Recently, I’ve begun to read at least one piece of literature from each of the countries I visit. While I’ve done this for the last several countries I’ve been to, now I’m going back to fill in the gaps from past travel.
I don’t want to be doctrinaire about the books I choose, but I’ve learned a little about what I find the most beneficial. While some people who do this insist on reading a novel from each country, I’ve been much more open to a range of forms, including: poetry, short stories, and — in a case or two — creative non-fiction. One reason I’m flexible this way is that the novel isn’t the basic unit of literature everywhere in the world. I don’t want to read a pop crime novel published by an expat that offers zero insight into culture just because that’s the only novel I can get my hands on in English. Short story collections have proven at least as insightful as novels because one sees more lead characters put into more diverse situations, and poetry can be as well — as long as it gives a sense of place and people.
I should also point out that I’ve violated almost all of these suggestions when something caught my eye — often to great effect. #5 and #1 are really the only ones upon which I insist.
5.) Offers insight into the culture of the country at hand. I don’t want to sound like a literary fiction snob. I read a lot of genre fiction and the occasional commercial fiction, but this is one area where I find literary fiction is best. In large part this is because literary fiction tends to be character-driven and that depth of character usually transmits some insight into culture. When I went to Nepal I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Mad Country [short stories] and learned a great deal about the people of Nepal from various walks of life.
4.) Authored by a national of said country and set there as well. The second part (set in the country) seems like it would be non-negotiable, but I’ve certainly violated the first part (local author) and can imagine violating the second (local setting) as well. The key is that it must do #5 (cultural insight, that’s the point after all.) To give an example of a violation of the local author proviso, for the time being at least, I’m going with George Orwell’s Burmese Days as my pick for Myanmar (Burma.) I may change that at some point, but it definitely offered insight about more than one of the items on this list.
To give an example of how one might violate the setting clause and still benefit, I’ve had Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, recommended to me for a Sri Lankan book. It features a Sri Lankan boy on a ship headed from Colombo to England and thus (as I understand it) is only briefly set in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, when a national is abroad, one gains even more cultural insight — i.e. it becomes easier to see culture through the state of contrast. (It turns out that I’m reading another novel set in Sri Lanka entitled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, which promises to offer me insight into not only Sri Lanka, but also into the craziness that is the sport of cricket.
3.) Teaches me about some historical happenings of the country in question. In some sense this is always true because even a contemporary novel deals in history by the time it’s published. However, I tend to prefer a time-frame during which something interesting was going on in the country, but not so far into the past that there is disconnect with the people I interact with in my travels. For example, for Vietnam, I recently read Novel Without A Name, which features a North Vietnamese soldier as a protagonist, and it’s set during the last days of the war with America.
2.) Exposes me to a diverse set of characters. It’s a definite plus if the book shows how more than one element of society lives. A great example of this is Gagamba, a book by F. Sionil Jose, that I read in conjunction with my trip to the Philippines. In it, one peeks into the lives of rich and poor alike, as well as seeing Filipinos who’ve been living abroad and expats living in the Philippines, all this contrast makes the shadowy shapes of culture clearer.
1.) It’s a good read. It’s as simple as that. It must be a book I’d want to read regardless of whether I was trying to check off a box on travel literature.
Here’s a list of countries I’ve been to with my selections for that country — if I have one. There are some countries (e.g. USA, Hungary, India, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom) from which I’ve read a lot, but I’ll stick to presenting one that is an exemplar vis-a-vis the criteria above.
I’d love to receive recommendations, particularly for those countries I don’t have anything for yet.
Austria: The Tobacconist (recommended to me, not yet read.)
Cambodia: First They Killed My Father (I’ve read some fiction set here, but this non-fiction is the best.)
Canada: Surfacing (not yet read)
Czech Republic: The Good Soldier Svejk
Estonia: The Man Who Spoke Snakish (In progress. An unconventional choice as it’s genre fiction, but it came highly recommended and has not disappointed.)
Finland: The Year of the Hare (not yet read)
Guatemala: The President (not yet read)
Hungary: Cold Days
India: The Guide
Japan: Narrow Road to the Interior
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat
Mexico: Selected Poems of Octavio Paz
Mongolia: The Blue Sky
Myanmar (Burma): Burmese Days
Nepal: Mad Country
Peru: Death in the Andes
Singapore: Inheritance (in progress; another odd choice as the family that this novel presents is Punjabi, though they live in Singapore. and their lives are shaped by that locale. Some places, like Singapore and the UAE, have a lot of immigrants and it’s only fair to consider them through that lens.)
Slovenia: I Saw Her That Night (not yet read)
Sri Lanka: Chinaman (in progress)
UAE: Temporary People (not yet read)
United Kingdom: A Christmas Carol
United States: Blood Meridian
Vietnam: Novel Without a Name
In a continuing effort to plumb the depths of the human mind, I’ve begun to learn about hypnosis through lessons, books, the practice of self-hypnosis, as well as via internet sources (yeah, dangerous, I know, but I try to be cautious.)
It turns out that there’s a lot to learn, in part, because there are so many misconceptions about what hypnosis is and how it works. Many of these incorrect ideas result from the fact that most people’s experience with hypnosis comes from watching stage hypnotists. I don’t want to suggest stage hypnotists are a disreputable lot, but seeing a show (particularly on the television) is likely to give one many a wrong impression of hypnosis because: a.) one may miss the fact that there is screening process going on (often carried out in an entertaining and interactive fashion so as to be part of the show and including innocent elements like calling for volunteers) to get a very select group on stage who are highly susceptible to hypnotic trance — and probably more gregarious / free-spirited than average. b.) stage hypnotists (and less reputable therapeutic hypnotists) will occasionally say things that are… strictly speaking… untrue. This isn’t [necessarily] to be conniving or underhanded, but instead to prime subjects to be less resistant and skeptical. c.) what makes for an impressive show isn’t what makes for the most effective hypnotic induction / deepening for the average person (which tends to be a rather dull and drawn out affair.)
5.) A hypnotic trance is an unattentive and zombified state of mind. In a hypnotic trance, one is extremely relaxed physically, but one’s mind is highly focused on one particular stimuli (often this is the hypnotist’s voice but it might be awareness of breath, bodily sensation, imagery, or it might involve systematically cycling through a number of different sensory inputs at the hypnotist’s suggestion.) A common example used to help an individual understand what hypnosis will be like is the condition of being zoned out while driving, arriving with no recollection of the past ten miles because one’s mind was focused elsewhere.
The fact that memory can be impaired (not unlike when one is falling asleep or sleeping) and that suggestion of selective impairment (e.g. forgetting one’s name or a particular number or letter) is a common stage trick, makes people think that the subject has mentally flown the coup.
4.) Every person can be readily hypnotized. There’s a sense in which this may be true, and that’s that everybody seems to fall into a trance now and again. Remember, it’s just like zoning out when one is driving. But what most people are thinking of with this myth is more along the lines that any hypnotist worth his/her salt can drop any random person into a deep trance with the snap of a finger and the word “sleep.” However, the science suggests a bell-shaped curve with a lower 15 %-ish who are extremely hard (if not impossible) to induce into a hypnotic trance and a higher 15%-ish who are a piece of cake to hypnotize. The rest fall in the meaty middle, and can be hypnotized but with greater effort and with lower levels of suggestibility. So when a person says, “Oh, I don’t think I could be hypnotized at all,” the odds are against them. On the other hand, contrary to Hollywood hypnotism and the wishes of Sidney Gottlieb, anyone can resist hypnosis if they decide to — and, sometimes, if they just can’t help themselves.
3.) Dumb people can’t be hypnotized and smart people are more hypnotically susceptible. I see this a lot on YouTube videos and books by hypnotists, and it sounds good. However, when I looked at the peer-reviewed academic publications, I saw something else. Scholars studying what personality traits correlated with hypnotic susceptibility found no such relationship for intelligence and ease of entering a hypnotic trance.
I don’t think hypnotists are lying for the sake of duplicity. First of all, many are probably parroting a line that they heard, that confirmed their beliefs / wishes, and that they never thought to investigate. Others are just trying to make a hard job easier. Think about it, if you tell your audience that dumb people can’t be hypnotized, and that the smartest people are the most easily hypnotized, people are going to be more eager to appear hypnotizable and will be less resistant. People don’t like to look unintelligent, especially in front of huge groups of strangers.
If you’re interested in knowing what personality trait is the most strongly correlated to hypnotic susceptibility (of the limited set that’s been studied so far,) it’s absorption — i.e. the proclivity to get deeply absorbed in a task. So, if you know a person who consistently has to have his or her name called half a dozen times to pull them out of a zone, there’s a good chance that person would make an awesome hypnotic subject. (Note: we all get that way now and again, we’re talking about someone who is consistently / frequently prone to that state.)
2.) A hypnotist can make a subject do anything he wants. People get this idea from movies and from only hearing half the story of expensive (but largely ineffective) programs like America’s MK Ultra and Soviet Psychotronics. The consensus view is that a hypnotist can get the average subject to do something that they wouldn’t do without suggestion as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do. So you might get an average person to raise their hand, because it’s not embarrassing, painful, or dangerous — and so they won’t be reticent to do it. Squawking like a chicken? Only if the person is the kind who doesn’t mind hamming it up. Murdering someone Manchurian Candidate-style? That’s pure fiction.
I heard a hypnotist say that gregarious people are more hypnotizable. In accordance with the scholarly findings mentioned in item 3, I suspect it’s more accurate to say that a stage hypnotist wants a subject who is both hypnotically susceptible and gregarious. That’s where selecting for people who are outgoing and who don’t object to hamming it up comes in. I don’t know that its true that outgoing folk are inherently more prone to reach a trance state, but they’ll be more fun to watch on stage because they are likely to follow suggestions to do more flamboyant deeds. Of course, studies of personality traits and hypnotic susceptibility don’t usually involve stage hypnosis, so maybe it is true that people who are more gregarious are more prone to trance (or, probably more accurately, less resistant to it) in that particular environment.
1.) Hypnosis involves a hypnotist taking over the mind of a subject. There’s a common refrain that one hears from hypnotists and that’s that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. One’s mind remains one’s mind throughout, even if one is more prone to accept suggestions. The confusion arises from the fact that we hear hypnotists making suggestions and see the subject following said suggestions, even when they involve activities we wouldn’t want to (and probably wouldn’t) do. This looks like the subject is under the command of the hypnotist, but they call them “suggestions” for a reason. For reasons that still aren’t entirely understood, people are more prone to respond positively to suggestion while in the hypnotic trance state.
Here’s a video on the science of hypnosis:
The book’s premise is simple: being neat and tidy isn’t the great virtue you’ve been led to believe, and being messy isn’t inherently a vice. Over nine chapters, Harford explores the various dimensions in which our impulse to toward tidiness can get in our way, and for which a little messiness might be the cure. Each chapter uses a central story or two as exemplars, with other stories and anecdotes providing support.
The book’s introduction sets up the idea by describing a famous concert in Köln (Cologne) by Kieth Jarrett in which the pianist reluctantly agreed to play the concert on a sub-par piano, and (it’s argued because of the limitations of that instrument) went on to produce the best-selling solo jazz album. This tale sets up chapter one, which focuses on creativity, nicely. Creativity may be explicitly the topic of chapter one, but it’s a concept that cuts across the entirety of the book. Tidiness – it is argued — is antagonistic to creativity. In the first chapter, Harford describes how David Bowie partnered up with Brian Eno, and how Eno’s “oblique strategies” – while they annoyed the musicians to no end by throwing monkey wrenches into the act of making music – were highly successful in producing a unique sound.
Chapter two discusses collaboration, which always makes a mess. Central to this chapter is a discussion of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and the famous Erdős number that virtually all scholars are familiar with — at least those in who work in math, science, engineering, and other disciplines with a quantitative bent. It’s sort of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation for those who make mathematics. The number describes how far removed one is from having a paper penned with this notoriously prolific mathematician (co-authored, one removed co-author, etc.,) and everyone publishing quantitative / mathematical scholarship desired a low number. The point made by Harford wasn’t just that collaboration in general is messy, but that working with Erdős, specifically, was, and it required collaborators to adjust to his peculiar, professorial ways.
Chapter three explores how tidy workplaces sometimes hinder productivity. The central case is MIT’s Building 20, which was popped up in record time to meet a wartime demand. The building housed a disproportionate amount of world-class science and engineering, and it’s argued that this was in part because its poor design put random people together on long walks to exits or toilets, and in part because – since it was a hideous monstrosity of a building – no one cared if its labs and offices were a mess or not.
Chapter four delves into the value of mess in improvisation. Of course, Jazz is revisited in this chapter, but the lead story is Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech and how it came out of being forced by circumstance to abandon his usual process of extensive preparation and editing. Chapter five describes messy tactics as winning strategies. Erwin Rommel’s success by disruption and chaos creation is at the heart of this chapter as is the development of Britain’s SAS which sometimes beat Rommel at his own game by using a similar approach using smaller, more agile, and more elite forces. There is also an extensive discussion of how Amazon went from humble beginnings to being the 800 pound gorilla of online shopping.
The sixth chapter investigates the role of incentives. For an economist, this is a fascinating topic as the key to understanding economic behavior is usually to follow the incentives. Of course, unintended consequences often go hand in hand with attempts to produce / manipulate incentives. Much of this chapter describes how attempts to tie up loose ends through regulation have ended up generating worse outcomes than could ever have been anticipated.
The next chapter (ch. 7) is about automation, which could be seen as an attempt to clean up messy activities. Harford discusses the situation with self-driving cars, which it’s hoped will help to make highways safer. However, the case he concentrates on is that of flight Air France 447, which went down in part because its inexperienced pilot at the helm couldn’t cope when the fly-by-wire system designed to anticipate and smooth the pilot’s inputs into the controls suddenly went off-line. In other words, the junior pilot wasn’t used to flying messy.
Chapter 8 is about resilience, and here the author challenges the age-old economic notion that specialization always results in greater productivity. Harford suggests that diversity and intermixing of activities and people – rather than specialization and homogenization – often results in a better outcome. The final chapter takes a wider view at how being messy can help one in life. The author spends a great deal of space to the question of how on-line dating services do such a poor job – spoiler alert – they try to make the messy process of finding a soul mate neat and tidy.
The book has citations and end-notes. In the Kindle edition, these notes are hyperlinked for ease of use. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.
I enjoyed reading this book and found it to offer many fascinating cases. I will say, as I was reading these well-researched and interestingly described cases, I sometimes had to think hard (maybe do some mental gymnastics) to make the connection between the case at hand and the book’s central theme – leaving me to wonder if I was missing something or whether there wasn’t some shoe-horning of interesting anecdotes into the book to produce a work that was more about being interesting than about proving a particular point. That said, I would recommend the book, particularly for anyone interested in increasing their creativity, productivity, or both.
Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]
The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)
Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.
Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.
Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.
Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.
I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)
Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.
Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.
Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.
Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.
The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.
I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.