Book Review: The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe

Cover of the book The Spirit Phone by Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe
The Spirit Phone
by Arthur Shattuck O’Keefe
BHC, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on November 1, 2022.

Set in 1899 New York, The Spirit Phone is a cosmic-horror, murder-mystery detective yarn in which Nikola Tesla, famed inventor, and Aleister Crowley, famed occultist, team up to save the world. Along the way, they encounter a cult, people who appear to be clones, and spiritual beings bent on destroying Earth, all centered on a new invention from Thomas Edison which aims to let people speak to the dead. Teleportation, astral projection, Edgar Cayce, a zeppelin, and Devils Tower all make an appearance. O’Keefe’s debut novel certainly serves up a unique blend of elements. He takes some anachronistic liberties, but all in service of the story. The entertainment factor alone alleviates anything that strains credulity, and the action is well paced. Perhaps most rewarding is his evocation of this time and place: new innovations were radically altering the fabric of everyday life, with modern technology like cars and electric lights commingled with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. It was a world made magical and strange, an ideal setting for such a strange tale.

There Are More Important Things than Being Right

There’s been an inordinate amount of ink spilled online about all the things that are wrong with online culture. Indeed, it’s one of the most popular subjects of online discourse. There are many ways the online culture we’ve created is toxic and amplifies the worst aspects of our nature. There are many factors which cause online toxicity, but the one I tend notice most is how so many people are obsessed with being right. And with making sure everyone knows it.

I keep seeing posts from the subreddit AITA. They show up on Twitter, Buzzfeed, lots of different places. They bother me. They’re emblematic of our need to prove ourselves right. Every AITA post is essentially someone asking for people to tell them they’re right. That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, really, so why does it bother me?

Here’s a good example:

Continue reading “There Are More Important Things than Being Right”

Book Review: The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse

Cover of the book The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos by David Whitehouse
The Alien Perspective: A New View of Humanity and the Cosmos
by David WhitehouseR
Icon, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on October 15, 2022.

The question of whether we’re alone in the universe is one of the most profound, and one which struggles to be taken seriously in scientific circles. It’s a question that extends beyond science into the realms of religion and philosophy. Evidence of intelligent life elsewhere would upend our understanding of our place in the universe. In his latest, Whitehouse summarizes the efforts we’ve made to search for other life in the universe, from SETI to UFO sightings, and the limitations such efforts must overcome. He assesses what we actually know about the likelihood that anyone else is out there. He also explores possibilities for what alien life might be like, an impossible question to answer, as we only have ourselves as an example, whereas life on other planets could be radically different. Finally, he examines what’s in store for the future of the universe with an eye toward whether or not life might survive. In the end, without definitive contact with extraterrestrials, any searches we make tell us more about ourselves than about life elsewhere.

Book Review: If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin

Cover of the book If This Book Exists, You're in the Wrong Universe by Jason Pargin
If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe
by Jason Pargin
St. Martin’s, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2022.

This time, it starts with an alien bug eating a man’s brain. Then there’s a specter that manifests inside of John’s wall and gets sliced up. So begins an ouroboros of a tale involving cults, alternate time lines, the end of the world, and a possessed plastic toy. This fourth entry in Pargin’s John Dies at the End series is less frenetic than its predecessor, What the Hell Did I Just Read (2017, as David Wong). Within the snarky humor is an incisive commentary on social media and the state of our connected world, and a story about trauma and how people lash out when they’re hurt. It’s a story about love and how people can be better. It’s rewarding to witness how Pargin has grown as a writer. He’s less interested in the gimmick and more focused on his characters. His compassion runs deep. This isn’t just a funny tale of inept supernatural investigators; it’s a story of people struggling through pain to find a better path. Pargin offers us a welcome note of hope.

Assume Better

A Selfish Reason for Choosing Compassion

I was driving to work the other day, in typical morning rush hour traffic, and another driver was being far too fast and aggressive: weaving through traffic, riding bumpers, cutting people off. When they cut in front of me, causing me to slam on my brakes which almost caused me to be rear-ended, I got mad. This driver was being a jerk: selfish, road hog, inconsiderate, dangerous. Why do they think they have more right to the road than any of the rest of us?

This morning, the same thing: overly aggressive driver, going too fast, riding bumpers, cutting people off. But this time, I saw the look on the driver’s face as they passed me:

Weeping. Sadness. Panic.

They were clearly in the midst of some kind of emergency. This person had a reason they needed to get somewhere quickly. They weren’t just being selfish and inconsiderate. Their need for the road actually was more important than mine.

This doesn’t excuse the dangerous driving: that was still a problem for the rest of us. But instead of getting angry, I felt empathy. I had compassion for this driver. I wondered what they faced and hoped they could get where they needed to be on time, without causing an accident.

In my first example, when I got angry at the other driver, it left me in a bad mood. My hackles rose, I was geared up for conflict with no way to resolve it. I got to work feeling on edge, in a negative headspace. This was not a useful way for me to start my day. It didn’t help me do my work.

This morning, when I felt compassion and sympathy for the other driver, it left me in a much better headspace. Compassion is a far more useful emotion to bring into the public service work I do.

The reality is neither driver will ever know how I reacted to them, nor how my reactions affected my mood. My reactions have no impact on them whatsoever. But the ways I react in these circumstances has a profound effect on me. When I assumed the other driver was selfish and inconsiderate, it affected me in a very negative way. When I assumed more positively about the other driver, it made my day better.

This got me thinking about how we make assumptions.

Continue reading “Assume Better”

Book Review: Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson

Cover of the book Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure by Bryn Nelson
Flush: The Remarkable Science of an Unlikely Treasure
by Bryn Nelson
Grand Central, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2022.

As a rule, we try not to think too much about our poop. It’s one of the most taboo topics in our society, and our sewer systems are designed to keep it out of sight as much as possible. And yet, poop is a treasure trove of resources that we can use to make the world better. Scat can cure diseases and protect us against several major health concerns, aid in forensic and medical investigations, replenish our soils, and even become a source of energy, precious metals, and clean drinking water. New methods to make better use of our sewage can also help reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Poop can help heal our planet. Nelson dives into the science of scat and profiles several examples of how people are using poop in new and innovative ways. Wide ranging and deeply informed, with a wry sense of humor, this is a solid recommendation for fans of Mary Roach, as well as anyone interested in out-of-the-box ideas to help fix some of our most pressing problems.

Book Review: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others

Cover of the book The Skeptics' Guide to the Future: What Yesterday's Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow by Steven Novella and others
The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow
by Steven Novella and others
Grand Central, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on August 5, 2022.

People have a long history of trying to predict the future, especially with the rise of modern science and science fiction. Several futuristic tropes have become common, such as cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, immortality, space exploration and settlement, energy weapons, faster-than-light travel, flying cars, and more. Novella turns his skeptical eye on futurism, assessing whether any of these predictions are possible, from the likely to the probably impossible. He identifies several common fallacies which plague our attempts at futurism, most notably the tendency to overestimate short term advancement while underestimating long term change, and our insistence on picturing people in the future as just like us. Old technology persists for surprisingly long times, and new disruptive technology can radically alter who we are and our relationship to the world. Predicting the future isn’t an exact science, but skeptical scientific inquiry can help assess the likelihood of our various visions for it. A fun overview of both the current state of modern science and a general survey of the history of futurism.

Book Review: Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines

Cover of the book Terminal Peace by Jim C. Hines
Terminal Peace
by Jim C. Hines
DAW, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on July 29, 2022.

After Mop and crew’s discoveries on Earth, the Prodryans are massed to attack, and the Alliance is falling apart. Mop’s next mission: Tuxatl, the only planet in the galaxy the Prodryans fear, seeking a weapon that can win the war. As usual, what she finds isn’t what she expected: a legendary lost warrior and the Jynx, an intelligent race hiding dark secrets. There is a weapon—but what do you do if using it makes you just as bad as your enemy? While there’s plenty of humor in this installment of Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse (after Terminal Uprising, 2019), it’s not a funny book. Characters face deep personal threats and challenges to their status quo and struggle with significant ethical quandaries; the book achieves impressive emotional depth and moral weight. Hines has a talent for creating interesting aliens, and the Jynx are one of his best yet, with a fascinating culture and backstory. The newest members of Mop’s crew lend some fresh perspectives, and the ending—unexpected as it is—rings true. Hines serves up a satisfying and hopeful conclusion to the series.

Ridding Ourselves of Problematic Language

Or: Doing the Right and Decent Thing Has All Kinds of Benefits for Everyone, Including You

**Disclaimer: The following contains discussion of words and phrases which are harmful to some people. I do not use these words and phrases with intent to harm, but as examples of the subject.**

I recently came across this article about ableist language:

The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use
(by Sara Nović, published by the BBC, Apr. 5, 2021, last accessed Jul. 26, 2022)

It’s a good examination of how deeply ableist language is embedded in our culture and the harm it does. For many of us, we don’t intend any harm when we use ableist phrases. These are simply phrases that are common in our surroundings and we use them unthinkingly. Most of us don’t even realize some of these terms are prejudiced. Which is why I’m grateful for articles like this one. I care about other people and I don’t want to cause someone harm. Knowing more about ableist language helps me avoid causing harm.

Within this article, there’s a link to an excellent post which lists alternate terms we can use instead:

Ableism/Language
(by Lydia X. Z. Brown, published on personal blog, last updated Nov. 16, 2021, last accessed Jul. 26, 2022)

Continue reading “Ridding Ourselves of Problematic Language”

Book Review: A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson

Cover of the book A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson
A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age
by Alec Wilkinson
Farrar, 2022

This review was first published by Booklist on July 15, 2022.

Wilkinson was never very good at math. Deep into middle age, he decides to relearn algebra, geometry, and calculus to return to the subject that defeated him and conquer it anew. The project doesn’t exactly go as planned. The difficulty he encounters challenges many of his core beliefs about himself. Maybe a lifetime of experience isn’t enough to do better the second time around; maybe mathematics isn’t what he assumed it is. In a unique combination of memoir and intellectual spelunking, Wilkinson takes readers into the heart of math’s complex mysteries and the biggest questions that arise. What unfolds is a wide-ranging exploration of identity, philosophy, faith, the history of mathematics, and the nature of the divine. Mathematics has always been a subject pointing its practitioners toward a sense of the unknown, and Wilkinson’s quest becomes something akin to a spiritual pursuit. This is a deeply insightful, lyrical, and erudite work, filled with gems of wisdom and fascinating digressions, all characterized by Wilkinson’s delightfully dry, self-deprecating humor. He proves it’s never too late to learn something new, even if what you learn isn’t what you expected, and even high-school math can blossom into surprising vistas of metaphysical and psychological significance.