Book Review: Scarcity Brain

This is a 2023 “self-help” book by Michael Easter. Definitely not the sort of book I typically read, but occasionally, I surprise myself.

gordon meyer holding book cover

Scarcity Brain was a compelling read, perhaps mostly because — unlike many publications of this genre — Mr. Easter writes in the first person and does not come off as preachy. The style is that it’s just one man’s account of his investigations into a subject that interests him.

Unfortunately, with this approach, it’s not a good resource for those who want to “do their own research” as there is a paucity of usable references and no bibliography. More than once I cringed at references to “a study found that…” without any detail about the “who, what, when, and where” provided. This is a surprising omission for Easter, he’s a college professor and journalist, but it does serve to keep the book breezy and readable.

The premise of the book is that “scarcity” has driven human behavior ever since our arrival. Scarcity consists of the opportunity to gain something, a degree of unpredictability about the outcome, and quick repeatability. It is the pursuit and anticipation of a reward that releases a dopamine high, not the actual receipt of the reward. We are compelled to persist in the face of uncertainty because it feels good to do so. (Also, quitters die.)

The book examines how this urge plays into many aspects of modern life, such as extreme sports, gambling, social media, politics, food, and more. It’s a fascinating take on what is really going on with people and driving so much obsessive behavior.

Some ideas and phrases that stuck me with:

  • Slot machines are finely tuned to tickle the “scarcity brain” and, annually, take in $100 per American. That’s more than books, movies, and music combined.
  • “Losses disguised as wins” is a key component of gaming. That is, bet $5 and get back $3, and it seems like a “win.”
  • Although not his exact wording, Easter’s observations inspire me to declare Las Vegas the “The Vatican of Excess” — a turn of phrase I’m rather proud of.
  • Humans overlook subtraction as an effective way to change things. Instead, we pursue more, more, and more. (A lesson I wish more software developers would learn, although Apple is pretty good at recognizing this.)
  • “We need to ask the deeper questions and consider how we can find enough. Not too much, and not too little.” In other words, Goldilocks had the right idea.
  • Better living through chemistry: Manufactured street drugs release a thousand-fold more dopamine than any naturally occurring substance.
  • The rise of data, numbers, and figures is gamifying everyday life, and that impacts how we live, what we pay attention to, and what we pursue — the reward being a better “score” on our wrist computers.
  • “Snacking” is a modern, post-war category of food. And the variety of food available now has ruined the sociability of eating. No longer do you have to accommodate the tastes of others or discover new things, everyone eats in their own “bubble” of preferences.
  • We are exposed to more information in a single day than a 15th century human would encounter in their entire lives. Much of it designed to make us feel happy, sad, outraged, or correct. All so that we will keep looking and see more advertisements.
  • Just as “slow food” is better for you than “fast food,” slow information gathering is better than Googling.

Well, there’s much, much more. I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite its flaws and annoying oversights of page layout. But, kudos to the designer who came up with these charming chapter headings:

chapter number design that looks like a slot machine reel

I bought my copy on sale at Writer’s Block, but it’s also available to at the Amazon.

Book Review: Rim of the Pit

I don’t read many novels, but when I do it’s most often a noir-ish mystery story. I was attracted to this book in particular because its author is a conjuror who has written a classic textbook that I really admire.

gordon meyer holding book cover

The story is a bonafide classic “locked room” mystery, which adds an extra element of intrigue, and as it says in the book’s introduction, makes the story more of a “howdunit” instead of a “whodunit.”

The story, having been published in 1944, definitely has some dated references, such as a describing someone as resembling “an island of William Bendix entirely surrounded by Robert Taylor.” I’ll refrain from quoting the references which are decidedly not politically correct in today’s world. But in my opinion, these cultural artifacts don’t distract from the story, but instead cement it into a specific historical and cultural period. This is important, as the story takes place in real-time and modern readers must remember that certain technologies and practices are simply not available to the characters.

The book’s prose is wonderful and, if you’re so inclined, offers many rabbit holes to explore. Here are just a few of the new words, or delightful turns of phrase, that I enjoyed:

  • According to the O.E.D.,gibber, as a noun, does not predate (1604) gibberish, the adjective. (1557). Surprising!
  • “Her face still showed traces of a beauty which must have been flamboyant in her youth, but she had fought age with the wrong weapons.”
  • An impassioned speech aimed at skeptics — “Some men steal. Doesn't show everybody's a thief. Doesn't even show the thieves dishonesty all the time. Come right down to it, the fact that some mediums cheat is positive proof of another world. Before a medium can fake a phenomenon, that phenomenon must have happened. Can't imitate anything that doesn't exist.”
  • “Snatching at a straw and swallowing a camel.”
  • Dottle is the remaining plug of unburnt tobacco and ashes left in the bottom of a tobacco pipe when it has been smoked.
  • “Every trade marks a man. Mine is science. If that means anything at all it means becoming the slave of logic. An honest scientist spends his days fighting the will to believe, until at last he ceases to have any control over his own opinions. He follows logic as inevitably and as helplessly as water runs downhill. He can no longer believe anything because it is pleasant, or because everyone else does. Neither can he refuse to believe anything because it contravenes the theories on which he has based his entire life.”

Did I solve the mystery before the book revealed its secrets? I did not. But honestly, I didn’t even try. I never do. (I love the feeling of not knowing.) But if you’re the type that wants to outsmart the author, I assure you it’s possible with a careful reading and clever thinking.

Rim of the Pit is part of the American Mystery Classics collection, and I bought my copy at Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. However, you can obtain it from the Amazon or wherever fine books are sold. I predict that you’ll enjoy it.

Book Review: A Firehose of Falsehood

This 2023 publication by Terry Kanefield and Pat Dorian is subtitled “The Story of Disinformation.” It’s a stunning sequential art book that, quite seriously, should be required reading for every American — especially those who vote.

gordon meyer holding book

The book traces the history of disinformation as a form of warfare all the way back to about 500 BCE and Darius the First of Persia. From there it describes The Arthashastra, an ancient Indian Sanskrit handbook describing disinfo and propaganda techniques that are remarkably familiar in today’s world.

And speaking of familiar, the discussions of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini will send chills down your spine. (Of particular note, “Drain the Swamp” is a slogan direct from the Italian fascist himself.)

The concepts of fascism and conspiracy get bandied about a lot today (with good reason) but if you’re not exactly sure about what they mean, this book will bring a great deal of clarity. (I also loved that it brought in the works of my sociologist homeboy Max Weber.)

The title of the book is a succinct and accurate description of the MAGA corps techniques. The authors define it as below, but this could also be an apt summary of CNN’s Kaitlan Collins’ 2023 “town hall” with Donald Trump:

“The firehouse of falsehood is a rapid and continuous stream of lies that overwhelms the listener. The liar exhibits a shameless willingness to tell contradictory and outrageous lies. It’s a way of undermining truth by making it impossible for anyone to focus on the facts.”

The book also lays out the facts and activities of the Russian “Internet Research Agency,” which flooded American social media with pro-Trump (and anti-Hillary) stories, memes, and lies to influence voters. (A fact well-established and covered in the book’s extensive notes and bibliography addenda.)

Reading this book can be quite disturbing, but it helpfully tries to soften the feeling of dismay by providing concrete suggestions and tactics for not only identifying disinformation, but countering it too.

The graphic format of the book makes it a quick and approachable read. I loved it, and I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy. I got mine from Quimby’s via their affiliation, but you can find on the Amazon too, naturally.

This is apparently the first publication from First Second Books / World Citizen Comics, and it’s so well produced that I look forward to more of what they have to offer.

Book Review: Hard Case Crime

For the last twenty years, Hard Case Crime has been publishing gritty and fun novels. I don’t remember when I first discovered them — it may have been at the beloved Kayo Books in San Francisco — but after that first book, I was totally hooked. The stories are sharp, smart, and always interesting.

In celebration of their anniversary, Hard Case Crime has released a new compilation of short stories. “Death Comes Too Late” is the title. If you would rather not commit to a whole novel, this would be a great way to sample their world.

If you’re looking for another recommendation, “Somebody Owes Me Money” is the sort of fast-paced, intricate story that you’ll immediately want to read again, as soon you finish it. But I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t also suggest that you consider “The Colorado Kid.” By far, my favorite mystery story not written by Robert Parker. (It’s by Stephen King — yes, that Stephen King — but don’t let that color your assumptions about the story.)

Even if you’re not at all interested in fiction, at least check out the remarkable original covers that Hard Case commissions for each book. You can feel the love and respect for the genre in each one.

Book Review: Snails and Monkey Tails

This 2022 publication by Michael Arndt is subtitled “A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols.” I was initially drawn to the book by its distinctive design, which definitely makes it stand out among other reference books for writers.

gordon meyer holding book cover

But, I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it, as the bookstore only had one copy and it was rather shelf-worn. Nor did I buy the book when I saw it the second time, in a different store, as it was shelved with the design books, and I was thinking it might be more style than substance.

But, as they say, the third time is the charm, especially when yet a different book store had it in their remainders section for less than the price of a nice coffee. I figured it was worth a purchase. And boy, was I right.

It does belong in the design book section because it is a lovingly, beautifully produced publication. (All those bleeds! The typography!) But as a reference for writers and word-lovers, it really shines. There’s no usage information (aside admonishment that one exclamation point is enough), instead it consists of the fascinating history of punctuation marks.

Just a couple of the things it taught me:

  • The abbreviation “lb” for pound originates in “Libra Pondo,” where libra is “scale” in Latin, and is also related to the astrological sign of the same name, which is depicted as scales. Over time, the abbreviation was written with a tittle (a crossbar connecting the two letters), which eventually morphed into a currency symbol for the British pound (£).
  • The ampersand is a twisted rendition of “et,” which is Latin for “and.”
  • My favorite punctuation mark, the interrobang, gets only a brief mention‽ Well, partial forgiveness is granted for introducing me to the percontation point, which is a backwards question mark meant to signal a rhetorical question. I wonder why nobody uses it⸮
  • The pointing hand symbol (manicule) lives on in emoji, but was commonly used in medieval times and Renaissance. ☜
  • In addition to the period (full stop) we know today, dots shifted off the baseline were the original forms of the comma and colon.

Usually, a book like this I’ll read, take some notes, and then donate to a Little Free Library. But this one, I’m keeping. It was Unabridged Books where I finally got my copy, but you can find it at the Amazon too. Don’t be like me and procrastinate.

Book Review: The Experience Machine

This 2023 book by Andy Clark is subtitled “How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality,” and it was this subtitle that drew me to the book. Partly because I’m a follower of guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson, who has written extensively on the subject of reality manipulation.

When you pick up this book from the shelf it’s a bit intimidating — but that’s mostly due to its academic nature and a substantial proportion of the back pages being filled with references, footnotes, and appendices. But don’t be frightened, it’s approachable, readable, and definitely insightful.

The odd title of the book refers to the central premise that the mind doesn’t observe reality then draw conclusions; it creates what we perceive based on experience-derived expectations. Simplified to a 1970s bumper sticker, “You are what you think.” But this isn’t armchair conjecture, it’s backed by cognitive science.

I finished the book with dozens of notes, here are a few of them:

  • What we perceive today is deeply rooted in what we experienced yesterday, and all the days before that. Every aspect of our experience comes to us filtered by the brain’s best expectations rooted in our past histories.
  • We see the world by predicting the world (which is what conjurers exploit).
  • There was a fascinating 2001 study of hearing music (and sometimes, indistinct voices) within white noise. This is the brain predicting ahead to make sense of the sound.
  • The prediction effect is why you can’t tickle yourself. Tickling relies on the element of surprise. It’s also why drinking water when you’re thirsty is immediately satisfying, even though clearly the water hasn’t been absorbed by the body yet.
  • Schizophrenia might be the brain’s predictive system gone haywire.
  • The placebo effect is well documented, but there’s also a “nocebo” effect in which the patient knows they are receiving an inert substance, but it still works just as well.

There was one part of the book that I found somewhat jarring. Clark seems to be the rare scientist who is willing to challenge orthodoxy, which makes his derisive dismissal of all things “supernatural” such a surprise. It’s an odd, unsubstantiated knee-jerk section that otherwise undermines his cultivated image of being open-minded. Particularly so, since it follows lengthy, positive discussions of psychedelics, yoga, A.I. sentience, and other fringe topics.

I would never have predicted (ahem) that I’d read two books on psychology this year, and enjoy them. But here we are. If you’d like to explore this fascinating topic — which the author deftly links to “A.I.” — then I foresee you enjoying this book too.

I bought my copy at Barbara’s Bookstore, but you can find it at the Amazon too.

Announcing: Escape from Bucktown

My latest project is ESCAPE FROM BUCKTOWN, a self-guided tour and puzzle walk of a dozen neighborhood sites of historical and cultural importance. At each location, answer an optional challenge question, gleaned by in-person observation. The Escape from Bucktown booklet is all you need, and you can get a copy at Quimby's (1854 W North Ave) or, for Kindle (free for Kindle Unlimited members) and Apple Books. $6 for an afternoon of family-friendly outdoor fun. gordon meyer escape from bucktown cover

Book Review: How Do We Know Ourselves?

A 2022 publication subtitled “Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind.”

gordon meyer holding book

The author is David G. Myers, a noted and prolific psychologist. He describes this book as a short and playful collection of some of psychology’s wisdom. And indeed, any reader will be armed with numerous anecdotes and quips based on the book’s myriad of short chapters. For this reason alone, I recommend picking up a copy.

Despite the author’s misspelling of his last name, I feel an affinity for him, as explained and predicted in the books’ discussion of how “Louis” is a statistically outlying common name in Missouri. (Among many other examples.)

Here’s a small sampling of my highlights:

  • Cognitive psychologist George Miller once described two ocean liner passengers gazing over the sea. “There sure is a lot of water in the ocean,” said one. “Yes,” replied the other, “and we’ve only seen the top of it.”
  • Pain is most acutely felt when attended to. Myers gives the example of performers whose maladies disappear when on stage, phenomena that I have witnessed and experienced.
  • Hearing is both a physical and mental act — our brain imposes meanings on vibrations — and because we lack “ear lids,” unlike sight, it cannot be turned off. (So you should never apologize for eavesdropping.)
  • Reno is further west than Los Angeles.
  • Psychologically speaking, loss is greater than gain. Bad is greater than good. Fear of losing steals our chances at winning.
  • The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.
  • Confessing failure and disapproval can lead to strengthened relationships.

One unique aspect of this book — which I suspect might become more commonplace in current publications — is the author’s references to the MAGA crowd and their traitorous leader. It makes for meaningful examples when maladies are put in contemporary settings, and will undoubtably cement this book as a product of its time.

I bought my copy from the closeout shelf at Barbara’s Books, but you can get yours from the Amazon.

Book Review: Writing for Social Scientists

Subtitled “How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article,” this book is literally a road map to writing about the social sciences. It has been decades since I read it, so this “review” is really an appreciation of a formative publication.

I was reminded of the book while browsing the publication catalog at the University of Chicago Press. Finding it there, still in print, triggered many memories. It’s not an exaggeration to say that reading this book had a profound influence on my career and life.

My undergraduate mentor, L. Kay Gillespie, recommended this book to me and without it, my academic career might have been quite different.

It was because of this book, and Becker’s association with the UofC, that I visited their legendary sociology department when I was looking for a graduate school. (I didn’t attend there, I couldn’t afford it, and I was not smart enough to earn a sufficient scholarship, but what a great day I had visiting with professors and soaking in the gothic atmosphere.)

If you are, or know, a student of the social sciences — or someone who just wants to improve your reading, research, and writing skills — I highly recommend this publication. You can get a copy from the Amazon.

Book Review: The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch

Published in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the series, the overall theme of this book is how an unsuccessful TV series (never cracking the top 30 in ranking) went on to become a syndication and cultural juggernaut.

Alice from the cover the book

Like many of my generation, I grew up as a latchkey kid who came home from school and immediately plopped down in front of the television to watch reruns of The Brady Bunch (and Sherwood Schwartz’s other masterpiece, Gilligan’s Island). So the nostalgic appeal of this book was immediate, although ultimately I was slightly disappointed, as I had hoped for more sociological analysis and less Hollywood Reporter or, sometimes, TMZ.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it, and some highlights include:

  • The Brady house is the second most photographed house in America, after the White House.
  • The secret sauce of the show is its simplicity and the mirror it held to the viewer. If you had a similar family, there was a character for you to identify with. If you didn’t have a family like theirs, you wanted one.
  • The earworm of a theme song served an important purpose — it was a cleverly disguised exposition of the premise before every episode. A technique also used by Schwartz for Gilligan’s Island.
  • It was revealed that Mike Brady was a widower, but like the fate of Fluffy the dog, what happened to Carol’s husband is still a mystery.
  • The show was filmed using a single camera to minimize the time that the children needed to be on set, so they could attend school classes between scenes.
  • Lucille Ball plays two major roles in the history of the show. First, the success of her movie Yours, Mine and Ours got the series green-lit by the network. Secondly, her invention of recording shows for later playback allowed the Bradys to be syndicated, which is where it flourished.
  • The show invented the “family vacation” trope with its trip to Hawaii.
  • The pornographic parody of the show is the best-selling adult video series of all time.

On the less interesting side, the author’s insistence on detailing cast lists (including those who didn’t get the roles) for the various spinoffs and reunions didn’t hold my interest. Furthermore, as a pop culture writer, I would expect Kimberly Potts to know more accurate years for defining “Generation X.” (Douglas Coupland, who wrote about his generation using the name, was born in 1961.) Finally, this book incessantly reminds the reader that Robert Reed was difficult to work with. Yeah, we get it; TV’s favorite father was frequently a little bitch.

I found my copy of the book in the closeout section of Unabridged in Boystown. You can get yours from the Amazon, of course. The photo I’ve included here is detail from the excellent jacket design.