Quote: “Reading one book, is like eating one potato chip.” – Diane Duane
Nonfiction Social Science: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Several years ago I worked for a cellphone company. One day it was announced that we would be carrying a new product. It was larger than a cellphone but smaller than a computer. It was flat and was mostly a glass screen. You could not make calls with it. It did not have a physical keyboard. Instead it was entirely controlled by touch. I thought at the time, “This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. We’ll never sell these things.” I might have underestimated the appeal of the tablet.
Recognizing my own weaknesses in telling the future, I read Superforecasting with great interest. I was not disappointed! Tetlock and Gardner share insights from years of research with people who have proven themselves to be extraordinary predictors. Not perfect, but much better than average. These are not your news/talk pundits who predict with great certainty what will happen tomorrow, then tomorrow explain with equal certainty why they knew it was not going to happen after all. These are people who volunteered at www.goodjudgment.com to take a series of tests, then participate in a long running study of what goes into making good predictions. This project is ongoing, and new volunteers are welcome.
What sets great forecasters–”superforecasters”–apart from others may be surprising. These are not people who are necessarily possessed of a genius IQ. They are smart, but not always in ways measured by standardized tests. They are not always people with the highest education levels, though most of them did go to college and many completed graduate and doctoral programs. They are not people whose jobs or education prepared them for this. They include housewives and artists, scientists and bureaucrats, and many more walks of life. But they do have certain things in common.
Tetlock and Gardner identify several aspects that comprise the “composite portrait” of a superforecaster. They are cautious, humble, and non-deterministic in outlook. They are actively open-minded, intelligent and knowledgeable, reflective, and numerate (comfortable with numbers). They tend to be pragmatic, analytical, “dragonfly-eyed” (valuing diverse views and synthesizing them into their own), probabilistic (judge using degrees of “maybe”), thoughtful updaters, and good intuitive psychologists. And in their work ethic they have a growth mindset (believing it’s possible to get better) and grit. Not all of these characteristics are weighted equally, but all of them bear on a person’s ability to accurately predict outcomes to challenging questions about the future.
Superforecasting also offers helpful advice to improve the reader’s ability to improve her forecasting talents. Triage is important: weeding out questions that are either too easy to answer or impossible to answer. Choose questions that provide a challenge but are indeed answerable within an appropriate time. Break large problems into smaller, easier to answer questions. Strike a balance between inside and outside views. Avoid under- or overreacting to new information. Look for clashing causal forces at work. There are others, but the concluding advice sums up much of the book: Don’t treat commandments as commandments. Each case is different, and no set of guidelines will work for every situation. Including these guidelines!
Superforecasting was interesting and informative. It kept my attention throughout and I learned a lot. I can’t say I will predict the next “tablet” invention to sweep the world. But I do know a bit more about analyzing my own predictions with humility and information, so maybe I won’t be quite so quick to dismiss the next tablet, either.
Fiction Mystery: Song of the Lion, Anne Hillerman
For decades, Tony Hillerman brought New Mexico to life through the pages of his marvelous books. Featuring Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Hillerman wrote mysteries that shared the beauty of the Navajo nation and its people. Often the landscape itself became a character, with its sacred mountains, its desert climate, and its vast distances between the small towns in the reservation and nearby.
Tony Hillerman died in 2008, but his characters continue to live in new works by his daughter Anne. In her 2017 novel Song of the Lion she continues their story as they work to solve a car bombing. An alumni game has brought past basketball heroes back to Shiprock High School. One of those alumni heroes has apparently also brought an enemy with him, as his car blows up during the game, killing a young man whose connection to the target is unknown. Officer Bernadette Manuelito, wife of Jim Chee and herself a Navajo police officer, is attending the game as a spectator. When the bomb goes off she immediately begins working to secure the scene and help the victim. Afterward, she, her husband, and retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn find themselves protecting the target of the blast and working to solve the mystery. Who wanted to harm the man, now a lawyer in Phoenix? Was this related to the mediation he was involved with over plans for a resort in the Grand Canyon? Who was the dead man, and how did he fit into the situation? Throughout, Hillerman’s characters weave their way through Navajo and other native tribal sensitivities and through the desert Southwest which is the silent but still powerful character in all of the novels.
Anne Hillerman shares the profound respect for the Diné, the Navajo name for themselves, that her father had. You cannot read a Hillerman book without appreciating the care he or she has for the people who inspired those characters. Anne Hillerman may be a bilagáana (white person) herself, but she writes in love and with a deep desire to get it right. Her father was named a “Friend of the Navajo” by the tribal council in the early 1990s, and she clearly works to make sure his legacy and her own continue accordingly.
There is not a bad place to jump into this series. Whether you pick up the latest book (2018’s Cave of Bones) or go all the way back to the beginning (Tony Hillerman’s 1970 The Blessing Way), you will be rewarded by strong characters, intriguing plots, beautiful settings, and the powerful and rich culture of the Diné. Anne Hillerman, like her father Tony Hillerman, can take a standard mystery novel and weave into it the beauty of New Mexico and its native people to create something beautiful.
Growing-up to be an actual astronaut is a daunting and competitive career path considering how many astronauts there really are in the world. So why is it that so many children have dreams of working or living in space? Perhaps it is the adventure that challenges the imagination and compels the dreams — equating the vastness of space with the unlimited opportunities it could provide. The following shared reading book list features both nonfiction/biography books as well as fictional works to inspire your child’s interest in adventures in space.
Ask your child questions about the book cover – encourage your child to make predictions about the story or book information based on the cover elements: title, author, illustrator, picture, book blurb/summary. Share any background information you have about the book, for example: our library newsletter said this said this book won an award for _____.
Asking questions is a great way to make shared reading more interactive. Remember to balance the number of questions asked with the flow of the story, so your child maintains interest in both reading and talking about the book.
Also maintain a balance in the kinds of questions asked. Alternate quiz type questions with question prompts for your child’s input about the story or topic. For instance, if it looks like your child is getting distracted, then point to a picture and ask a simple fact finding question (What color is ___? How many ____ are there? Where is ___?) to draw your child’s attention back to the page and story. In order to deepen understanding or clarify concepts, ask open-ended questions it connect your child to the text and encourage critical thinking (Why do you think the character did ___? How would you feel if ___ happened to you? What do you think will happen if ___?)
You can encourage your child to ask questions about a story or book topic by: wondering aloud about ___, pretending to ask the author about ____, or taking turns asking each other questions during a re-read session. Ask your child to share a simple book review: What was their favorite part of the book? Why? Does this book remind them of any other books?
Provide your child with the opportunity to ask their own questions about a story or book topic. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question. Use that as an opportunity to work together find answers. Model for them a simple research process: writing questions down, looking for answers in credible resources, discussing if you’ve gathered enough information to satisfy your child’s question and curiosity, and then writing down the answer as well as any new questions.
Nonfiction Memoir Ages 8 – 12
LeLand Melvin narrates his journey from NFL draftee, through injuries and accidents, to serving as an astronaut on the International Space Station. There is also a grown-up version of the book.
Words by Chris Hadfield
Pictures by the Fan Brothers
Picture Book Memoir Ages 4- 8
Before Chris Hadfield grew-up to be an astronaut, he was a little boy who was afraid of the dark.
Words by Roda Ahmed
Pictures by Burrington
Picture Book Ages 4 – 8
Celebrates Mae Jemison’s persistance to become the first African-American woman to travel in space.
Nonfiction Biography Ages 10 – 14
Traces the journey of Sally Ride as America’s first woman in space with vivid details that share her personality behind the headlines.
Words by Jeffrey Bennett
Pictures by Michael Carroll
Picture Book, Ages 7 – 9
In this book, Max the dog not only goes to a space station, he also saves it! Note the side text boxes with scientific information which can be shared during or after follow-up re-readings of the story. Part of the 2014 Storytime from Space Project when this book was actually read on the international space station. Also, part of an award winning series of books.
Words and Pictures by Leo Landry
Picture Book, Ages 4 – 7
Nicholas takes a picnic adventure to the moon to enjoy the quiet solitude of space before bedtime. Great for children who need a little quiet time in their routine to re-charge and re-group.
Words and Pictures by Tedd Arnold
Picture Book, Ages 4 – 8
Green Wilma, a frog, and Blooger, a baby space alien, accidentally get their places switched between earth and a space ship. Oops! Can they get home again before supper? Children who enjoy the Hi! Fly Guy series will adore this quirky book. This book was also an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice book and a PBS Storytime featured selection.
Graphic Novel, Ages 8 – 12, First of Series
In a universe populated by cats, a brave team of CatStronauts are on a mission to establish a solar energy power plant on the moon.
Words by Lucy and Stephen Hawking
Illustrated by Garry Parsons
Chapter Book, Ages 8 – 12, First in a Series
Professor Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy co-wrote this series. Best friends George and Annie team-up for an across the universe scavenger hunt discovering the wonders of space and space travel. Includes reference information, essays, and photographs from the latest space research.
Words by Mark Kelly
Pictures by C. P. Payne
The story of Meteor, the mouse, was inspired by an actual mouse that flew with astronaut Mark Kelly on the space shuttle Endeavor.
Science Fiction: Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too, Curtis C. Chen
May is Asian-American History month, so in honor of that we wanted to review one (or more) Asian-American authors on Scintilla. Curtis C. Chen has written two books in his “Kangaroo” series. Both are delightful, funny, and solid science fiction novels with a quick witted protagonist who fancies himself to be part James Bond and part Han Solo–and tries to avoid tendencies toward Inspector Clouseau.
Kangaroo is the code name for an earth-based spy. He is smart, though perhaps more smart-mouthed than wisdom would recommend. He is supported in his field work by Oliver, who handles his high tech gadgets, and Dr. Jessica Chu, who keeps him healthy. And he brings a special talent to his spycraft: the ability to access a parallel universe at will. This allows him to store things (and sometimes people) and access them again at will. No one, including Kangaroo, understands how or why the process works, but as long as the objects can endure space (no gravity, hard vacuum, extreme cold) he can pull them back out when he needs them. He cannot enter the other universe himself, but the ability to pull a lockpick or a squadron of space-suited soldiers out of the air can be incredibly useful in the spy game. Since this alternate dimension is called “the pocket,” it inspired his codename of Kangaroo.
In Waypoint Kangaroo, our hero is on a vacation to Mars that proves to be not very relaxing. When the ship is hijacked and turned into a weapon, an unresponsive hulk aimed toward a Martian city with the intent to destroy it, Kangaroo is the only one who can stop the ship and save both the passengers and the residents on Mars. In the sequel, Waypoint Too, Kangaroo goes on a mission to the moon with Dr. Jessica Chu. They are there to meet an old acquaintance of Dr. Chu’s, but when another contact of hers is murdered and she is accused of the crime, Kangaroo’s fieldwork, pocket universe, and smart mouth are put to the test.
Chen never loses sight of his characters. Science fiction sometimes focuses on the tech to the detriment of the people. Waypoint Kangaroo and Kangaroo Too focus on the characters. Kangaroo is emotional, volatile, and sometimes immature. Dr. Chu is stern, surly, and often frustrated at her patient. The other characters are also well formed and make very human, often unpredictable, decisions. The future envisioned by the Kangaroo novels has sophisticated tech and settlements throughout the solar system, but is populated with the same kind of people that we meet daily. They fall in love and out of love, they drink too much, they fight with their siblings, they support each other and they betray each other. Sometimes they tell bad jokes, sometimes their feelings get hurt, sometimes they make mistakes.
Chen’s Kangaroo novels are fun. They do not take themselves too seriously, but they do show that Curtis Chen is a writer to take seriously. Hopefully there are a lot more Kangaroo novels, and other novels from this young writer, to come.
Nonfiction: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos
Improbable Destinies is a delightful book. It is hard science with a very personal and human touch. Jonathan Losos is an expert in the field: professor of biology, director of the Losos Laboratory, and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (all three positions with Harvard University). His scientific credentials are apparent throughout the book. It is thoroughly researched and referenced, with 10 pages of notes at the end (prefaced with the comment that they are “not exhaustive.”). What is also apparent throughout Improbable Destinies is his love and passion for both the subject and for the people who are involved in evolution research.
In 1989, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an amazing book about evolution. Wonderful Life explored the findings at the Burgess Shale fossil depository. Marvelous creatures abound there, creatures unlike anything we see today. Relics of an explosion of life millennia ago, they tell the story of creatures that inhabited the earth long before the dinosaurs–creatures that for some mysterious reason disappeared in a mass extinction. Gould uses the creatures of the Burgess Shale to make the point that evolution is random. Drawing his metaphor from the iconic Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Gould posits that changing one thing in evolution–removing one “George Bailey” life form or one DNA change or one climate event–from the timeline would result in an entirely different evolutionary outcome.
Gould suggested that testing this hypothesis was essentially impossible. It would require rewinding the clock and allowing millions of years of evolution to unfold again and again to see what the outcome was. But Gould’s conclusions have been challenged in recent years, most notably by Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University (Gould actually is quite effusive in praise of Morris in Wonderful Life, but their professional differences are significant). Morris believes that natural selection has much more predictable outcomes: The Runes of Evolution and The Crucible of Creation. Evolutionary adaptations are responses to natural stimuli, and given the same stimuli we often see very similar life forms evolve. Nose horns work well for rhinos and presumably did so for triceratops. Wings lift bats and birds just as they did pterosaurs. Sharks and whales and tuna all power through seas once patrolled by ichthyosaurs. The outcomes may not be identical, but convergent evolution is clearly powerful.
Historically, from Darwin forward, evolution has been thought to require millennia to observe. This was still true in 1989 when Gould wrote Wonderful Life. However, we are finding that sometimes evolution can be seen in a matter of just a few generations. And in short-lived animals, that may mean a period of just a few years. What happens in a few generations of ground-based lizards if they are stranded on an island full of bushes? Or tree lizards on an island without trees? These are questions that can be answered, at least partially, within the span of a single research grant
Enter Improbable Destinies. Losos is a fan of both Gould and Morris, and his book acknowledges the profound contributions both men have made. He introduces us to new heroes in the field of evolutionary research. His book takes us to research sites in England and the Bahamas and Trinidad and exotic East Lansing. He looks at field studies of plants and lizards and fish and at laboratory experiments with yeast and e coli. Some of these experiments have lasted for decades. In some cases, scientists have even “rewound the clock,” reviving bacteria literally frozen years before in order to see whether the same adaptation occurs in their descendants as was observed in descendants of bacteria from the same source that was not frozen.
Not to give the plot away, but the results are….complex. Science is. And the conclusions Losos draws are essentially that both Gould and Morris are right, and both Gould and Morris are wrong. Convergent evolution is an observable phenomenon. Unique species of anole lizards live on different Caribbean islands, but on each island there are species that share many similar characteristics filling different ecological niches. Cuban anoles that live in trees are different species from Puerto Rican anoles that live in trees, even though they look very similar. Their ecological niche has favored selection of babies that are well adapted to living in trees. Those adaptations make for similarly sized and shaped lizards from island to island, but they are still different species. Equally observable is the one-off life form: there are no real equivalents to platypus or kiwi or any number of other unique animals…including humans. Hairless, bipedal, tool-using apes with large brains may now live all over the earth, but amid the catalog of species they are unique in their adaptations to their environment.
Improbable Destinies is a fascinating book. Part history, part mystery, all science and all amazing. It is written for an adult audience, though scientifically minded tweens and teens would love it as well. And if, like me, you read and loved Gould’s Wonderful Life, this is a fantastic book to bring you up to date on the current state of evolutionary science. I enthusiastically recommend it.
Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos
“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”
― Nora Ephron
Nonfiction: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund
I once thought I was smarter than a chimpanzee. I am, after all, human. I can read a book. I can work with a computer. I can type a review of a book I read on a computer. Those are all things a chimpanzee cannot do.
Then I read Factfulness by Hans Rosling, et al, and I am no longer so certain of my superiority to chimpanzees. In fact, the book unfavorably compares my answers to its opening chapter quiz to the answers given by chimpanzees picking at random. And the reality is that I did not know as much about the world as I thought I did.
Perhaps you don’t either. The quiz asks thirteen multiple-choice questions about the world. The correct answers come directly from UN statistics on disease, wealth and poverty, education, birthrates, life expectancy, and other information that most of us would deem important. Questions include: “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” [a) 20%, b) 40%, c) 60%] and “How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?” [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%], and “How many people in the world have some access to electricity? [a) 20%, b) 50%, c) 80%]. If you picked answers at random, the way a chimpanzee might do, you would expect to average 1 out of 3 correct answers. Most of us do much worse. By the way, in each of those questions, the correct answer is the largest number. Sixty percent of girls worldwide finish primary school (additionally, the average number of school years completed by 30-year-old women is 9, only one behind the 10 years completed by 30-year-old men on average). Eighty percent of the world’s babies have had at least one vaccination. And eighty percent of the world has access to at least some electricity.
This book is full of positive information. Although population is increasing worldwide, birthrates are down. The reason population is increasing is that fewer people are dying in childhood. Incomes around the world are increasing, and they are increasing the fastest in some of the areas we might least expect. Deaths from natural disasters and infectious diseases and wars are also at historic lows.
This is not to say that everything is great or that there are no challenges. Rosling uses the analogy of an infant in an incubator. A premature infant may be put in an incubator and after a week go from 2 to 3 pounds in weight. That does not mean we should remove the baby from the incubator. Things are not yet good. But they are improving. They are on a positive track. We have reasons to be hopeful.
Rosling uses examples from his long career in public health and his own life growing up in Sweden to make his points. As a child, he fell into an open sewage ditch and almost drowned. In Sweden. It was a time when modern sanitation facilities were uncommon and there were no laws requiring open ditches be fenced off to prevent toddlers from wandering into them. Those days are long gone in Sweden–but not so long gone that he could not remember them. He equated the Sweden of his childhood to Egypt of today. His grandparents were born into a Sweden that had more similarities to present-day Lesotho, Africa, (one of the poorest countries in the world) than it does to the current modern wealthy country in Europe. Other countries around the world have made an even faster transition from poverty to wealth: Malaysia and Singapore and South Korea among them.
In fact, most people in the world live in “middle income” countries. That is not to say they are “middle class” in the American or European sense, but neither are they crushed by the total poverty that may have been their lot a generation ago. They have enough money for regular meals. They have access to enough electricity to cook their food. They can afford decent shoes. Their children don’t have to work and are instead in school, offering hope for a still better future. They may even be able to take their families to the occasional movie, or afford a small television. They have indoor plumbing. These basics may not be the stuff of dreams for Americans, but they are life-changing for many around the world, and they are now commonplace where just a few decades ago they were unattainable.
So why are we so ignorant about the world? Rosling posits several reasons. One is simply that we haven’t been told. Educators often work from outdated textbooks which still show data from years ago. Journalists cover “news,” and small, incremental, steady improvements don’t qualify as newsworthy. A plane crash is news–it is dramatic, it is unusual, and it catches our attention. But the takeaway should be that it is rare. 2016 was the safest year for air travel in history. There were only 10 commercial airline crashes worldwide, despite there being more flights than ever before. That is good news, but the safe arrival of a plane is not going to get much attention from headline writers.
More challenging is overcoming our own biases. If you were to ask most people from wealthy countries, they would reflexively say that highly religious people have more children than more secular people. That is not entirely wrong, but it is hardly cut and dried. Iran, home of the Ayatollah and ruled by theocracy, has a lower birthrate than the United States. A much greater predictor of birthrate than religion is income. Extremely poor people tend to have more babies for two reasons: 1) the need for child labor, and 2) the need to replace children who die young. As Iran and other countries have moved from low to middle income, child labor has become less necessary and infant and child mortality has decreased significantly. Rather than assuming that someone’s religion (or ethnicity or skin color or any other artificial distinction) means that they are destined to a particular kind of life, we should look at the facts and let them speak to our expectations. Reality can be very different than we think.
I wholeheartedly recommend Factfulness! It will make you think. It will give you hope. It will help you see the world differently. I also recommend visiting the authors’ website https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix to see comparisons between people of similar incomes around the world. If you think people around the world are very different, this website will challenge your assumptions. You can also follow up by watching the authors’ TED Talks (one is at https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world). If you are curious about the world, if you are depressed about the current state of affairs and thinking things are just going from bad to worse, or if you begin to think you know more than a chimpanzee, this book is for you.
Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund
Nonfiction: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
Despite its subtitle, Attached is in many ways a book about the “old art” of love rather than the “new science” of adult attachment. It is an easy to read self-help book, but that is not to make light of nor diminish its value. On the contrary, its approachable style and encouraging message should make it very useful for people looking for a relationship and for people who want to improve their relationships.
Attached divides people into three broad categories based on their “attachment styles.” “Secure” people comprise roughly one-half the population. They are people who generally enjoy intimacy and are not afraid of it. They communicate their needs effectively and care deeply about meeting the needs of those they love. “Anxious” people crave intimacy but struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs. They tend to blame themselves for any problems in their relationships. “Avoidant” people are just the opposite: they fear intimacy. They may also struggle to effectively communicate or advocate for their own needs, but unlike anxious people they will blame the other party for any problems in the relationship. One very helpful (if sobering) point the book repeatedly makes is that anxious and avoidant people are often drawn to each other, usually in ways that are mutually unhealthy. The avoidant person tends to give mixed messages about their desires, which anxious people will misinterpret as an invitation to try a little harder–something they are hardwired to do. This is a challenging pattern that is hard for both sides to break.
Throughout the book are quizzes designed to help you determine which attachment style describes you. The book is non-judgmental. All three attachment styles are evolutionary responses to environmental stimuli. In regions of great danger, where life is short and violent, an avoidant attachment style is invaluable. If one cannot emotionally move on from a relationship that ends prematurely, the species is threatened. That gift in those troubling circumstances can be a burden in a less traumatic civilization. Other dangers are perhaps less life-threatening, but require a tightly connected family unit in order to successfully navigate them. The anxious style forges that tight unit and promotes looking out for unseen dangers facing our loved ones. That, too, can be a burden in safer environments. Most human societies are more stable and interdependent, where a secure attachment style reinforces that stability. But we all carry the DNA that can express itself in any of the three styles.
Attached makes the point that successful relationships can occur no matter what your attachment style is. A major contributor to success is effective communication. This can be a challenge for anyone, but the book’s examples and tips are designed to encourage even the most timid to take this essential step.
I think that many authors have addressed similar relationship issues over the years. Several have written about the “Five Love Languages,” which at its heart is Attached but with additional subdivisions. Attached, though, does bring some fresh scientific (and non-religious) perspective to the conversation. It may not be quite as personal as “Dear Abby” or “Dear Anne,” but it does give specific tools and goals for improving your current relationship or for improving your chance at long-term love.