Review: Death by Video Game, Simon Parkin

Who here is a gamer? Show of hands, please! I went into Death by Video Game with a very low level of gaming knowledge, and people with a low level of gaming knowledge is who I recommend this book for. I suspect that readers with knowledge of the gaming world would say “fie” to this book.

gamers reading this book, probably
gamers reading this book, probably

THIS IS NOT A CRITICISM. I found Death by Video Game during a random, but pleasant, browse through my library’s catalog, and it is exactly what I wanted it to be: A series of journalistic sociology essays about the worlds and possibilities of video games, from people dropping dead at gaming cafes after hours of play, to fundraisers that depend on gamers being willing to play mind-numbingly dull video games for hours upon hours, to games that realistically explore some of the most difficult and terrifying things about being human. And I came away from the book feeling how I wanted to feel: That there are worlds of knowledge under the sub-heading “video game,” and I should dedicate some time to learning more about them.

Death by Video Game

(Jenny Learns Something New and Gets Excited about It: An Autobiography in Infinite Chapters.)

Did it make me want to play video games? Yes, but not enough for me to actually do anything about it. Knowing my addiction to stories as I do, I am sure that if I got into gaming, it would quickly consume my life (very expensively!) and I would never get anything else done ever again. So I continue to opt out of gaming. I feel the same way, roughly, about getting your ears pierced. Earrings would delight me! I would have tons of them! And it would cost money and I’d have to keep track of all of them and it’d be one more damn thing for me to worry about when I’m getting ready in the morning.

I know, it's unusual
how other adult women respond to discovering that my ears are not pierced

“But what’s your favorite thing you learned from this book, Jenny?” Glad you asked! My most favorite thing is that the EVE Online, a science fiction video game, has an elected player council called the Council of Stellar Management that meets once a year with the game developers, CCP, in Iceland to talk about new planned features and to represent player interests to the company that owns the game.

“Council members can have very different ambitions and concerns depending on which part of space their hail from,” explains CCP’s Ned Coker. “You may have somebody who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches and, as such, they will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.”

Fascinating, no?

Parkin also talks about the way games encourage imaginative identification to an extent that less immersive media do not. In a game like That Dragon, Cancer, it becomes impossible to separate yourself emotionally from the experience of having a baby who’s dying, because the game forces you to experience it from the viewpoint of the caretakers. He rejects the idea that video games are “just games,” or that the worldviews of the games have no effect on the worldviews of the gamers. At the same time, he doesn’t delve very deeply into this topic (or any of his topics), since the idea is more to provide a window into the variety of games that exist than to provide substantial critiques of gaming culture.

Verdict: An excellent, readable introduction to the video games and player types that exist in our wondrously varied world.

Review: Becoming Evil, James E. Waller

A note: I read the first edition of Becoming Evil, published in 2002, because that’s the edition my library had a copy of. Waller did publish a second edition in 2007, which may contain a more robust defense of evolutionary psychology and some refinements to his model.

So one of my things for the upcoming year (two years, four years) is that I want to learn more about the historical, social, and scientific contexts for some of the things I’m afraid will happen under President Trump. One thing that scares me is the heightening of racist speech against Muslims and immigrants. More and more in recent years, America has been rhetorically isolating certain groups, and this worried me badly even before a president got elected on the strength of that type of rhetoric. Laws that target Muslims have been in place since 9/11, and the election of President Trump will almost certainly lead to more open legal targeting of vulnerable groups. This is, to put it lightly, not a good path for us to walk down.

Becoming Evil
luckily the cover isn’t sensational at all, ha ha that’d be inappropriate for the topic, amirite?

I checked out James Waller’s Becoming Evil about a week after the election, as well as an enormous book all about genocide, because I guess I am not an optimist. We all want to believe the “never again” rhetoric; we want to believe that we’re sufficiently enlightened that it couldn’t happen here, but I have read enough books about genocide and its aftermath to know that it could absolutely happen anywhere.

I KNOW THIS IS A VERY DOWNER POST. But, still important, so on we bloodily stagger. Becoming Evil posits a four-part model that explains why people do evil things.1 The first prong of the model depends on evolutionary psychology, a branch of science that makes me want to lie down on the floor for several hours because it is nigh untestable and I find that suspect.2 The idea is that we are prone to love “us” and be suspicious of “them” — which I do believe, based on the way even tiny infants respond in tests, but which I have yet to be convinced is due to How We Lived in Ancient Times. But however it may be with evolutionary psychology, the first prong of the model is, basically, suspicion of outsiders.3

The second prong of the model is personal characteristics that make a person more prone to Evil.4 Cultural belief systems that emphasize submission to authority and externalize the locus of control of one’s life tend to produce people more inclined to accede to the commission of violence like genocide. Moral disengagement also makes genocide more likely — i.e., justifying one’s behavior to oneself, giving euphemistic labels to the bad deeds one is doing, etc. And finally, of course, self-interest plays a role: Very often when genocide takes place, it’s because the perpetrator group believes they will profit by the elimination of the victim group.

Y’all, I know this is a super heavy post. Let’s all take a breather and have a look at this Pomeranian getting blow-dried.

what a warm and happy dog
what a warm and happy dog

Okay, that was a good Pomeranian, thank heavens, because this third element is the one that feels the most controllable and urgent to me. (You can see what you think.) The third prong of Waller’s model is about the immediate social contexts in which we are asked to commit acts of violence and exclusion; he calls this “a culture of cruelty” and explores some ways that we’re socialized gradually into such a culture. Reading the book as “how not to commit genocide 101,” this prong of the model was the most useful to me. Here are two hot tips I gleaned:

  1. Do not do small, harmless-seeming compliances. Waller talks about “escalating commitments,” wherein we (humans) are more likely to commit resources to something “once [we] have been induced to go along with a small initial request.” He describes it as a “mounting momentum of compliance” — once we have done the first thing, we want to believe that we’re doing Right, so we get deeper and deeper in. Waller quotes psychologist John Darley as saying “the individual’s morality follows rather than leads.” Our brains are basically very bad at doing things we don’t agree with, so if we start regularly doing an action like saying “Heil Hitler,” our brains are like “oh yeah we must think Hitler is good, else why would we keep saying this thing?” Don’t comply with the small things, and you inoculate yourself (to a degree) against compliance with the big things.
  2. Related: Get better at not conforming not to peer pressure. I know this is so, so difficult. We are social animals and we want to fit in with the group. But this is a reason that people go along with mass murder: They never got good at resisting peer pressure, and they feel guilty “making” their peers do this unfun dirty work of, you know, literally killing people. Get good at it now while it’s easy, and you’re less likely later to agree to violence and repression against a target group.

The last prong of the model, of course, is inflicting “social death” upon the target population; i.e., making the “them” into the themiest “them” you possibly can manage. This includes rhetorical othering (see why I’ve been saying all along not to do that!) as well as physical separation (into, for instance, camps) and super-intense victim-blaming, which arises from our passionate desire to believe that the world is just and that if we ourselves do everything right, we and our loved ones will be safe and not get genocided.

The scary thing about this book5 is how quickly countries can move from the small things — the rhetoric, the ritual displays of national loyalty — to actual straight-up genocide. A robust democracy with lots of participation by its citizens is a strong line of defense against mass ethnic violence, so it is, again, incumbent upon us to be that. Defend our institutions, and participate early and often in our democracy, any way that you can.

  1. Sidebar, I have thought for years that it’s a bad idea to use the word “evil” to describe people who do particularly awful crimes like child abuse or murder. It’s an othering kind of word that absolves us of any commonalities we may share with the so-called evildoer, and I think that makes us less willing to believe that these crimes can happen close to us. Waller says, “Extraordinary human evil can never be simply distilled to one particular psychiatric diagnosis. To do so is to project evil exclusively onto some small segment of the population instead of acknowledging its imminent presence in each of us.” In other words, if only evil people abuse children, and our kid’s friend’s stepfather does not appear to be evil, then how can we believe our kid’s friend if she says the stepfather touched her inappropriately? He’s not evil, right? And abusers are evil? SEE HOW THIS LEADS TO BAD OUTCOMES?
  2. Man, this post is reeeeeeally how to win friends and influence people 101, n’est-ce pas? “First she said we can’t call child abusers evil, now she’s slagging off all of evolutionary psychology, wot a jerk.” I KNOW I KNOW but honestly I think I am correct on both fronts. Waller addresses some of the criticisms of evolutionary psychology but not really its untestability. Whatever, dude. You know what you did. (Maybe this is better in the second edition.)
  3. This does not reflect well on me, but I admit that I was reading this book trying to see if any of these things applied to me. I am okay on suspicion of outsiders, I think! But I do want to emphasize that this did not happen by magic: My parents taught me to be this way, and I have spent a lot of time in my adult life actively eradicating suspicion of outsiders from my brain by having as diverse a range of life experiences and reading material as possible. I recommend these strategies to everyone. They are not perfect, but they help.
  4. Again, I don’t endorse the use of the word evil. I think it’s a word that’s too unspecific to be of much use in contexts such as these, but whatever, I’m following Waller’s vocab use for the purposes of this post.
  5. aside from, just, everything

Review: They Can’t Kill Us All, Wesley Lowery

I’m in a strange, post-news-outlet state where I follow individual reporters more than I follow entire news outlets. This is possibly symptomatic of my increasing distrust of institutions in the wake of the recent election? And troubles me because of the echo chamber conservative news media insist that I (but not they) are in. I am not sure what the solution is. (Weirdly, the only outlet besides NPR’s Code Switch that I specifically follow on Twitter is the National Review, for like, ideological balance.)

So Wesley Lowery has long been one of my most trusted reporters on the Black Lives Matter movement, and I was excited for his book. They Can’t Kill Us All follows the development of the movement from Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, an event I was surprised to discover only occurred in 2013. It feels like we’ve been talking about black death for a million years, but as a national conversation, where white people were forced to stop ignoring racially biased policing,1 that’s somehow only been three years.

They Can't Kill Us All

For all three of those years (coming up on four), Wesley Lowery’s been on this beat, and if you weren’t paying attention to the development of Black Lives Matter, They Can’t Kill Us All is a terrific way to catch up on what’s been happening. Lowery writes not only about the deaths that became hashtags — Michael Brown, Charles Scott, Tamir Rice — but about the rapid, meteoric growth of activism around police shootings. His reporting at the Washington Post, including his idea for the Police Shooting Database, won the Post the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Lowery also talks about the process and ethics of reporting on traumatic death, how you walk up to grieving family members on the worst day of their lives,  make them trust you, and get quotes out of them to convey to the country what has been lost.

A journalist’s portrait of the deceased is often used by the casual reader to decide if the tragic outcome that befell him or her could have happened to us, or, as is often implied to be the case in those killed by police officers, if this tragic fate was reserved for someone innately criminal who behaved in a way we never would.

Lowery isn’t trying to explain how this movement fits into America’s past or to predict what impact it will have on our future — it’s a book of journalism, not historical analysis. But Lowery’s a great reporter, honest about his errors and aware of the limitations of his form. If you’ve been following Black Lives Matter all along, there’s not a ton of new information in They Can’t Kill Us All, but it’s a terrific overview of how the movement developed.

  1. Ugh, I don’t know how else to qualify this. Many white people continue to close their eyes to racially biased policing. Lots of people of all races have been talking about this for years, but it just hasn’t been picked up national media in the same way that it has over the last three years. Y’all, words are hard.

Review: Committed, Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson

Note: I received a copy of Committed from the publisher for review consideration.

I maintain a master list of Claims that Require Heightened Scrutiny, and the number one item on my list — indeed the reason I started to maintain the list — is this: Any claim that a complicated problem has a simple solution. Nothing infuriates me more1 than people insisting that a complicated thing is actually very simple if people would just look at it in a new way. No! Systems are complicated! Even when there is a simple solution (e.g., we have a vaccine that prevents polio), the implementation of that solution remains immensely complicated, because there are a lot of other factors in play besides the obvious medical one.

So Dinah Miller and Annette Hanson’s book Committed: The Battle over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (pubbed by Johns Hopkins University Press) is balm to my soul, acknowledging as it does that the question of involuntary psychiatric care is a complicated issue to which there may possibly be no good solutions.

CommittedI come to this book with a history of being both a consumer and a provider of mental health care myself (I have depression, and I spent a number of years volunteering on a suicide hotline), and of knowing lots of people who consume and provide mental health care. People I love have been involuntarily committed, and people I love have recommended involuntary commitments, so while I am far from an expert, I am at least aware of some of the problems with both sides of this argument.

On one hand, involuntary commitment can be tremendously traumatizing. Standards of inpatient mental health care vary wildly, and underfunding of the mental health system means that many service providers are underpaid, under-trained, overworked, exhausted, and not remotely respectful or kind to people with serious mental illnesses. If you come to an emergency room with a mental health issue — often having tried to get outpatient mental health care from other resources and failed because we as a society have so massively under-prioritized those vital services — you may get an emergency room physician like this one:

If someone is suicidal, I can’t think of a time I would send them home. I’m very cautious about letting someone go home when they’ve changed their mind about being suicidal. I let the mental health professional make that decision, but when it comes down to it, if I am the physician of record, then I have to be accountable. So I give great deference to a mental health professional, but I don’t give them the complete latitude to discharge our patients. . . Once the flag is raised and I’m worried about someone, why wouldn’t we err on the side of giving them more services and not less?

What freaks me out is that he’s talking about suspending someone’s civil rights and then making them pay a really large amount of money for that suspension, and he doesn’t seem to realize that’s what he’s describing. His personal comfort with the idea that someone who has experienced suicidal ideation — regardless of the level of risk the mental health professional has assessed in their examination of the patient — is the deciding factor for whether a person is kept against their will. His comfort trumps research and experience, is what he’s saying, and unfortunately, this reflects exactly what I have heard from friends who work as mental health professionals in hospitals.

So that’s on one hand: The civil rights of mentally ill people are regularly taken away on the basis of one doctor’s opinion, which is informed more by a CYA mentality than the assessment of the in-house mental health professional. Legal procedures designed to protect patient rights are frequently perfunctory, with patients given inadequate representation and information about what’s happening to them.

On the other hand, advocates of involuntary treatment like E. Fuller Torrey argue that mentally ill patients who display anosognosia (a lack of awareness that they are ill) require medication and therapy before they can meaningfully consent or withhold consent for treatment.2 If we blanket oppose involuntary treatment, what becomes of suicidal and homicidal patients who won’t seek help for themselves? Do we permit patients who are a danger to themselves and others to leave the hospital untreated, or do we have a responsibility to help them (even if it’s against their will)?

See. It’s tricky.

Miller and Hanson explore the issue from a wide range of perspectives, speaking with experts in the field, medical professional, mental health care professionals, patients with both good and bad experiences of inpatient mental health care, and police departments that have implemented mental health training for their officers (chronically mentally ill people who don’t get treatment often get funneled into the criminal justice system, which is very ill-equipped to deal with them). They consider the various — and they truly are various, since there are no nationally accepted standards for inpatient mental health care — policies that govern the use of seclusion and restraint, forced medication, and even involuntary electroconvulsive therapy. They explore evidence into the links between gun violence, particularly mass shootings, and untreated mental illness, and whether involuntary mental health care offers a solution to those problems.

Unfortunately — for people who want things to be simple — the answer, if there is an answer, is that if we want to achieve both the goal of protecting the civil rights of mentally ill patients and the goal of minimizing the chances that such patients will harm themselves or others, we’re going to have to pay for it, with time and money. Many of the ethical and medical problems around involuntary commitment arise because these patients have no other treatment options. The emergency room, which should be the last resort, becomes the first resort, simply because community mental health care is lacking. Hanson and Miller note that in half of all US counties, there are no mental health professionals at all. And the more money we pour into involuntary commitments, the less money is available for maintenance mental health care.

At the end of the book, Hanson and Miller make a number of policy recommendations, most of which require — surprise! — investment in a mental health infrastructure. This data nerd reader would also love to see better record-keeping on involuntary commitments nationwide, as I suspect that race, class, and gender are all factors in the decision of whom to commit against their will. Committed provides an insightful, balanced look at the many complex factors that influence involuntary mental health care. If you’re remotely interested in mental health or civil liberties, I highly recommend this excellent book.

  1. Well, probably some things do, but I can’t think of them right now.
  2. You’ll have spotted this leads to kind of a Catch-22: If they know they are sick they’ll want treatment; if they don’t want treatment, they must not know they are sick and thus should have treatment.

Review: Boy Erased, Garrard Conley

You know how sometimes you feel that you’ve become inured to the world’s cruelty, and you realize that consuming the news every day and hearing about humankind’s fundamental inhumanity has turned you into a person who doesn’t flinch at each successive news story that comes on Morning Edition, and yes, sure, that’s good and necessary for your own mental health, but on the other hand, are you possibly becoming a robot person incapable of empathy because, like, what kind of human isn’t shattered anew every time they hear about what’s going on in Syria?

You know that feeling?

Boy Erased, Garrard Conley’s memoir of his time in gay conversion “therapy” a decade ago, is so fucking shredding that while reading it I experienced the thought “so then this election season has not beaten out of me the capacity to feel.” Consider this paragraph your content note for some stuff: Conley was raped at college and subsequently outed (by his rapist) to his parents, after which he went to a gay conversion therapy clinic for treatment. Boy Erased is about all of those three things. So if any of them are baseline hard for you to read about, be aware going in that Conley portrays the pain of all them with extraordinary vividness. Which makes his talents as a writer obvious, but it also means that this book can be really, really hard to read.

Boy Erased

“You are not selling this book very well considering you gave it five stars,” says the attentive reader, so let me get to selling this book well. Boy Erased made me feel desperately raw and sincere the way you do when you’re in high school and you haven’t yet realized how unoriginal and simplistic your passion for Justice is. That isn’t to say that Conley is simplistic. He isn’t, and part of the reason this book is so shredding to read is that Conley does not ignore or minimize his parents’ genuine pain at learning their only son is gay. Here he is talking with his mother (almost a decade later) about the pamphlet she brought home for the gay conversion organization he attended.

I will force myself to hear her side of the story, listen for her voice amid the buzzing of harmful memories I thought I’d buried for good.

“His eyes [the boy on the pamphlet’s] were so sad,” she’ll say. “They were calling out to me.”

“Take your time,” I’ll say.

“I wanted to save the boy in that picture. I wanted to save you. But I didn’t know how.”

Both of these things are true: Conley’s parents love him (the sinner) desperately and utterly, and Conley’s parents’ beliefs (hate the sin) are killing him. He thinks frequently of suicide and goes on punitive diets (500 calories a day) to force his body to do what he wants it to do. It’s genuinely fucking devastating to know that this type of slavish commitment to the morals of thinkers who lived thousands of damn years ago continue to destroy (literally and figuratively) the lives of queer children and adults.

I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty. If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Naming something beautiful made it so. . . .

Naming something ugly had a similar effect. The sound of my mother’s vomiting the night she drove me home had taught me that lesson better than anything else ever had. I was gay, had been named as such, a fact that, once ingested, had to be immediately expelled.

Boy Erased is rarely leavened with lighter notes, so I do recommend having something fluffy on hand to read when you’re finished. Conley perfectly captures his past self’s despair in these years when he was trying to reconcile his faith and his identity. It’s a painful and wonderful book.

Look, not to wear my heart on my sleeve for too much longer, but let’s build a better and kinder and more deliberate world for the next generation, okay? The next generation of kids should have better than what we had. Let’s make that happen. Vote on Tuesday.

Review: We Are Not Such Things, Justine van der Leun

Well that was a long and frustrating book. The New York Times review of Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things promised that the book would “overturn” the traditional narrative of Amy Biehl’s death, and in the process expose the weaknesses of the famed and beloved South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In case you aren’t familiar with Amy Biehl’s story (I wasn’t), she was an activist and Fulbright scholar who was attacked and murdered in the South African township of Gugulethu in 1993, on the eve of apartheid’s demise. Four men were convicted of her murder, then later pardoned under the terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered amnesty for political crimes in exchange for full public disclosure. Biehl’s parents publicly offered forgiveness to her killers and even employed two of them at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which they established in South Africa to empower township youths.

We Are Not Such Things

Van der Leun’s efforts to uncover the story of what happened on the day of Amy Biehl’s murder are tireless. She’s able to track down and speak with an impressive number of the people involved — police, suspects, witnesses — although twenty years on, they rarely have much of substance to add to official accounts. The thrust of Van der Leun’s argument seems to be that neither the South African criminal justice system in 1993 nor the political and social systems in of the present day are perfect. Which, I mean — yeah? Systems are flawed? I don’t know that I needed to spend 500 pages navigating class divisions in South Africa in order to be convinced of that.

As a travel writer, Justine van der Leun evokes the people and places of poverty-stricken South Africa incredibly well. Well, but at incredible length. We spend page after page on the family drama of one of the convicted killers, Easy Nofemela, and don’t get me wrong: He’s a wonderful character in van der Leun’s telling. It’s just not clear why, in a book ostensibly dedicated to unpicking the many threads of Amy Biehl’s 1993 murder, so many chapters are dedicated to Easy and Justine driving around shooting the shit.

Though the book is certainly overlong and could have done with being shortened by about a third, I think expectations were also a factor in my unenjoyment. Many South Africans have grown critical (or always were) of the TRC’s work, and I hoped that van der Leun would bring to light some of these criticisms and how the TRC’s failings continue to affect South African lives. That isn’t this book, and it’s not clear that van der Leun even wanted it to be.

My love for scholarship on restorative justice remains undimmed, however! While I was reading this, I also dipped in and out of Priscilla Hayner’s classic text on truth commissions, Unspeakable Truths, and it is just as excellent as I remembered. What a fascinating subject.

POLL TIME! Who here knew who Amy Biehl was when I first mentioned her name? And secondary question, this one for millennials only: Were you aware of apartheid as a kid? I totally was not, and it’s really weird to think that that was still going on when I was in grade school.

Review: Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden

Okay, I know we have The Ringer now, and The Ringer has brought us Actual National Treasure Sam Donsky. Is it wrong that I still miss Grantland, though? They had an incredible stable of writers with a particular gift for writing about important things through the lens of seemingly unimportant things. Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (affiliate link: Book Depository), from Grantland alum and UpRoxx writer Steven Hyden, reminded me of what was so special about Grantland’s glory days.

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

And yes, okay, the subtitle is a little grandiose. The meaning of life isn’t on offer here, but Hyden gets into a lot of questions about identity and the ways that we define ourselves by defining against something, or someone, else. Hyden admits that he likes the work of the Beatles as much as he likes the work of the Rolling Stones, but that he defines himself as a Stones person rather than a Beatles person because a Stones person is more in line with his understanding of his own personality.

While it would be easy to differentiate each side of a rivalry in a simplistic way — cool versus not cool — Hyden is self-consciously suspicious of easy answers. Here he is on the trendy, near-universal dislike of Crash among all the people I have ever followed on Twitter:

Hating Crash has become what I like to call a Default Smart Opinion. A Default Smart Opinion is an opinion that’s generally considered to be inarguable because it’s repeated ad nauseam by seemingly intelligent individuals. . . . The usual formula for a regular smart opinion — research plus careful consideration plus nuanced analysis — doesn’t apply. You needn’t actually listen to a Nickelback album or watch The Big Bang Theory or study Kim Kardashian’s collected philosophical scrolls. You merely have to recite recycled bits of conventional wisdom.

As a Despiser of Popular Things Cause They’re Popular manqué (I was saved from this fate by the indisputable greatness of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), I sometimes have to remind myself of the danger of Default Smart Opinions. They’re a fun and easy way to differentiate yourself from an imagined mass of dumb people, but they only work until you encounter someone who likes that thing and actually have to contend with the complex ways real human persons interact with their faves. In other words, they work best when you are only talking to people exactly like you, and that’s a risky type of opinion to espouse.

If Hyden doesn’t quite manage to get at the meaning of life, he does do an incredible job of writing about music in a way that’s accessible to those of us who are music-stupid.1 Talking to music people can be the explainiest motherfucking thing in this life, but with Hyden, you just feel like he truly wants to share his knowledge and enthusiasm. I wrote down approximately a kajillion albums to check out after reading this book, and I felt stupid exactly 0 times.2

I’d also like to say that it is unendingly lovely to hear people say any iteration of this, a sentiment I could not agree with more even though I had a near-picture-perfect happy childhood and parents who loved me and an unflinching expectation of stability and support.

Nor am I minimizing the hell that it is being a teenager. I have no sentimentality for childhood. I hated being a kid — all I wanted was to be older, and when I was older, I found that I was right all along about adulthood being way better.

plus:

I think we can all agree that Prince is one of the five coolest people on the planet. (The others are LeBron James, Beyonce, Bill Clinton, and Jennifer Lawrence. If you don’t like this list, I’m sorry, but these are the people that everybody else on earth signed off on.)

LeBron James? That’s who you choose from the world of sports? I’m generally on board with this list, but, LeBron James?

  1. That is me. I do not know music stuff. Please do not laugh and make jokes at me about this, I am legit really embarrassed by it.
  2. Like, except for the perpetual low-level shame I feel about my utter music ignorance. That’s always there. But that’s self-generated, and Hyden contributed to it not at all in this book.

Pit Bull, Bronwyn Dickey

Are y’all ready for me to EXPLODE YOUR MIND GRAPES? Because the reason I read Bronwyn Dickey’s Pit Bull was this one interview that led me to some internet research that EXPLODED MY MIND GRAPES. Bronwyn Dickey said in this interview that we really don’t know anything about pit bull dog bites. And I was like, Um, okay, Bronwyn Dickey, I agree with you that pit bulls are misunderstood, but we know some stuff about pit bull dog bites, and because not knowing things drives me crazy, I went down an Internet rabbit hole researching dog bite statistics.

Team. Team. Listen. We know literally nothing about dog bites by breed. Please let me expand on this. Number one, we are super-garbage at identifying dog breeds. Below is a picture of two dogs, a pure-bred Basenji and a pure-bred cocker spaniel.

Pit BullNice-looking dogs, no? Now please inspect the puppies this pair of dogs produced.

Pit Bull

I KNOW, RIGHT? So okay, we begin by noting that everyone’s terrible at identifying dog breeds. Dickey also includes pictures of the puppies’ eventual progeny, and that’s even nutser: It turns out that within two generations, dogs revert to the statistical dog average.1

Next up, I went looking for how a reputable source like the CDC compiles breed-specific dog bite statistics, and it turns out that they don’t do it anymore, but when they’ve done it in the past they used humane society reports plus media reports. Y’all. Media reports. Like imagine your local TV station and how much they love scare stories, and then recognize that this is one of the main sources the CDC used to compile information about dog bites. In 2013, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked for dog bite reports given to the media and humane societies, and the researchers looked more deeply into a few hundred of those cases.

AND LISTEN TO THIS, Y’ALL. (I had to start a new paragraph because this is so mind-blowing.) In forty percent of cases where there was a humane society report and a media report of the same dog bite incident, in forty percent of those cases, the media reported a different dog breed than the humane society. THINK ABOUT THAT. We know absolutely literally nothing about what breeds of dogs are more prone to biting. Zero things, is what we know. We have no reliable statistics whatsoever. Please tell your friends; I cannot be alone with this information.

Pit Bull

Pit Bull had so many tragic parts about poor folks losing their beloved family pets that I am not sure I can entirely recommend it. I’d like to make an annotated reading list where I note which pages are fine to read (bc heartwarming stories of dogs and owners who so much love each other), and which pages should be strenuously avoided (DEAD DOGS, there are so many DEAD DOGS in this book).

I do feel like I learned a lot about the sociological underpinnings of attitudes toward pit bulls. Surprise! It’s racism! As Gene Demby is perpetually noting, #housingsegregationineverything. When landlords or city councils ban pit bulls, they’re actually trying to forbid a type of tenant, and don’t die of shock, but the type is poor and black. It’s all pretty enraging, especially when alternated with stories of people who were forced to give up their dogs to euthanasia because the alternative is homelessness or similar disasters.

Read this or don’t — you know your limits re: dead dog stories — but I mean it, tell your friends this important information about dog bite statistics. WE KNOW NOTHING. LITERALLY NOTHING. Thank you Bronwen Dickey for opening my eyes to this preposterous-ass situation.

  1. That is not a real datum, it is just a joke, do not @ me.

You May Also Like, Tom Vanderbilt

You May Also Like attempts to fathom the question of why people like what they like. Before reading this book, you’d probably answer “It’s complicated.” But after you read it? You’ll, um, you’ll still say it’s complicated. Human brains are complicated organs, and we are just not very good at understanding them.

You May Also Like

When I’m reading pop sciencey sorts of books, I am on a hair trigger with regard to bullshit neuroscience of the type that Cordelia Fine has conditioned me to be on a hair trigger w/r/t; i.e., that thing where it’s like “the same part of your brain lights up when you’re scared as when you eat a new type of vegetable, so you must be scared of new vegetables!”1 I am happy to report that with a few minor and rare exceptions, Vanderbilt steers clear of this sketchy business. He is less interested in neurological explanations for taste than in talking to people whose work it is to figure out the whys and hows.

As you can probably guess if you live in this world, many of the people researching taste are doing it so that they can make more and better algorithms to predict what you will like if you already like X. Or so they can find ways to make you like Y if you are not currently a Y-liker.

algorithm-makers, probably

That second thing is of particular interest to me! Vanderbilt finds that framing makes a huge difference (duh): If you already know you don’t like country music, you are less likely to enjoy a song if someone says “hey listen to this song by Garth Brooks” than if you encounter a Garth Brooks song, stripped of context, as the background to a movie or commercial you enjoy. Social context matters too (also duh): When you see other people liking a thing, you’re more likely to like the thing yourself. Plus, if other people around you like a thing and your experience of the thing broadens, you are even likelier still to start liking the thing, because familiarity is a good predictor of developing liking.

(Cf my Stockholm syndrome re: radio-frequent songs including but not limited to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous” and One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”)

He also discusses the role of error in the way our tastes change, which is something that had never occurred to me. For instance, some irregular verbs have become regular over time, mainly verbs we don’t use that much.

Why? Because the irregular verbs we hardly ever encounter are the ones whose irregular forms we are least likely to remember, hence we convert them, through error, into regular verbs.

Interesting, right? So now we have “thrived” instead of “throve,” but “drove” is still the past tense of “drive.” Take that, prescriptivists!

If you are looking for final conclusions about what makes a person like a thing, You May Also Like doesn’t have a lot of answers. But if you just want to learn about the many factors that go into making personal taste, by spending time with the people who spend their time thinking about that, this is a fun and readable exploration of those worlds.

Jill at Rhapsody in Books also reviewed this. Let me know if you did, too, and I’ll add a link!

  1. This is what we call affirming the consequent. If you float and wood floats, that doesn’t mean you are actually made of wood.

The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez

I was going to start this post about The Other Slavery by making a really grim joke about Ir*sh sl*very (asterisked out so Nazi bros don’t find my blog), but then I just got hugely sad about living in a world where that’s still a lie people perpetuate instead of talking about real actual slavery. So instead I’ll start by saying that Andrés Reséndez has produced what feels to me like a monumental work of American history, delving deep into archival records to uncover the hidden story of American enslavement of indigenous people.

The Other Slavery

Reséndez argues that while disease certainly played a role in the decimation of Indian populations in America, it was far from the primary factor. Rather, colonizing powers systematically enslaved American Indians from the earliest days of Spanish power in the Americas. Because Spain outlawed Indian slavery in the sixteenth century, however, Spanish governments in America concealed their enslavement of Indians behind a variety of smoke screens, from debt peonage to trumped-up criminal charges and disproportionate sentencing.

Their methods achieved mixed success in concealing ongoing Indian slavery from the Spanish rulers, but were phenomenally successful in concealing it archivally. Until you know what you’re looking for, it can be hard to spot in the records that what’s going on is the systematic and deliberate destruction of Indian populations, languages, and economic power through enslavement, forced assimilation, and relocation.

Pretty much the definition of genocide. In case you forgot what this country was founded on. And of course none of this stopped as the southwestern and western territories came under American jurisdiction (perish the thought).

Another section [of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850] established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).1

The Other Slavery makes for some grim reading, but it’s incredibly important to know exactly how widespread and insidious these forms of slavery were. Built on the rhetoric of a civilizing mission, enslavement of native peoples lasted throughout the colonization of the continent and well into the establishment of America as a quote-unquote free nation. If the colonizing powers or, later, the United State Congress blocked one avenue of acquiring slaves, slavers would find another way to maintain their access to forced labor.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I would love to see its conclusions incorporated into future high school history curricula, because this is nothing I was ever taught, and I should have been.

  1. There’s an endnote here that’s even worse: This law was later expanded so the white person’s custody lasted into the child’s twenties.