science

Recommended Reads: 03.15.16

Redskins: Insult and Brand
C. Richard King

RedskinsUnder Roger Goodell’s watch, the NFL has done all it can to insult and offend its fans. As much as I love football, it’s getting harder to support the NFL and Goodell’s funhouse-mirror morality. One of the most egregious offenses is the league’s continued use of the “Redskins” team name.

In Redskins: Insult and Brand, C. Richard King explores the term and its unfortunate intersection with professional football. King expands his study beyond the current debate to reflect on the complicated views white Americans have of minorities and the role economics and brand value play in the inexplicable defense of a racial slur.

 

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork and Other Scientific Diversions
N. David MerminWhy Quark Rhymes with Pork

Yet another example of a book that, had I read this in high school, would have steered me toward the sciences. Mermin is a heavyweight theoretical physicist, and in this volume collects 43 essays, some not previously published and many of them culled from his columns in Physics Today.

Technical, yet light-hearted and accessible, Why Quark Rhymes with Pork will be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers, not just the science-minded. Fans of Sam Kean and Mary Roach should get a kick out of Mermin’s essays.

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Recommended Reads: 01.26.16

New year, new reading list. Here are some January releases to kick-start 2016.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Jane Mayer

In recent years the Koch brothers have become liberal bogeymen, invoked in political ads, petitions and editorials to maximize fear factor. Certainly, the truth behind these billionaire brothers is more complicated than that, but they are rightly the focus of Mayer’s history of how the wealthiest Americans have rigged the political system in their favor. Folks of different political persuasions may disagree on ideology, but we should all be able to agree on the importance of transparency. That is what Mayer hopes to provide in this highly acclaimed investigation.

 

DemocracyinBlackDemocracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul

Eddie S. Glaude

Staying in the political realm, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude offers this poignant and difficult narrative about the state of race relations in America. For a brief time, we lived under the comfortable illusion of a post-racial country, but since electing its first black president, America has grown more racially divided. Glaude chronicles recent injustices and proposes a bold fix in Democracy in Black.

 

TheConfidenceGame

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time

Maria Konnikova

At some point, the market will grow weary of the Gladwellian genre, but not yet. There’s a good reason for that. We are learning more about our brains and our behavior every year, and the findings are compelling. Perhaps the mind has its own ego that loves to read about itself? So much for navel gazing. Now it’s all about the brain gazing, and in Konnikova’s new book she shows why even the brightest among us are capable of being conned.

Author Interview: Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality

Growing up in the west, I had a fairly uncomplicated view of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, they were the EvilThe Politics of Morality Empire. Then down comes the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain crumbles. Freedom wins the day. Roll credits.

Of course, history is never that simple.

Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal grew up in Soviet Poland, defected to the United States as a teenager, and now studies reproductive rights in her country of birth. Her research uncovers a thornier narrative of post-Soviet Poland. Rather than a secular democracy, the Catholic church has assumed a dominant political role.

As a result, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws of any European Union country, and Mishtal explores the effect this has had on women and women’s rights in her first book, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland.

The book, published by Ohio University Press, blends politics, personal narrative, Polish history and peer-reviewed research. Full disclosure: I have known Mishtal for close to a decade and I proofread early drafts of a few chapters.

Mishtal provides a unique view of Polish politics, having experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet culture as well as having lived in the west. Most impressively, she is able to switch easily between detached observation and insider familiarity, lending a unique voice to her research. Her personal insights enhance the narrative while her use of case studies give flesh and bone to the academics.

With Russia once again a wild card, the EU in crisis and Poland’s recent swing even further to the right, The Politics of Morality is a timely and important read. We are still figuring out both the history and consequences of the end of the Cold War, and Mishtal’s is an important and necessary voice in the discussion.

She recently sat down with Ensuing Chapters to discuss The Politics of Morality.

 

Recommended Reads: Apocalypse Edition

 

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear

Revelation is one of the most vivid works of literature ever etched into papyrus. It has inspired artists for nearly Picturing the Apocalypse2,000 years, stoking the fires of Michelangelo, Blake and Bosch and establishing the premise of countless bad horror films. In this impressive study, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear examine 120 works of art rooted in the closing chapter of the New Testament. The authors (a father-daughter tandem) breakdown the works into 10 different themes, including the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals and modern popular culture.

Picturing the Apocalypse is well-written and beautifully illustrated with all of the artworks discussed. I was personally drawn to the religious history of the book, but also enjoyed the art history and theory, the literary and cultural development of Revelation and, ultimately, a fresh look at the text through the modern lens.

If not for you, this is a great gift for fans of art, history, philosophy, literature or anyone looking to upgrade their dinner-party conversation.

 

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Ulf Schmidt

Few things whet the American appetite more than atrocity and conspiracy, and readers get a hearty portion of both inSecret Science this comprehensive account of 20th-century military research. Germany’s use of chlorine and mustard gas in WWI may be the most salient example of chemical warfare, but what makes Schmidt’s account so compelling is his emphasis on Allied experimentation.

The narrative revolves around the British research center, Porton Down, and chronicles the moral dilemmas created and ethics breached in the shadow of two world wars and a global nuclear standoff.

Secret Science is both history lesson and cautionary tale, though I imagine most readers will enjoy it for the former more than the latter. History tells us that ethics usually lose out to expediency. Note the use of torture, indefinite detention, drone warfare and citizen surveillance in response to the War on Terror.

When it comes to safety, there are always extenuating circumstances (politically speaking), so I’m doubtful that the lessons of Secret Science will make inroads where they’re most needed, unfortunately. Schmidt does, however, provide us with a darkly entertaining history of the uncomfortably recent past that should chill (and in some cases vindicate) the most hardcore conspiracy theorist.

Secret Science is not light reading (I’m referencing the text itself now, rather than the content). It’s an exhaustive academic study that may not grab casual readers.

But if you’re into military history and government cover-ups, this book is worth flexing a few more of those reading muscles.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

Sami Moubayed

The dialogue on terrorism has taken a sharper tone in the aftermath of Paris. Piled on top of the horror and despair Under the Black Flaghas flowed a polluted stream of rumor, wrath and confusion. Which makes Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag all the more important.

Moubayed is a Syrian journalist and historian with roots in the country’s past — and an insider’s view of its turbulent present. He provides an account of ISIS and the rise of jihadism with a depth that no cable-news sound bite or Internet meme could capture.

If you want to understand where ISIS came from and where they (and us) are headed, read this book.

Review: Exposure

Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment

Chauntelle Tibbals

From the opening essay in Exposure, you will laugh (a lot) and you will cringe (occasionally). Which is appropriate. ExposureAfter all, this is a book about porn — that laugh- and cringe-inducing industry of id. It’s the shadow market force that accelerates tech innovation and the economy as surely as it does libidos, and both mirrors and molds our culture in more ways than we realize.

Once relegated to shady theaters and sticky arcades, porn is now a billion-dollar business with crossover into the mainstream. Still, a stigma remains, and new hang-ups have emerged along with new media.

Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist specializing in gender, sex and media, is our guide through present-day Porn Valley in this collection of anecdotes, theories and observations from her decade-plus of researching the industry.

Tibbals is a prolific writer and commentator. In Exposure, she only skims the surface of her academic research, but you can find much of it online (and I highly recommend you do). Here, she gives us the broad strokes of the industry. Her essays raise more questions than they answer, and that’s the point. Pornography impacts us on many levels, and our relationship with it gets knotted up with our needs, values and feelings on gender, politics and social mores. Untangling these knots is beyond the scope of a single book.

Instead, Tibbals reveals the human side of adult entertainment that will reframe the way you think about the business — not in a judgemental way, but an intellectual one.

Tibbals traces her foray into porn scholarship to a provocative streak and a rejection of unscientific generalizations about adult entertainment. Sadly, she discovered this short-sightedness had infiltrated academia when her graduate advisor belittled her dissertation topic. However, this rebuke only further entrenched her scientific curiosity.

“Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills, and composure,” she writes. “It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains. And that was it for me. I was hooked — porn for life.”

But it was more than the thrill of the maverick driving her interest. She was also fascinated with her own fear of pornography, which, once she delved deeper into the topic, she realized was actually a fear of “the socially constructed idea of it.”

Some of Tibbals’ finest work is when she’s exploring the meta-space between real and fantasy — real actors with fake personas having real sex presented as fantasy. What impact does this have on the performers? It’s complicated, of course, but the important thing is that Tibbals poses the question in a way that humanizes the participants.

Talk shows flock to porn-star tragedies and draw broad conclusions. Tibbals considers each performer as an individual being. One such star is Joanna Angel, a Rutgers graduate who runs her own production company and stars in its films. Tibbals found one of Angel’s more hardcore flicks to be both intense and empowering.

“It showed an educated woman business owner in control of exactly the kind of sex she wanted, all in order to make exactly the kind of creative product she wanted to sell.”

In her survey of the genre, Tibbals challenges her own assumptions of empowerment and exploitation. In spending time with performers and their fans at conventions, she confronts a complicated culture that she describes as “the strangest mix of human adoration and disgust.” There are earnest and endearing fans, but also stalkers, self-righteous assholes and seemingly well-intended folks who unconsciously break social norms (asking intimate questions or making lewd comments) simply because of the perceived intimacy they have with the performer.

And of course there are the insecure misogynists who simultaneously desire and degrade the women they adore, often in a flurry of bipolar comments (“I love you”/”You’re a whore”) on social media. As though porn actors didn’t have enough detractors on the outside, they also suffer the abuse of so-called fans who “slut-shame” them online.

And it’s not just anti-porn activists and misogynists who get in on the action. Media exploitation of the industry is as pernicious and predatory as it accuses Porn Valley of being.

Take as an example the recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which I enjoyed but which ultimately disappointed when it devolved into a patriarchal rescue narrative. The lead subject, Tressa, willingly and knowingly pursues a career in porn, but is infantilized by the documentarians. She starts dating a guy who is aware of what she does for a living, but then he whines about how her career is hurting him. He implores her to give up her job for him. Were you to replace “porn star” with any other occupation — say “ER surgeon” — the jealous, insecure boyfriend would be, at best, an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain.

In Hot Girls Wanted, though, he is the white knight.

But don’t take my word for it. Tibbals happened to write a fantastic review for Uproxx, which explains the film’s failings far better than I could.

I have long been fascinated with this bizarro intersection of pornography, feminism and media, and Exposure did not disappoint. This book is proof of the importance of porn scholarship, and Tibbals’ is a welcome and needed voice in the field.

Recommended Reads: Historical Summer

What a wild month it’s been. Between politics, crime, World Cup football and my attempt to document the literary stops on my Paris trip, it’s been difficult to keep up with new releases. Here is a sampling of books you may have missed as spring turned to summer.

 

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

Steven K. Green

Oxford University Press

As America approaches its 25th decade, it’s only natural to look back and re-evaluate who we are and what we’ve done with our time in power. Inventing a Christian AmericaPerhaps it’s the mid-life crisis of empire, or just the build-up toward a presidential election, but coming out this summer is an arsenal of books regarding our nation’s founding.

I’m reading as many of them as I can, because it’s a fascinating study, and Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America is an important contribution.

His attempt is to demystify the colonial and revolutionary periods to get at the truth of the religious origins of the country. He starts by addressing two of the most common narratives of the founding: the first being that of a country chartered by religious exiles in search of freedom to practice as they pleased, the other of Founding Fathers who established the separation of church and state.

Both of which he describes as myths, in the literal sense. “In providing explanations of events not personally remembered, myths legitimize the past while they provide a unifying narrative for a distinct people.”

The truth is that colonial life was more diverse than either narrative suggests. Sure, there were religious exiles, but there were people of many beliefs, not just protestantism. And there were many folks that were there for business, adventure or a new start in life.

But when it came time to unify the disparate colonies, a common tale was in order.

Green writes: “The idea of America’s religious origins is essentially a myth created and retold for the purpose of anointing the founding, and the nation, with a higher, transcendent meaning.”

Through his historical digging, Green reveals a pluralistic society that’s difficult to pigeonhole in retrospect. What they did record in founding documents, however, was both a respect for religious practice and the separation of church and state.

Green’s work is thorough and authoritative, and is certainly a book I enjoyed and would recommend. But whereas some academic books have crossover appeal, this is not a book that will translate well to a general audience.

Which is unfortunate, because most Americans would benefit from learning more about the founding and the role of religion in early America. Especially now.

Inventing a Christian America is a great place to start.

 

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time

Jimena Canales

Princeton University PressThe Physicist and the Philosopher

This wonderful revisitation of the relativity debate was released on June 17. Or was it? Time is relative, of course, as Einstein taught us a century ago. While relativity is the rule these days, it wasn’t a slam-dunk sell in the early 20th century, and philosopher Henri Bergson appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. The notion that time can move differently for two people not in uniform motion (or that events can occur simultaneously — or not — depending on relative motion) had to sound a little like voodoo to a populace born in the 19th century.

Of course, we know that Einstein won out, and our notion of time has never been the same. Canales takes us back to when it all changed, not in the typically triumphant language that we often get from biographies of Einstein, but from the perspective of a skeptical inteligencia not yet acquainted with nuclear energy and quantum mechanics. An interesting and important read.

Review: Words Onscreen

Words Onscreen

Naomi S. Baron

On Feb. 6, I waited in the cold for 7.5 hours to meet author Neil Gaiman at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, Colo. An estimated 2,000 fans bravedWords Onscreen the elements to have the author of The Sandman graphic novels, Coraline and American Gods autograph his new hardcover collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances.

Despite the wait (and the fact that I was terribly under-dressed), everyone was jovial, and it felt more like a bibliophile block party than a reception line. Any weariness I may have felt was quickly (and repeatedly) dismissed with an idealistic sentiment voiced by many in attendance, “Isn’t it great to see this many people waiting in line for a book?”

Indeed, it was this very love of books that compelled me to read Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, an impressive work of scholarship and social commentary by this professor of linguistics at American University.

One of Baron’s professed interests is “electronically mediated communication,” and Words Onscreen combines research, anecdote and history to explore the differences between the printed and digitized word. This isn’t a trend piece, but a wide-reaching study on reading, beginning with the inquiry that “if eReading is less well suited for many longer works or even for short ones requiring serious thought, what happens to reading if we shift from print to screens?”

Baron takes us to some expected places (studies on digital vs. print reading habits; the effect technology has on our brains; the digital democratization of information; emerging social norms for electronic devices) and some unexpected ones (the history of anthologies and abridged editions; the slow reading movement; the impact of the scroll bar on reading habits).

Scrolling and reading, if you’re curious, leads to “worse comprehension” of content.

Though Baron’s scope is wide, she never loses sight of her target. She successfully threads each narrative sojourn into the conversation of how we engage with text. One of her deeper philosophical meanderings concerns the definition of reading itself. Is the act of reading simply scanning our eyes across the page? What about those passages whose complexity or sheer beauty cause the reader to set down the book and meditate on those words? What about re-reading? Studies show that pausing while reading and re-reading leads to better comprehension of the material (not surprisingly).

Research is important, as it informs best practices for teaching and learning, but Baron admits the difficulties with measuring reading comprehension. Mere content recall provides only plot summary, and deep understanding takes both time and contemplation. Take, for instance, Gogol’s classic novel, Dead Souls.

“Some of the benefits of literature come from discussions with others or personal reflection at quiet moments. Payoffs may not surface until years later when, having lived and experienced more, we discover the relevance of Gogol’s world to ours. Try measuring that.”

Indeed.

Like many academic books (as opposed to general nonfiction), Baron tends to over-support some of her conclusions, citing studies with overlapping information, but that’s to be expected. The author has many insightful things to say throughout the book, but there’s not much in the conclusion that would be news to an academic audience.

For this, I don’t blame the author, but reality. There’s no closing the barn door on the Kindle or Nook (on which I read my digital galley of Words Onscreen), and it’s hard to predict the direction of accelerated technology. Also, there are many positives to digital reading to weigh against the negative, from minor conveniences (not having to carry five books on an international flight) to those of great importance (the facilitation of increased global literacy).

Baron instead advises instructors and avid readers on how to navigate the digital-print hybrid. Her criticisms of e-reading are fair and supported by research, and her tone is never melancholic or luddite. The ultimate takeaway from Words Onscreen is that the content matters more than the container, although Baron also makes a compelling argument for the container as totem.

For the roughly 2,000 bibliophiles in line with me at the Neil Gaiman signing, the container was still something of value: a beautifully printed and16277386370_74c41c8a45_o bound edition with a personalized signature in permanent ink.

As Baron points out, it’s not just the text on the pages that matter. We fall in love with the smell of books, the crispness of the paper, unique typefaces that digital readers can’t reproduce. We can underline, highlight, write in the margins. Some keep their books in pristine condition, while others dog-ear, fold and break-in a book like they would a new baseball glove. Their utility extends beyond the reading. Bookshelves provide memories for the reader, a conversation spark for guests and ready access to favorite works.

There is something lost in the translation from print to digital.

For me, it calls to mind Harlow’s monkeys. If all they needed was food, then the monkeys wouldn’t object to curling up with a wire mother. Except, they needed the nurturing touch of the cloth mother. For the same reason, meal replacement shakes or futuristic food pills will never take the place of an actual dinner, because eating is not just about the absorption of nutrients.

With technology advancing at a bullet’s pace, who knows what will come of books in the future. It’s clear from Baron’s research that the format of what we read affects how we read, but it’s hard to predict where that will take us.

Wherever we end up, Words Onscreen should serve as an important guidebook. It’s a wonderful and important book, no matter how you read it.