BOOK REVIEW: A Brief History of Vice by Robert Evans

A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built CivilizationA Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization by Robert Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s title and subtitle suggest its central theme, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. As the title suggests, drugs, sex, and sundry bad behavior aren’t just the abhorrent actions of a marginalized few who society seeks to reign in. In some cases, culture and civilization are built on said behaviors. Evans devotes a fair amount of space to discussing research on vices’s role in the growth of civilization. These hypotheses and theories run a gamut from the non-controversial and well-established to more sweeping claims such as that the agricultural revolution was largely driven by the dictates of beer production (i.e. both the need to produce a lot of grain and to be homebodies through the fermentation process) and that the dawn of religion may be linked to the ingestion of mushrooms of the magic variety. Despite the book’s light and humorous tone, it should be noted that the author treats the latter type of claims with the requisite skepticism.

But this isn’t just a book of history, anthropology, and evolutionary biology as pertains to the origins of vice and its linkage to civilization and culture; it also offers humorous anecdotes of the author’s experiments into how to replicate some of the vices of the ancients – as well as offering step-by-step directions for readers to conduct their own such investigations. As might be expected, there’s a lot of humor in the book. Just the idea of debauchery building civilization offers plenty of opportunity for the subversion of expectations that makes comedy, but then one adds in stories of people (and occasionally other species) making decisions under the influence of mind and mood altering substances (or even under the influence of horniness) and one enters territory ripe for hilarity.

The book consists of 15 chapters that cover both expected and unexpected topics. Not surprisingly, discussion of drugs – legal and illicit — takes up a large portion of the book. [I should make clear that the discussion of illegal substances is purely historical, and the “how-to” sections describe “experiments” that were legal in the author’s jurisdiction and that will be for most readers.] Ten chapters are about various consciousness and mood altering substances including: alcohol (ch. 1 & 4), psychedelic substances (ch. 7, 8, and 10), tobacco and marijuana (ch. 9; treated together because historically they had more in common than in their modern use / legal status), the ephedra shrub and derived products ranging from Mormon tea to Methamphetamine (ch. 11), coffee and caffeine (ch. 12), designer drugs ranging from ayahuasca [made from two different plants that don’t live together and which only work when used together] through pain killers and on to the dangerous scourge of synthesized substances created in labs to get around drug laws for a few days until they will be added to the schedule of illegal substances.) The final chapter (ch. 15) is devoted to the search for the mythical salamander brandy of Slovenia (claimed to have hallucinogenic qualities owing to a toxin emitted by the submerged reptile.) I should point out that I have oversimplified with this division of chapters for simplicity’s sake. Some of the chapters dealt with more than one type of substance. For example, Chapter 10 is really about drug cultures and how they kept people safe in, for example, shamanic tribal societies, and how the loss of such culture is part of the reason we have a more severe problem with substances in modern society.

No investigation into the role of vice on civilization would be complete without discussing sex, though there are only two chapters about it. The first, chapter 6, discusses prostitution / sex work. There’s a widespread tongue-in-cheek reference to “the world’s oldest profession” that hints that sex work is both ancient and that past civilizations sometimes viewed these activities in a much different light than do we in modern, Western society. The second chapter on sex, chapter 13, addresses a different question altogether, but one which has captured the attention of many a scholar (as well as being fruitful territory for humorists), and that’s why there’s such a vast range of sexually titillating activities. It’s not difficult to figure out the evolutionary advantage of extreme pleasure being linked to sexual intercourse. However, it’s much less clear why there are such a huge range of fetish behaviors that are intensely arousing for some while ranging from being boring to disgusting for others. [It’s not cleared up by thinking that there is just a tiny fraction of the population that is into everything. A person who gets excited by wearing a head-to-toe rubber suit while being failed with a halibut might find a foot fetish utterly disgusting.]

For those who are counting, that leaves three chapters on miscellaneous forms of vice. Chapter 2 discusses music, particularly as a lubricant of social activities, and it presents an intriguing theory that Stonehenge may have been built for its acoustic qualities – i.e. to facilitate ancient raves. Chapter 3 explores celebrity worship, an activity which we tend to think of as both recent and as harbinger of doom for humanity, but which actually has a long history – so long that it may date back further than humanity, itself, does. That leaves chapter five, which delves into a grab-bag of bad habits that would today be collectively labeled “douchiness.” This includes narcissism, inexplicable overconfidence, and a tendency toward lying, bragging, and delusions about self or others.

The book has a range of graphics from photographs to diagrams. Some are for educational purposes (e.g. to help the reader conduct their own experiments) and some are mostly for comedic effect. The “side-bar” discussions of how to reproduced the results of the ancients (and the author, himself) are presented in text-boxes for the sake of clarity. There are one or two of these text-boxes in most chapters. As mentioned, the subjects for these “hands-on” activities are chosen to avoid running afoul of the law.

I enjoyed this book. It’s at once amusing and thought-provoking. I think the author hits a nice medium between doling out humor and educating the reader. I’d recommend reading it (though not necessarily conducting every one of the experiments) for anyone who finds the subject intriguing.

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5 Ways to Flummox Your Adversary

5.) Acknowledge that there is a universe in which his or her point is valid: However, tell your adversary that this is contingent upon theoretical physicists being correct that there are an infinite number of universes, each governed by a different set of laws–at least a some of which would have to be stupid. This is called the bubble-verse flummox.



4.) Challenge him or her to a duel: This will require that you carry a well-worn leather glove wherever you go. For it’s not so much the words that produce an effect as the slap across the cheek. You are going for decibels. You can’t pull this off with a cotton glove, a rusty metal gauntlet, or a stiff leather work-glove. You need the glove to have some weight and to be able to put some whip into it. This is called the Aaron Burr.



3.) Talk to your adversary as if that person were a beloved household pet. This will involve both head tousling and inquiries as to, “Who’s a good boy?” It’s called the canine gambit.



2.) Ask your adversary whether he or she is trying to seduce you. It doesn’t matter how mundane or technical the subject is (trade pacts, non-proliferation agreement, etc.), this one is almost guaranteed to shut down opposition. It’s called the Mrs. Robinson.



1.) Say, “The game is afoot!” and then just walk off. It’s very important that you don’t respond to any question about what this means or whether you’re insane. Furthermore, one must break off all contact with the adversary for several days there after. Stew time is necessary. I call this one, The Sherlock.sherlock

DAILY PHOTO: Best. Zoo. Signage. Ever.

Taken in Mysore in October of 2013

Taken at the  Mysore Zoo in October of 2013

Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens (i.e. the Mysore Zoo) wins the award for the most clever (and most gruesome) signage at a zoo.


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BOOK REVIEW: Inside Jokes by Matthew M. Hurley, et. al.

Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the MindInside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Matthew M. Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This book examines the science of why we find funny what we find funny. Most people probably feel about this as did E.B. White who said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Still, while analyzing humor may not be as fun as reveling in it, it’s fascinating to scientifically inquiring minds.

Humor is universal (not the humor of a specific joke, but the experience of somethings being humorous.) A skilled science fiction writer might conjure up an alien race that is credibly humorless. But it defies credulity that even the remotest of aboriginal Earthling wouldn’t giggle or guffaw at the sight of an off-course ball careening into an unsuspecting man’s crotch. Humor’s universality begs certain questions. First and foremost, one expects there to be some evolutionary advantage to a sense of humor. That evolutionary mechanism is precisely what Hurley, Dennett, and Adams attempt to demonstrate in this book. The authors suggest that the pleasure associated with humor is a reward for recognizing an incongruity, and they go into great deal to fill in the details needed to explain the panoply of things people find funny, while suggesting why alternate explanations are inferior.

While there’s a lot of frog-killing academic analytics and needlessly messy scholarly language, this book does offer a vast collection of examples of humor to support and clarify the authors’ points. So, unlike many books on evolutionary and cognitive science, this book does have a built-in light side. WARNING: there’s also a discussion of why some attempts at humor fail. This means one is also subjected to a number of puns, elementary school jokes, and comedic misfires that show the reader why sometimes humor implodes.

The book starts by building a common understanding of what humor is. It turns out that this isn’t simple because people find many different kinds of things funny–from caricatures to wordplay. (And, whatever the initial evolutionary purpose of humor, our species has run with that reward system to places that couldn’t have been readily anticipated.) Next, the authors discuss the many varieties of theories of humor that have been raised. This subject has been studied for some time, and thinkers have suggested that humor’s pleasure derives from a number of different causes from feeling superior to recognizing surprise–just to name a couple. After considering the competition, Hurley et. al. start laying out the basis of a cognitive / evolutionary explanation. In chapter five they describe 20 questions they think must be dealt with, and–in the last chapter (13)–they give their responses as a summation of the book’s main points. Along the way, the authors take on important related questions such as why humor sometimes fails, what others will see as the weakness of their argument, whether a robot could be humorous, and why we laugh. The last point opens another can of worms. Even if one concludes–as the authors have–that humor is a reward system for recognizing incongruities, the question of why there is an advantage to spontaneously announcing that recognition still arises.

There’re are a few graphics in the book, mostly these are cartoons and humorous photos that serve as examples. The book is published by MIT Press, so all the usual scholarly features of notes and citations apply.

I found this book to be thought-provoking, and the plentiful examples of jokes made it enjoyable to read as well. I’d recommend it for those interested in the science of the mind. It’s a bit dry in places for readers looking for light reading about humor.

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POEM: The Glazed Eyes of Mega-Mart Refugee

800px-barf_soapI’m like a Pyongyang refugee.
Detergent, far as the eye can see.
In some Seoul department store,
on the cleaning products floor.


I reject your bolder and your brighter
like a Smurf-smashing gorilla fighter.
It’s the same stuff, different box.
I’ll go beat my britches on the rocks.

POEM: To BE… Or Not

Copy of IMG_1580“What do you want to BE when you grow up?”

They ask you when you’re just a little pup.

So, what part of what I must BE,

is different from the me you see?

Dad thought, “the part that they’ll pay you for.”

Like an allowance for finishing a chore?

“Yes, young man, but you can safely assume, 

no one else will pay you to clean your room.”


Kids don’t think of being gainfully employed.


Which seems to make grownups quite annoyed.

At five, I wanted to be a cowboy.

“Son, there’s no jobs in that line of employ.”

That’s OK, then I’ll be an Indian.

“You’d have to be born that way, my friend.”

I wasn’t born a doctor, but you said that’s OK.

“That’s not the same, son, what can I say?”

I know what then, Dad, I’ll be the Batman!

“Come on, son, that’s not a feasible plan.”

You’re thinking Superman, Batman has no powers.

“Bruce Wayne by day, Batman at night, where’s the sleeping hours.”

You have a point there, you’ve got me stumped.

Thinking myself prematurely defunct.

BOOK REVIEW: Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple WordsThing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Allow me the awkward start of explaining two things before offering my lukewarm reception of “Thing Explainer.” First, I loved “What If?” (this author’s previous book.) I thought that book was brilliant, gave it my highest rating, and eagerly anticipated Munroe’s next book (this one.) Second, I didn’t deduct because this book is a pain to read on an e-reader (at least the basic model I have.) That’s on me. I should’ve known better, and accept full responsibility. All I will say on the matter is to recommend that–if you still do want to read this book—you get a hard copy. [If you have an awesome reader, your results may vary.] The hard copy is large-format, and that’s useful because the graphics are so crucial and the text can be hard to read (some of it is light text / dark background and some is dark text / light background.)

The author uses only the most common 1,000 words of the English language to explain the operations of many modern technologies (e.g. laptops and helicopters) and scientific ideas (e.g. the workings of a cell or the sun.) It’s an intriguing question, and I can see why Munroe was interested in it. Can one convey the inner workings of objects like nuclear power plants or a tree with a rudimentary vocabulary? You can. Munroe does. However, the next question is, “Should you?” I come down on the side of “no.”

One might say, “But this is a book for kids [or people with a child-like grasp of language], you aren’t the target demographic.” Perhaps, but the book doesn’t do children any favors because the brainpower needed to puzzle out what the author is trying to convey through imprecise language can be more than is necessary to expand one’s vocabulary. [e.g. What do “tall road” or “shape checker” mean to you? If you went straight to “a bridge” and “a lock,” you may be more in tune with Munroe’s thinking than I, and thus more likely to find this book appealing.] For adults, it’s like reading essays by an eighth-grader who’s in no danger of being picked for the honor roll. Without the combination of the book’s graphics and a general background in science and technology, I suspect the book would be a muddle. I’m not against explaining ideas in simple terms, but I felt the book takes it too far and it becomes a distraction.

On the positive side, the graphics are great—sometimes funny while providing enough detail to get the point across without bogging one down. Also, Munroe’s sense of humor comes through here and there throughout the book (though it’s hampered by the lack of vocabulary.)

The book includes the list of words used as an Appendix (though you obviously won’t find the word “Appendix.”)

If it sounds like something that would interest you, pick it up. It’s hard to say that I’d recommend it, generally speaking. It’s funny and educational, but it’s also distracting and tedious. I neither hated it, nor loved it. I give it the median score of “meh.”

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POEM: Kung Fu Calumny




I have a particular set of skills.

No, not ones that pay the bills.

While Liam Neeson may kick some ass,

my skills are more in the realm of sass.

My course won’t teach you a spinning kick,

or how to head-butt to a brick.

No, nothing so stoic or taciturn,

for mine is the art of the kung fu burn.

If you wish to unleash the power of derision,

tell them their kung fu lacks vigor and precision.

If that has not the effect desired,

tell them their kung fu is sloppy and uninspired.

If you haven’t yet gotten their goat,

tell them their moves makes vomit rise to your throat.

That’s just a sampler; wisdom ain’t free.

But you can learn more for a nominal fee.


Just one thing, whatever you do.

Don’t use against anyone who knows kung fu.

(Even the old ladies who do Tai Chi in the park,

may rip you apart like a school of bull sharks.)

POEM: Memory is a Fickle Cow

brainmemory, she’s a fickle cow

you can never have one in the now


and why are the memories best of those who need them least

should not as your age grows great your memory too increase


an eight year old has no need of keys but he can tell you where they are

for me the point is quite moot cause I’ve forgotten where’s the car


more and more I’m less and less certain of what memories were dreams

I clearly remember posting that bill cause I passed a yeti eating ice-cream


a woman watching 60 Minutes was robbed, but cops called her a loony

you see the old girl was quite sure she’d been burgled by Andy Rooney


now it’s time for me to bring this poem to a close

I had a much better bit but have forgotten how it goes

POEM: Conceit of Man

An elephant will never forget.
No car keys to misplace, I’ll bet.
A tiger is fearless, I will confess,
but it’ll never be audited by the IRS.

An owl may be wise; you can tell by the eyes.
But it’s never asked to comment on the size of a girl’s thighs.
Dolphins are smart ones, that much is true.
But, pray tell, who is in whom’s zoo?

In all domains humans think themselves the greatest.
And we are the very best of sadists.
You’ll never see a bonobo bureaucrat,
nor get tech support from a vampire bat.

At masochism, too, we’re none too shabby.
At the karaoke bar, ever see a tabby?
Ever seen a chimp with a nipple ring?
I’ll tell you now, that’s not a thing.

Our narcissism has grown beyond the pale.
One lifetime to the rocket from the sail
will give any species some cerebral swelling.
I’m not saying our’s isn’t a tale worth telling.
Let’s just make sure it doesn’t turn cautionary.
Basking in awesomeness, one forgets to be wary.
Next thing you know, super-smart apes are getting the itch,
or the Alpha Centaurians have made Earth their bitch.