Not To Be Trusted With Knives

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Summer Reading

Since I last reviewed the books I’d read this year here on ye ole blog, I’ve been on quite a roll with reading and have read SEVEN books in those TWO months! What follows are my brief reviews of these books – expect spoilers!

Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 by Lisa Anne Smith

My friend Linda gave me this book two birthdays ago. I finally got around to reading it and I can’t believe I left it sitting on the shelf for so long because it was soooo good! As the name suggests, it is about the great fire of 1886 when the brand new City of Vancouver burned down. The city was so new that it had only had a grand total of one city council meeting (the city clerk made a big effort to save the minutes of that meeting from the flames!). They didn’t have a fire engine, and thus fire fighting techniques included filling buckets with water to dump on the flames and hitting flames with wet blankets. People jumped on boats, and when there were no more boats, they grabbed onto anything that could float, and went out into the water between Vancouver and Moodyville (part of what is today known as North Vancouver) to escape the flames. The descriptions in the book are really rich – you can picture what the city would have looked like and can almost feel the panic that the citizens felt as the fire got worse and worse. There are some funny stories – like a guy who tried to use a discarded briefcase he found to shield himself from the flames, only to learn that the briefcase was full of bullets (which someone had tried to take with them on their way to escape but ended up discarding along the way) when the bullets started exploding as the heat of the flames approached! The book also talks about how the city worked to recover after the fire – the picture on the front of the book is of a city council meeting, which was held outside a tent that had a hand written “City Hall” sign on it.

If you are at all interested in the history of Vancouver, I’d definitely recommend you check out this book.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

This is a short book of writings by Christopher Hitchens – best known for his writing and speaking on atheism – about his experience of “living dyingly”, which he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer (So, you know, a nice light summer read). He pointed out that technically everyone is living dyingly, but healthy people are doing it in slow motion compared to him at that point in his life. He also mentions a few times the “materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body”, which struck me as I’d recently had a discussion with a colleague who has taught a course on the “anthropology of the body” and had his students write essays on whether they believed they “had” a body or “were” a body. I’d not heard that phrase before, but it sort of captured my attention, so when I read Hitchens’ talking about it, that captured my attention too. At one point he said that despite believing that “I don’t have a body, I am a body”, he “consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if any exception would be made in my case.” (Hitchens was known for his heavy drinking and smoking). The other striking thing in this book was that when you get toward the end, there’s a section of “unfinished fragmentary jottings” (as his wife described them in the afterward); some of them were things you’d read fleshed out in an earlier section of the book, but some that were just ideas of his that he didn’t get a chance to flesh out before he died. It really gave you a sense of the finality – and that death waits for no one. I guess all of us will leave many things unfinished when we go.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris.

I read this book after Cath told me she was reading Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, also by Dan Harris. Cath knows that I’m interested in mindfulness and also that I’m a skeptic, and she said that she was finding MfFS really good. So I decided to first read Harris’ earlier book, 10% Happier, which chronicles his experience of being stressed out after being a war correspondent, to the point of having a panic attack while he was reporting on live television, and then his search for some way to deal with this anxiety, but without losing his drive to succeed. I enjoyed this book – it was interesting to read about his journey and it also got me motivated to make more of an effort to do some mindfulness practice.

Now I want to read Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. I do most of my reading on transit on my way to and from work, but this book won’t really be appropriate for that, as it’s filled with mindfulness activities that you need to do as you read through the book. So it looks like I’ll need to carve out some time to actually do reading – and mindfulness practice – at home.

White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement–and How I Got Out by Christian Picciolini

I heard about this book when I heard the author, Christian Picciolini, being interviewed on a podcast. Picciolini is a former white supremacist who eventually left the movement and now works to try to help other people get out of extremist movements. The book wasn’t particularly well-written (I felt like it jumped from his present day perspective to his perspective at the time a bit erratically, making it a bit hard to follow in places), but it did provide an interesting perspective on how vulnerable young people can end up as extremists. In Picciolini’s case, he was the child of Italian immigrants to the US who spent a lot of time working and, he felt, did not pay attention to him. He didn’t have many friends and he felt picked on. And then the leader of a skinhead group recruited him to the white power movement and he learned that he could get respect by being violent when he fought a school bully and won. When the skinhead leader got sent to jail, Picciolini took over – he was only 14 years old at the time.  He talks about some of the horrible things he did as part of the movement. I kind of expected there would be a poignant moment where he saw the error of his ways, but it really just came down to him opening a record store to try to earn money to support his young family and he got to know some Jewish people and black people and gay people who all came into this store to buy stuff and learned that these were good people, not at all the stereotypes he had believed. He also talks about the fact that those stereotypes he believed in were really just things that he was told by other people in the white power movement, and even realizes that he, he constantly went on unemployment when the construction work he did in the summer time ended, fit the stereotype of “leaching off the system” more than any minority he’d ever met. In the end, this book supports a lot of what I’ve read about lately – people join hate movements when they feel lonely and disconnected, and someone comes along and invites them into a community – and gives them a scapegoat to blame all their perceived problems on.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is a classic that I somehow never read until now. I think a lot of people read it in high school, but it just never ended up on any of the reading lists in any of my high school English classes. I did read Nineteen Eighty Four, another George Orwell classic, back in high school, but not Animal Farm. It was a pretty quick read – it’s a short book and styled like a fairy tale1 and it was written as a satire of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist regime. It seems an apt time in history to be reading this book, as part of that satire is about the “cult of personality” of Stalin (as represented by a pig named Napoleon) and about totalitarianism, which really resonates with a certain president who shall remain nameless. One of the things that reminded me of the current state of affairs was how the pigs would change their stories on things and the other animals on the farm would just believe it, assuming their memory must be mistaken. For example, there was a pig named Snowball who was a hero in the “Battle of the Cowshed”, during which the animals fought off some people who tried to take the farm back from the animals (who had taken it over from the original human farmer who owned it), but later Napoleon runs Snowball off the farm so that he can have all the power and then changes the story, first to say that Snowball hid during the battle, and later to say that Snowball fought alongside the humans against the animals. Despite the fact that the animals were there and remembered Snowball being a hero who drove the humans away, they decide “I guess I must have misremembered that.” Similarly, there are a bunch of commandments painted on the side of the barn, but as the pigs decide to make their own lives more comfortable, they break those commandments and when the rest of the animals say “Hey, didn’t we have a commandment that say not to do that thing the pigs are doing?”, they would see that additional words had been added to the commandments (e.g., “No animal shall consume alcohol” was changed to “No animal shall consume alcohol to excess” and “No animal shall sleep in a bed” was changed to say “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.”) and say “Oh, I guess I forgot about that last part of the commandment”. It’s really reminiscent of how a certain president who shall remain nameless will completely contradict himself on what feels like a daily basis and, despite videotaped evidence of him having said the opposite thing, his followers will just shrug it off. The lives of the animals (other than pigs) weren’t better off in this new world – they didn’t get much to eat, they worked harder than ever, they didn’t get to retire when they got old, and the pigs would kill animals that displeased them in some way. So, all in all, this was a rather depressing book to read – especially given that the ending is just that the pigs are walking around on hind legs (which was against one of the original commandments) and hanging out with people while the rest of the animals suffer.

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Cath gave me these two books to read and now I’m totally hooked on this series, which revolves around a woman named Thursday Next, who is a literary detective. It’s set in an alternative world version of Britain where all sorts of crazy things happen, and it’s sort of similar in style to the work of Douglas Adams (which almost seems blasphemous to say!). I don’t want to say too much and spoil these for anyone who wants to read these series, which you totally should if you like that style of British humour, but I will say that they involve time travel, the ability to actually enter books, an over-the-top villain, and some very punny character names. They also require you to have a working knowledge of some of the classic which, like Animal Farm as I mention above, I haven’t necessarily read. I’ve never read Jane Eyre, in fact, so I had to go read the Wikipedia entry on it to be able to understand some of the things that happened in The Eyre Affair. Similarly, I haven’t read Great Expectations and since the character of Miss Havisham features in Lost in a Good Book, I had to read the Wikipedia entry on her too! I’ve already got the rest of the books in the series, but I’m trying to savour them, so I decided to read another book in between finishing Lost in a Good Book and the next one in the series.

So, there you have it. I’ve now completed 78% of my goal of reading 18 books this year, and we are 71% of the way through the year. I’m also almost halfway through the next book that I’m reading (Brain Rules for Aging Well), plus I’ve read the better part of several textbooks for the course I’m teaching this semester, so I’m reasonably confident that I can achieve my reading goal this year!

  1. The original title had “A Fairy Story” as a subtitle, but that was dropped. []

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Five More Books Read

I totally thought I posted this several days ago, but when I just logged into my blog to write another blog posting, I first discovered my blog was completely down (thanks, Kalev, for fixing it for me super fast!) and then discovered that I had not, in fact, hit “publish”. So here it is – it’s very, very long and probably no one other than me actually cares about any of this!

And speaking of combining a bunch of stuff that I’d usually write as separate blog postings into one posting, I’ve read a bunch of books for far this year. And by “bunch” I mean seven, two of which I have already blogged about. Here’s my summary of the other five.

Be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Also be warned: this is very long and may be of interest to no one but me (especially my nerdy notes from Brain Rules and my diatribe against The Unincorporated Man).

The Good People by Hannah Kent

I read this book for my book club and I really, really liked it. It’s set in Ireland in the 1820s and is centred on Nora, a woman who is caring for a young grandson (who has severe disabilities) after her daughter died and then right in the start of the book, her husband dies too. She believes that her real grandson has been taking away by fairies (she also believes that fairies were involved in her daughter’s death). So the book follows along as she struggles to deal with all this and I found that I had to get quite far into the book before I could tell if this was meant to be set in the real world (i.e., one in which people had a belief in the existence of fairies) or a world in which fairies actually existed. The characters clearly believed that fairies existed, affecting all sorts of things in their life – like whether the cows gave milk or miscarriages happened or people died or children were afflicted with mental and physical disabilities. It was so believable that I kept thinking – well, this is fiction. Maybe fairies really did steal her grandson! (Spoiler alert: they didn’t). This book was really well written and the story held my attention all the way through. I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end up. I’d definitely recommend this book if you are looking for some good fiction.

Brain Rules by John Medina

When I was in Washington last year, one of the keynote speakers at the conference I was at was John Medina. His presentation was captivating and partway through the talk, he explained why. His talk was about how to use what neuroscientists know about the brain to be better teachers – instead of fighting against how the brain works, why not work with it? And he’d been using the techniques that he was talking about to keep our attention and to help us remember the stuff he’d been talking about!

The talk really stuck with me – anyone who had the misfortune of seeing me in the week or so following that event got to hear in great detail all the stuff that I’d learn1. I spoke to the president of the American Evaluation Association (the association whose conference I was at) a bit later in the conference and commented to her on what a fabulous keynote speaker he was and she told me that she’d read John’s book and in addition to getting her to invite him as the keynote, it had made her rewrite all of her lectures for her classes and that I really should read his book. And so I did!

The book is called Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (though I’d say it mostly focuses on the school part of that).2. There were so many fascinating things that I learned from this book – like how memories aren’t really consolidated until about a decade after the event you are remembering, so for 10 years you are just remembering it, and re-remembering it, and remembering the memory of the last time you remembered it – no wonder two people can have different memories of the same event! Another interesting tidbit was that people can pay attention for about 10 minutes at a time before their interest wanes, so as a teacher you need to do something every 10 minutes to catch your students’ attention. Fortunately, he had some tips on ways to catch people’s attention (which I have previously blogged about after I saw his keynote talk in Washington).

I made a bunch of notes about other cool things I learned in this book:

  • Exercise increases blood flow not just to your muscles, but throughout your body – including to your brain. This is one of the reasons that exercise is good for brain function. Another: it also stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor 9BDNR), which basically acts like fertilizer for your brain!
  • “Our evolutionary ancestors were used to walking up to 12 miles per day. This means our brains were supported for most of our evolutionary history by Olympic-caliber bodies”. That’s 19 km – or almost a half marathon every day! So sitting for hours on end in a classroom or in a cubicle is definitely not in keeping with what our brains evolved for!
  • Brains of wild animals are 15-30% larger than those of their domestic counterparts (since the wild animals have to constantly be learning, their brains grow and adapt).
  • Brains of violinists are weird – the area of their brains that controls their left hand (which does all the complex movements) are super-sized with lots of complex associations, but the area that controls their right hand (which holds the bow), is tiny and much less complex.
  • Babies are born with about the same number of neuronal connections that adults have, but that number doubles to triples by the time they are 3 years old, and then the brain “prunes” a bunch of those connections so that by the time they are about 8 years old, they are back to the same number of connections as an adult has. And then at puberty the whole thing happens again and then it settles down again as they approach adulthood.
  • “Until five or six years ago3, the prevailing notion was that we were born with all the brain cells we were ever going to get and they steadily eroded in a depressing journey through adulthood to old age. We do lose synaptic connections with age […] but the adult brain also continues creating neurons within the regionally normally involved in learning.”
  • Different regions develop at different rates in different people – so there’s really no point comparing one kid to another to see if they are “ahead” or “behind” – everyone is just different. For example, “about 10 percent of students do not have brains sufficiently wired to read at the age at which we expect them to read.”
  • People perceive meaning before details – so when planning presentations, you have to catch their attention with something meaningful before springing a bunch of facts on them. We just can’t take in the random facts – we need a reason to care about them first.
  • People can’t actually mutlitask: “we are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously”. When we think we are multi-tasking, we are really just shifting our attention from one thing to another thing, over and over again.
  • Declarative memory is a memory that you can “declare” like “the sky is blue” and it involves four steps: encoding, storage, retrieval, and forgetting.
  • We forget about 90% of what we learn in a class within 30 days, most of that within the first few HOURS after class.
  • Our ability to recall something is better if we try to recall it under similar conditions to when we learned it (i.e., when we encoded it). For example, deep sea divers who heard 40 random words while floating in the water could remember them better when floating in the water compared to if they tried to remember them on dry land (and vice versa for those who heard the words on dry land). Similarly, if you learn something while high on marijuana or while sad, you’ll remember if better while high or sad, respectively.
  • Memories aren’t stored in a single place in your brain – bits of a given memory are scattered all over the place – and they are “stored in the same places that were initially recruited to perceive the learning event”. And the “more brain structures recruited […] at the moment of learning the easier it is to gain access to the information” later. Having an understanding of “meaning” can help us recruit more regions.
  • “Quality of encoding” = ways that one can later access a memory – and the more you have, the easier it is to access that information later. One of the most important is meaning – if you want to be able to remember something later, you should try to understand what it means (and if you are trying to teach, make sure students understand the meaning of the concept – one great way to do that is to use relevant real-world examples “constantly peppering the main learning points with meaningful experiences”4.)
  • When we remember something, we retrieve it from our long-term memory storage into our working memory and it acts as if it were a new memory and we have to reprocess them – every time we retrieve that memory. This is known as “reconsolidation”. And “present knowledge can bleed into past memories and become intertwined with them as if they were encountered together”. So you can’t really trust your memory to be accurate!
  • One thing that helps improve memory – repetition! In particular, “thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event”. And then deliberately re-expose yourself to the information in an elaborate way in fixed, spaced intervals5.
  • There really is a scientific basis to the phenomenon of being an “night owl”:
    • Early chronotypes (or “larks”) are morning people. Most alert around noon, most productive in the few hours before lunch, wake early without an alarm clock, feel ready for bed around 9 pm. About 10% of people.
    • Late chronotypes (or “owls”). Most alert around 6 pm, most productive in the late evening, usually don’t want to go to bed before 3 am. About 20% people. Because of the way society is structured (e.g., 9-5 jobs, schools from 8-3), they accumulate sleep debt throughout their lives
    • Hummingbirds – the other 70% of people. A spectrum, with some being more larkish and others more owlish, and some in between.
    • “Healthy insomnia” = those people who only need 4-5 hours of sleep per day6
  • Our brains naturally want a mid-afternoon nap.
  • Sleep deprivation makes you old, stupid, and fat. More specifically, it:
    • makes you less able to use the food you consume
    • interferes with insulin production and the ability to extract energy from glucose (which the brain needs)
    • stress hormones levels rise
    • The body chemistry of a 30-year-old who is sleep deprived for 6 days (with about 4 hours sleep per night) will look like that of a 60-year-old (and it will take them a week to recover!)
    • “hurts attention, executive funciton, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge, […] manual dexterity, […] and even gross motor movements”.
  • Proust effect – “smell can evoke memory”
  • “Vision is our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources”. But “what we see is only what our brain tells us we see and it’s not 100% accurate”
  • The “right side of the brain tend to remember the gist of an experience, and the left side of the brain tends to remember the details.”
  • “Our survival did not depend on exposing ourselves to organized, pre-planned packets of information. Our survival depended upon chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences. That’s why on of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas”

Sex and gender differences in neuroscience and behaviour “has a long and mostly troubled history,” but Medina seems to do a  good job of providing a summary of the area. He talks about how research typically looks at group averages and people often misinterpret the findings to be true of individuals7. And he talks about how seeing differences in group averages often result in people assuming the differences are genetic (nature) as opposed to a result of how society treats people (nurture) – we would actually need to understand the mechanism of something before figuring out nature vs. nurture (or, more likely, to what extend something is nature vs. nurture vs. an interaction of nature & nurture) for a given feature. And since “boys and girls are treated differently socially the moment they are born8, and they are often reared in societies filled with centuries of entrenched prejudice”, it’s very difficult to tease the two apart. Some of the interesting things from this section of the book:

  • Differences in sizes of brain regions and distribution of neurotransmitter distributions have been seen between the sexes, but no one really knows if it means anything substantial functionally.
  • “Mental retardation is more common in males than in females in the general population” – many are caused by mutations in genes on the X chromosome and males only have one copy of the X chromosome, so if they have the mutation, they will express it, whereas females have two X chromosomes, so if a female has the mutation on one X chromosome, but they have the unmutated version on the other X chromosome, they may not see it expressed.
  • Rates of various mental illnesses differ by gender – e.g., males have higher rates of antisocial behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse, whereas females have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa.
  • Under acute stress, males tend to fire up the amygdala on the right side of the brain (the one that remembers the gist of things), where females tend to fire up the amygdala on the left side (the one that remembers the details of things)9.
  • Females tend to have better verbal capacity compared to males – with females tending to use both hemispheres of the brain while males tend to use one.

Lecture design:

  • 10 minute segments – each of which covers only one core concept, starting with doing something that catches the audience’s attention, then an explanation of the concept in 1 minute, and then the remainder of the 10 minutes is where you can provide a detailed description.
  • since classes are 50 minutes long, you can cover 5 core concepts
  • start with the lecture plan at the start, and repeat often “where we are” in the lecture plan throughout the lecture (if the audience doesn’t know where a concept fits in with the rest of the presentation, they will have to try to figure it out while trying to listen to you – and we know that people can’t actually multitask!)

5 rules for making a presentation:

  1. use multimedia – people learn better from words + pictures than from words alone
  2. temporal contiguity principle – people learn better when words + pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively
  3. spatial contiguity principle – people learn better when words + pictures are presented near each other than when they are presented far apart
  4. coherence principle – people learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included
  5. modality principle – people learn better from animation + narration than from animation + onscreen text

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I’ve read A Brief History of Time (The Updated & Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Stephen Hawking several times – I felt like every time I read it, I get a little more out of it10. I felt like Astrophysics for People in A Hurray was a bit of an easier read than a Brief History of Time, and, of course, it is more up-to-date – there’s a lot that’s been learned in astrophysics in the 19 years between the publications of those two books. So I enjoyed Astrophysics and learned some cool things about dark matter and dark energy and the like, though I can’t say I loved it as much as I love A Brief History. I did, however, enjoy this quote, at the start of the book: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you” – NDT.

The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose

This book was a pretty quick read and I honestly just had to go look at the summary of it to jog my memory on what it was about11! The basic idea of the book is society is built for the “average”, when, in fact, the “average” describes very few (if any) actual people. For example, apparently the US air force measured many aspects of a large number of pilots – arm length, leg length, head size, etc. and built their planes to fit the “average” sized pilot. But then it turned out that there weren’t any pilots who fit that description – a person might have longer legs than average and shorter arms – so then the cockpits they built didn’t’ work for anyone. So then they came up with the idea of making adjustable seats, controls, etc. in cockpits. It’s one of those concepts where you go “yeah, that should be obvious”, but it’s kind of not that obvious, because we do tend to create things for the “average” person, who doesn’t really exist. I remember being at a nutrition conference back in the day where the new “Nutrition Facts” label was being discussed. The Nutrition Facts label tells you how much of various nutrients are in a food and gives you this information as a percentage of the “Daily Value”, where the “Daily Value” is meant to be the amount an “average” person would need of that nutrient (as people of different ages/sizes/sexes need different amounts). It’s meant as a way for the consumer to know if the food contains a little or a lot of a nutrient, but the “Daily Value” ends up being an amount that describes no actual individual. Some other things that I learned in this book:

  • the body mass index (BMI), which is a measure that takes a person’s height & weight and creates a score that is often used to assess if they are overweight, underweight, or the “right” weight (even though it’s not accurate for many people) was originally called the Quetelet Index12.
  • “school bells were introduced into schools to emulate factory bells, in order to mentally prepare children for their future careers”

Anyway, this book had some interesting ideas, but it really should have just been a short essay rather than a full book.

The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin.

I started this book because I thought the premise sounded interesting. A man who was frozen in our time is woken up 300 years later, where technology has progressed to not only be able to cure him of the cancer that was the reason he had himself frozen, but also so that all diseases can be cured and aging can be reversed and everyone can make themselves to look exactly how they want. The thing with this society though, is that everyone is personally incorporated – when you are born, you are incorporated, with the government getting 5% of your shares, your parents getting 20%, and you get to keep the rest. Until you have to start selling them off to pay for your education or other such stuff. When you lose majority, you lose control of your life – your shareholders get to decide what you do – like they can require you to take a job you don’t want to because you’ll make more money and they want their dividends! Then you spend the rest of your life trying to make majority so you can actually decide what to do with your life. So that was the premise that I thought was kind of interesting and I really only kept reading it because I wanted to see what this world that the authors built was like. But OH MY GOD THE WRITING WAS SO TERRIBLE! For example:

  • there’s an adage in writing referred to as “show, don’t tell” – it means that good writing generally involves revealing the story through action and senses rather than exposition. This book is like 75% exposition – either the narrator goes on for pages telling the reader something, or a character does.
  • the book is written in third person, but the attitude of the narrator seems to shift depending on which of the main characters is featured in a scene. When the protagonist is in the scene, the narrator seems to suggest that personal incorporation is a bad thing (which is, of course, what Justin thinks), but when his nemesis Hektor is being followed, the narrator shifts to suggesting that personal incorporation is what makes society great! For the longest time, I couldn’t tell if the book was meant to be representing this society as a dystopia or a utopia, because the narrator kept changing its views!
  • the authors constantly use obscure words that are really jarring, as they just don’t seem to fit with the flow of the writing. And to make it worse, in several instances they use words incorrectly. I jotted down a few that drove me crazy when I was reading the book:
    • “The justices talked quietly among themselves and seemed to come to a quorum”. What they actually mean is that the justices came to an “agreement” or a “consensus.” “Quorum” means “the number (such as a majority) of officers or members of a body that when duly assembled is legally competent to transact business”13. So if the justices came to a “quorum” if would mean that they had enough justice present to make decisions – not that they’d made a decision (which is what happened in this scene, as they then say “overruled”. If they didn’t already have a quorum, they wouldn’t have even started the trial!).
    • “He turned to see the erstwhile assistant, cup and saucer in hand.” “Erstwhile” means “former, previous”14. This was not a “former” assistant, as he was the same assistant who had just offered him the coffee and had not been fired in the intervening minutes15. – I’m not even sure what the authors were trying to say here, but “erstwhile” is definitely incorrect.
    • The most egregious one, in my opinion, since the whole book is based on this idea of personal incorporation is that they constantly use the phrase “selling short” incorrectly. “Selling short” is when someone essentially thinks that a stock is going to drop in price, so they essentially borrow it from someone who has it today and sell it at today’s (high) price, wait for it to drop, and then buy it back at the new (low) price to give back to the person who they borrowed it from. They pay interest to the person they borrowed it from, but if it works out the way they intended, they make so much money on selling it at the high price so that even after they pay to buy it back at the lower price and pay the interest, there’s enough money left over to make a profit. In this book, however, they constantly say that someone “sold them short” when they mean “you owned stock in me, my stock price dropped, and you sold it!” Which is not only *not* “selling short”, it’s also just a bad idea (buy low, sell high, right?)

And beyond the bad writing, there are so many inconsistencies (big and small), and things that didn’t appear to have any point at all. Some examples:

  • At one point, the narrator says that the Chairman of the big evil corporation became the Chairman at the “tender age of sixty-two”  and that he has been the Chairman for thirty-one years, and then says, “which Justin calculated would make him approximately ninety-three years of age”. So, first of all, 62+31=93 is really not that difficult of a calculation that warrants saying he “calculated” it. Secondly, why “approximately”? If he was 62 years of age 31 years ago, then he is 93 today.
  • In a court scene, Justin’s lawyer says “I think we can all agree that we’re a society that prides itself on the rights of the individual verses the rights of the government or society to force someone into an action contrary to their character or wishes.” But there are many, many instances where people are forced to take jobs that they don’t want to take because they don’t have majority. So how could *anyone*, let alone *everyone* agree to that statement?
  • The “romance” in the book is that Justin falls in love with Neela, his “reanimationist”, which is basically a psychologist who helps people reintegrat into society when they are woken up from being frozen. They make a point early in the book of talking about how this is totally forbidden in this society, explaining that because people are vulnerable when they wake up, it’s viewed as an abuse of power to become involved with them if you are their reamimationist. Society has a such a strong taboo against it, it’s described as being not like just a doctor and patient having a relationship, but like a pedophile molesting a child. And it doesn’t matter how long ago one was their reanimationist, or if they switch to another reanimationist – you can *never* had a relationship with them. So of course they get into a relationship – and for awhile their friends just seem to brush it off (which I can’t imagine someone doing if a pedophile were dating a child!). Then later, out of nowhere, they offhandedly mention that Neela has had her medical license taken away because of their relationship (which seems like it should have been a big deal that it should have been mentioned before!). Then when trying to strike a deal with Justin, Hektor says of the big evil corporation he works for, “we’ll not only put an end to the vicious rumour of your affair, we’ll come right out and support it. Get her reaccredited, even. I already have renowned experts lined up who’d be more than happy to state unequivocally that the client-patient relationship does not count in your circumstance.” First of all, “client-patient relationship” doesn’t make any sense – the “client” and the “patient” are the same person! It’s not like Justin is having a relationship with himself! They actually mean “client-reanimationist” or “patient-reanimationist” relationship (seriously, did this book even *have* an editor?)  Also, how exactly is *supporting* this supposedly verboten relationship going to put an *end* to the rumours – wouldn’t that just be confirming the rumours? And would a company and its experts saying “hey, we support this pedophile-level of perversion and abuse because it doesn’t really count… just ‘cuz we say so” (as she was most definitely the reanimationist who woke  him up) make everyone in society, who supposedly finds it utterly repugnant, just say “OK, it’s fine now. And she can have her medical license back!”

Hektor (the main bad guy), along with many other characters extol the virtues of personal incorporation as making society great, because competition fixes all problems (so things like police and courts and firefighter are all done better now that they are run by corporations) and that people are more free because if they work hard they can get majority. Except that there are many examples of characters who come from rich families who keep majority (presumably because their family just pays for their education) and others who are “penny stocks” that have no hope of ever making enough to buy back their shares. And no one seems to notice this! There’s also a scene where you learn that the digital assistants that everyone has (which are basically like a tablet that everyone carries around and uses to Google things, but has a “personality” that develops the longer you have the device) are actually sentient and then… nothing happens with them. They just have a vote to not interfere with the goings on in the human world because they don’t want humans to find out that they have become sentient. So there was really no point whatsoever of having that in the book16! And then, there was the biggest reveal of all – at the end of the book, we find out the the Chairman of the big evil corporation which has been taking Justin to court to try to force him to incorporate and regularly has people killed to get its way, actually hates incorporation because his mom died while doing a job she didn’t want to do but had to because she didn’t have majority – and he spent his entire life climbing the corporate ladder, getting right to the top, and running the aforementioned evil corporation for ages in the hopes that someday something would happen that would allow him to take down the whole system! Seems pretty far fetched that someone would do all sorts of terrible things, including murder, to support a system that you hate on the off chance that something would happen to allow you to take it all down. I mean, what are the odds that a person who was frozen 300 years ago would not only be discovered, but would also be a super charismatic leader who also refuses to incorporate and would spark a galaxy wide revolution?

Anyway, the TL:DR is terrible writing and lots of stuff that doesn’t make any sense; don’t bother reading.


In conclusion, I’m a bit behind on books for the year – my goal is to read 18 for 2018 and we are already halfway through the year and I’ve only read 44% of my goal. But I’m on holidays right now, so hopefully I can power through a few in the next few weeks.

  1. Including the students in the course that I was teaching at the time, as my very next lecture that I had scheduled for that class was on how to give good presentations! []
  2. He also has a books on Brain Rules for Baby and Brain Rules for Aging Well, though I haven’t read those ones yet. []
  3. This book was published in 2008, so he’s referring to about 2002. I remember learning this in my undergrad in the mid-1990s (though that scientists had discovered that some birds could grow new neurons when they learned new songs, though this was thought of as an anology), so I guess it was well after I finished undergrad that this stuff was discovered. []
  4. I was sooo happy when I read that, as I *love* telling stories to illustrate what I’m teaching. I’ve always felt that it brings the material to life for students – and have be told by several students that they have found this the best part of my classes), so it was super cool to see that this is actually supported by research! []
  5. This is making me think that I should have written up these notes much sooner after I finished reading this book (which was 3 months ago!). I made short annotations in my e-reader as I was reading but had to go back through them all and re-read the sections to make these more coherent notes. Oh well, better late than never! []
  6. I so wish I was one of those people. Think of all the things I could get done! I think I’m a owlish-hummingbird. If I had my druthers, I’d probably get up at 10 am and go to sleep at 1 am. []
  7. Which actually connects with what I was reading about in The End of Average. []
  8. Really, they are treated differently even before they are born – “gender reveal parties” anyone? []
  9. I’m terrible at remembering details of things – and I also think that in many ways I am more male-like than female-like. When I was in my undergraduate, I took first year psychology and we used to be able to get out of doing assignments by participating in psychology studies. One of the studies that I participated in was looking at something to do with males and females (not surprisingly, I can’t remember the details!) but not only testing whatever it was that was usually found to be different between males and females but also whether someone who was male or female identified themselves as behaving male-like or female-like. And if I recall correctly (again, not so good with the details, but remembering the gist of things), I scored more like a male on what they were testing, but I also identified as more male-like in my behaviours. So I guess that fits both with the “group averages aren’t good at describing individuals and that maybe my psychology being more male-like than one would expect of a female (based on said group averages) shows up in this gist-remembering thing… though he did only talk about it being under acute stress and not in general. Anyway, this is getting pretty long for a footnote! []
  10. Come to think of it, I haven’t read it in awhile. I should read it again. []
  11. I also realized that I’d made a few annotations when I read this as an ebook. []
  12. There are a lot of shortcomings of the BMI being used the way it is, which I already knew about. I just didn’t know it was named after this Quetelet guy that is talked about a lot in this book. []
  13. Source: Merriam Webster dictionary []
  14. Source: Merriam Webster dictionary []
  15. In actuality, you find out later in the scene that he is the Chairman in disguise, but that still doesn’t make him a “former” assistant. []
  16. Possibly they are setting up for something in a sequel, but then why not just leave it to the sequel as there is no point whatsoever of having those scenes in this book. As one reviewer on Goodreads wrote,they literally vote to not affect the plot of the book! []

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Five New Foods, Two Books, and One Hell of a Deadlift

After last year’s pathetic display of accomplishing so few of my goals, I’ve decided to come out of the 2018 gate strong. In fact, I’ve already made 5 new foods/beverages that I’ve never made before (of my goal to make 18 new things year), finished 2 books (of my goal of 18), and deadlifted my body weight!

The foods are:

  • chicken florentine – I had a bunch of spinach I needed to use up, so I picked this recipe.
  • grog – this was the house drink at my birthday party. It was pretty tasty!
  • slow cooker lasagna – made this for my birthday party. I’ve made lasagna a million times before, but never in a slow cooker.
  • kale salad from a recipe from Savio Volpe – Scott took me to Savio Volpe for my birthday and since the reservation said it was my birthday, there was a birthday card waiting on the table and in that card was a recipe for their kale salad. Which is delicious. And which I’ve made several times since then!
  • herbed goat cheese-stuffed chicken thighs – I had a bunch of goat cheese, leftover from my birthday party, that I needed to use up (do you see the trend?), so I google “goat cheese recipes” and found one for stuffing chicken breast with goat cheese that you’ve mixed with herbs. But I did it with chicken thighs. Pretty good stuff.
Making slow cooker lasagna

Making lasagna in the slow cooker

Kale salad

Kale salad

The two books I’ve finished so far in 2018 were:

  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker – I started reading this massive tome last year and it took me about eleventy billion years to get through it, but I finally did. The gist of the book is that violence has decreased over human history and Pinker puts forward his theory as to why. Often people think that we are living in particularly dangerous times – probably at least in part because we hear about violent events on the news on the time, but that’s actually a skewed perception, as the news covers the most sensational events (If it bleeds, it leads). Overall we are at much less at risk of being a victim of violence than in any other time in human history1 There’s a tonne of data illustrating the decline in violence and we can see it also in what is considered acceptable – e.g., it used to be legal and considered acceptable by society for people to keep slaves, for a man to rape his wife, for parents to beat their children, to people to brutalize animals, for example2. Pinker presents a pretty extensive theory as to why violence has declined and I’m not even going to try to get into describing it all. You’ll just have to read the 800+ pages to find out for yourself!
  • Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline – {SPOILER ALERT – Don’t read this if you don’t want the book to be spoiled for you!} After reading such a long, dense book, I decided I needed to have a quick and easy read as a bit of a palate cleanser for my brain, and Ready Player One fit the bill. Plus, there’s a movie version of it coming out this year and so I figured I should read it in case I decided to see the movie. I know a lot of people *love* this book, but I thought it was just OK. I mean, I enjoyed reading it but I got the exact same feeling from reading it as I did when I read the DaVinci Code – I was compelled enough by wanting to see how the various puzzles would be solved to keep reading, but the writing is so flat3 that it was kind of a painful, if easy, read. He does a tonne of name dropping of 80s games (game dropping?), movies, and music. Having grown up in the 80s, most of these were familiar to me (especially the movies and music), but the excitement of “hey, I remember that” gets pretty old pretty quick and then it just becomes annoying. And most egregiously, the Deus ex machina of Og showing up to give them a completely impenetrable fortress from which to complete the end of the game was just too much.

And then the one that I’m most excited about: I deadlifted more than my body weight! One of the challenges to doing this was that my body weight has increased due to the muscle mass I’ve put on from all the weight training4. I’d thought I’d lifted my body weight one time last year but then when I got home and weighed myself to confirm, I found that I’d been just shy of my weight.

In this month’s training program, one of my exercises was to do bar bell deadlifts where you start with a weight you can lift for 12 reps, then you up the weight and do 9 reps, then you up the weight again and do 6 reps. Then you start over at 12 reps, but with the weight you used for 9 reps the first time through, then you do 9 reps with the weight you did for 6 reps the first time through, then you do 6 reps at a higher weight. As you can see from my record sheet, on Jan 30, 2018, I did 6 reps of 67.5 kg!

Untitled

Since I’m of the generation of Canadians that still thinks of our body weight in pounds instead of kg, I had to do the conversion to confirm that this was, in fact, more than my body weight:Untitled

And I do, in fact, weight less than 148 lbs, so hooray for me – goal achieved!

  1. Of course, this is not to say that there is no violence or that the violence that does happen is not horrific. []
  2. Again, this is not to say that these things don’t still happen or that they aren’t legal in some societies still today. But they are legal or accepted in far fewer societies today than in the past. []
  3. Full disclosure: I saw the description of the writing in this book as “flat” in a GoodReads review and it totally fit with the feeling I had about the writing that I couldn’t find the right word for, so I totally stole the word! []
  4. Also, it’s kind of cool that after several years of setting, and failing to achieve, a goal of losing the 15 lbs I put on during my MBA (I’d get part way there from half marathon training, but never quite lost it all), I’m now actually happier with my body size despite weighing the most I’ve ever weighed, because it’s all been muscle mass gain. Don’t get me wrong, I still have some fat mass I’d like to lose, but I’ve got some kickass muscles that I’ve never had before! []

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Books I Read in 2017

As I mentioned recently, I’ve done absolutely abysmally on my goal of reading 17 books in 2017. I did managed to finish off two of the books I was reading when I wrote that last posting1, so I upped my total number of books read in 2017 to four instead of two, but it’s still pretty sad.

2017 reading challenge

For the record, the four books were:

my 2017 books

And here are some stats that Good Reads gave me on those books:

books stats 2017

I have high hopes that 2018 will be a better year for me for reading because (a) four books is a pretty low bar to set, (b) my book club is getting rebooted, so that will give me several book reading opportunities/motivation, and (c) I’m hoping that my office will get moved to a more transit-friendly location soon in the new year, so that I’ll have more Skytrain book reading time in 2018 than I did this year.

Anyone have any good book suggestions for me?

  1. I did read a chunk more of Better Angels of Our Nature over the holidays, mostly on during my flights too and from Toronto, but I didn’t manage to finish it off. But I’m sure I’ll finish it soon in the new year, so at least that will get me off to a good start on my 2018 book reading goal! []

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Stuff I Learned This Year: Canning Edition

And speaking of stuff I learned through books I read: this year I learned about home canning!

Last year, I made some jams. But this year, thanks to a book that my friend Linda gave to me, Foolproof Preserving: A Guide to Small Batch Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Condiments & More, I actually learned more about the science behind making jams, jellies, and pickled things. This also allowed me to add seven new food items to my list of new food items that I made in 2017 (this year’s goal was to make at least 17 new food and drink items that I’ve never made before):

  • raspberry jam
  • figs pickled in balsamic vinegar1
  • fig-infused balsamic vinegar2
  • pickled spicy beans
  • pickled beets
  • pickles3
  •  jalapeño jelly

Making spicy pickled beansScott and I just opened a jar of the pickled beans yesterday and they are super tasty, if somewhat sour. I gave Kalev a jar of the jalapeño jelly, but haven’t tasted it yet myself. The raspberry jam, of which I made a tonne thanks to buying an entire flat of raspberries at one of the local farms, has been enjoyed by many as I’ve given it out to a number of people. The pickles and beets and figs have yet to be tested.

There’s still a number of things that I want to try canning – blackberry jam comes to mind as, for the second year running, I failed to go out blackberry picking again this year. But that book has a number of other cool recipes that I’d like to try, such as peach-bourbon jam, mulled cider jelly, red pepper jelly, pickled carrots, pickled asparagus, roasted tomato-lime salsa, spiced figs in syrup, Dijon mustard, and applesauce. Not in the book, but which I want to try: plum sauce. Looks like I have a good list of potential new food items to make for my 2018 goal of making 18 new foods that I’ve never made before!

My first ever batches of spicy pickled beans, pickled beets, and pickles!

Beans, beets, and pickles.

  1. Yes, the figs did come from Tig & Pat’s annual fig party. []
  2. Yes, the fig-infused balsamic vinegar is the vinegar that was left over from when I made the pickled figs. []
  3. Why don’t we call pickles “pickled cucumbers”? Everything else we pickle, we use “pickled” as the adjective followed by the name of the thing we pickled. []

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Stuff I Learned This Year: Epigenetics Edition

So I’ve been totally slack on blogging about the stuff I’ve learned this year as part of my goal to learn 12 new things in 2017. I’ve been learning stuff, but just not getting around to blogging about it. But I’m on vacay now, so I’ll have time to catch up on all the stuff I meant be blog about! And since I’m on vacation now, I’m also able to read books and finally finished reading the book that my friend Cath wrote: Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide.

Epigenetics is the field of study that is concerned with how things interact with our genes to control their expression. We all inherit DNA, which contains a bunch of genes, from our parents, but there is a whole bunch of complicated things that go on to control how/when/where those genes get expressed (or not). Back when I last took a genetics course – i.e., eleventy billion years ago in my undergrad – I only remember learning about gene transcription (where a cell reads the code in DNA and makes a copy of it in a similar molecule called RNA) and gene translation (where the cell translates the code from the RNA into a protein, which can then go on and perform some function in the body). I also only remember three kinds of RNA: messenger (mRNA), transfer (tRNA) and ribosomal (rRNA). Now there are a tonne of other RNAs – micro (miRNA), long noncoding (lncRNA), and piwi-interacting (piRNAs), just to name a few1. All this to say – a lot has happened in our understanding of genetics since I last learned about it, so this book was great way to get up to speed on a whole lot of learning in a fun way! Also, my copy just so happens to be signed:

Book signing by Cath

Dr. Cath, doing a book signing just for me!

I’m not going to even try to summarize all the stuff that I learned about epigenetics – the book has a *lot* of information and if you want a solid introduction to the world of epigenetics, you should probably buy the book!

  1. Sidebar: I feel the same way about dinosaurs. When I was a kid, we learned about 6 dinosaurs – T. Rex, stegosaurus, triceratops, brontosaurus, pterodactyl – and then Jurassic Park came out and we all learned about velociraptors,  but now there are dozens of different kinds of dinosaurs and it turns out that pterodactyls aren’t actually dinosaurs and that brontosaurus is actually an apatosaurus, except then more research came out that suggested that apatosaurus and brontosaurus were actually two different kinds of dinosaurs after all. But I digress. []

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Books

So speaking of books, I have been absolutely pathetic at reading this year. I just looked on Good Reads to see how close to my goal of reading 17 books this year and discovered to my dismay that I have read a mere *two* books this year. TWO! I mean, I feel like I must have read more books than that, but I can’t for the life of me think of what they would be.

I blame my lack of reading in large part on the fact that partway through the year, my work team and I were moved to an office that is not easily accessible by transit and so I’ve been driving to work. Given that I do the lion share of my reading when I’m on the Skytrain or bus, this really cut into the amount of time I spent reading1. In addition, I didn’t really go on any vacations where I could do a bunch of reading and my kobo died and it took a little while before I bought a new one.

Also hampering my total is the fact that I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, which 800+ pages long. I mean, it’s no Infinite Jest, but it’s still been taking me a looooong time to read it.

I do have a few books that I’ve read parts of, varying from almost all of the book to just a chapter, including2:

I should probably finish some of them just to get my numbers up!

Plus I have a few that I have lined up to read, including:

Fortunately, I only have one week left of work for 2017 and then I’m on holidays and I’m really hoping I can get in some pleasure reading3.

  1. On the flip side, I listened to way more podcast, as I typically listen to podcasts when I’m driving. []
  2. Full disclosure: All the things in this posting are Amazon affiliate links. That means if you click on them and then buy something, I get some cash. So you should totes do that because I like when I get cash! Seriously though, you should totally buy Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Dr. Cath Ennis because (a) it’s a very interesting book (from what I’ve read so far), (b) my friend Cath wrote it! But mostly because of (a)! []
  3. I also have some serious vacationing planned for 2018, so hopefully I’ll get a strong start on my 2018 book reading goal! []

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RIP Kobo

My kobo1, appears to be no longer capable of holding a charge. I plug it in overnight and it seems like it’s charged, but then a few hours later (during which time it isn’t being used) and I see this:

My kobo won't hold a charge :(

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, as it is more than 4 years old and in electronics time that’s like 1000 years old. Plus I’ve not been able to get it to connect to my computer for quite some time now, which means that I haven’t been able to put any new books on it. I was hoping to read the books that I already had on there that I hadn’t yet read though. I’m in the middle of reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Though I can’t tell you exactly how far because my goddamn kobo won’t hold a charge. Guess it’s time to start looking at what’s happened in eReader technology in the last four years…

  1. Which I had named Luna, after Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. []

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Books I Read in 2016

I set my goal to read 16 books in 2016 and I started off strong with books I was reading for fun, but the decision to take on teaching a new course meant that come the summer, when I did my course development, the type of book I was reading was predominantly textbook. Also hampering my reading was the launch of PokémonGO, as I used to do a lot of reading on my commute to work, but once I got hooked on trying to catch ‘em all, I ended up spending much of my commute either catching Pokémon or grabbing stuff from PokéStops as I whizzed by them on the bus or train1 or doing my Pokémon inventory management2.

Anyway, I did manage to surpass my goal of 16 books:

I read 21 books in 2015!

The books were:

2016 Books

2016 Books 2

2016 Books 3

This list includes:

  • 4 fiction books
  • 8 non-fiction books
  • 9 textbooks

I think my goal for next year should be to read fewer textbooks!

Looking at the list, the book I most enjoyed this year was the Voodoo Killings, followed by Dear Committee Members, and the books I learned the most from were the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and The Spirit Level. The book I liked the least was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking3

In terms of stats, I read 7,711 pages of books4 in total, with book lengths ranging for 181 pages to 704 pages.

2016 books - stats

Not surprisingly, the most popular book I read was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the least popular book was the textbook I assigned to my class. Apparently only one other person on all of Goodreads read that textbook, which I’m hoping means none of my students are on Goodreads!

I’m not planning to teach any new courses next year, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be reading more books for fun!

  1. Back before they changed the game so that you can no longer get stuff from Pokéstops when you are travelling at fast speeds. []
  2. For the uninitiated, you only have room for 250 Pokémon in your PokéBox, so once you’ve caught that many, you have to free up space by transferring some of the Pokémon to the professor in exchange for candy. This takes some work, as you need to figure out which Pokémon you have extras of and then figure out which is the lowest value Pokémon so you know which one to get rid of. []
  3. And that includes all the textbooks I read! []
  4. I also read some unholy number of pages of journal articles. I wish there were a site like Good Reads where I could track all my journal article reading! []

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Writing

I love writing. I’m not sure what it is about writing that gets me so excited. It’s almost like I have all these ideas whirling around in my head and I have to write them down to get them out. There’s something very satisfying about that. There’s also something gratifying about looking at something that you made and feeling proud of your creation… especially when it’s something that speaks to others – it makes them laugh or makes them think or makes them see they aren’t alone in the world1,((Incidentally, I get a similar feeling from baking – there’s something wonderful about making a creation and even more so when you can share it with others.)).

I do a lot of writing in my work – strategy documents, plans, reports, briefing notes, literature reviews, conference proposals, and sometimes even research grant applications, then the ensuing grant reports and the occasional manuscript for publication. And emails. Don’t forget the endless emails!

I’ve written a dissertation, a book chapter2, and a textbook3. And, of course, this blog that I’ve been writing on for more than 11 years!

I wonder how many words I’ve written in my life….

  1. And before you think I’m being too arrogant, this is based on feedback I’ve gotten over the years. I’m still being arrogant, but at least it has some basis. []
  2. Which apparently I never blogged about – just searched my blog for a posting to link to and I can’t find one! Silly me. []
  3. The latter of which, incidentally, we are nearly completion of the second edition. I’ll keep y’all posted on that. []