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.

Book Review: The Case of the Grinning Gorilla

This book is the fortieth in the Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardner. If you’re more of a television person, it is featured in season eight of the show. (I’m slowly working my way through the episodes via streaming, which I’m loving, but man those were long seasons back in the day.)

The basic premise of the story seems to be that a medical researcher is mistreating his primate subjects and a brilliant gorilla turns to thievery, and I presume, eventually to murder. I’m a little fuzzy on the details for reasons that will become clear below. Mystery File has a nice plot summary with minimal spoilers, if you want a more reliable summary.

The writing is sharp, the plot flows well, and I didn’t mind hearing the voices of Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale in my head as I read the snappy dialog. This is my first encounter with Gardner’s writing, and I want to come back for more at some point.

But that point is not now. I didn’t finish reading this book. It was engaging and enjoyable, but current demands on my time have me in “short attention span reading mode”, and a sweeping mystery — with its cast of many characters — is not conducive to irregular consumption. Every time I picked up the book to read a chapter, I found myself a little lost in who was whom and what they had done. Rather than continue to struggle, I asked for a continuance (see what I did there?) and returned the book to the Little Free Library where I found it. (You can begin your search for a copy on the Amazon.)

But now I know that Gardner should be on my reading list, and I have a new appreciation for the television series too.

Please and Thank You

Today I noticed a new book at Barnes & Noble: Please, Sorry, Thanks: The Three Words That Change Everything. (Amazon link) The cover says: “Those three words are the foundation of all healthy relationships and successful careers.”

I haven’t read this book, nor do I need to because my parents raised me correctly. It’s astonishing to me how many people don’t ever express their gratitude to others.

I worked in a retail store for a dozen years. By decree of the owner, every customer was thanked. Either for their purchase, or just for visiting the store. Today, most clerks don’t even say “thank you” when concluding a transaction. (If you haven’t noticed this before, you will now.) Sometimes, in a show of only mildly satisfying passive-aggression, I'll cheerfully tell them “you’re welcome” as I depart. This probably makes me a jerk.

And the lack of gratitude is not just at the individual level, but organizationally too. I spent years editing, writing, and publishing a monthly newsletter for a local neighborhood group. I did it because I love my community, but I never received a thank you or acknowledgment from the leaders of the organization. Not even when I resigned my position.

Just the other day, I dropped off several boxes of household goods at the local Salvation Army Donation Center. A person working there accepted my items, told me where to pile them, but never expressed any gratitude for providing them with free goods. This, from a business that relies entirely on the kindness of others!

It is sad that a book reminding people about expressing simple, cost-free courtesy has to exist, but I hope it changes the world.

Book Review: God, Human, Animal, Machine

This 2022 publication by Meghan O'Gieblyn is subtitled Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning.

gordon meyer holding book cover

I’m not certain how to categorize this book. If the book is journalism, it’s overly dense and repetitive, but appropriately neutral in its perspective. If it’s intended to be an academic tome, it’s superficial, omits too many important precedents, and lacks a thesis. But it does raise several significant questions and offers some interesting insight.

The author is a former fundamentalist who seems to have replaced her Christian belief system with fundamental materialism. (I should clarify that I am not a fan of either position.)

As I was reading this book, there were many occasions when I almost decided to quit and let it go unfinished. But, I kept reading, as there were just enough intriguing (but largely underdeveloped) tidbits to pull me along. By the time I reached the end, I felt like I had finished a big tub of movie theatre popcorn. I enjoyed it, but with some shame, and I knew I probably should have stopped myself sooner.

What kept me going was the contemplative observations about technology, and my heart sung at citations to the work of the great sociologist, Max Weber, and more rarely, Hegel. But throughout the book, I couldn’t help notice the complete lack of references to Marxism. At first, I was irked that the book ignores a wide swath of relevant scholarship, but I eventually chalked it up to the author’s Wheaton Bible College education, where the writings of Marx were probably forbidden.

Aside from Weber, I was also glad to find discussion of Ray Kurzweil. Clearly the singularity is relevant to her discussion and perspective, and she addresses it quite well. But there are a few other relevant works that I was hoping she’d bring into the conversation. The writings of philosopher Robert Anton Wilson would provide broader context to her observations, and the books The Soul of A New Machine and What The Dormouse Said would steel her arguments.

Here are just a few of the tasty nuggets that I collected from the book:

  • Our brains can’t fundamentally distinguish between interacting with people and interacting with devices. (Clifford Nass, Stanford)
  • Metaphors die when we forget that they are metaphors and take them literally. This has happened to the “computational theory of mind.” Our brains are not computers; our computers are not brains. But you’d never know it by listening to people talk about A.I., and other technologies.
  • For most of human history, we accepted that our lives were being watched, listened to, and supervised by gods and spirits. Not all of them benign.
  • Science set aside consciousness because it is too difficult to study objectively. This led to metaphysical avoidance, and eventually, metaphysical denial.
  • If the fascists in Florida want to protect people, they should focus on transhumanism (a concept born of the 1800s) instead of transgenderism. (This sentiment is mine, not the authors, to be clear.)
  • Wikipedia goes to great lengths to obscure the human authorship of its articles to imbue itself with the aura of a holy text.
  • The theory of a “participatory universe,” briefly mentioned in the book, led me to this interesting summary.
  • The author’s college offered only one course in Literature, and it was focused exclusively on works with Christian themes, such as stories by C.S. Lewis.
  • Standardized testing is all about making students look good to an algorithm.

I know this review has a bit of a negative tone, but ultimately, I was left with 35 notecards of compelling tidbits or references to explore. That’s a successful book, even though I didn’t always enjoy it. If you’d like to dive into this book for yourself, pick up a copy at the Amazon. I found mine at Barbara’s Bookstore.

Book Review: Dictionary of Imaginary Places

How does one write a “review” of a dictionary? I’m not certain, but that hasn’t prevented me from trying to do so previously. (And if you’re not already familiar with Magic Words: A Dictionary, be sure to remedy that gap in your knowledge.)

I’ve been wanting a copy of Dictionary of Imaginary Places for a long time, and I finally found it for a good price at Half-Price Books. (Which can yield some great deals if you’re a knowledgable shopper and weed out the absurd prices that they sometimes ask)

photo of book cover by gordon meyer

Written in 1980 in the style of a travel guide, it catalogs about 1200 fictional locations from plays, poems, and books. (It does not include television or movies, so even if it were a contemporary publication, Schmigadoon would be omitted.) The authors have also, wisely in my opinion, restricted the selections to earthly, reachable destinations — there are no off-planet or future cities included. (Can you imagine if they didn’t impose these limitations‽ The book would be voluminous.)

Many of the locations are accompanied by delightful illustrations and maps, but for me, the Travel Agent-style descriptions are the star. The book is indexed by author and publication, but I wished for one based on continents, such as North America. (Although I recognize that many imaginary locations are not bound by such concepts.)

My favorite entries are entirely personal and probably not interesting, so I’ll simply cite one example, which from this point forward is my favorite city in the world — Abaton. It’s a city of ever-changing location, and thus is an unreachable destination. It was “discovered” by Thomas Bulfinch in 1892.

Begin your search for the Dictionary of Imaginary Places at the Amazon, but for a more complete experience, let a copy find you.