Review: A Sticky Note Guide to Life, by Chaz Hutton

2016; HarperCollins

Unassuming Gold.
The often self-deprecating Chaz Hutton holds up a mirror to the banalities and paradoxes (paradoces?) of our modern behaviour and thinking. He covers social media, social interactions, everyday home and work life, and occasionally the philosophical. Charts and Venn diagrams are used in original ways to convey hiding-in-plain-sight truths. He occasionally reminds me (perhaps weirdly) of the great Gary Larson, even though their respective styles are very different: Larson’s work evokes stereotypical but often rich and sympathetic characters to tell simple stories of ridiculousness and the bizarre in a single frame (eg., absent-minded nuclear physicists, or psychoanalyst chickens). Hutton’s characters, on the other hand, are either us, or bland stick figures (usually both), and his simple stories of ridiculousness are vignettes of our everyday lives. Both are short, pithy, and often revealing of larger truths.

Of course one can take Hutton’s material simply at face value and enjoy it all rather superficially. (Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.) However, after spending some extended time with Chaz’s observations – both this book and his daily-or-nearly-daily Instagram material – I’ve begun to enjoy seeing a bigger picture statement come through in his work. His insights capture with honesty, but without judgement, the banality of our cultural priorities and responsibilities. While some of his pieces have a certain timelessness to them, the majority are ephemeral: They are very much of our current era, and might be frankly obscure to an audience in as little as 20 years’ time. And yet, this makes the work arguably more important, because it provides future historians with a succinct and flavoursome time capsule of our particular current state of postmodernism.

Having said all that, if Chaz himself were to consider any of this analysis, he might feel inclined to prepare an ironic sticky note summary that politely, but pointedly, deflates it (and, ultimately, himself).
5 sticky note flags.

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Review: A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

a-colorful-history-of-popular-delusions

2015, Prometheus Books

This is indeed a fascinating and comprehensive collection of “deluded” crowd behaviours. It includes over 100 well-documented and referenced examples of such behaviours, grouped together into a taxonomy of 14 different ‘categories’. Those categories include rumours and gossip, urban legends, fads, crazes and manias (each has a different definition!), stampedes, panics and riots, and the more intriguing anxiety hysterias and classical mass hysterias.
In each chapter, the authors first take us through their definition of a given category, and then present a group of well-referenced historical examples, describing the circumstances of each mass delusion from start to finish.

Some of the cases revealed are truly fascinating. There are witch hunts, UFO and Big Foot sightings, the urban legends of alligators in sewer systems, and various disturbing cases of ‘motor hysteria’, in which those affected suffer tremors and fits as a result of their mass delusions.

There is also the case of the (in)famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast – this did indeed cause a major community panic, and even loss of life – but not in the United States as I (and perhaps many others) had always understood. In 1938, Orson Wells gained some notoriety by broadcasting a contemporary version of H.G. Welles’ story of invading Martians. The incident was re-popularised in the 1970s made-for-TV movie “The Night that Panicked America”. But the authors of the current book give that incident barely a passing mention as a rather limited ‘small group’ panic. Obviously it caused a stir, but was by no means an actual panicking of all of America.
The story of real significance actually occurred in Ecuador in 1949, when a similar realistic-sounding broadcast of invading aliens was made by a radio station that truly panicked the city of Quito. When the locals learned they had been deceived, they became a rioting angry mob, trashed the radio station and brought about the deaths of 20 people. The impact of the South American incident was clearly more profound than the Orson Wells broadcast, but the former seems to be all but unknown today.

The book is not without its flaws and weaknesses, however. Here are three, in order of importance, beginning with the trivial.

Proofreading. I’ve come to expect the occasional typo in just about every piece of professional writing I read these days. This book seems to have more to its fair share, especially in the first half. And there is also at least one howler where the concluding sentence of a paragraph appears to contradict the original point being made. These editing errors aren’t so numerous to be that big a deal, of course. Or at least, they shouldn’t be. But I found they occurred just often enough to be an annoying distraction.

Referencing. The liberal use of references is a testament to the authors’ expertise and depth of research in the field. However, I was still bugged by a couple of points. When a book contains citations, I’m the type of reader that keeps one thumb in the references and the other as a current page marker, flipping “in real time” between the two whenever a citation appears.
To repeat: The references are one of the strong points of the book. But I was disappointed by (a) the high degree of reliance on secondary sources (many of which didn’t feel fully accurate or persuasive), and (b) the over-use of ibid. If there are only one or two pieces of source material describing a particular event, we only need one or two citations at the end of the paragraph. We don’t need one every second sentence pointing back to the same source.

Treatment of Religious Beliefs
While we have here a well-curated collection of irrational human behaviour in tribes and crowds, I feel that the mass delusions of religious beliefs are let off far too easily. Sure – there is certainly coverage of some religious-inspired oddities, like self-flagellation, the Salem witch hunts, worshiping the image of Jesus in a tortilla, and the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown mass suicides. However, the field of religious beliefs and practices – the traditions, the psychology, the counter-intuitive rationalisations – is rich for further expansion, and much has been left on the table that could have been explored in this context.
One might fairly argue that dealing with religious beliefs wasn’t the intention here. But if that is so, then the error is in the title of the book itself. Rather than being A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, a more accurate label might have been A Colourful Collection of Irrational Crowd Behaviour. After all, not all rumours and pieces of gossip, or fads, or stampedes or riots, for example, are necessarily driven by “delusion”. On the other hand, why should it be assumed that poisoning oneself in order to board a comet to heaven is any more delusional than, say, the belief that a piece of bread is an actual (not metaphorical) piece of the body of Jesus Christ, or that Muhammed actually ascended to heaven on a winged horse? Delusions of this type are some of the most popular of all time, and are sadly all but neglected here – not simply by example, but as representative of some of the most powerful aspects of human tribal psychology.

Despite its limitations, this is still an excellent collection of material that I can see myself dipping back into from time to time, whenever I want to recall examples of popular, irrational crowd behaviour.
3 out of 5.

Brief Review: A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

This is a brief review of A Universe from Nothing (Why There is Something Rather than Nothing), by Lawrence Krauss (2012).

ISBN-10: 1451624468 | ISBN-13: 978-1451624465. Amazon.

I loved making it through this book, but I have to admit that I couldn’t follow much of the physics described by Lawrence Krauss. I am scientifically trained, but my own field was biology and more specifically neuroscience and physiology, with a little bit of biochemistry. My physics is very much limited to the basics covered by first year university science programs (from nearly 30 years ago)!
Having said that, I feel that if I persisted – probably by re-reading the book a few more times and/or following up some of the fundamentals from other sources (I reckon Wikipedia would suffice!) – I would probably appreciate the material a lot better. However it is certainly straightforward enough to follow the key points, such as the flat, eternal expansion of the universe, dark energy and cosmic background radiation, that the total energy of the universe is zero, and the outrageous but statistically balanced properties of virtual particles (see Ch 10: Nothing is Unstable).

One of the excellent features of Krauss’ coverage is that it is very much an outlined history of the major discoveries in cosmology and particle physics over the past century or so and their significance to our existing understanding of physics on the sub-atomic and the whole-of-universe scales. Credit is paid to the vast array of famous and not-so-famous physicists that have made the important contributions to the field. The material is all presented honestly, from the ground breaking findings that are not in dispute, to false paths that some researchers have taken in their quests for the truth, as well as the poorly-understood and even highly-speculative fields such as string theory.

However, it really isn’t necessary for the reader to follow precisely every description of every important discovery in cosmology or quantum mechanics in order to appreciate the circumstances of the origin of the universe. The physics basis is critical to the conclusions, of course, but the most important implications come out in Krauss’ final chapters and the Epilogue. A distinction between science and theology that is highlighted here (and indeed, throughout the book), is that scientists don’t claim to know all the answers. The very fact that we don’t know it all is indeed the main driver for further exploration and experimentation:
…That is why we have science. We may supplement this understanding with reflection and call that philosophy. But only via continuing to probe every nook and cranny of the universe that is accessible to us will we truly build a useful appreciation of our own place in the cosmos.
In contrast are “…those who have decided in advance […] that the supernatural (i.e., God) must exist so they define their philosophical ideas (once again completely divorced from any empirical basis) to exclude anything but the possibility of a god.

Furthermore, Krauss doesn’t need to get bogged down in esoteric metaphysics. All he does is highlight a few salient points and questions about our origins, and whether there really is any need for God in our rationalisation for existence. The philosophical discussion has now been pushed back, to beyond whether ‘something can come from nothing’ by virtue of rational, physical, natural causes, because we now know that it definitely can. Instead the metaphysical ponderings are now about the laws of physics, and the question apparently first highlighted by Albert Einstein. To paraphrase: “did God have any choice in the creation of the universe?”. Or more specifically now, did God have any choice in the laws of physics? (“God”, in this context, can be taken as the omnipotent deity if you’re theistically inclined, or as Einstein and Krauss would contend, simply the profound nature of all reality that doesn’t require intelligence, morals, or any other anthropomorphised attributes.)

Despite what theologians might have to say on this matter, no one yet has the answer to this question (was there any ‘choice’ in the laws of physics for our universe), including Lawrence Krauss. Importantly, the question is a human one, and while we can ‘supplement our understanding’ of it with philosophy, the most robust approaches we have to address it, as well as any other question of relevance to humanity, are those of scientific enquiry.