Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, Jonathan B. Losos

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

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Nonfiction: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan 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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos

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

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

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Nonfiction: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans 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.

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Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkHans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

 

 

 

Book Review: Attached, Levine and Heller

Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

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Nonfiction: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Loveby 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.

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Book Review: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love, Levine & Heller

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

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Nonfiction Science: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman

 

Theoretical physicist. Novelist. Professor of both science and humanities. These are the biographical bona fides of Alan Lightman, author of National Book Award Finalist novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” But the author of Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is also profoundly human, and questions of the eternal, the immutable, the transcendent, dwell in his mind as they do in the minds of most people.

 

Searching for Stars is a deeply personal book. Lightman considers questions of faith and eternity from the perspective of a scientist, but also from the perspective of a man entering his later years. Science answers many questions for us, but certain ultimate questions cannot be empirically answered or experimentally tested. Lightman recounts conversations with persons of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. He looks at sacred texts from those faiths. I cannot say he finds the answers he is looking for, but the process of asking the questions is intimate and compelling.

 

One answer Lightman does find is that science itself is an act of faith. Every faith holds central a series of absolutes: doctrines and credos which may not be provable but are inseparable from the faith itself. For example, Jesus cannot be removed from Christianity. You can have faith, you can even share many of the tenets of Christianity, but without Jesus you have something other, something different from Christianity. Science also has absolutes. One of those is that natural laws always work. If they don’t work, they are not laws. Gravity is always gravity. It always works. It doesn’t take days off, it doesn’t work on earth but not on Alpha Centauri. Because natural laws always work, they allow us to predict natural behaviors. Planetary orbits can be determined mathematically because gravity is a constant. Alterations in orbits indicate other factors at play, such as the presence of moons, another planet, or quantum forces. When those other factors are accounted for, measurements confirm predictions. The law is the law.

 

Ultimately, though, we cannot “prove” that natural laws always work. It is possible, if only as an intellectual exercise, that somewhere in the universe is a place that does not obey the laws of gravity. Or those laws work every day of the week except Tuesday. But it is impossible to account for such a place, because every measurement we have, every theory we hold, every experiment we run, every observation we make both confirms natural law to work AND relies upon it working. We cannot escape the framework in which natural laws work without them no longer working. Thus, at the core of science, is an absolute that cannot be proven or disproven, but must rely upon faith.

 

If science itself is built upon a core belief, what implication does that have upon other articles of faith? Perhaps none. But Lightman speculates that perhaps scientists should employ a little more humility than some do when it regards areas of faith.

 

Lightman’s musings on meaning touched me deeply. He wonders whether impermanence is equal to irrelevance, a question I suspect every person asks as she or he ages. Has my life mattered? What defines this? Will I be remembered? If a civilization of ants lasted for 100 years, built an amazing city full of beautiful architecture, stunning works of art, literature, philosophy, then was completely wiped out by a storm leaving no trace of their existence, did they “matter”? Those are not questions science can answer, and Lightman knows this. Meaning and purpose cannot be measured or calculated. Each person will have to search for those stars in their own personal quest.

 

Searching for Stars is a beautiful, unexpected book. I can’t say Lightman found everything he was looking for. But sharing his journey with us is a gift, one that can encourage us all to explore those questions with every tool available to us.

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Book Review: Searching for Stars on an Island in MaineAlan Lightman

 

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke

Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

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Nonfiction Science: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

 

Lucy Cooke’s engaging book The Truth About Animals is one of those delightful books that can make you laugh out loud and then cringe in horror a moment later. Filled with research, personal anecdotes, quotes from historical naturalists (and sometimes “naturalists” in the absolute broadest sense of the word), contemporary scientists, the book looks at the lives, myths, and behaviors of several types of animals. In the process, Cooke reveals more than a little about the human animal as well.

 

Cooke is a filmmaker who has worked on many nature shows and has an advanced degree in zoology from Oxford. Her writing is fresh and engaging, full of humor. She pokes fun at animal myths and the creators and propagators of those myths. In a hilarious chapter about beavers, she shares a long believed story that beavers will, when being chased by hunters, bite off their own testicles and throw them at the hunters in order to end the hunt (the theory being that beavers knew their testicles were the reason they were being hunted). Delightfully, one of the naturalists who wrote about this “behavior” of the beavers coined a word to describe it: eunachate. (It is a travesty of modern communication that the word “eunachate” has not entered the common vernacular, but perhaps there is still opportunity.) Happily, beavers do not self eunachate in order to dissuade hunters, but the beavers’ musk glands (often confused by early naturalists with gonads) can be used for a number of unexpected purposes, including a source of “all natural vanilla flavoring.” That’s according to the FDA–after all, it is all natural. Early naturalists also ascribed medicinal properties to these glands. In a brave work of journalistic thoroughness, Cooke actually ordered and ate a beaver’s musk gland to test the efficacy of it as a headache remedy. It did not alleviate her headache, but it did result in a sustained period of passing gas with an extraordinary smell.

 

As the above paragraph shows, Cooke’s tone is earthy and sometimes ribald. The Truth About Animals would be a fantastic gift to a precocious, nature-loving middle schooler. It is written for adults. Cooke, however, is a gifted story-teller, and although most children (frankly, many adults) might need a dictionary at hand for the occasional new vocabulary word, her stories engage and enthrall the reader. I would love to have had a book like this as a tween, and at least one of our children would have adored it at that age. Parents should review the book first to gauge its appropriateness for their own children, of course, since every family is unique.

 

Many animal myths originated as moralistic parables. Penguins are sometimes still upheld as examples for “Christian” marriage because the belief is that they mate for life. (This myth was at the center of the movie, “March of the Penguins,” which despite Morgan Freeman’s narration was not particularly accurate in depicting penguin life.) Reality is somewhat different. Some penguin species are more faithful than most creatures. Others, not so much. Female penguins have been observed trading sex for nesting stones from unattached males. Both male and female penguins have created long-term same-sex bonds. Males, in the heat of mating season, have even been observed having sex with dead bodies. Although we humans may want to use animal behavior to illustrate “good” and “evil,” Cooke makes the point often that these illustrations tell us more about ourselves than they do about the animals. The animals are neither good nor evil. They are just animals.

 

Some myths come from observing animals out of context. Chimpanzee behavior has long been misunderstood because their behavior in captivity is radically different from their behavior in zoos. Pandas in the wild act nothing like pandas in captivity, which bodes ill for hopes to raise captive pandas and introduce them back into nature. Human actions also impact animal behaviors and even territory. Colombia now has a wild population of hippos, thanks to deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar. Leftover from a menagerie on his property, escapees are finding the jungles of South America to be even more hospitable than their native African range (fewer droughts and smaller crocodiles are among the benefits).

 

Human actions have led to some insights, though. Would we know that sloths could swim if a biologist in the 1920s hadn’t tested the theory by tossing some into a river? Fortunately for the sloths, this experiment succeeded. Other experiments were much more cruel to the animals: starving them, blinding them, surgeries without anesthetic, etc. Efforts to weaponize bats during World War II failed spectacularly when wayward bats armed with bombs blew up the facility where they were being held–and sent the general’s car into oblivion. And some experiments, thankfully, did not succeed: efforts to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid never came to fruition.

 

The Truth About Animals is a fun book. I laughed aloud as I read some passages, and laughed again when I read those passages aloud to my family. Cooke is a wonderful writer. The book is thoroughly researched but never pedantic. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Book Review: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of WildlifeLucy Cooke

Book Review: Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

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Nonfiction History: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

What could be more “spring” than the tulip? Sprouting up through the snows of March and April, the leaves give promise to the arrival of the beautiful flowers later in the spring. Heralding the end of spring and the beginning of summer, tulips might have been made for Mother’s Day.

 

No place is more associated with tulips than the Netherlands. Iconic pictures of tulip fields with windmills in the background evoke the low countries as much as do wooden shoes and massive sea-dikes. For historians and economists, those pictures of tulip fields also remind them of the Tulip Mania period of Dutch history. During the mid-1630s, prices of individual tulip bulbs soared precipitously. Fortunes were made and lost. Bulbs were sold for the price equivalent of several acres of land, or for several months’ or even years’ wages of an average citizen.

 

Tulip bulbs first made their way into western Europe from Turkey, particularly from the courts and royal gardens of the Ottoman Empire. Easy to move, easy to grow, and (from bulbs) quick to flower, they became very popular everywhere they were introduced. Their vivid colors, their hardiness in cooler European climates, and their shapely form (often poetically compared to female anatomy) made them a favorite among horticulturalists and gardeners alike. For both novice and experienced gardeners they are a rewarding feature in almost any landscape.

 

Although it’s uncertain where they first became subject to the Mosaic virus, tulips in Western Europe would randomly become “broken” because of illness. The virus affected the longevity and the overall health of the plant, but it also created uniquely colored and patterned flowers. Thus, gardeners would sometimes plant a tulip of one color and realize a flower that was very different. These flowers would often, but not always, replicate the same features in their offsets. Although the science had not yet discovered genetics nor viruses, growers tried to propagate these happy accidents. Since tulip bulbs will create offsets, they were often successful since the offsets are essentially clones of the original bulb and if the original bulb is infected, they usually were as well. Despite being sick with a virus, the color variations and uniqueness of these ill flowers increased the demand for them, and since the illness shortened the life expectancy and the productivity (in creation of offsets) of the infected plants, it also reduced the supply.

 

Early in the 1630s, demand for these unique tulips infected with the Mosaic virus began to increase. This coincided with the introduction of a “futures” market. Tulips could be purchased on speculation and then sold again on speculation without either the buyer or the seller actually physically owning a bulb. Most of these transactions occurred in the backroom of taverns in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and other towns in what is now the Netherlands. These tavern transactions kept them out of the mainstream economy. No doubt they were of great importance, economically and otherwise, to the participants. But they occurred within a sort of shadow economy beyond legal recognition or regulation and without the participation of the real movers and shakers among Dutch.  This no doubt allowed the mania to flower (pun intended), but it also protected the country as a whole when it eventually withered (yes, I did it again).

 

And wither it did. The height of the speculative pricing for the tulips was reached in January, 1637. In February, it suddenly stopped. Tulips that a month before could not be purchased for almost any price now could not be sold for any price. Buyers that in January were willing to mortgage their houses to pay for a few bulbs were unwilling to pay pocket change for those same bulbs in February. The result: people were left owing a fortune to growers with no way to pay them back. Growers were left with paper IOUs equivalent to millions of today’s dollars, and with fields of tulips that no one wanted to buy any more.

 

It’s easy to look back and laugh at the folly, but this was the first “bubble” and crash seen in the modern economic system. In many ways it was a harbinger for future stock and dot.com and housing bubbles that were to come. Buy low and sell high is great advice, and is usually only obvious in hindsight. If the lessons taught by these backroom deals in Dutch taverns were easily learned, we likely would have mastered them by now. Any economist or even casual investor can tell you, we have not.

 

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned is that tulips are an investment in beauty. A garden may be enhanced by them, A mother or sweetheart may appreciate a bouquet of them. The Golden Age of the Netherlands hardly noticed this blip in their economy, and because of some (late) regulatory intervention, most investors and growers did not lose everything despite the paper losses they may have incurred. If you want to make a fortune, tulips are not the commodity to buy. But if you want to make a splash around Mother’s Day, it may be the perfect investment.

 

Mike Dash’s book Tulipomania covers the history of the flower, from its emergence in Ottoman gardens to its spread into western Europe to its central place in the craze of 1630s Dutch speculation. Although the book is sometimes a bit dry and academic, it does a good job of emphasizing both how intense the mania was and yet how peripheral it was to the overall economic health of the affected areas. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to the subject, I recommend Tulipomania as a good starting point.

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Book Review: Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, Mike Dash

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

Book Review: The Myth of Race, Robert Wald Sussman

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Robert Wald Sussman

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In “The Myth of Race,” Robert Wald Sussman traces the history of racist philosophy through America. This was a very troubling and challenging book. Racism is hard to eradicate. Scientific evidence shows there is no biological difference between humans that divides them in any meaningful category. Race is simply a social construct. There is every bit as much biological difference between two “white” people or two “black” people as there is between any given “white” or “black” person. Biologically speaking, there is only one race: human.

 

You cannot read the news without seeing the current manifestations of racism continuing. The Supreme Court just heard arguments on the Muslim ban. Nazis held a rally in Georgia, complete with burning swastikas. Last year a white supremacist rally led to the death of a counterprotestor: the president famously commented after her death that there were good people “on both sides.” Racism is far from dead, even though scientifically speaking the idea of “race” is dead.

 

That has not stopped people from using the imprimatur of science to advance policies that treat people differently based upon their skin color, national origin, religious affiliation, etc. In America the obvious example is slavery. For centuries, people were enslaved because their skin color was darker. This was justified in a variety of ways, usually by asserting that “white” people were superior to “black” people. Racist ideology was not satisfied with that broad of a brush, though, and went on to distinguish between types of white people. “Nordic” or “Aryan” people were (by their standards) the best. Physically the strongest and healthiest, mentally the smartest, and morally the purest, these people were born to rule and lead, and other races (including other white races) were lucky to serve them. If that sounds like Nazi ideology to you, you’re right. Sadly, it was also the ideology of many in the United States.

 

Prior to Darwin, those who held this position justified it biblically in one of two ways. The Bible says that humans come from Adam and Eve. Pre-Darwinian racists justified their racism by asserting either a) non-whites had degenerated to some subhuman status by their rebellion against God after creation, or b) non-whites were descended from some subhuman created being that the Bible does not describe. Either way, the conclusion went, they were not fully human and therefore not deserving of treatment as such.

 

Post Darwin, racists felt less compelled to justify their opinions against a Bible which does not support their conclusions, but they continued to conclude that people who did not look like them were inferior or even subhuman. Darwinism inspired a new strategy, though: eugenics. If nature’s goal was survival of the fittest, then government should work to assure that the best (white) only bred with the best. Not only should good families be rewarded, but bad (non-white) families should be discouraged from procreating. Laws preventing immigration from non-European countries were passed. Required sterilization of unworthies was advocated (though seldom carried out). Discussions about forced repatriation to Africa of black Americans were held at the highest levels of government.

 

These were not marginal views held by radicals. US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were part of the eugenics movement. Industrialists like Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were, too. Classes in eugenics were taught in most Ivy League schools, as well as Stanford and almost every university in the south. Major newspapers including the NY Times wrote articles praising eugenics and eugenicists. Since Jews were considered non-white, antiSemitism was rampant. Many US firms provided material support to Nazi Germany at least until the US entered the war (evidence shows some even provided support to both sides after the US began fighting). This was not just an act of profiteering: contemporary documents show a great deal of sympathy for the Nazi positions of sterilization and genocide of undesirables. Many white Americans saw Nazism as necessary to defend the “white race” against Jews, “Mediterraneans,” “Eastern Europeans,” and, of course, people of color from around the world.

 

One of the few exceptions to this was in Columbia University, where Franz Boas became a professor of anthropology. He was one of the first to scientifically show that the basis for racism was unscientific and illogical. His work formed the foundation for modern anthropology. His students (one of whom was Margaret Mead) went on to shape the discussion of race and humanity for generations. Boas’ impact is still felt today, a full century later. One historian said, “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” After reading this book, I can believe it.

The Myth of Race is a sobering look at racism in America. Sadly, it is not just a history of the idea. It is a myth that still shapes policy and attitudes today.

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Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Book Review Nonfiction: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

 

I’ll admit, I was hoping to read Nudge and get much smarter about making decisions. That is not exactly what the book delivers. Nudge is more for wonks — geeks focused on government and/or political policy. If you make decisions, set policies, create procedures, or design products that involve choices by other people, then Nudge is definitely for you. If you are looking for guidance in making better decisions for yourself in these matters, well, the lessons are a bit more abstract. Incidentally, Richard H. Thaler, co-author of Nudge, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to behavioral economics, the integration of psychology and economics. For more on the Nobel details see https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2017/press.html

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As an abstract guidance lesson, take the following example from Nudge. Educators in San Marcos, TX, wanted to improve the rates of college admission by graduates from local high schools. Obviously there are any number of things that potentially could have helped: increased emphasis on academic classes, better preparation for college admissions tests, etc. But San Marcos is an area where few parents had ever gone to college. For many students, the idea of college was not something they ever entertained. So San Marcos added a graduation requirement: every graduating student has to complete and submit a college application to the local community college. Counselors from nearby Austin Community College visited with students and helped them complete the application. They also talked to students about how much more money college graduates make (on average) compared to those who only finish high school. They provided financial aid information and assistance with other potential barriers to college attendance. The result: in one year the percentage of San Marcos High graduates who went on to college increased by 11%!

 

That is the kind of Nudge that Thaler and Sunstein are talking about. They coin a phrase, “paternal libertarianism” to describe the type of choice architecture they propose. Anytime a choice is offered, decisions are made as to how those choices are presented. A cafeteria might choose to group foods according to type, according to color, alphabetically, randomly, etc. The location and groupings of the food will influence the choices people make when eating. If it is a school cafeteria, the manager can choose to position the fare in a way that maximizes profit. That, though, may not be in the best health interests of the students. Thaler and Sunstein would propose that consideration must be given to maximizing the health interests of students.

 

The two words of their phrase must balance each other for their proposals to work. “Paternal” implies looking out for the benefit of those making the choices. It assumes that choices can be objectively measured as “better” or “worse.” An insurance plan that covers more medications at a lower price is going to be better than one that covers fewer prescriptions for a higher price, if you are dealing with a population that uses a lot of prescriptions. Thus, if you are presenting insurance plans to (for example) an elderly population, you might “Nudge” them toward making that better choice. This can be done in several ways: listing it first, making it the default choice, advertising it more aggressively, giving it a leading name (perhaps “the BEST insurance”).

 

But they firmly argue that “libertarianism” is equally important. One choice may be objectively better than another for most people, but removing people’s choices is removing their freedom. In the insurance example, they might suggest that the best prescription plan be the default plan for seniors who take a lot of medicine, but they would not want that to be the only choice. What about those seniors who expect to have a lot of surgery but not as many medications? What about those who are in excellent health and would prefer to pay a lower premium? They argue that a nudge is important, but choice is equally important. San Marcos may require applications to the community college, but none of their graduates is obliged to attend. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. That hypothetical cafeteria manager may group foods to encourage healthy eating, but she might still provide the option to eat cake and drink soda. That is a paternal nudge with a libertarian conscience. Those are the types of examples that meet with Thaler and Sunstein’s approval.

 

Individually, the best parts of Nudge describe how humans generally make choices. In a word, they make them poorly. So the authors have some suggestions for fooling ourselves into making better choices. One example is in the area of saving. Americans are particularly bad at saving money. But we are good at making well-intentioned promises. They suggest starting saving with a small, easily managed amount of money. Make the withdrawals automatically on your payday so you never actually see the money in your checking account. Then, set up your IRA (or other savings vehicle) to increase that amount by a percentage every year, kicking in at the same time as your annual raise (assuming you get one). This way the amount withdrawn increases as your income increases, and continues to be “hidden” by not appearing in the checking account.  This does not reduce your choices: you can always change or even cancel this process. But it uses some of our own human weaknesses as leverage to attain a desirable outcome.

 

Although the authors do address objections and concerns within the book, I remained cautious after reading it. I see huge advantages to the kind of Nudge – paternal libertarianism they describe. But I also see the possibilities of less altruistic persons using their choice architecture to lead consumers toward decisions that benefit companies and not people.  The authors use the example of Enron, and the way their retirement benefits were geared toward pushing employees to reinvest their retirement money into Enron stock. They use this as a negative example, and indeed when Enron collapsed many of their employees lost their life savings along with their jobs. The authors encourage companies to do the opposite, to promote diversifying retirement investments and promote strategies that are both safe and employee-focused. Other than altruism, though, I am not sure they make a compelling case for companies to do this, and my experience has made me wary of the altruistic motives of most corporations.

 

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I would love to say that reading Nudge will change the way you make decisions and transform you into a healthier, wealthier, and happier human being. That outcome lies beyond the scope of the authors. However, it does give great insight into how choices can be presented in ways that encourage positive decisions and growth. Nudge is worth the read if for no other reason than to understand the motivators behind our decisions (and those behind our choices to NOT make certain decisions). Perhaps understanding ourselves is the best first step toward making better choices.

Book Review: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

If you are interested in political policy also see

Book Review Nonfiction: Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Amy Chua

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist about Books for Shared Reading with Children

 

Books were an everyday part of my boys’ life from the time that they were very little. Instead of wanting to sleep with a plush toy, they all opted to sleep with their current favorite book at night. And of course, they all tried the flashlight under the covers to read past bedtime trick. When Son #2 was in elementary school, he was devastated to learn that books were for the serious purpose of homework and learning because until he reached 3rd grade, he thought that books were only for fun like toys. Harsh reality of life for the poor little guy in 3rd grade. To encourage a love of books and reading try a few of these books about books, where books and stories are central to the overall plot.

 

Before Shared Reading

Review and label the parts of a book including the little noticed sections like the gutter, end pages, and dedications.  Books also include information about their publishing including the country where the book was actually printed and the fonts or type used for the lettering. If you have a library book edition, you may notice that the brightness of the inks maybe vary depending on the age of the book – recently published books tend to have more vibrant colors while older books have more muted colors due to advances in printing. Exam some of these usually overlooked details to find out something new about the book and how it was made.

 

During Shared Reading

Periodically talk about the importance of stories or books and the role it plays in the overall plot. Also, ask your child how they would feel, if they were in the main character’s place. Would they feel the same way about stories and books?

 

After Shared Reading

Look at the back of the book and see if there are any author notes. Some authors write letters to their readers to help the reader connect and understand the book better or the writer’s thought process. Sometimes there are also questions in the back of the book that can be used to encourage discussion on the book.

Make a point to ask your child to share a simple story with the family — about their day, favorite events, challenges they faced. Share a story yourself. All books start out as a story in the imagination of the author before it is written down — your child can be a storyteller or writer as well.

 

Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

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How This Book Was Made

Words by Mac Barnett

Pictures by Adam Rex

Picture Book Ages 4 – 8

Go behind the scenes or rather inside the scene, to see how this book was made — with a big dose of humor in the form of a tiger and pirate. Also see other “meta-books” with a sense of humor: My Worst Book Ever, words by Allan Ahlberg and pictures by Bruce Ingman; Once Upon a Zzz, words and pictures by Maddie Frost; Whose Story is this Anyway? words by Mike Flaherty and pictures by Oriol Vidal; as well as, Help We Need a Title, words and pictures by Herve Tollet.

 

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This Book Just Ate My Dog!

Words and Pictures by Richard Byrne

Picture Book, Part of a Trilogy Ages 4 – 8

Bells dog disappears into the gutter of the book, the fold in the middle of the book when it is spread apart. Follow her adventure to rescue her dog as well as those who try to help her. Also see by the same author, This book is Out of Control! and We’re in the Wrong Book! For another carnivorous book tale see — Open Carefully: A Book with Bite, words by Nick Bromley and pictures by Nicola O’Bryne. Also enjoy the classic although not carnivorous, from Sesame Street, The Monster at the End of this Book.

 

 

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I am a Story

Words and Pictures by Dan Yaccarino

Picture Book Concept Ages 4 – 8

Reminds readers about the power of storytelling to bring people together — past, present, future — no matter what format or shape the story takes.

 

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A Child of Books

Words by Oliver Jeffers

Pictures by Sam Winston

Picture Book Ages 5 – 12

The guide, A Child of Books, takes a young boy and the reader through a  delightful adventure of the wonder of words, storytelling, and books. Includes snippets from classic children’s literature. Will be an encouragement to new readers and an inspiration to capable readers.

 

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How Rocket Learned to Read

Words and Pictures by Tad Hill

Picture Book Ages 3 – 7

Parents’ Choice Silver Honor

A little yellow bird teaches Rocket the puppy how to read. Also see by the same author, Rocket Writes a Story and Rocket’s Mighty Words. Great choice for new readers and those just starting to learn.

 

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Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books

Words by Kay Winters

Pictures by Nancy Carpenter

Picture Books Memoir Ages 5 – 9

Shares the story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood love of books and how reading helped him grow into the man who became the 16th President of the United States. See also Tomas and the Library Lady by Pat Mora.

 

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How to Read a Story

Words by Kate Messner

Pictures by Mark Siegel

Picture Books Concept Ages 5 – 8

Reminds readers of the perfect process for reading a story.

 

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A Squiggly Story

Words by Andrew Larsen

Pictures by Mike Lowery

Picture Books Ages 4 – 8

Reminds readers, that they too can be writers and authors and it all starts with one letter.

 

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Matilda

Roald Dahl

Chapter Book Ages 8 – 12

Matilda loves books. She also has a secret superpower that she uses to save herself from the dreaded head of the school. Also enjoy the 1996 PG movie adaptation of Matilda which was a family favorite through the elementary and yearly middle school years, for more on the movie see https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/matilda 

 

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The Librarian

Eric Hobbs

Chapter Book, Part 1 of a Series, Ages 8 – 12

A fantasy adventure, where the characters from classic children’s literature come alive in Astoria’s library.

 

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The Story Thieves

James Riley

Chapter Book Part 1 or a Series Ages 8 – 12

Owen teams up with classmate, Bethany, who is really a fictional character, to rescue her father by jumping into his favorite book for an amazing fantasy adventure.

 

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The Book Thief

Marus Zusak

Young Adult Fiction Ages 12 and Up

In 1939 in Nazi Germany, Liesel steals books to read to her foster family and the Jewish man seeking refuge in their basement. Also see the 2014 PG-13 movie adaptation for a review see https://www.commonsensemedia.org/movie-reviews/the-book-thief; for more on the Holocaust read The Diary of Anne Frank.

If you like this booklist, then see our

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Share your favorite book about books here

 

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Celebrating National Library Week, April 8 – 14

 

Our boys grew up loving libraries. On son #2’s 10th birthday, by his choice, we did the two things he loved most in the world  – eat at the local Chinese restaurant and then visit the library. He had a special seat by the window in the children’s section where he would curl up and read a stack of books. Later when he was in 5th grade, he wrote a poem about the library that he gave to his favorite children’s librarian. Libraries are a safe haven that children of all ages can enjoy. Celebrate National Library Week! Visit your local library and check out some books about libraries.

 

Before Shared Reading

Depending on your child’s attention span, try reading two books in one shared reading time. Pair a story book with a concept or nonfiction book. Talk about what is the same and different between pretend stories and realistic stories.

During library story times, in addition to introducing the book’s title, author, and illustrator, librarians also include a short teaser lead-in to focus reader attention.  This teaser blurb is known as a “Book Talk”. Your local library may have a reference book of Book Talks for popular story time books or you can see examples of Book Talk in action by viewing episodes of PBS’ Reading Rainbow. Storyline Online also has great examples of Book Talks in action.

 

During Shared Reading

To build comprehension, point out what is the same and what is different between the story libraries in the books and your local library.

 

After Shared Reading

To celebrate libraries in the best way possible, plan a trip together to your local library or book mobile. Based on the book you read together discuss what to expect at the library.

During the trip talk about your local library’s policies, discuss what is age appropriate and necessary (for example, how old your child is or being able to write their own name) for your child to have their own library card. Celebrate with your child if they are ready for their own library card by checking out a book about libraries or books.

After the trip, set up a home library and role play visiting and checking out books.

 

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Celebrating National Library Week, April 8 – 14

 

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The Library Lion

Words by Michelle Knudsen

Pictures by Kevin Hawkes

One day a lion drops in for the library story time; Hmmm, let’s see what happens next.

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The Library Dragon

Words by Carmen Agra Deedy

Pictures by Michael P. White

Sunrise Elementary has a new librarian and she’s a REAL dragon. Who’s going to be brave enough to read a book? If you love dragons, also see Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library, words by Julie Gassmanand and pictures by Andy Elkerton which has library etiquette 101 delivered with humor and rhymes. 

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If You Want to Bring a Circus to the Library 

Words and Pictures by Elise Parsley

Part of the Magnolia Says Don’t series

Magnolia takes the “You Can Do Anything at the Library” sign literally and sets up her own big top. Loud and proud, Magnolia learns what not to do in this cautionary tale about library etiquette.

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Lola at the Library

Words by Anna McQuinn

Pictures by Rosalind Beardshaw

Picture Book Ages 2 – 5

Great for introducing toddlers and preschoolers to the local library. Also see Lola Loves Stories

Tomas and the Library Lady

Words by Pat Mora

Pictures by Raul Colon

Picture Book Memoir Ages 4 – 8

The true story of Tomas, from a family of migrant farm workers, who learns to love reading and books from his mentor a local librarian. Tomas grew up to be the first minority Chancellor in the University of California. See also, Abe Lincoln:The Boy Who Loved Books by Kate Winters.

 

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Chapter Book Ages 8 – 12
Part 1 of a Series
A library that’s a locked room puzzle. Mr. Lemoncello is a game maker extraordinaire and he designed the new library! To celebrate the opening of the library, there’s going to be an overnight lock-in at the library. Kyle and friends are on a quest to escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

More ways to celebrate National Library Week, if you like this Booklist about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children, then see our Book Review: The Invisible Library Series

Share your favorite library story or book about libraries here