Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

I know that I’m basically the last person alive to read ‘Kitchen Confidential’. I know that everything that needs to be said about Bourdain, his life, his legacy, his death, his synthesized voice for use in documentaries, &c…, has already been said, and, honestly, I have nothing to add.

I knew all that when I picked up ‘Kitchen Confidential’ – my reading it was informed by all the news around Bourdain, not the other way around. Of course, all that context probably blunted my reactions to his book; I suspect that, if I had read it back, before Bourdain was famous, I would have been as fascinated and titillated as everyone else.

But, perhaps because ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is too famous to be surprising anymore, I had a very different reaction to it: I found it needy, and sort of poignant.

‘Kitchen Confidential’ is the book that made Bourdain famous, his memoir of becoming and being a chef in various New York City restaurants. Bourdain framed ‘Kitchen Confidential’ as an exposé of his industry: a peek into the kitchen. The book is filled with juicy little stories and reveals all sorts of mini-non-scandals, like that uneaten bread from bread baskets is recycled, or how long fish is actually kept in restaurant fridges. It emphasizes the culture of kitchens: the vulgarity, the sexual frenzy, the pressure.

But what ‘Kitchen Confidential’ really is, is one long brag. Bourdain’s loving lists of hardships won’t fool anyone: ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is about how grueling, ferocious, and elite Bourdain thinks his profession is. It is a book-length treatise on why chefs are the baddest of the bad. Lest you think that chefs are just people who cook for a living, Bourdain is here to convince that they are actually warriors.

The book is replete with passages like this:

“So you want to be a chef? You really, really, really want to be a chef? If you’ve been working in another line of business, have been accustomed to working eight- to nine-hour days, weekends and evenings off; if you are used to being treated with some modicum of dignity, spoken to and interacted with as a human being, seen as an equal – a sensitive, multidimensional entity with hopes, dream, aspirations and opinions, the sort of qualities you’d expect of most working persons – then maybe you should reconsider what you’ll be facing when you graduate from whatever six-month course put this nonsense in your head to start with.” (p. 289)

This sort of goading braggadocio is typical, and absurd. This passage would be melodramatic from a recruiter for the Marine Core – from a New York City chef, it’s fucking ludicrous.

It is also familiar to me, because, like Bourdain, I work in a specialized technical field characterized by indecipherable argot and mock-heroics: science.

Much of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ felt evocative to me of my own professional world. Scientists also use a jargon-laden dialect designed to be understood only by people in the know (and exclude everyone else). They also pride themselves on pain-points: where Bourdain brags about his cooking injuries, abusive head chefs, and crazy hours, scientists swap war stories about arduous experiments, cruel PIs, and crazy hours.

Scientists are often expected to put in grueling hours; their labor belongs to someone else (in their case, the head of their lab); they spend significant amounts of their careers in apprenticeship positions, where their low pay is justified by the idea that they are learning from a master. They are un-unionized, often at the mercy of tenured ego-maniacs who can be (I promise) as psychotic as any chef Bourdain ever encountered.

And, like Bourdain, for many scientists this suffering becomes a point of pride, something which distinguishes them, makes them tougher and more worthy than people who had have not had to make such sacrifices for their career. Like Bourdain, they come to feel that their ability and willingness to withstand this suffering is a virtue, and that people who are not so willing are therefore weaker and less deserving than they.

Bourdain doesn’t apologize for this kind of culture; on the contrary, he clearly glories in it. Like a lot of people who came up in cultures like that, he feels that it makes him gritty and rugged, “the real deal”, that it taught him the virtues of hard work and expertise, and that younger people should feel privileged and lucky to have the opportunity to be subjected to it.

Ultimately, this machismo, this need to be seen as tough, began to feel desperate. Is it not enough to be an excellent chef? Why do we all have to pretend that being a chef (or a scientist) is basically the same as being Rambo? ‘Kitchen Confidential’ is less a book than a masculine performance, an anxious plea for the sort of macho glamour that normally belongs to fighter pilots and gunslingers.

When someone feels the need to tell you how very manly they are, it never ends up being convincing. It’s not convincing when Bourdain does it, and it’s really not convincing when scientists do it. And, while I understand desire the share how difficult your job can be, when that description becomes celebratory, when you start to defend the behavior simply because you had to endure it, it perpetuates the conditions you should never have had to endure in the first place.

Books like Bourdain’s make their subject professions worse. It is not reasonable that Bourdain once had a fellow chef grope him every day – bragging about how well he took it entirely misses the point. Bourdain sets these challenges up as rites of passage, something you should have to go through if you want to do what he does. A better, more humane approach would be to decry them and hope that they don’t happen to younger chefs.

While there are winning passages, and while Bourdain can be extremely charming (and funny!), the essential posture of the book is problematic. Ultimately, it feels driven more by Bourdain’s need to be seen a certain way than anything intrinsic to cheffing. While parts of it are really entertaining, I doubt that ‘Kitchen Confidential’ will age well, and, frankly, I kind of hope it doesn’t. It represents a set of values and needs that I think would be better left behind.

The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber and David Wengrow

There is a certain kind of book – it may appear in any number of genres – which exists to ask a single question: do we really know what we think we know? Whatever the subject, these books share a moral viewpoint: namely, that we are obligated, in the face of our certain beliefs, to question the very substrate upon which they are founded. They are anti-canonical. They exist to problematize the things which we take for granted in whatever sphere they choose.

I love this kind of book. I love them. The truth is, I have never really been sure that I know anything at all about anything at all. I am obsessed with the idea that my beliefs are grounded in myth and error. I have spent my life peering around me for my own blindspots.

So, whatever the subject, I am drawn to these books. I don’t find them unsettling; rather, I find them exhilarating. I am thrilled to think that I have been laboring under a delusion, crippled by bad information or wrong analysis. I find this idea, that maybe we are wrong about everything, to be freeing. Because, if we are wrong about everything, than anything is possible.

‘The Dawn of Everything’ is a book about whether we know what we think we know about human pre-history. It was co-written over ten years by two friends, the archaeologist David Wengrow (at University College London) and the late anthropologist David Graeber (of the London School of Economics). According to the introduction, the two men began the book as a sort of thought-exercise, a conversation between them to express their frustration with certain dogma in their respective fields.

Now, you may not think you know anything about human pre-history – I certainly didn’t think I knew much. But the truth is, we have all been marinated in an idea of how social evolution works, an idea which is so ubiquitous that you probably don’t think of it as theory so much as common sense.

I certainly have. If you had asked me how “civilization” developed, I probably would have said something like: once, we were little bands of apes. Then we formed bigger bands; at some point, at different times in different places, those bigger bands started cohering into tribes; tribes became chiefdoms, large stable settlements of socially complex, pre-agricultural humans.

Then, wham, agriculture happened, ushering in kingdoms, private property, bureaucracy, specialization, written language, you name it. All the things which, to 21st-century humanity, characterize “civilization”.

David Graeber

Agriculture allowed rulers to feed standing armies and local police forces. Warfare, once a matter of local tribes raiding each other for whatever they could carry, became a profession, and conquest, subjugation, genocide, and colonialism were all born. Lifespans shortened, human health declined. Professional police forces were able to enforce private property, and economic classes, with all their attendant religious and bureaucratic supports, appeared. Agriculture enabled the development of all the means of persecuting each other now at our disposal: caste, bondage, debt, prison.

Wengrow and Graeber, frankly, don’t buy any of that. In ‘The Dawn of Everything’, they present a survey of human pre-historical civilizations which challenge every stage of this putative developmental trajectory. The humanity that they describe is more various, more diverse, less linear and more complicated than could possibly fit into that dogma. Some societies, they argue, developed bureaucracy without agriculture. Some developed agriculture without bureaucracy. Some pre-agricultural groups had kings; some agricultural societies seem to have abandoned agriculture and returned wholesale to hunting and foraging. There is, they say, no “progressive” trajectory to how human social complexity evolves, and we are wrong when we consider smaller groups to be less complex than larger ones. Human society, they argue, has been as diverse, complicated, and non-linear as humans themselves.

I have absolutely no idea whether or not this true, and I don’t care.

David Wengrow

Which is not to say that Graeber and Wengrow aren’t persuasive – they absolutely are. For what is, essentially, a survey textbook of human evolution, ‘The Dawn of Everything’ is incredibly readable: lucid, clear, brisk. I was persuaded, certainly, but books are usually persuasive within their own covers. Of course they are: they have unchallenged dominion in that space, complete control of the arguments, the narrative flow, and, most importantly, the evidence presented. It takes time to know whether a book is right, and it takes interest: you need to be willing to go out and look for other arguments, and I have not yet had time to do that.

But it doesn’t matter, to me, whether Graeber and Wengrow were correct about any one specific thing they said – the truth is, I will never have the expertise to say. But the exercise is a good one; the challenging of orthodoxy almost always has value.

There are a lot of things of substance and value to discuss in ‘The Dawn of Everything’, things that have to do with society and freedom and the human condition, but that is a discussion for a smarter blog. I am, as usual, less interested in the objective truth of the matter than I am in the fun of imagining that everything I have been taught is wrong.

I hope it is (wrong, I mean). I think, in general, we would be a better species if we let go of certain ideas of advancement, of complexity as a moral trait rather than an arbitrary one. But, mostly, I hope we’ve all been wrong all the time because it’s fun to be wrong. It gives you a chance to see the world fresh again, to start over from first principles and try out different ideas. If the development of our own cultures is totally different than we thought, then perhaps our cultures don’t mean what we think they mean. Maybe we have many more options that we supposed. Maybe nothing was destined, everything was improvised. Maybe, everything can change.

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

By Katie Mack

In general, I don’t write about science books here. I read them, but because I work as a scientist, my reactions to them tend to be analytical and not emotional: am I persuaded by this argument? Do I find the statistics sound? Does the evidence agree with my understanding of the field? I evaluate them informationally, not experientially, and because this isn’t a science blog, I tend to avoid writing about them.

However, the further afield I go from my own field (biology), the more of a tourist I become. By the time I get to physics, I am completely without expertise of any kind – I am reading purely for enjoyment, to learn something new, to goggle stupidly at the complexity of the world.

Which means that my reactions to ‘The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)’ are entirely emotional. I have absolutely no ability to assess this information scientifically – it could be a pack of lies, for all I know. I’m just here for the ride.

Writing about science is really tricky. In science, accuracy is often a matter of considerable complexity, but complexity is antithetical to narrative. Therefore, works of popular science often reduce that complexity, simplifying for the sake of clarity. While this is frustrating for people who work in those fields, for whom the complexities are the point, it is required to make yourself understood to laypeople.

In the case of physics, this simplification usually means avoiding math. Most of the sort of far-out theoretical work involved in cosmology is all math; translations into common language are necessarily approximations at best. The more far-out the research, the more that this is true. And end-of-universe scenarios, advanced mathematical modeling of the Big Bang and other quantum phenomena, these things are as far-out and mathy as it gets.

Which makes what Katie Mack has done here all the more impressive. Mack is a cosmologist, and ‘The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)’ is her survey of current theories about…the end of the universe. Will the expansion of the universe slow and reverse itself, bringing all matter collapsing back into itself, obliterating existence itself in a backwards Big Bang? Or does the expansion continue, pulling galaxies and solar systems and planets and finally matter itself apart? Or does the universe just dissolve into entropic chaos?

I loved this book. First of all, it’s a fucking great science book. Mack is an excellent science writer: she balances science, hard science, with clarity, and she balances it well. I can’t think of tougher material to translate for a lay-audience than extreme math-based astrophysics, and she nails it. I didn’t understand everything, but I understand a hell of a lot more than I would have if anyone else had tried to explain it to me.

“We already have astronomical all-sky surveys that are capable of measuring the positions and motions of billions of stars within our own galaxy. As the Big Rip approaches, we start to notice that the stars on the edges of the galaxy are not coming around in their expected orbits, but instead drifting away like guests at a party at the end of an evening. Soon after, our night sky begins to darken, as the great Milky Way swath across the sky fades. The galaxy is evaporating.

From this point, the destruction picks up its pace. We begin to find that the orbits of the planets are not what they should be, but are instead slowly spiraling outward. Just months before the end, after we’ve lost the outer planets to the great and growing blackness, the Earth drifts away from the Sun, and the Moon from the Earth. We too enter the darkness, alone.” (p. 113)

I want to highlight in particular Mack’s instinct for when to give context. Most science writers start from first principles, usually in the form of an intro chapter on the basic vocab, processes, or concepts which inform all the subsequent work. This can be really useful, but it’s often counter-productive. If you don’t understand why you’re learning the vocab, it can be hard to remember or understand it. Later, when you encounter the concepts for which you needed that intro, you have to keep going back through pages and reminding yourself of those intro concepts. It’s clunky.

Katie Mack

Mack doesn’t do that. She opts to give you context as you go, snagging you with a scary sentence or idea, then pulling back to give you the physics you need to parse it. Her rhythm is pretty perfect: she never front-loads the science too far in advance, and she never lets you go too far into a topic without the science you need to understand it. It’s really well done.

Excellent science writing aside, though, I also loved this book emotionally. It’s strangely refreshing, at this moment in time, to think about the end of the universe. Which is not to say that it is entirely unstressful, contemplating the obliteration not only of the entire world, but also of the physical laws which govern existence itself. It’s a little sobering, if I’m honest, a little bleak.

But it puts everything (and I do mean everything) into perspective: my plans for dinner, my irritating coworker, my next vacation, my relationship, my net worth, my own inevitable death, the inevitable deaths of everyone I love, of my very planet. In the end, I found it relaxing, zooming out that far. It’s hard to sustain local stress when you discover that, ultimately, the universe ends in perfect entropy.

It’s lovely, in a way. It throws your own life into sharp relief: there is no “forever”, not on a cosmic scale. No matter what you create, what you change in this world, what happens to you, what monuments you build, given a long enough timeline, every trace of your existence will vanish into nothing. When time itself has ceased to exist, legacy is a meaningless concept.

I will admit: I read this book on a beach, which probably informed my reaction, but, truthfully, this book left me feeling pleasantly, nihilistically zen: if we’re all just hurtling towards the heat death of the universe (which, thanks to Mack’s lucidity, I am 100% convinced we are), why worry? I see no reason why I should not have a little more fun with my own personal eye-blink of an existence.

There is relief in being able to credibly tell yourself that absolutely nothing matters. And it’s a lot easier to tell yourself that nothing matters when you have some science to back it up. So, my gift to you: nothing matters. I’ve read the book, it’s science, it’s official. Cheer up.

Mary Toft

Or, The Rabbit Queen

By Dexter Palmer

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Well, holy shit.

Books surprise me all the time, for good and for ill. However, it rarely takes me half a book’s length to notice how good it is – I’m usually (not always) quicker on the uptake than that.

In my defense, books don’t usually want to hide their own goodness from you. It’s risky, after all: most people are willing to put a bad book down and walk away. Most books want to grab you immediately with their quality and keep a throttle-hold on you until the end, even past the end: for the exact length of time it takes for you to buy copies of them for everyone you know for Christmas.

So discretion turns out to be a rare quality in a book. It does happen, though, that a book comes along that has the skill to hide itself from you, distracting you so completely with scenery or plot that you fail to notice that it is excellent until it’s too late.

***

Mary Toft was a real person, a Surrey woman who, in 1726, orchestrated a hoax in which she convinced several reputable surgeons that she was giving birth to rabbits. Dexter Palmer has written a novel about this true story, told mainly from the point of view of Zachary, the fourteen-year-old apprentice of John Howard, the local surgeon who first encounters Mary.

I think that part of the reason that it took me so long to figure out that ‘Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen‘ is magnificent is that it is, deliberately and aggressively, revolting. Out of the goodness of my heart, I’ll spare you the nasty shock I received, as an example: I bet you assumed, when I wrote that Mary Toft was “giving birth to rabbits”, that the rabbits where alive. I bet you assumed that they were intact.

I did, much to my regret. Mary’s rabbits are not alive: in order to effect the hoax, the rabbits had to be killed, cut into pieces, and inserted into Mary’s womb, whence they were extracted by credulous surgeons. It is absolutely disgusting, and the first time John Howard birthed a rabbit’s head and a string of intestine from Mary Toft, I was knocked flat on my ass: literary skill was the furthest thing from my mind.

I was intended to be, I bet. Dexter Palmer is clever, and he is making a point. ‘Mary Toft‘ is a novel about truth and belief, about the difference between them, about why we believe the things that we believe. About why we are so persuaded by the evidence of our eyes, and what it is, exactly, our eyes find persuasive.

There aren’t many novels written about medical anomalies, and for reasons which, I think, are sound: they are difficult to read about, if you live in an age in which they are scarce. But they have not always been scarce, they are part of our common humanity, and Dexter Palmer requires that we see them because, if we can’t see them, we will not understand the world in which Mary Toft lived, we won’t understand why she did what she did, or how she was able to get away with it.

The medical consensus in the society into which Mary is born is that birth defects are the fault of mothers: impurities in their thoughts, sins which lie on their consciences, act to turn the children in their wombs from the path of normal development. If a mother spends her pregnancy thinking unwomanly thoughts, she risks the health of her child.

Dexter Palmer is writing about a world in which the war between science and religion is much younger than it is in ours. Medical anomalies, illnesses which cause malformations in the human form, are the sites of the most pitched battles of these wars. Why would an omniscient God allow babies to be born twisted, sick, in pain?

The answer is, of course, sin: God visits illness on those who deserve it. If you are sick, if you are born with an illness, if you develop one over the course of your life, then you must have deserved it. Why would God allow illness to strike you unless you did something wrong? The wretched, those in pain, suffer because they should, and if you are lucky, healthy, rich, you must therefore be good.

It’s important to understand this mindset because, without understanding it, it will be difficult to understand the cruelty with which the inhabitants of this world treat each other:

“Lord M- winked. “Humanity, Zachary. At any time in the history the earth there is exactly enough humanity to go around for each human to have one full share of it, to entitle himself to say that he is better than an animal because he walks on two legs, and sings, and invents money…But if I am very, very rich, and you are not so rich: well, then I,” Lord M- said, his hand on his heart, “can take some of yours…This is the last thing that money is good for, once you have as much as I do – to make myself more human, which regrettably but necessarily entails making you less human, by contrast.” (p. 235)

***

I didn’t notice how good ‘Mary Toft‘ was until about half of the way through.

I know that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is. People often talk about books getting a slow start, or taking a while to get going: this is emphatically not what happened with ‘Mary Toft‘.

What happened is, essentially, shock-and-awe. Dexter Palmer spends the first hundred pages of the novel knocking you around with grotesqueries, using the brutality of 18th century medicine to soften you up. By the time Palmer is ready to teach you something, you’ve forgotten that you’re reading the sort of the novel that might offer a moral lesson – you’re too busy trying NOT to imagine what it would be like to shove bits of a rabbit up your own vagina.

Which means that the moral lesson, which is lovely and brutal at the same time, has landed on you before you know it was launched.

Dexter Palmer

I suspect that this surprise-attack quality is exactly why a book would trouble to downplay its literary quality. Readers are like anyone else: they don’t like being preached at. When they see a lecture coming, they brace, ready their eyes for rolling. Those lectures are held at a critical distance

But when you are shattered and confused, transfixed by a woman pulling rabbit skulls out of her cooch, you are permeable; your critical faculties are shot all to hell.

Which is Palmer’s point: when your senses are overwhelmed, you are easier to trick. When you are struggling to understand something impossible, you are credulous, and vulnerable to someone with an agenda: to a sham religion, to a medical quack, or to a novelist who is trying to teach you about human kindness.

I lovedMary Toft‘. The writing is lovely, not in an ostentatious, “Look Ma I Got My MFA” prose-y kind of way – it is merely simple, effective, and graceful. It is surprising, and clever, and sad, and humane, and at times even funny. And, as an added bonus, it’s about the weirdest novelistic subject I’ve encountered in a while. It’s going to take a long time for some of the images contained in this book to shake out of my imagination. But I think it’s OK to have them there – I think they’re teaching me something.

The Gene

An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

How can I have so little to say about such a big book? More importantly, how can I have so little to say about a good book?

Siddhartha Mukherjee became book-famous a few years ago, with the publication of his magisterial history of cancer, ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘.  ‘The Gene‘ is his follow-up, a magisterial history of the gene (i.e. the basic unit of inheritance).

And it is reasonable to ask at this point: is everything that Mukherjee writes magisterial?  ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ have a lot in common: they are dense, comprehensive histories of science.  Nevertheless, they are also popular histories, written for non-scientists.  They are, despite their length, approachable works, framed by personal anecdote and driven by emotional concerns.

In fact, the entire framing of ‘The Gene‘ is personal. Mental illness runs with high prevalence through Mukherjee’s father’s family, and it is through the lens of this terrible heritability the Mukherjee first spies the gene itself:

“By then, heredity, illness, normalcy, family, and identity had become recurrent themes of conversation in my family. Like most Bengalis, my parents had elevated repression and denial to an art form, but even so, questions about this particular history were unavoidable. Moni; Rajesh; Jagu: three lives consumed by variants of mental illness. It was hard not to imagine that a hereditary component lurked behind this family history. Had Moni inherited a gene, or a set of genes, that had made him susceptible – the same genes that had affected our uncles? Had others been affected with different variants of mental illness? My father had had a least two psychotic fugues in his life…Were these related to the same scar of history?” (p. 7)

Mukherjee has a knack for picking interesting science. The genetic basis of inheritance is one of the most interesting and important fields in all of science, and its scientific history is a tangle of elegant experiments and moral dilemmas. And cancer is, I think most people would agree, the most important medical problem of our age, as well as one of the most complicated and intractable.

Mukherjee is a doctor, and he writes like one. I mean that as a compliment (sort of).  He is human-facing: he cares about patients.  Though the topics of both ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘ and ‘The Gene‘ fall within the realm of molecular biology, Mukherjee is essentially the writing about people: the scientists who study the topic, the patients who suffer because of the topic, the doctors who treat the topic.

This is, from my point of view, the great strength and the great weakness of both of Mukherjee’s books: they are human histories of scientific topics.  And, as someone who does science for a living, I have complicated feelings about that.

I love science, particularly biology, which is the research area in which I work.  I do not feel, personally, that science needs to wear a human face to be interesting, or lovable.  For those of us who live in genetics, the magic is in the science itself.

This is not necessarily true for most people, and I understand that. Most people are drawn in by human stories; they have trouble relating to plain science, or find it boring. Popular science exists, as a category, because most people are alienated by textbooks – they need to understand the stakes, and the context, of hard science, before they are able to muster the energy to care about it.

The Structure of DNA – the figure from Watson and Crick’s second paper

But the profound and breathtakingly beautiful thing about science is that it exists completely independent of our stakes, of our context, and of our feelings. Reading ‘The Gene‘, one has the sense that the science of genetics is the science of human genetics, that the machinery of inheritance exists to disrupt and inform our lives, and that its history is the history of its discovery by us.

This doesn’t trouble me for complicated policy reasons (“this emphasis on medicine as a lens for a biology hurts funding for basic research”), although those reasons abide. But when we teach people science through this lens, we teach them to care about science when it affects them, or someone they love. We do not teach them to love genetics for its own sake, for the majesty of its complexity, the careful tickings of molecular machines which happen in and around us at all times, whether we know them or not. Most of which we haven’t even imagined yet. Most of which we will not learn in my lifetime, or yours.

OK, but maybe that is an unreasonable ask. The truth is, most people don’t care about the incredible ballet of mitosis for its own sake – they care about cancer, because it might kill them. Because it has killed someone they love, and there are only so many things that we can care about in a natural lifespan and, for most of us, we ourselves are the most interesting thing around.

And, OK, if that is the case, if a 700 page human history of genetics will interest where a 700 page molecular biology textbook never, ever will, I would rather live in a world with the human history than not.

Siddhartha Mukherjee

But I don’t have much to say about that 700 page history itself. It is scientifically competent, but not, for me, scientifically revelatory. I learned some history I did not know (and I am always happy to do so), but I learned absolutely no science which a normal college biology major would not know already.

It’s always annoying when professionals complain about pop-science books, whining that subtleties were missed or the topic wasn’t covered in enough depth. It makes you want to howl at them to shut up, that the book wasn’t written for them in the first place! I know that I am not the intended audience for ‘The Gene‘, and I want to be clear: the fact that I didn’t learn anything is not because ‘The Gene’ has nothing to teach you. It is an exceptionally information-rich book; it just happened to be information I already had.

The Gene‘ is actually probably a pretty great book (as was ‘The Emperor of All Maladies‘). ‘The Gene’ reminded me of how much I love genetics, how grand and moving I find the machinery of inheritance. To spend 700 pages reading about something I care so much about, how can I really complain? I wish I could do better for Mukherjee, I wish I had something profound to say about him, but I don’t. All I can say is, no matter how the science is framed, getting to spend 700 pages in the company of biology is always a treat.

The Information

A History, A Theory, A Flood

By James Gleick

Have you ever been in love with humanity when you began in a book, and in complete emotional flight from it by the time you finished?  Impressed in the beginning, overwhelmed by the end?  Awed, in the beginning: proud of what we have accomplished, by what we have learned; numbed and overcome, flooded and drowned, by the end?

The InformationBy the time I finished ‘The Information‘ by James Gleick, I was ready to abandon civilization, get back to the land.  To buy a shack somewhere in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, somewhere with no internet, no phone, no television, and never look back, never learn anything new, participate no longer in human progress.

The Information‘ is a history of the human relationship to information.  How we’ve understood it, categorized it, encoded it, compressed it, measured it.  How it has changed us, changed our thinking, our societies.  Ways you didn’t even think that it might have.

Gleick is a science writer, and ‘The Information‘ is about science, specifically about the science of information.  He takes his readers through African talking drums, the invention of writing, the printing press, the inventions of formal logic, the printing press, information theory, the telegraph, the telephone, the OED, the computer, and Wikipedia (to name a few).  He explains the basic mathematical concepts which allowed these advances, and shows the rapid acceleration, over historical time, of our ability to generate, store, send, and process information.

There is a wealth of neat stuff (for lack of a more precise, technical description) in this book: cool facts, good explanations, illuminating connections drawn between different people, ideas, technologies.  I love scientific histories, as a rule: I think it makes it easier to remember how a discovery works if you can embed it in its context.  The best scientific histories give science a human texture; they make it lovable.

For example, you may never master the language of Boolean algebra:

(x(P(x)→ ¬Q(x)) andx(¬Q(x)S(x)))(x(P(x)S(x)))

but who could help but love Lewis Carroll’s famous formulation of the same syllogism:

    1. Babies are illogical;
    2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile;
    3. Illogical persons are despised.

Conclusion: Babies cannot manage crocodiles.

Or, you may not think you care about what Einstein thought about quantum entanglement, but how can you be anything less than delighted to learn that, upon the publication of Einstein’s 1935 paper, ‘Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”, Wolfgang Pauli wrote to Werner Heisenberg, “Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, this is a catastrophe every time it happens.” (p. 366)

James Gleick
James Gleick

If this all sounds like a Nerd Alert to you, you are not wrong.  This is a book about science, and data, and math, and about the men and women who devoted their lives to understanding how those things work, to making incremental improvements to how we organize and retrieve information.  If you aren’t excited about how Turing machines worked, or what the difference is between a bit and byte, about whether or not Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem was correct or not (or whether or not it had anything to do with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory), then this probably isn’t your bag.

But it’s my bag, for sure.  Or, at least I thought it was, but honestly, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.

This isn’t the fault of the book, or of the author, but of humanity.  ‘The Information‘ is well-written, beautifully presented, thorough and approachable.  It’s interesting, gripping even, clear (for the most part).  It’s a very, very good book.

But it has filled me with despair.  There is so much that I don’t know, that I will never know.  Even today, the amount of information available to me could not be mastered in a thousand lifetimes, and those are just the things I would wish to learn.  And information is being produced at a rate which is unprecedented in human history: unprecedented and accelerating.

“As of 1972 businesses could lease high-speed lines carrying data as fast as 240 kilobits per second. Following the lead of IBM, whose hardware typically processed information in chunks of eight bits, engineers soon adopted the modern and slightly whimsical unit, the byte. Bits and bytes. A kilobyte, then, represented 8,000 bits; a megabyte (following hard upon), 8 million. In the order of things as worked out by international standards committees, mega- led to giga-, tera-, peta-, and exa-, drawn from Greek, though with less and less linguistic fidelity. That was enough, for everything measured, until 1991, when the need was seen for the zettabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) and the inadvertently comic-sounding yottabyte (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). In this climb up the exponential ladder, information left other gauges behind. Money, for example, is scarce by comparison.  After kilobucks, there were megabucks and gigabucks, and people can joke about inflation leading to terabucks, but all the wealth amassed 
by all the generations of humanity does not amount to a petabuck.” (p. 394)

I have come to the end of ‘The Information‘ feeling demoralized by my own mortal lifespan, my ignorance, my faulty memory and my lack of math prodigy.  I will not know all that there is to know; I will not know any minute fraction of what there is to know; I will not even master the subjects which matter to me.  I will not master anything, because knowledge is being produced too fast to allow mastery of anything for very long (and because I am a dilettante).

And if I am not master of my subject, how will I know truth from fiction?  How will I distinguish good information from bad?  Gleick deals with this problem explicitly, and his conclusion is not comforting to me.  Because ‘information’ is not the same as ‘truth’; ‘content’ is not the same thing as ‘veracity’.

“Still, who could love a theory that gives false statements as much value as true statements (at least, in terms of quantity of information)?  It was mechanistic.  It was desiccated.  A pessimist, looking backward, might call it a harbinger of a soulless internet at its worst.  “The more we ‘communicate’ the way we do, the more we create a hellish world,” wrote the Parisian philosopher – also a historian of cybernetics – Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

“I take “hell” in its theological sense, i.e., a place which is void of grace – the undeserved, unnecessary, surprising, unforeseen.  A paradox is at work here: ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning.”

That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?  A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging.  Incessant chatter.  The false driving out the true.” (p. 418)

Gleick does not believe so.  He sees a different world (one begins to suspect that he does not watch the news); his relationship to information is hopeful: “Infinite possibility is good, not bad.  Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared.  Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space…We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened.” (p. 419)

And I’m very happy for him, but this Sisyphean message has undone me utterly: it is very rare that I am so impressed by a book and yet so depressed by it.  Smarter, yes, but more acutely aware of how little I know, how little I will ever know.

Cannibalism

A Perfectly Natural History

By Bill Schutt

When you were a kid, did you ever feel as though you belonged to a completely different species than everyone around you?  As though you were totally alien, a tiny island of strangeness in a vast sea of normality?  That there was no one like you, no one who would ever understand why you liked the things that you liked, dressed the way the you did, wanted the things you wanted?

I did.  When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I was the weirdest person on the planet, humanity’s outlier, doomed never to do the right things and never to have companions in my own, odd interests.

CannibalismI was wrong, though.  There are other weirdos like me, and I can tell because otherwise there would be no market for books like ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘.

Some books are about exactly what you think they’re about. ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is both a history, and a natural history, of cannibalism.  It describes the circumstances in the animal kingdom in which cannibalism reliably occurs (in what species, in what conditions).  What animals eat their own young, and why?  What animals eat other peoples’ young, and why?  What animals eat other adults, and why?

And it’s a history of human cannibalism.  Schutt, on principle, doesn’t spend time on so-called Cannibal Killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, aberrant individuals who happened to eat other people.  Instead, he is interested in institutions of cannibalism in human society, either rituals in which humans construct meaning around the eating of other humans, or circumstances in which humans semi-reliably eat other humans (like mass starvations).

He does spend a chapter on the Donner Party, the incident of human cannibalism with which most of his readership will be familiar.  But he also devotes a chapter to, for example, the practice of placenta-eating, which he describes (defensibly) as cannibalism.

I can see already that I am going to have difficulty describing how happy it makes me that this book exists.  ‘Cannibalism‘ isn’t literature, for sure, and it probably won’t go down as one of the all-time most beautifully written scientific texts.  But it’s an entire book about cannibalism!  It’s 300 pages of well-articulated information about the myths and facts of cannibalism – I really can’t offer praise much higher than that.

I think that there are two essential relationships that people can have to the grotesque.  Some people have a basic disinclination to the weird and the gross.  They find it aversive, or boring.  They have no interest in learning, say, which insects can lay eggs under your skin, or how to get a lightbulb out of a human rectum (or why someone would even put a lightbulb in a human rectum, for that matter), or what an infection of flesh-eating bacteria looks like, or any of the other creepy information lurking at the corners of the human world.

And then there are people like me.  It’s not that we like learning about serial killers, or bloodworms, or disturbing sexual perversions, not exactly.  It’s that, as soon as we learned that the knowledge existed, we needed to have it.  We were drawn to it.  The gruesome has an irresistible fascination for us; say to us, “Don’t look at that – it’s disgusting, or wrong, or forbidden”, and you have only assured that we will look.

If you are the sort of person who is not attracted to the strange, then ‘Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History‘ is not for you, and it will help not at all if I tell you that, for example, there is an entire chapter on sexual cannibalism in the animal kingdom (though, of course, that was an immense selling point for me).  It’s called ‘Sexual Cannibalism, or Size Matters’.

Which chapter heading also usefully describes the writing style of ‘Cannibalism’.  Although Schutt is a professor of biology, ‘Cannibalism’ is meant for a popular audience, and is written in a jokey, approachable style.

Bill Schutt.jpeg
Bill Schutt

I don’t mean that entirely as a compliment.  Popular science is difficult to write.  You never make everyone happy: you’re either too dense for the layman, or too dumb for the scientist.  Schutt isn’t quite able to make up his mind on which way he’d like to err, so he sort of tries to disguise a lot of the actual science by surrounding it with dramatic description and dad-jokes:

“Insects undergoing pupation, the quiescent stage of metamorphosis associated with the production of a chrysalis or cocoon, are also vulnerable to attack from younger conspecifics.  The ravenous larva of the elephant mosquito (Toxorhynchites) not only consumes conspecific pupae, but also embarks on a killing frenzy, slaying but not eating anything unlucky enough to cross its path.” (p. 23)

“All caecilians do share one characteristic unique to the amphibians: internal fertilization, and during this process, sperm is deposited into the female’s cloaca with the aid of a penis-like structure called a phallodeum…But as interesting as the concept of legless caecilians wielding their penises underground might be (admittedly, it disturbed some of my older Italian relatives until I explained the spelling differences)…” (p. 80)

But there is a lot of science, and that I do mean that as a compliment.  I learned a lot about cannibalism, both in humans and in animals  (I think my all-time favorite fun fact (soon to be deployed at parties, I can tell), is from the chapter on Christopher Columbus and the alleged cannibals he encountered in the New World:

“But whether or not these strange savages had tails (and even if they were supported by trained fish and Amazonian girlfriends), plans were soon being formulated to pacify the Caribs, who were now being referred to as Canibs.  According to scholars, the transition from Carib to Canib apparently resulted from a mispronunciation, although in light of stories describing locals as having canine faces, I agree with Yale professor Claude Rawson that “Canib” may also be a degenerate form of canis, Latin for “dog”.  Eventually, canib became the root of “cannibal,” which replaced anthropophagi, the ancient Greek mouthful previously used to describe people-eaters.” (p. 102)).

And Schutt deals properly and respectfully with the problem that many of the “facts” of human cannibalism, the famous stories from Papua New Guinea and of the Aztecs, among others, are probably exaggerated or fabricated.  Even the so-called eye-witness reports were often racially biased, and accusing a tribe or a people of cannibalism was often just the easiest moral justification for enslaving them and confiscating their property.

I also want to put a small plug in for the illustrations, which are weird and charming and chosen without rationale that I can understand.  Some are deeply helpful and clearly scientifically apropos, but some are bizarre and seem to be there just to amuse, which they do.

For example, the first is a useful one from the chapter on the Donner Party, which shows their trail.  Next is one of dubious, but potential, utility, from the chapter on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, of the structure of a ‘hypothetical prion’.  The third is stranger still, an illustration of ‘skull moss’, which is, as you might have expected, moss grown on a human skull (preferably that of a hanged man), and which was used to treat bleeding.  And, perhaps most confusingly, and also from the chapter on Mad Cow Disease, is a drawing of a hamburger, in case you didn’t know what one looked like.

As, I said, charming, about as charming as a book on cannibalism could possibly be.  And, if you are anything like me, that’s pretty charming.