux. They didn't even provide the correct proportions of flour and fat. They merely said, 'Make a roux.'"

I still laugh as I read this! Classic Jan Wong, that is. Same for her reaction whenever she was served French food. First there is surprise. Then, you deal with it:

"In France, no one asks what dressing you want on your salad--it comes with vinaigrette. French chefs don't care how you'd like your steak cooked--it comes medium rare. When I think back, no one we cooked with in France or Italy or China ever asked whether I disliked anything, whether I was a vegetarian, or whether I was allergic to nuts or gluten or dairy. You ate what was cooked. Those with special needs adapted, including Philomène and Pierre-Marie."

Apron Strings was a delight of culture-shock moments and really, there is no better way to depict this than just by letting Wong's words speak for themselves. The following are all highlights from the text that make me laugh every time:

"I sulked and turned to washing stupid organic lettuce. I say 'stupid' because it was coated in black dirt, which required eight washes before the water ran clean. After that, I vowed to buy only chemically poisoned greens." 

About the contrast between what constitutes cooking versus baking:

"When you bake, you measure. You had to sit up straight and pay attention. Thus, I have failed almost every time I attempted to bake a pie or a cake. Once, my cookies stuck to Teflon. I couldn't pry them loose even after I soaked the pan in the sink. The only solution was to throw out the tray, cookies and all."

The best image in the book was the description for a particular vegetable. Even if you had never seen such a cauliflower, you would know exactly what it looked like:

"Bewitched by chartreuse-green peaks resembling an avant-garde architect's take on a Thai temple, Sam bought a Romanesco cauliflower."

On learning about local cuisine in mainland China, Wong realizes that the freshest of meat is not found in a supermarket:

"Some mothers take their sons to natural history museums. I thought Sam should witness a chicken slaughter." 

Yet some Chinese cooking traditions are negatively stereotyped and Wong has no patience for them:

"'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' had been thoroughly debunked. I now roll my eyes and grow uncooperative when Canadian friends ask me to transmit their no-MSG request to Chinese waiters, who of course speak fluent English. Aside from my friends' presumption that I alone can communicate with the waiter, I resent the innuendo that only Chinese food uses MSG. In fact it is in everything from Goldfish crackers to seasoned fries to ranch dressing to the hydrolyzed vegetable protein in fast food." 

For more of these zingers and spot-on observances, you'll have to read Apron Strings.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer

I rarely see feature films, but I did see "Florence Foster Jenkins" where Meryl Streep played the title role. I have known about this notorious singer since childhood, as she was always listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (which I read annually since I was about nine) under the category Singers. Her "world record" entailed:

"While no agreement exists as to the identity of history's greatest singer, there is unanimity on the worst." 

That's, surprisingly, quite a subjective statement from a source known for its objective argument-settling reputation. At least the book was worth reading under the McWhirters' editorship. So when the new biography Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees came out, in tandem with the movie, I had to read it. First of all, in spite of the cover art, this is not a book adaptation of the movie. It merely capitalizes on it. While the movie concentrates only on Jenkins in her later years as a singer, Martin and Rees have told Jenkins's story starting from before her birth. The authors have done their research into Jenkins's family and birthplace history and provided valuable insight into the development of the woman known, and loathed, for her singing. They do not race through her childhood and time as a young woman. In fact, if the reader only wanted to read about her concert performances as a singer, he'd have to wait until the second half of the book. 

While the juiciest parts of this biography relate to audience reactions and newspaper reviews of her concerts, I found her early life--she was married at fourteen--to be equally captivating. Her marriage to a doctor (a disaster doomed from the start if she was a bride at fourteen) and her troubles with her father's will instilled in her a distrust of all authority figures, and not only doctors and lawyers. 

Jenkins moved to New York City after she separated from her husband and ascended the vibrant social scene, climbing the ladder of high society at tea parties, afternoon dances and music clubs. Jenkins formed her own such club, the Verdi Club, of which she was the president, and sponsored and hosted many musicians and singers over the years. She was a skilful pianist in her own right, and performed at various clubs herself. Jenkins soon became a grande dame of the wealthy social set, and was well respected for her charitable work and for organizing concerts and benefits at her own club. 

An arm injury prevented her from playing the piano at her club's own concerts, and that could be the reason she took to singing later in life. The authors made a solid case for the late blooming of Florence Foster Jenkins: 

"While it is conceivable that Florence's stories of thwarted musical ambition were exaggerated, there are enough different sources which talk of her parents banning her from singing to confirm that, in later life, Florence at least believed she had been held back." 

Her repressive parents and husband hindered her creativity and Jenkins could never break out on her own until they had all died. This psychological straitjacket now removed, she could do whatever she wanted and had the money, her own music club as well as subservient friends to help her along. As long as the Verdi Club's members were partaking of their president's extravagant concerts and parties, the least they could do was indulge her if she decided to take to her own stage:

"Thus the cycle began: in return for her vast social and cultural largesse, Florence received uncritical approbation for her singing." 

None of her close friends dared laugh or tell her how awful a singer she was. To do so might have meant instant banishment from her club and being blacklisted from the New York social scene. So people sat through her concerts by grinning and bearing it:

"It was very difficult for anyone to tell her the unvarnished truth: not Verdi Club membership, not the many opera singers launched upon New York thanks to Florence's patronage, not charities who profited from her fundraising, not journalists (real critics being uninvited), certainly not St. Clair [Bayfield, her common-law husband]. In whatever spirit they were offered, Florence chose to believe every compliment and accept every invitation." 

Her disdain for authority figures carried over towards journalists. She dismissed any critical reviews of her singing and recordings as being from uneducated uncultured heathens. No one knew opera as well as she did and her critics were not in any position to judge her. 

Sadly, her distrust of lawyers had a devastating impact on her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield. Since Jenkins died intestate (the authors however claimed that she did in fact have a will) Bayfield could not inherit. Jenkins died in 1944 and common-law spouses who did not even share the same residence had no legal standing. Therefore Jenkins's estate went to her next of kin blood relatives: all twenty of her second cousins. Bayfield managed to prove in court a common-law relationship and was awarded only a fraction of her estate. 

Her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, was known to laugh while playing for her and hamming it up for the audience. His testimonials about working for Jenkins are known to be exaggerated, however the few (soundless, thankfully) movie clips that exist of Jenkins in concert prove his point:

"'She added histrionics to every number.' recalled Cosme McMoon, 'generally acting the action, if it were an aria, or other appropriate action if it were a descriptive song, or else she would go into different dances during these numbers, which were extremely hilarious.'"

According to McMoon:

"the audience nearly always tried not to hurt her feelings by outright laughing, so they developed a convention that whenever she came to a particularly excruciating discord or something like that, where they had to laugh, they burst into these salvos of applause and whistles and the noise was so great that they could laugh at liberty." 

Jenkins would often break out of song and acknowledge the applause, bow and catch a few breaths, and then resume singing. Jenkins recorded nine songs on 78 rpm and all of them are available on CD. I own one such CD and can attest to her need for frequent inhalations. She could not see her own need to draw breath mid-song, yet the listeners could:

"And if others could not be relied upon to sing her praises, Florence sang them herself. In one Verdi Club programme she wrote, '[Luisa] Tetrazzini took three breaths to sing this phrase, I do it in one.' A woman at a recital begged to differ: 'She did it in twenty-four.'"

The line that bowled me over and continues to do so upon subsequent rereadings is the reaction of audience members who did not have to act so sycophantic:

"Verdi Club concerts were free to the members but tickets could be bought by the public, which meant that audiences soon started to swell with non-loyalists who had never been to a Silver Skylark ball or a Rose Breakfast. Word spread in the early 1930s about the unique phenomenon of the singing president. In 1934 the audience contained a rogue element who paid $2 for a guest ticket, made their way to the back of the auditorium and laughed their heads off."

Jenkins's common-law husband sums up his wife's talent quite succinctly:

"The recitals acquired a cult popularity. In St. Clair's estimation this was down to what he called her 'star quality'...'There is something about her personality that makes everyone look at her with relish. That is what my wife had.'"

Monday, August 13, 2018

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search For The Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia

By day Michael Shermer is the author of several bestsellers including The Moral Arc and The Believing Brain by night he is a world-renowned skeptic. How exactly does one build one’s reputation as a skeptic? In Shermer’s case he founded the Skeptics Society and is editor-in-chief of its periodical Skeptic magazine he also contributes a column here and there to Scientific American. Shermer is perhaps best understood as a scientific skeptic, that is, a skeptic whose opinions are informed by science in its procedures and what it accepts as evidence. Heavens on Earth is Shermer’s latest book and in it he tackles the human obsession with death and legacy.

Why can’t we live forever? Would we want to live forever?

These are a few of the seminal questions humans have contemplated for millennia. For human beings it is not enough to simply desire life everlasting we also burn to know why mortality is our lot—all the better to fight inevitable demise, one supposes. Human history is dotted with written accounts of individuals who have claimed access to an eternal realm, or seen the abode of the gods, or have experienced God himself in his divine home. It is hard to know what to make of these claims. They seem extraordinary and tantalizingly mysterious. For anyone who has lost a loved one belief in continued existence after death may provide joyful solace. But are these claims of proof in a life beyond the grave verifiable? The answer ultimately is no they are not. Why not? Because science provides our best standards for verifiability and these extraordinary claims of post-mortem survival do not stand up to the rigours of the scientific method.

The same verifiability standards set against the proofs for heaven are applied with equal precision to beliefs in immortality, broadly conceived, and to the attainment of utopian existence here on earth. None of these ideas and the evidence that supports them fairs well under the lights of the scientist’s microscope.

The pattern in all cases is the same. Shermer takes a belief and then subjects it to the scientific sniff test. Beliefs (thoughts and feelings) turn out to be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. Things that are seen or felt beyond the grave as, for example, some have claimed to have experienced after a so called near-death experience are illusions or the distortions that naturally occur when the physical brain is under stress or in some cases damaged. After the analysis ideas of heaven, immortality, even God are deemed unverifiable and likely false. One can’t help feeling that we are left with a purposeless universe of atoms moving in a void.

So no heaven no meaning to life, right? Not according to Shermer. He argues that a purposeful life is achievable despite the apparent purposelessness in the universe.  Meaning and purpose in life is personal. You get out of life what you put into it. Love and family, career, social and political involvement, setting goals for oneself these are all ways that people can have meaning in their lives without the need for any transcendent deity or eternal heavenly abode.

It is hard to argue against Shermer because he will accept no other court of appeal than the physicalism of scientific experiment and verification. Atheists will find much in this book to bolster their opinions. Shermer, it should be noted, isn’t arguing against the fact that humans have hopes and dreams of immortality and utopia. His point is much more circumscribed. He looks at what has been offered as proof for the existence of a heavenly realm, and claims people make for immortality. Each bit of evidence on offer is scrutinized and found inadequate. 

To begin this brief book review I wrote that Shermer was a scientific skeptic. I want to return to that. To be a scientific skeptic is to accept as evidence for an argument such experiential criteria that can be observed and quantified.  Science is extraordinarily effective (and useful) as an exercise in telling us what something is, what its parts are, and also how that something works, that is, science can provide categories of analysis and functional explanations for most of what surrounds us in the universe. I wrote “most”. Beliefs about the afterlife and ideas concerning immortality and utopias have much more to do with human desires, hopes and aspirations. Hope is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down on the petri dish of scientific experimentation. Why? Because there is something non-physical about thoughts and ideas. Defining exactly what that “something” is, well that is another story. The usual strategy for a scientific skeptic is to reduce all experience to objective, physical stuff, but is this reductionism legitimate? Do we not lose something … something important? I think we do. Life (or experience) has an inside and an outside. The outside can most definitely be analyzed by scientific methods and we can learn much from examining the world in this way. But the inside subjective quality of experience cannot be reduced to atoms and void so it remains stubbornly beyond the reach of scientific method. Physical proof of heaven, nope, but hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About: Collected Nonfiction

When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precision command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read it bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the end notes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders". [This review was also posted on wmtc.]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

I enjoyed Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. In a little under three hundred pages Dorren profiled sixty European languages. That's not all the languages on the continent, of course, but he did cover some of my favourites. This book was originally published in Dutch and was translated by Alison Edwards. I saw the German translation when I was in Berlin last week. Some of the language chapters were written by other authors, and I wish Jenny Audring, who wrote the chapter on Finnish, had let a native speaker or Finnish linguist read it first. She made one error about Finnish vowel length. More to come about that.

I generally avoid books like this, because three to five pages about a language is not going to provide me with any knowledge I didn't already know. For an armchair linguist such as myself, I like to think I know a bit already about European languages, how they got there, which language family they are from and who speaks them. My own language studies have taken me into the world of severely endangered European languages as well, so I know a lot already about Romansch, Breton and the Sami idioms. I was thus glad to read that the object of this book wasn't just to tell a very concise history of each of these languages (and in many cases, he didn't do that at all). Instead, Dorren wrote about quirky moments from a language's history, or about a certain linguistic phenomenon, or how a language developed its written form, or about anything else that may have caught his fancy. He centred on one specific episode and made the reader laugh while reading about it.

Indeed, I took a liberal amount of notes over the course of my reading, both for further items of study as well as for citing in this review. Dorren asked the question: What does Greek think about non-Greeks inventing terms using Greek roots that would not, strictly speaking, form a legitimate Greek structure? How do foreign-built compounds fit into the modern Greek language? Do Greeks laugh at them or roll their eyes as they use new terms such as ontogenesis and android? These are, in effect, "loanwords in Greek, albeit ones of Greek origin". Turns out that the Greeks treat these words as if they were home-grown. I never would have thought that five pages on the Greek language would have included a discussion of this.

Audring had me laughing with her remark about the length of Finnish words. Words that are so long need a lot of paper to write them down on,

"But a nation with such an abundance of forests is hardly short of paper."

Where Audring erred is in her confusion regarding the meaning of vowel length. Finnish employs vowels that are pronounced longer (meaning that they are pronounced for a longer duration) than other vowels. This difference in length of pronunciation can affect the meaning of a word. For example, Toronton means "of Toronto; Toronto's" whereas if you lengthen the time you enunciate the final vowel, and write it accordingly with a double O, such as Torontoon, that means "to(wards) Toronto; in the direction of Toronto". The O-sound in the final syllable of Toronton is a short O. The O-sound in the final syllable of Torontoon is a long O. Audring confuses "long" and "short" with its grade-school English phonics class context, where she calls the vowel sounds in words such as foe and though as "long" yet the vowel sound in the word swap as "short". They are not comparable as they are totally different vowel sounds. The issue of vowel length in a Finnish context cannot be compared with the "cod/code" issue of vowel length (or shortness) in an English context.

English does have long vowels and short vowels as does Finnish, yet native English speakers don't even realize it. Take for example the two pairs coat and code and cot and cod. In the examples ending with the T-sound, the vowel sound is pronounced in a shorter duration than the vowel sound in the words ending with the D-sound. Say the two words in each pair over and over again and you will hear that you say the O-sound a little bit longer when it is followed by the voiced consonant, the D. That's how English works, or specifically, how English is spoken in my region of Canada: all vowels are lengthened before voiced consonants.

The chapter on Finnish (chapter 54) was followed by Faroese, which was chapter 55. So for the first fifty-three of sixty chapters I was okay. Dorren impressed me with his linguistic tidbits and he whet my appetite for conducting further research. However he ruined my otherwise faultless impression of his book (Audring's Finnish glitch notwithstanding) by his wholly dismissive and insulting opinion of the Faroese language and those who wish to study it. Why should one study Faroese anyway, when "you could chat to the locals in the somewhat more useful Danish language. All Faroese speak it and, to cap it off, with much clearer accents than the Danes." The nerve! I have just returned from a holiday in the Faroe Islands and whenever and wherever I travel, I always try to converse with the locals. My Faroese is quite limited, yet the smiles and looks of appreciation I received when I greeted people and thanked them in their own language! Not in English and definitely not in Danish. I spoke with them as a foreigner in their own language (or, admittedly, tried to) and they loved it. Dorren wrote admirably about the Faroese language's case system and the adoption of the written Faroese language, then dismissed all efforts to learn the language:

"Oh, whatever. Learn Sorbian or Basque instead. They'll be of more use to you."

Maybe I should just let this roll off my back but Faroese will be of use to you in the Faroe Islands. Sorbian will be of use to you in southeast Germany. Basque will be of use to you in Euskal Herria. But anyway, don't insult my beloved føroyskt. Maybe Dorren ought to read No Nation is an Island: Language, Culture, and National Identity in the Faroe Islands.

Dorren covered certain endangered languages and their varying degrees of success at revival. Irish, for example, seems to be on the right track and is gaining speakers who are motivated to use it outside of the classroom. Dorren writes:

"Of the 90,000 or so people for whom Irish is part of their daily lives, an increasing number are urban, highly educated second-language speakers, and their Irish is, well, just not quite the same as the old language. Some politely call it urban Irish. Others mock it as 'Gaelscoil' ('school'), 'broken' or even 'pidgin' Irish.
"The differences are quite significant. Linguist Brian Ó Broin observed a few years ago that urban second-language speakers had trouble understanding native speakers, whereas native, mostly rural speakers found the Irish of urbanites jarring on the ear."

In the end, though, Dorren wonders if urban Irish will supplant the purer rural Irish.

At the end of every chapter Dorren listed some words from each language that have been adopted into English. For French and Italian there are hundreds and hundreds of examples. For some languages, such as Monégasque, there are none. He also highlighted words that existed in each language that perhaps could find a use in English (lacunae). My favourite was the Hungarian example madárlátta, which means "food taken for an outing but brought back home uneaten".

In the acknowledgements I found it sad that Dorren credited a proofreader who obviously missed a very unmissable name. Robert de Kock is thanked by Dorren for providing help about the Basque language, yet in the following paragraph (on the same page) he is referred to as de Cock. Which is it?

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book.

When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone is meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time. Once it kicks in, the writing is beautiful, and the book is a wonderfully satisfying read.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Dinosaurs are a persistent source of fascination for many people. Everything about earth’s ancient prehistoric past freezes the workaday humdrum reasoning part of our brain and liberates the imagination. Asking the question, What would it have been like to live back then? is inevitable with even the slightest perusal  into this topic (FYI, for much of the time, especially for the first generation of dinosaurs, it would have felt very much like living in a sauna). Author Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reads like an epic.

The book is all about the dinosaurs but also discusses the planetary conditions that lead up to the proliferation of the many dinosaur species. Included in the narrative are several of the mass extinction events with special emphasis on the Permian extinction event roughly 250 million years ago.  The Permian extinction wiped out perhaps as much as 90% of the living species on earth. Slowly over millions of years the living animate things rebounded and the stage was set for the rise of the massive reptilian creatures of popular imagination. And there were many, many species of these house sized reptiles. One of the startling facts encountered within the pages of this book is the ongoing and frequent discover of ever new species of dinosaurs.

What makes Brusatte’s story so interesting and what separates his account from many others I have read is the emphases placed on current technology and the creative efforts of scientists to “get inside the heads” of the dinosaurs. What did they think? How did they sense the world? How did they hunt their prey? Researchers in our day with all the latest gadgets that the year 2018 has on offer are attempting to squeeze every ounce of information out of the fossil records.  The results are intriguing and provide an almost visceral glimpse into the lives of these huge creatures.

For a topic of this size (pun intended), The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is not an overwhelming read. The tone is actually quite conversational and is filled with the author’s observations about his profession. His enthusiasm for the subject and his delight with every new discovery is evident on every page. If you wanted one volume on the latest research into all things dinosaurs this could be the book for you.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

The word "Psychedelic" has many connotations for people. When I hear the word I tend to think about the 1960s and Hippie culture---a time of experimentation and a more casual attitude to recreational drug use. But those carefree years are long gone. A plethora of warnings about abuse and the potential lethal nature of psychedelics ended the carefree part of the 60s. Governments around the world have prohibited the recreational use of these substances noting the growing list of dangers to public health. So what are psychedelics? They are drugs that alter the normal functioning of the brain; essentially they are chemicals that if not taken with extreme caution can permanently damage one's cognitive capacities, even potentially kill the one taking them. Given this reality, the reader will be surprised to find author Michael Pollan's considered suggestion that society rethink its ban on psychedelics, and even make access to them more available to the general public.

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the better known psychedelics but there are many others. Mind altering drugs have been used by people since fire was invented and food was retrieved only at the end of a stone tipped club and after a major chase. That is to say psychedelics have been around for a long time. However, it has only been relatively recently that scientific experiments have been conducted on these substances and the true natures of their chemical compositions have been identified. A good part of the narrative of the book is taken up with tracing the harrowing experiments by naive researchers who took rather large doses of these drugs all in the name of scientific progress. These unexpected trips to La-La-Land make for interesting reading.

Without spoiling the surprise, the author takes the drugs.

Michael Pollan wanted to write from experience and so he tried a variety of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments (or as close to controlled as he could get) with an assortment of characters ranging from doctors to New Age gurus. His own honest (even to the point of embarrassing) revelations about his experiences are genuine and interesting as is his research into the possible uses of these drugs to help with an assortment of psychological ailments form depression to addiction. Pollan talks to many experts in the medical field as well as non-professionals who have spent their lives promoting and "researching" the use of these substances. Every one of them has something of value to add to the discussion.

The most interesting portion of the book, for me, was the connection he draws between the experiences people have while under the influence of these drugs and the experiences mystics have especially during meditation. The seeming similarity of the experiences raises fascinating questions. What is consciousness? How is it created by the brain? Is it a creation of the brain? Can consciousness happen without the brain? The mystics and the drug-tripping connoisseur have each experienced---in their own admittedly very different ways---an ineffable bliss and a something else. What is this else? Pollan wrestled mightily with the the nagging question that, perhaps, lurks behind every sentence in this book: what do these psychedelic experiences mean? Is it too simplistic to say "Its just the drugs talking."

The mysteries of the mind are ancient. Psychedelic drugs raise many interesting questions about the brain and altered states of consciousness. Pollan provides no simple solutions and the mysteries remain once the covers of the book are shut. Yet, after his experiences using psychedelics he is now more open-minded about the possibility of a realm beyond our everyday waking-conscious state. This  revelation combined with the now growing evidence of the potential health benefits of controlled use of these substances make for good reasons to reassess society's stance on psychedelic drugs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Brimming with interesting anecdotes and intriguing facts, Spineless: the science of jellyfish and the art of growing a backbone is written in an engaging style that highlights the author’s academic background (she has a PhD in Ocean Science from USC) and her work as a textbook writer, especially when she connects obscure scientific concepts with tangible examples that most people can relate to.

Juli Berwald’s message to readers resonates in her journey from a hapless undergraduate to the discovery of her passion and fascination for jellyfish and the journey she embarks on to become an advocate for the preservation of underwater ecosystems. She details centuries of human discovery and scientific exploration of the world’s oceans while also highlighting the changes that have occurred as climate change, industrial fishing and sea transport have evolved.

In imparting this knowledge and raising awareness, Berwald also admits that there is no unique or singular solution to the changes being wrought under the oceans (and above it as well) but the urgency of her call to action is present throughout the book. She writes passionately about this subject, as can be seen from this passage:

We have reached a moment in history when we control the chemistry and biology of our planet. We are that powerful. But we are also endowed with gifts of even greater power. We have the capacity to communicate, to learn quickly, to change course, to create and re-create, to make decisions for the health of the oceans, to speak up. We can protect this stunning planet we all share if we grow a collective spine.

(Juli Berwald)

By focussing on jellyfish, Berwald provides a window through which the reader can see the need for awareness of the issues she discusses. As readers delve into the world of jellyfish and the complex ecosystems they inhabit, they will realize why jellyfish are being used by oceanologists as markers for tracking change in the oceans. One example that Berwald provides is in the jellyfish’s ability to thrive in acidic conditions. As ocean acidity increases year by year so do jellyfish populations, threatening the safe operations of nuclear power plants, of fish and plankton that are their natural and unnatural prey, as well as the safe use of beaches visited by people around the world. The impact can be devastating to many and that is the message the author wants readers to take away.

However, If that was the only message then this would be a dreadful read. It is not because Berwald has seamlessly included all sorts of interesting information about jellyfish as well. Partly from research and expert interviews, the information includes the jellyfish connection to the legend of medusa, the manner in which they reproduce and their potential powers of immortality.

Other pieces come from adventures that Berwald has embarked upon in her journey to becoming an advocate, such as trips jellyfishing along the West coast and her travels to Japan to swim with giant jellyfish. For those readers who feel up to it, there are some “try-it-at-home” adventures as well, such as having a jellyfish salad and keeping jellyfish as pets (Berwald’s attempt at the latter was unsuccessful, much to the noted dismay of her children).

There is a lot to discover in this book, and it is an easy engaging read. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in learning more about the world underwater or an interest in gaining more knowledge about the effects of climate change.