I watched a lot of TV when I was growing up, and some shows made a strong impression on me. “Twin Peaks” stands out among them – I can still hum the theme song, and I can see the eerie photo of Laura Palmer that lingered behind the ending credits. The show had a unique blend of off-kilter comedy and claustrophobic unease that still colors my taste in TV.

I was excited to read that, true to Laura’s promise in the Black Lodge, David Lynch and Mark Frost are continuing the series later this year. While I wait for the new series, I read Frost’s recently published book The Secret History of Twin Peaks. It was just as spooky as the original series.

History fleshes out some of the underlying mythos of “Twin Peaks”, answering a few questions from the show (Who was BOB? Why did owls feature so often in the show?) but raising a lot of others. Presumably, the book is meant as an entrée into the coming series, to stir up interest in new story lines, which the book seems to hint at.

History takes the form of a dossier, written and hand-bound by a mysterious author, about the history of the Twin Peaks area, going back to shortly after the American revolution and seemingly running up to the end of the show.

It opens with a letter from a familiar FBI agent, instructing another agent to evaluate the dossier’s contents and determine its author. Throughout the dossier, the investigating agent inserts marginalia, confirming or questioning remarks and assertions by the author, all of which gives the writing a crisp, matter-of-fact tone that contrasts with the mystical and murky events in the story.

This is actually the first non-science book I’ve read in a while, and the story was so engaging, I gulped it down in a weekend. So, highly recommended reading for fans of the show or lovers of supernatural thrillers. Along with your reading, be sure to give yourself the present of a cup of hot, black coffee.

I just finished Don Canfield‘s book Oxygen, a sweeping exploration of the history of Earth’s most volatile atmospheric constituent.

Canfield starts by exploring how cyanobacteria generate oxygen during photosynthesis and how the process evolved. For instance, chloroplasts, the photosynthetic power plants of cyanobacteria, were once free-floating cyanobacteria themselves that took up residence in and eventually merged with eukaryotes that evolved into present-day cyanobacteria.

Subsequently, Canfield discusses Earth’s oxygen removal and renewal processes – decomposition of organics burns up oxygen, while their rapid burial preserves it.

The next several chapters present the geochemical evidence for changes in oxygen throughout Earth’s history, including variations in the ratios of different isotopes, sensitive to biological and abiological processes. Since I teach a class on astrobiology at Boise State, I focused a lot of attention on these parts, trying the piece together the interplay between biology and geology betokened by the isotopic variations.

One element of that story especially relevant to my class: variations in the carbon-13 isotope. As it turns out, one enzyme in cyanobacteria, RuBisCO, helps convert atmospheric C02 into organic carbon compounds, but it preferentially selects the lighter carbon-12 isotope 2.5% more often than the carbon-13 isotope. The organic compounds built using RuBisCO are therefore slightly depleted in carbon-13 relative to the atmosphere and when they are later incorporated into geological strata, the slight depletion gives a measure of how much life was around when the stratum was laid down.

Zooplankton salp pellets. From

The book contained lots of other appealing details. For instance, it’s not exactly clear what caused an enormous variation in oxygen on Earth 580 million years ago, a sea change in Earth’s history matter-of-factly called the Great Oxygenation Event. But one explanation has to do with the evolution of a new kind of poop:

The idea is that zooplankton [newly evolved 580 million years ago] produce fast-sinking fecal pellets. These would decompose less in the upper layers of the ocean as they sink […] when compared to the smaller, slowly settling microbial biomass [that had previously predominated].  (pp. 135-136)

Since the old sinking biomass took a long time to sink to the ocean floor, it had a long time for bacteria to decompose it, using up a lot of oxygen in the process. But the new, faster-sinking poop made it to the ocean floor before it decomposed much and so left the oxygen dissolved in the ocean instead.

I did have to spend a lot of time reading and re-reading the discussions of geochemical cycles and signals because it’s been a long time since high school chemistry for me, but I was willing to struggle through these parts because I found the underlying story so interesting.

So a really fascinating and challenging read about the complex (and poop-filled) evolution of Earth’s bio-geo-atmosphere.

I was probably first introduced to Marcus Aurelius by Hannibal Lector:

So as the last book that I’ll get to during the break, I read the classic Meditations and finished it during the AAS conference.

I’m conflicted about this book. There were parts I enjoyed and found inspiring, but other parts I found confusing and repetitive.

The book presses a message of self-assurance and poise: “Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.” As someone who struggles with self-doubt, _Meditations_ provided potent language and powerful imagery to help tame my anxieties, and reading it was like standing in a cold, bracing wind.

At the same time, the book repeated the same ideas over and over again, often using very similar wording. If you come to this book expecting a cogent philosophical treatise, as I did initially, then this repetition is puzzling. As I read the book, though, I also did some background reading and discovered the book was written as a diary by Marcus Aurelius. In this case, it makes sense to me that he repeated the same admonitions – he was trying to instill them in his own mind.

There are lots of references to philosophers and ancient cities, which I also found confusing. Instead of buying this bare bones edition of _Meditations_, it might help to have an annotated version that can provide historical context.

Although some aspects of the Stoic philosophy described in the book were stirring — “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” and “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” — I found unconvincing the numerous assertions that “everything that happens, happens justly”, that nature is implicitly ordered and fair to be. The admonitions to remain true to one’s nature didn’t give me a lot of insight because Aurelius never says how to determine one’s true nature.

So I came away from _Meditations_ with mixed feelings. Its philosophy of equanimitous withdrawal from the world reminded me of an empty marble temple: resilient against the eons but austere and sterile.

Another book bites the dust during my holiday read-athon, Daniel Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness.

_Stumbling on Happiness_ is an entertaining glimpse into the revolution in applied psychology that has taken place in the last few decades. Gilbert’s frequent use of example and references to specific psychology studies made the book accessible and engaging.

For instance, Gilbert illustrates the anchoring effect by discussing an experiment in which participants were asked how many African countries are represented in the UN. One group was asked whether the number was larger or small than 10, while another was asked whether it was larger or smaller than 60. The former group tended to chose a number larger than but close to 10, while the latter chose one less than but close to 60 (the actual number is 54 apparently). This and many other experiments, Gilbert explains, show that people make estimates by referencing their current situation and correcting from there. This has the effect of skewing their estimates, whether of UN member nations or their future happiness.

The examples were helpful, but often the level of detail or large number of examples given made it difficult to follow the original point. When Gilbert explains how we often incorrectly imagine our feelings will persist indefinitely into the future, he says, “Teenagers get tattoos because they confident that DEATH ROCKS will always be an appealing motto, new mothers abandon promising law careers because they are confident that being home with their children will always be a rewarding job, and smokers who have just finished a cigarette are confident for at least five minutes that they can easily quit and that their resolve will not diminish with the nicotine in their bloodstreams.” I struggled to retain the narrative thread as I waded through that hamdinger of sentence, and many others.

_Stumbling_ is also VERY similar in topic and structure to Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking, Fast and Slow (which was published 6 years later). However, the latter book was organized around Kahneman’s own professional trajectory, which made a nice logical progression (at least for me) from topic to topic, whereas I couldn’t always follow the sequence from chapter to chapter in _Stumbling_. On the other hand, _Thinking_ is a little drier and more technical, which might turn some people off.

So if you’re looking for introduction to recent developments in applied psychology and the science of happiness, _Stumbling on Happiness_ is a very good choice; just be prepared for a lot of colorful (if lengthy) anecdotes.

Growing Up With Manos

The Master, looming over Torgo.

Another book down during my holiday reading marathon: I just finished Growing Up With Manos: The Hands of Fate by Jackey Neyman Jones.

If you’re not familiar with the movie “Manos: The Hands of Fate“, it’s supposed to be the worst movie ever made, and if it’s not actually, it’s definitely high on the list.

One of my favorite shows, Mystery Science Theater 3000, did a legendary show, introducing the movie to the world back in the 90s, after the movie sank into obscurity. After the MST3K episode, the movie developed a cult following, spawning sequels, musicals, and puppet shows.

Written by the child star of the movie, Jackey Neyman Jones, _Growing Up with Manos_ explains the origins, production, and fall-out of “Manos: The Hands of Fate”. Jones’s account gives some interesting and surprising insights into many bizarre and puzzling aspects of the movie. For instance, the very long driving scene at the movie’s beginning was originally intended by the movie’s creator, Hal Warren, to play behind the credits, but after cutting the scene together, he decided it wasn’t quite long enough to contain the credits. So they were stuffed in haphazardly at the end.

Jones’s story about her complicated but affectionate relationship with her father, who played the star role of the Master, sweetens the otherwise unsettling story of the film’s production: the film’s creator essentially conducted a confidence scheme to rope the stars and crew into helping with production on the promise of fame and fortune (and 200% stock in the production company).

Although the book is an easy read (I read it in a few hours), it could have used a little more editing — several details of the story were told multiple times in essentially the same words. And if you aren’t already very familiar with the film, it would be a hard book to enjoy.

But for the legions of Manos fans, _Growing Up With Manos_ should sit on your shelf, right next to your MST3K boxset.

I’m trying very hard this holiday break to wade through my enormous pile of unread books. As a first, tiny success, I just finished reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book on an intellectual and personal level, but, surprisingly, it also relieved some of my anxieties about today’s political tumult in the US. Every worrying element of the modern political landscape seems to have had some historical parallel in Hamilton’s time.

An endless stream of fake news stories stressing you out? In 1796, just after George Washington’s farewell address, the Aurora newspaper accused him of having conspired with the British during the American Revolution (p. 507).

Worried about US officials making backroom deals with foreign governments? Thomas Jefferson met secretly with France’s ambassador to sabotage President Adams’s negotiations to avert war with France during its own bloody revolution while Jefferson was vice-president (p. 547).

Troubled by signs of suppression of the press? While it controlled the government, Hamilton’s Federalist party passed the Sedition Act in 1798, which criminalized making false statements that were critical of the federal government.

Alongside the vivid portrait Chernow paints of Hamilton and his life in the newly founded nation, these stories make this biography as relevant and alive as news posted yesterday on facebook. And as just in Hamilton’s time, the political turmoil and truculent partisanship seem to threaten the foundations of our government. Unlike Hamilton, though, we have 200-plus years of democratic traditions to reflect on as we face our current political crises.

Chernow’s rightly acclaimed biography is emotionally engaging, replete with detailed anecdotes from Hamilton’s life, and reassuring, showing that American politics has always been raucous and exasperating.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowWell, this book has more than 2,000 reviews on Amazon, so I’m not sure what I’m going to add by writing another one, but here goes.

Thinking, Fast and Slow journeys through Daniel Kahneman‘s extensive work on the psychology of decision-making, its relation to economics, and the distorting effects of memory. The book is chockful of fascinating and, for me at least, reassuring insights into the human mind.

According to Kahneman’s work, when it comes to decisions, our mind consists of two systems. One is good at drawing on past experience to continuously (and involuntarily) make quick evaluations but has pretty limited abilities when it comes to statistical inference or basic math. The other system is much better at complex evaluations but is lazy and usually just follows the input of the first system.

The daily grind of thinking through complex problems for me feels like turning a rusty crank, so I was relieved to hear experimental psychology has revealed this to be a common struggle.

After discussing the two systems, Kahneman describes his work displacing one of the central tenets of economics, utility theory developed by none other than Daniel Bernoulli, which assumes that humans are logical and rational. Kahneman’s (and many others’) work showed, in fact, we are prone to all sorts of misunderestimations. By way of illustration, what if you had a 100% chance to win $500,000 or a 98% chance to win $520,000? Bernoulli says you would pick the latter option.

Finally, Kahneman covers his work on the disconnect between experiences and memories of experiences. Turns out that, when we recall a painful experience, the very last part of the experience can completely discolor the memory. One example discussed involved the pain experienced during colonoscopies (which took place during the 90s when these things still hurt a lot).

Patients who had shorter colonoscopies that ended with a peak in pain described the experience as much worse than those who had longer, equally painful colonscopies but which ended with a tapering of the pain. Objectively, the latter group had a worse experience, but the tapering of pain made their memories less bad.

This discrepancy has some interesting implications for what we mean by the word “happiness” — are we referring to satisfaction in the moment or contentment during reflection upon our memories? Kahneman has a neat TED talk on this topic.

Kahneman illustrates many of the results with personal and experimental anecdotes, from the UCLA class that rated a course more highly after listing all its faults to the 1952 conference of economists who failed a basic test of economic rationality.

One of the experiments appealed to me especially because it was something I could replicate. Apparently, your pupils dilate when you’re engaged in a challenging mental task — the more challenging, the more dilated. So I tried to see if that was true for me.

Below is a gif of me staring into my iphone. The top panel shows my pupil as I thought about eating ice cream, the bottom as I multiplied 13 by 37 in my head. The bottom pupil is slightly but discernibly larger, about 1% larger on average.

cQhIlkn - Imgur

The only criticism I have of the book — Kahneman repeats himself a lot. Most of the important results are illustrated several times and from one chapter to the next. Maybe, as a psychologist, Kahneman believed that driving a point home required repetition, but I think the book could have been just as interesting with about half the pages.

In any case, definitely worth the extended read to learn about the inner workings of your mind and maybe how to avoid common pitfalls in decision-making.

So why is the second choice the rational one? With a 98% chance of winning $520,000, on average, you would win $509,600. If you had 100 chances to try this bet, it’s obvious which one you should choose, but it’s hard to convince yourself not to go for the sure thing with only one chance. That’s human psychology for you.

51+mQ-ZXBcLUntil very recently, I didn’t think I had a real interest in history. I don’t remember my high school history classes too fondly, and most of the history books I’ve read are about the history of science.

That really changed after I read Goodwin’s Team of Rivals on Lincoln’s life. She painted such a detailed and lively portrait of Lincoln and his world that it read more like a movie script than a textbook.

The Bully Pulpit was the same for me. The few times I’ve encountered documentaries of Theodore Roosevelt, he certainly seemed a compelling character, but this was the first book I’ve ever read about his life.

It was also the first time I ever read about journalism in the Progressive Era, and although I’d heard the term “muckrackers” before, I had no idea it originated with Theodore Roosevelt.

I also had no idea that the Philippines was once controlled by the United States or that William Howard Taft was the first governor.

Goodwin explores Roosevelt’s and Taft’s youths and the development of their deep friendship as they embarked on their political careers in Washington DC. She follows the intertwined ascent of both men into the presidency and the subsequent presidential campaign which dissolved their friendship, paining both men and the American people. Finally, she recounts the heart-warming scene of their reconciliation in the lobby of a hotel not too long before Roosevelt’s death, a reunion that drew applause from the gathered crowd and helped heal the nation.

Only two things I found a bit wanting in the story:

(1) Goodwin doesn’t discuss in much detail what both men did legislatively during their presidencies. Instead, she focused on a handful of specific bills and executive actions, such Roosevelt’s use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up large, market-manipulating trusts, although I suppose such a discussion could easily devolve into mind-numbing details.

(2) I also wasn’t completely clear on why or when Roosevelt turned against Taft. To be sure, Goodwin describes the scandals that probably soured the relationship (e.g., the Pinchot-Ballinger Controversy). But given how close the two men were before and how loyal Roosevelt was to other friends, it wasn’t clear to me why such controversies made Roosevelt so hostile toward Taft. Goodwin never really pinpoints a time when the relationship turned. Given how central that change is to the story, it would have been nice to know more about it. Since Roosevelt seemed convinced of his own indispensability to the Progressive movement, maybe he would have been dissatisfied with anyone else as president, no matter what he did.

But, on balance, this book is really a fascinating read, even to a non-history-buff.

parentology_coverAs a way to spur myself to read more, I’ve decided to start writing short blog posts about books once I’ve finished them. This will also help me keep track of what I read (I usually forget within a few weeks). Just yesterday, I finished another book (next up: Goodwin‘s The Bully Pulpit!), and here are my thoughts, FWTW.

Since my daughter was born a few years ago, I’ve tried to educate myself a bit on the science of parenting and have encountered several books on the subject. Unfortunately, a lot of them are filled with platitudes and anecdotes, not a lot of hard science. However, at some point last year, I came across Dalton Conley‘s Parentology.

It’s definitely not a parenting-how-to book, but it’s full of scientifically informed insight and humor about the author’s personal experience raising his children. Conley draws on the latest sociological, genetic, and economic research, as well as his own scientific work, to paint a picture of the current understanding of child development and the role parents play.

Although Conley sometimes discusses elements of his own life story that aren’t directly relevant to the narrative, mostly his personal experiences serve to color and illustrate the research discussed. As a professional scientist myself, his fearless approach to parenting really resonated with me, and I especially appreciated that he didn’t fill his book with fluff.

Cover of the book 'The Signal and the Noise' by Nate Silver. Published by The Penguin PressJust finished Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise, only a few years after it was published.

I enjoyed most of the book, especially the philosophical discussion behind it: observations of the world inherently involve uncertainty, so predictions based on those observations must incorporate those uncertainties. But as more data pour in, we should be humble enough to revise our models and predictions.

As a whole, the book was easy to follow and didn’t get too technical, giving simple, worked examples of how to apply Bayes’s Theorem, for example, to evaluate the probability that a positive result on a mammogram actually means a woman has breast cancer.

For my money, the chapters on baseball and chess were the best. I learned that in the 1997 rematch between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, Deep Blue pushed a pawn on the 44th move, apparently baffling Kasparov. Silver suggests Kasparov “concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence” and lost his nerve, resigning the next game even though it could have been played to a draw. Turns out the move may have been a last-ditch, random choice by Deep Blue.

The book falls a bit short in other chapters, though. Prof. Michael Mann, famous climate scientist at Penn State, had some pretty strong criticism for the climate change chapter. I found the concluding chapter a little platitudinous, without a lot of the interesting technical discussion in previous chapters.

Still, a really engaging read and, like me, hopefully readers come away with a strengthened commitment to scientific skepticism.