BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Read the Wilderness by the Nature Study Guild

How to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North AmericaHow to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North America by Nature Study Guild
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: November 22, 2022

This illustrated guide is designed to help readers learn some of the most prolific trees, plants, animals, birds, coastal life forms, and night sky constellations of North America. For plant [and in some cases animal] identification, the book uses a handy flowchart method that asks questions, sending the reader to an appropriate marker depending upon the answer. For wildlife identification, it uses descriptions of not only the animal, but skeletal remains, scat, and tracks. It also gives alternate names and asterisms for constellations.

The pros of this book include: 1.) it focuses on the most common elements and doesn’t get bogged down trying to be all-inclusive; 2.) it uses a flow charts, diagrams, and drawings successfully to do much of the heavy lifting.

The downsides of the book are: 1.) it seems be much more Western US-centric, and often treats everything East of the Rockies as a single zone (not to mention minimal discussion of Canada or Mexico – so maybe it should be thought of more as a US guide;) 2.) in trying to be text-minimal, it occasionally states things in a way that lacks clarity.

If you want to get a basic understanding of the elements of nature for the United States, this book is worth investigating. It’s young reader friendly, but not exclusively so.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyThe Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ripley investigates a range of disasters and tragedies – natural and man-made – with an eye toward her sub-titular question of who survives and why. Of course, in the process she answers the [often more interesting] converse question of who dies and why? By that I’m specifically referring to those who die while facing the same situations as survivors. i.e. Who dies having had the capacity to survive? Obviously, some people fail to survive because they face a fundamentally unsurvivable event (e.g. a plane explodes in mid-air with said person in it), but a surprising number die who could have walked to safety if they’d have managed to get moving – and some die because they play out a mental script that makes no sense contextually, e.g. trying to get a carry-on out of the overhead compartment as though one is at the gate at Heathrow Airport when in fact one is sinking into the ocean while the crashed airliner one is in is being buffeted by ocean waves.

Over the course of eight chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and ancillary material, the author presents cases involving airplane crashes, tsunami, hurricanes, police shootings, hostage situations, fires, stampedes (of humans by humans), and even touches on the psychology of tragedies of a personal [rather than mass] nature (e.g. sexual assault.) A particular emphasis is given to events that the reader will likely be familiar such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but the book also opens up the reader to events they may have scarcely heard of from the many crushing deaths in Mecca during recent Hajj pilgrimages to the Halifax harbor incident of 1917. Along the way, the reader hears from survivors, heroes, and a wide-range of experts on subjects such as gunfights, risk perception, evacuation dynamics, the physics of crowds, evolutionary psychology, and emotional resilience.

After an introduction that sets the context for the book, the first chapter discusses one of the most salient features of whether ones lives or dies, delay. The case of the evacuation of the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001 is used to examine why some people loiter about while others are johnny on the spot to hit the road. The WTC on 9/11 makes an interesting case because there were certainly people who died who could have survived if they’d had better knowledge or training. However, at the same time, it could have also been vastly worse if some of the people didn’t have the training they did (famously, a huge WTC tenant, Morgan Stanley, had a man in charge of emergency procedures, Rick Rescorla, whose persistent drills no doubt saved many lives [though he did not survive, himself.])

Chapter two discusses risk, and the weird way in which human beings perceive and respond to uncertainty. For example, the author describes Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which showed that a person responds to risk much differently if there’s a possibility of losing something rather than only of making gains. (Prior to work of these two social scientists, the prevailing view was that humans were rational actors, i.e. a $100 is a $100.) Prospect theory confirmed that anxiety mattered, and people didn’t just use their clockwork frontal cortex to calculate and compare expected values. (This may seem self-evident, but it began the process of up-ending the precise and predictable rational actor model from classical economics.)

Chapter three is entitled “fear” and it discusses that emotion and the various behaviors (and lack of behavior) that goes hand-in-hand with it, including: distortion of the experience of time, tunnel vision, and self-talk. (Panic and paralysis behaviors are each given their own chapter later in the book.) This chapter presented a fascinating discussion with a man who may have been involved in more shoot outs than any other police officer (the officer, no doubt, having a valuable perspective on how to respond in fearful situations.)

Chapter four is about the personality traits that link to resilience and the survivor personality. There is a fascinating discussion with an undercover agent in Israel, a man who faced a number of situations in which he had to coolly make a life-or-death decision in the way that most of us only experience in Hollywood movies. It should be pointed out that while we all admire such people when they save the day, the personality traits they display aren’t necessarily ones that we find desirable in daily life. Chapter five is entitled “groupthink” and it discusses the role that social dynamics play in survival, which is often considerable. Some survivors are people who would’ve perished if left to their own devices – i.e. if a more resilient stranger hadn’t taken them by the hand or shouted in their face.

The last three chapters discuss three relatively common behaviors that occur in the decisive moment of a tragedy. Chapter six discusses panic behavior. As it happens, there are some types of tragedies in which panic is almost unheard of and others in which it is nearly ubiquitous. Personality does play a role. Just as some people have personality traits that make them more resilient, others have traits that make them more likely to panic. However, researchers also found that there are characteristics – e.g. people feeling trapped but as if there’s a glimmer of hope of escape. [People who know they are unequivocally doomed are often surprisingly calm.] The chapter also offers some useful insights into how crowds kill people that may be useful for those who find themselves in massive crowds like those seen during pilgrimages or at any number of festivals in India (where human stampede deaths are disturbingly common.)

Chapter seven is about “paralysis” behavior. Readers may be familiar that there’s been a tendency of experts to add either one or two new “F’s” to the phrase “fight or flight” – such as “freeze” or “fright” – to describe other extremely common responses to severe sympathetic nervous system engagement. It’s common to dismiss such behavior as that of cowardly or milquetoast people, but the reality is more complex. On the evolutionary timescale, there was one tragedy that counted for an overwhelming percentage of such dire events — being in the jaws of an apex predator. It turns out that if a grizzly bear or lioness is atop you, freezing isn’t a bad strategy. You aren’t going to pop up and out run a tiger or defeat it in unarmed combat, your only hope may be to make it think you are a diseased carcass – i.e. shit yourself and lie limply. One has to train alternative behaviors; otherwise, the body does what is evolutionarily programmed into its genetic code.

The last chapter is on heroic acts and why some people engage in them when most people don’t. (Consider the people in the Titanic lifeboats who listened to people struggle and drown for fear that their [almost empty] boat would be swamped with clawing victims. Or, the case of Catherine Genovese who was screaming bloody murder for half-an-hour while being raped and stabbed to death while none of the 40-ish witnesses so much as called the cops.) As with the question of what makes a survivor, the answer to what makes a hero is a mixed bag. While we tend to idolize people who engage in heroic actions, the evidence suggests that the image of pure beneficence – lacking all self-interest – may be mythical. Many a hero is as much responding with a combination of subconscious mind and genetic programming as is the individual who burns to death 100 feet from an unlocked exit – just to vastly greater adoration.

I found this book to be fascinating. There are many books on this topic, but I think the author did an excellent job of choosing cases and experts to produce an interesting and informative read — even for a reader for whom this literature is not new.

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BOOK REVIEW: Surviving the Extremes by Kenneth Kamler

Surviving the Extremes: What Happens to the Body and Mind at the Limits of Human EnduranceSurviving the Extremes: What Happens to the Body and Mind at the Limits of Human Endurance by Kenneth Kamler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title says it all. This is a book about all that can go wrong with the human body when it’s exposed to the most extreme conditions possible—including places where no human can survive without the benefit of modern technology. The medical science provides plenty of tidbits of fascinating food for thought, but it’s the stories of survival (or, sometimes, the lack thereof)—many of which the author, Kenneth Kamler, M.D., was present for—that make this a gripping non-fiction read.

There are only six chapters, addressing survival in the jungle, on the high seas, in the desert, underwater (diving), high in the mountains, and in space. There’s also a prologue that sets up the book with examples from Dr. Kamler’s experiences at high elevation (specifically Mount Everest.) Each chapter is full of illuminating stories about the threats to human life that exist in all of the aforementioned environments. The author is a hand surgeon who made a secondary specialization through expeditions to extreme environments to deal with the maladies that are largely unknown to the average person’s day-to-day existence—from pulmonary edema to exotic Amazonian parasites. A few of the chapters feature mostly stories of Kamler’s own experiences. These include the chapters on the jungle, deep-sea diving, and high altitude climbing. For other chapters Dr. Kamler draws together fascinating cases of survival and perishment in extreme environments such as living in a life raft on the high seas.

Besides considering what might kill you in extreme places, this book also reflects upon a couple of other interesting tangential questions. First, what adaptations (cultural or physical/genetic) do the locals have who live at or near these extremes that allow them to live? A fascinating example of this seen in the explanation of how Sherpas of the Himalayas differ from the Andean Indians who live at high elevations in terms of their biological adaptations to elevation. These two peoples living under similar conditions share some common adaptations, but other adaptations are quite different. On a related subject, Kamler also looks at what adaptations other species have developed to allow them to be so much more successful in some extreme environments (e.g. seals in water.)

Second, the role that x-factors like belief and will to survive play are never shunted aside as irrelevant anomalies by the author. Kamler devotes an epilogue to the subject of will to survive. Dr. Kamler was at one of the camps above base camp on the day of the 1996 Everest tragedy in which 12 perished. Kamler saw and advised on the treatments of Beck Wethers and other severely frostbitten climbers. Wethers’s story is particularly fascinating as he lay freezing in the snow overnight in a blizzard, apparently snow blind—though it later turned out to be an altitude related problem with an eye surgery (radial keratotomy)—before climbing to his feet and shambling into the wind (his only guide to where the camp might be.) Kamler considers the science of how Wethers neurons might have fired to get him to his feet against what seems like impossible odds, but concedes there’s much we don’t understand about what separates survivors from those who succumb.

I found this book to be fascinating and would recommend it to anyone interested questions of what a human is ultimately capable of. If you’re interested in medicine, biology, or survival, you’ll likely find this book engaging.

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BOOK REVIEW: 98.6 by Cody Lundin

98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive by Cody Lundin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’ve seen the Discovery Channel show Dual Survival, you’re familiar with Cody Lundin. He’s the one who looks like a hippie and is always barefoot. 98.6 is a book designed to prepare readers for a wilderness survival situation. To be clear, this book isn’t about going out for a six-week trek. It’s about going out for a day hike and finding your foot stuck in a bear trap or having your jeep washed away in flashflood. It’s about how to stay alive for as much as a few days while search and rescue teams are looking for you (and how to make sure they do look for you.)

As the title suggests, Lundin focuses on the issue of maintaining the body’s core temperature as the key to short-term survival, and special attention is given to the subjects of hypo- and hyperthermia. Besides dressing appropriately, maintaining core temperature involves requirements such as hydration that may not seem relevant at first blush. The heart of the message is that one has to plan for the worst even on apparently mundane treks or drives into the backwoods. Lundin hammers home the importance of letting others know where one is going and by when one will return. However, the bulk of the space is devoted to suggestions about what to pack in your survival kit.

Lundin takes a light-hearted tone while talking about the dire nature of survival in the wild. Many of the graphics are quirky, caricaturesque line drawings (there are also photos–mostly towards the rear of the book in the discussion of gear and kits.) His writing style is conversational—which is to say that he writes like he talks. While this may induce rage in English teachers, I find it’s only problematic if it leads to misunderstandings. (i.e. In conversation there are fewer opportunities for misunderstanding because there is non-verbal communication and the potential for feedback.) Having said that, I can’t recall any cases in which meaning was unclear, so either Lundin is conscientious about this issue, or his editor did a good job of maintaining his style without losing clarity. The conversational tone involves a lot of analogies and metaphors that are sometimes humorous but sometimes over-the-top.

Lundin’s advice runs toward the pragmatic and the frugal. Survival gadgetry and gear is a huge industry, and Lundin’s guide helps a budget-weary amateur outdoorsman know where it’s worth spending a little extra and where it’s likely to be a waste of money. (In some cases, spending more money will leave one worse off in more areas than the pocket-book.)

Despite his folksy tone, it’s clear that Lundin is no stranger to science. One thing that one will get in his guide that’s uncommon in others is scientific explanations–in lay terms–of why some methods or equipment will or won’t work. This ranges from the physics of space blankets to the psychology of fear to the chemistry of nutrition.

Another strength of this guide is that it gives due attention to the crucial nature of the mind in survival. There are a few early chapters devoted to this. Many guides might give a paragraph to the subject before plowing into survival methods. The problem is that some people may die overwhelmed and unable to keep all that knowledge straight. Tips about keeping one’s head seem worth the space.

In addition to the use of humor and anecdotes, there is a clear attempt to make the information memorable. Lundin uses mnemonic devices to help people ingrain information, and frequently recaps important points. He also has a “Cliff Notes” version at the back of the book that condenses his message down into a few pages.

If you like to spend time outdoors, I’d recommend you pick up this book. Of course, reading a book is not going to keep you alive, you have to practice with the gear you assemble, but the book is an important first step.

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