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BOOK REVIEW: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great DrinksThe Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is about how plants are used in the making of alcoholic beverages from vegetative matter that serves as the primary ingredient in fermentation to obscure herbs and berries used to lend subtle flavoring. The book covers a lot of ground, being at once a guide to the chemistry of fermentation and distillation, a mixologist’s recipe book, and a guide to growing the plants used to make booze.

I will admit, if I weren’t such a neophyte to both subjects at hand – botany and alcoholic beverages – I probably wouldn’t have rated this book so highly. For me, almost every page offered new fun facts about alcoholic beverages, some of which I’ve consumed and many of which I never have. So if you have a high degree of understanding about one or both of these subjects, you may not find the book as intensely satisfying. Also, at times the book comes off a bit pretentiously – hardcore drunks probably don’t want to be shackled with so many rules for optimal alcoholic consumption (e.g. what type of glass they should drink a given drink from, etc.), but hardcore drunks are probably not a huge readership demographic. (It should also be noted that the reader gets some knowledge to fight pretentiousness as well, such as against gin drinkers who say they would never drink vodka when, in fact, they are drinking juniper berry-flavored vodka.)

The book consists of three parts. The first part describes fermentation and distillation and then offers two sub-parts dealing with the most everyday bases for alcoholic drinks (e.g. corn, grapes, potato, and wheat) as well as some of the more obscure and unusual objects of fermentation, respectively.

The second part delves into the plants that are added for flavoring or the like, and these are organized by: 1.) herbs and spices, 2.) flowers, 3.) trees, 4.) fruit, and 5.) nuts and seeds.

The final part gives some guidance on how some of these plants can be grown. It should be noted that this section is a bit thinner because a lot of information on growing the plants is covered in side-bars in the earlier sections and also this isn’t the book’s main thrust. The third part is similarly divided up between herbs, flowers, trees, berries & vines, and fruits & vegetables.

There are quite a few graphics, mostly in the form of line drawings, throughout the book – some are purely aesthetic and others are informative (e.g. drawings of plants.) There is also a recommended reading section that proposes further books to expand one’s understanding at the nexus of booze and plants. The book presents a lot of material in text boxes that set the information aside. These boxes include recipes, but also insights into how to best grow these plants with particularly emphasis given to how the process is optimized for those growing for beverage production (e.g. sometimes the optimal variety isn’t the most common variety.)

I enjoyed this book. It was readable, full of fun bits of information, and written in a light-hearted style. If you’re looking for a book on plants and alcoholic beverages, this is a good starting point. It doesn’t get too deep in the weeds but yet offers some obscure but amusing factoids.

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5 Works of Nonfiction That May Be [at least in part] Fiction

NOTE: There are many famous examples of books presented as nonfiction that turned out to be partially or completely fabricated (e.g. Go Ask Alice, A Million Little Pieces, Three Cups of Tea, The Teachings of Don Juan, and Papillon are examples that spring to mind.) That’s not what I was going for when I started this list. Instead, I was thinking of examples of books that may well be true to the best of the author’s knowledge, but which may also be examples of false memory syndrome. I became interested in this while reading Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion, which discusses how faulty memory can be — to the point that people can be led into false memories of something as traumatic as committing crimes that never occurred. Meredith Maran wrote a book entitled My Lie: A True Story of False Memory about what she discovered were false memories of childhood sexual abuse. So, I’m not saying these books are fabrications, and — for all I know — some may be completely true. After all, some of the featured individuals think they were exploited by the MK Ultra mind-control shenanigans, and some of them may have been, but it’s also possible some weren’t.


5.) Secret Weapons by Cheryl and Lynn Hersha: The Hersha sisters say they were in a program that turned them into femme fatales.


4.) Psychic Warrior by David Morehouse: I read about Morehouse in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Sadly, it’s not in question that the military maintained a program of psychics, nor that Morehouse was involved in said program. What is in question is the degree to which the program had successes.


3.) Communion by Whitley Strieber: This is the most famous alien abduction story. I don’t know what really happened, but I seriously doubt it’s what the author proposed.


2.) The Control of Candy Jones by Donald Bain: This is a more well-known case similar to that of the Hersha sisters in which a woman was said to be reprogrammed by a nefarious psychiatrist in a mind control program. Candy Jones was famous as a pin up girl. After she got married, her behavior changed radically, and her husband asked her to participate in sessions of hypnosis which are said to have turned up a buried second personality.


1.) A Terrible Mistake by H.P. Albarelli Jr: This is another example of a case in which there are certain remarkable facts that aren’t in dispute, but the degree to which the fine details are accurate is hard to judge. The fact is that Frank Olson was a biologist in the employ of the government, he was dosed with hallucinogenic substances, and thereafter he took a fatal plunge out of a hotel window. Whether he was murdered as a cover up or just had a bad trip has always been an open question.

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Dyatlov Incident is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the 20th century. In 1959, a crew of nine seasoned hikers headed into the Siberian wilderness in late January for an intense but vigorous trek. When they didn’t return in early February as planned (and after a bit of prodding from family members) a search was conducted, and what the searchers found was so bizarre that it would be fodder for conspiracy theorists and readers of tales of the weird for decades. It wasn’t so much what killed the hikers, almost all of them died of hypothermia — though three of the members had severe blunt force trauma injuries that contributed in varying degree to the speed of their deaths.

Instead, it was that the bodies were found on the order of a mile from their tent, none of them was wearing boots or adequate attire. There were also a range of smaller anomalies, such as one individual wearing two watches, several of the team having shredded clothing, one of the hikers missing her tongue, and some of the hiker’s clothing testing positive for radioactivity. Lest one attribute the hiker’s strange and fatal behavior to drink or other mind and mood altering substances, the hikers were known teetotalers, and the little medicinal alcohol they had was all accounted for by the search party (who admittedly drank it.) So the question wasn’t what killed them, but what drove these skilled, sober, and well-led hikers out of the comfort of their tent improperly attired in the middle of the night on the night of February 1, 1959, and what explanation could account for this range of bizzarities?

I won’t get into Eichar’s well-developed and scientifically supported theory to avoid spoilers, but it’s fascinating to consider the range of theories that people came up with over the course of the investigation (and subsequent years) to explain the odd incident. The explanations run the gamut from the otherworldly (i.e. Siberian Demon Dwarves) to a range of theories that were less provocative but which also lacked explanatory power or were inconsistent with known data (e.g. avalanche or high winds literally blowing them off the mountain.) Of course, another fact played heavily into people’s conspiracy building and that was that this was the height of the Cold War Soviet Union. While life had eased a bit since the demise of Stalin (such a trek would have been prohibited under his rule) it was still an authoritarian state, plus the memory of Stalin was fresh. This led to the most widely accepted theories involving the hikers being killed because they saw a covert weapons test or stumbled into an area where the KGB was getting up to some shenanigans. (As a sign of the times, it seems that there was some attempt to thwart the investigation and /or limit the interest in the case from low-level party apparatchiks who probably assumed shadowy elements of the government were involved [though there seems to be no evidence that they were.]) Another theory proposed that the hikers were killed by a group of escapees from the Gulags that were numerous in that part of the country. (Of course, that assumes that the poorly fed and clothed prisoners would have survived the freezing temperatures better than the fit and relatively well-equipped college students.) As evidence mounted, however, it suggested outsider involvement less-and-less. For example, the side of the tent was cut open, but rudimentary forensic investigation readily proved that it must have been cut from the inside and not from the outside by a KGB agent, Gulag prisoner, local tribesman, or a Siberian dwarf claw.

The book intersperses accounts of the happenings in 1959 with chapters that describe the author’s trips to Russia to investigate, including his visit to “Dead Mountain” and the “Dyatlov Pass” in 2012. (The former name predates the Incident and has to do with the fact that the mountain is devoid of vegetation. The latter name, i.e. “Dyatlov,” is the last name of the leader of the group of hikers.) The penultimate chapter describes Eichar’s conclusion about what caused the mysterious incident and his visits to experts that lent it credence. The last chapter offers a retelling of events that takes into account both the evidence and scientific speculation about the cause of the hikers’ panicked flight from the safety of their tent into a desolate landscape on a sub-freezing night.

There are graphics throughout, mostly black and white photos from the cameras of the hikers, which were recovered and became part of the case file. Other than the photos, there is a graphic or two to help explain the theory put forth by Eichar and others. (It should be noted that there was a group of Russians simultaneously considering the same possibility.)

I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. The mystery was fascinating and the hypothesized solution was at least as much so.

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of nonfiction, though much of it has the taut structure of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True StoryThe Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Preston tells the story of his participation in an expedition into the Mosquitia region of Honduras in search of a lost city, alternately called the White City (i.e. La Ciudad Blanca) or the City of the Monkey God. Preston was acting as a correspondent for National Geographic and was part of a larger team including a photographer, filmmakers, archaeologists, and a team of ex-Spec Ops escorts. It’s not a simple and straightforward tale of Indiana Jones types chasing after the artifacts of a long collapsed civilization (though it does capitalize on that sense of intrigue greatly from the title to the telling of both the historic and contemporary searches for this fabled lost city.) The book tells several stories that occur about and around this search, and they are arguably more interesting.

One of these side stories is the historic accounts of past explorers who searched for the White City. Those were the individuals who more closely corresponded to Indiana Jones–both because they didn’t have an airplane with a state-of-the-art Lidar system (lidar is the light/laser version of radar or sonar), and because they were more likely to engage in tomb-raiding and artifact robbery. This isn’t to say that the expedition that Preston was on didn’t have its share of snakes, quickmud, and other hazards that are the only reason that a huge city from a past civilization would remain undiscovered in the present day. The region in which the expedition took place had not only all the natural hazards of dense jungle, but the human hazards posed by operating in territory controlled by drug cartels. That said, they didn’t have to machete through hundreds of miles of jungle with no idea of where they were likely to find their objective.

One of the most interesting side stories occurred when Preston and many of the members of the expedition came down with leishmaniasis, a nasty tropical disease vectored by sandflies. The disease has a treatment that’s almost as likely to kill one as is the disease. It’s almost impossible to completely get rid of the disease. One can be cured in the sense of being made asymptomatic, but one may remain a potential carrier waiting to be bitten again and to pass the nasty parasite onto another sandfly so they can infect someone else. There are several elements of the disease story that are intriguing. The most interesting is speculation about the role that disease might have played in the sudden evacuation of this lost city. This is informed by a broader discussion of how “Old World” diseases spread through the “New World” with crippling effect. Another is how diseases are neglected when they almost exclusively infect poor and rural people (until a National Geographic correspondent tracks it back to the continental US, that is.)

For those outside of archaeology, one of the least interesting, but still interesting, side stories is that of the intense controversy in the field. Preston is very forthcoming about his talks with scholars who were angered and outraged by the use of terms like “Lost City” which hearken back to a period in which tomb-raiding was the norm and Westerners stole and shipped priceless artifacts back to the West by the ton. These internecine wars of academia reinforce the idea that this isn’t just musty history, but involves questions that many people feel intensely passionate about.

There is a photo section that provides images of both the cast of highly discussed people and a few of the artifacts uncovered. There’s also a section of sources and citations.

I found this book to be fascinating and I’d highly recommend it. Those interested in exploration and adventure tales will find it of obvious interest, but those with a curiosity about public health may find it unexpectedly of interest.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The backdrop for this story involves two young men (Lysander and Demetrius) and two young women (Hermia and Helena.) Both men have the hots for Hermia, which leaves poor Helena unloved though she loves Demetrius. Hermia loves Lysander, which means Demetrius is unloved by the one he loves and has no love for the girl pursuing him. Enter the village elders—notably Hermia’s dad, Egeus, and the Duke of Athens, Theseus—who really muck up the works by insisting that Hermia marry Demetrius (whose family apparently has more cash than does Lysander’s.) This causes Lysander and Hermia to elope into the forest, where things really get freaky. Helena, courting Demetrius’s favor, tells him where the eloping couple went, and Demetrius gives chase while Helena chases Demetrius.

In the woods outside Athens, there lived ferries. Oberon, king of the fairies, has in his possession a Cupid-like potion that will make its victim fall madly in love with the next person he or she sees. Oberon orders this potion deployed in two ways pertinent to the story. Seeing Demetrius quarreling with Helena, he orders his subject, Puck, to deploy it on Demetrius. In a fashion typical of a Shakespearean comedy, the potion is misapplied.

The other use of the potion (a subplot of the story) is on the faerie queen, Titania. Oberon is upset with Titania over an Indian boy of whom they’ve come into parentage. Titania falls for a workman who is in the woods rehearsing a play that may be the worst play ever. Most disconcertingly, she falls in love with this man, called Bottom, as he’s wearing a donkey head for his role in the play. As this is a comedy, the two unholy loves that developed are eventually rectified, but not before some amusing happenings.

At its most basic level, the play is a commentary on the folly of mucking about in love–whether as matchmaking elder or a Cupid-like faerie. On another level, it’s a critique of an unrealistic pursuit of a perfect vision of love. In this way, the message isn’t unlike Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (i.e. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”) This is seen in Demetrius’s ultimate recognition that he’s being an idiot by chasing after Hermia, when Helena is so clearly devoted to him. In other words, in love as in life the notion famously attributed to Voltaire that “The perfect is the enemy of the good” applies. As an aside, we also learn what Shakespeare sees as some of the mistakes of playwrights and theater companies as the assembled crowd watches Bottom and his comrades put on a hideous production.

I’d highly recommend reading this work for everyone. It’s Shakespeare; needless to say, the language is beautiful and the story is intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of RealityOur Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this book, physicist Max Tegmark makes an argument for the possibility of a reality in which the universe is a mathematical structure a theory that predicts a Level IV multiverse (i.e. one in which various universes all have different physical laws and aren’t spread out across one infinite space [i.e. not “side-by-side.”]) Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner wrote a famous paper entitled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” The article describes one of the great mysteries of science, namely, how come mathematics describes our universe so well and with such high precision. Tegmark’s answer is because the universe is fundamentally mathematical—or at least he suspects it could be.

The first chapter serves as an introduction, setting the stage by considering the core question with which the book is concerned, “What is reality?” The book then proceeds in three parts. The first, Chapters 2 through 6, discuss the universe at the scale of the cosmos. Chapters two and three consider space and time and answer such questions as how big is the universe and where did everything come from. Chapter 4 explores many examples of mathematics’ “unreasonable effectiveness” in explaining our universe with respect to expansion and background radiation and the like (a more extensive discussion is in Ch. 10.) The fifth chapter investigates the big bang and our universe’s inflation. The last chapter in part one introduces the idea of multiverses and how the idea of multiple universes acts as an alternative explanation to prevailing notions in quantum physics (e.g. collapsing wave functions)—and, specifically, Tegmark describes the details of the first two of four models of the multiverse (i.e. the ones in which parallel universes are out there spread out across and infinite space), leaving the other two for the latter parts of the book.

Part two takes readers from the cosmological scale to the quantum scale, reflecting upon the nature of reality at the smallest scales—i.e. where the world gets weird. Chapter 7 is entitled “Cosmic Legos” and, as such, it describes the building blocks of our world as well as the oddities, anomalies, and counter-intuitive characteristics of the quantum realm. Chapter 8 brings in the Level III approach to multiverses and explains how it negates the need for waveform collapse that mainstream physics requires we accept (i.e. instead of a random outcome upon observation, both [or multiple] outcomes transpire as universes split.)

The final part is where Tegmark dives into his own theory. The first two parts having outlined what we know about the universe, and some of the major remaining mysteries left unexplained or unsubstantiated by current theories, Tegmark now makes his argument for why the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) is at least as effective at explaining reality as any out there, and how it might eliminate some daunting mysteries.

Chapter 9 goes back to the topic of the first chapter, namely the nature of reality and the differences between our subjective internal reality, objective external reality, and a middling consensus reality. Chapter 10 also elaborates on the nature of reality, but this time by exploring mathematical and physical reality. Here he elaborates on how the universe behaves mathematically and explains the nature of mathematical structures—which is important as he is arguing the universe and everything in it may be one. Chapter 11 is entitled, “Is Time and Illusion?” and it proposes there is a block of space-time and our experience of time is an artifact of how we ride our world lines through it—in this view we are braids in space-time of the most complex kind observed. A lot of this chapter is about what we are and are not. Chapter 12 explains the Level IV multiverse (different laws for each universe) and what it does for us that the others do not. Chapter 13 is a bit different. It describes how we might destroy ourselves or die out, but that, it seems, is mostly a set up for a pep talk. You see, Tegmark has hypothesized a universe in which one might feel random and inconsequential, and so he wants to ensure the reader that that isn’t the case so that we don’t decide to plop down and watch the world burn.

While this book is about 4/5ths pop science physics book, the other 1/5th is a memoir of Tegmark’s trials and tribulations in coloring outside the lines with his science. All and all, I think this serves the book. The author avoids coming off as whiny in the way that scientists often do when writing about their challenges in obtaining funding and / or navigating a path to tenure that is sufficiently novel but not so heterodox as to be scandalous. There’s just enough to give you the feeling that he’s suffered for his science without making him seem ungrateful or like he has a martyr complex.

Graphics are presented throughout (photos, computer renderings, graphs, diagrams, etc.), and are essential because the book deals in complex concepts that aren’t easily translated from mathematics through text description and into a layman’s visualization. The book has endnotes to expand and clarify on points, some of which are mathematical—though not all. It also has recommended reading section to help the reader expand their understanding of the subject.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be loaded with food-for-thought. If Tegmark’s vision of the universe does prove to be meritorious, it will change our approach to the world. And, if not, it will make good fodder for sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and AdventureCrossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells two tales in parallel, connected by one theme: travel for love. The author, Julian Smith, recounts the experience of Ewart Grogan, an English explorer whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Grogan traveled the length of Africa from South to North and recounted his experience in a book entitled “From Cape to Cairo.” The purpose of his grand endeavor was to prove his worth as man. Grogan was in love with a woman whose family was of higher station, and he believed that if he could only do what had never been done before, then the objections to his “marrying up” would dissolve.

The other story is Smith’s own attempt to retrace Grogan’s route across the length of the continent. While Smith doesn’t have to prove his worth, his motivations are more complex and tied up with his engagement to be married. Maybe Smith’s motivation is best summed up as a desire to prove to himself and / or his fiancé that he had sufficient commitment and fortitude to get him through rough times—a characteristic relevant to both marriage and crossing some of the world’s least developed countries.

Of his own admission, Smith’s journey was to be far less arduous than Grogan’s by virtue of the fact that he’d be traveling by taxis, motorcycles, buses, and ferries. Grogan and other 19th century explorers were subject to hazards far graver and more ever-present. For one thing, in Grogan’s day virtually everybody who spent any significant time in Africa got malaria. It wasn’t a question of if but when and how seriously. Even if you escaped malaria, there were myriad other tropical diseases to bring one to one’s knees. Next, there was the tribal environment in which one would travel through dozens of tribal territories, all of whose chiefs expected tribute and many of which were outright hostile. For Smith, rule of law was present in some form or fashion along most of his route, such that no one could just murder him and get off scot-free. There was also the risk of crew desertions that could cripple an expedition. Traveling parties had to carry huge amounts of goods from surveying equipment to gifts to medicines to food stuffs. Still, they had to obtain many of the party’s needs along the route. Among other things, this meant hunting animals that weren’t as docile as livestock. Anything less than an instant kill meant having to trudge into tall grass after a wounded creature that had a far greater killing capacity at close range.

This isn’t to say that Smith’s journey was adventure free. Anyone who has traveled in Africa knows that getting from place to place remains a slow and exhausting process. And many of the things that undermined Grogan’s trip also undermined Smith’s, e.g. the author suffered extended fever. But the most devastating factor for Smith’s travels was the fact that parts of Sudan were lawless and a brutal war was being fought. While Grogan barely managed to drag himself through the swampy landscape, Smith was unable to proceed overland because of the conflict. In telling of his travels, Smith discusses many of the dilemma’s that traveler’s face today (e.g. to give people money or not, how to contend with bureaucrats.) Among the travels that modern-day readers might be interested in is Smith’s visit to a gorilla sanctuary.

I enjoyed this mix of travelogue and history. The book gives one insight into the changing nature of the world and, particularly, what was once called the Dark Continent. [Note: while that may sound either racist or awash in a negativity bias, I’ve read that the reason it was called that was that when the 19th century explorers were traveling through much of the continent was unmapped, i.e. blacked out.]

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in travel in Africa—past or present.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In Eggers’ novel, the Circle is a technology giant that looks a lot like Google + FaceBook + PayPal + Twitter all wrapped together under one corporate roof. Mae Holland, the book’s lead, is a young woman hired into the firm owing to her close friendship with a college roommate turned high level executive at the Circle, Annie. Even though Mae is brought in to work what is called “customer experience” (i.e. customer service) doing seemingly tedious work, Mae is in hog heaven. She left a job doing tedious work in a depressing environment with minimal support, and so this job personalizing boilerplate responses in a fascinating place with the opportunity to move up is a dream. The Circle is a utopian workplace where engineers are given free rein to experiment, where great minds and performing artists come to hang out, and where one gets handsomely rewarded for playing on one’s social media at work. All one needs to thrive at the Circle is a sharp mind and a willingness to accept that one’s days of privacy and solitude are behind one.

The Circle is the dystopia that some would say we are on the cusp of and others think we’ve already plunged into. It’s not Orwell’s gray dystopia of brutal state force. Neither is it Huxley’s bright and shiny dystopia of drugs and free loving. It’s a dystopia in which people willingly give up all privacy and negate the need for a neo-KGB by posting every idiotic thing that they do directly to the worldwide web. However, as in Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we see that the most nefarious character isn’t necessarily the most dangerous. The Circle is headed by an executive trinity. There’s the tech genius who we know little about until the book’s end–except that his life runs contrary to what the Circle seeks in its employees in that he’s fiercely private to the point of being mysterious. There is Tom Stenton who is the face of greedy capitalism, a loathsome character in every way imaginable. However, the real danger comes from the likable–and seemingly reasonable–Eamon Bailey who’s an idealist who thinks that people can perfect if they have no shadows in which to make mischief.

Mae is introduced to us as a likable character. She’s a hardworking but human girl next door. When we are introduced to Mercer, her ex-boyfriend and the face anti-Circle-ism, we assume that she’s being reasonable in her dislike of him. Even though he sounds reasonable, she knows him. Mercer rails against this corporatized surveillance state, and initially one may not be able to tell whether he’s a Luddite or the voice of reason. As the story goes on, however, the reader is likely to like Mercer more and more and Mae less and less. But the question remains until the end whether Mae will do the right thing as she becomes aware of the full—disturbing–picture of the Circle.

I got engrossed in this book. It’s absorbing both because of good character development and an intriguing story. That’s probably why the novel was made into a film that came out earlier in the year. It’s one of those books with the readability of popular commercial fiction, but which provides some food for thought. Some of the twists you may figure out, but the book keeps one wondering until the reveals.

I’d recommend this book for fiction readers—particularly if you have any pictures on social media with a drink in your hand or bad judgement in progress.

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The movie trailer, if you’re interested:

BOOK REVIEW: Wired to Grow by Britt Andreatta

Wired to GrowWired to Grow by Britt Andreatta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is one of those books that is hard to rate and review. It does a thing well, and if one is looking for a book of its strengths, it’ll serve one well. That thing it does well is to concisely and clearly summarize research in neuroscience relevant to learning new skills. If that is something one is interested in, and one hasn’t done much reading on the subject yet, this book will get one up to speed in just over 100 pages while offering insight into where to go to flesh out what one has learned.

That said, if one has read up on pop-sci neuroscience and /or self-help books applying said research, one is likely to find that this book offers little value-added while lacking the depth and narrative approach of competing works. The latter is particularly intriguing as this is a book about effective learning, and it seems clear that humans like learning through stories. However, Andreatta does little story telling beyond brief mentions of approaches she’s used in her seminars and occasional recaps of the stories of the researchers whose work she’s drawn upon. Some may find this isn’t so bad because it keeps the book compact. Story telling is page intensive. On the other hand, a lack of story-telling means that the material is a bit less prone to stick than it might otherwise be.

The author’s approach to making the material stick is to hang it on a three-phase model (learn-remember-do) and to keep it brief. Many of the chapters consist largely of bullet points, and in places the book feels like a PowerPoint handout. (I’ll let the reader decide whether that’s a good thing or not.)

The book is organized into twenty chapters arranged in five parts. (That tells one a lot about the brevity of chapters, given the book is 102 pp.) The five parts consist of: I.) an overview of neuroscientific fundamentals; II.) a description of research related to the “learn” phase of Andreatta’s model; III.) the same for the “remember” phase; IV.) coverage of the “do” phase; and V.) a section called “design” that helps the reader to apply what they’ve learned in the earlier parts to build approaches to teaching and learning.

There is some useful ancillary material. First, there are many graphics of a variety of types (pictures, line drawings, tables, and graphs) that are nicely drawn and effective. Second, there are “Your Learning Journey” sections interspersed throughout the book. These are one page or less exercises that are designed to help one put one’s learning to use. Thirdly, there is a bibliography that includes crucial reference materials divided by type: i.e. journal / scholarly research, books, journalistic / media accounts, and cited scholars. Finally, there are apparently additional resources accessible online, e.g. downloadable pdf files, but I didn’t investigate these features.

I would recommend this book for those looking for a concise summary of recent developments in neuroscience as they apply to education and learning. If you’re well-read on the subject, however, you might not find that this book delivers much extra. It should be noted that the author is speaking from an educator’s perspective (i.e. not a scientist or psychologist) and readers may find that a plus or not.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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