Her Right Foot
Dave Eggers, Shawn Harris (artist)
Chronicle Books, ISBN 9781452162812, September 2017, Hardcover, 104 pp., ages 5-8
Resource Information at GooglePlayBooks
In turn-of-the-century South Africa, fourteen-year-old Lettie, her younger brother, and her mother are Dutch Afrikaner settlers who have been taken from their farm by British soldiers and are being held in a concentration camp. It is early in the Boer War, and Lettie’s father, grandfather, and brother are off fighting the British as thousands of Afrikaner women and children are detained. The camps are cramped and disease ridden; the threat of illness and starvation are ever present. Determined to dictate their own fate, Lettie and her family give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive amid increasingly dire conditions.
Brave and defiant, Lettie finds comfort in memories of stargazing with her grandfather, her plan to be a writer, and surprising new friendships that will both nourish and challenge her. A beautiful testament to love, family, and sheer force of will, The Lost History of Stars was inspired by Dave Boling’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier during the Boer War. Lettie is a figure of abiding grace, and her story is richly drawn and impossible to forget.
Link to an Excerpt (pdf) of The Lost History of Stars
Link to Author’s essay (pdf) A Young Girl in a Forgotten War which reveals
One of the original impetuses for The Lost History of Stars was that my grandfather had been some manner of camp guard in the British Army during the Boer War. I realized after just a little bit of research that this war has been largely forgotten by most of the world, even though it was a blueprint for the warfare and cruelty to come later in the twentieth century. With the Boer men and boys (ages eight to eighty) in commandos out on the veld, the British burned the Boer farms and forced the displaced women and children into hastily constructed concentration camps. In the face of terrible sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of food and medical services, twenty-seven thousand women and children died in the camps, a total nearly ten times greater than the number of deaths of soldiers in combat on both sides. It was, truly, a war against children.
At that point, I surrendered the narration of the book to the character who could breathe life into it: an adolescent girl named Aletta Venter. Over time, that’s left too few opportunities to celebrate the small, hard-won individual victories of brave characters like Aletta Venter.
Aging from twelve to fourteen in the book, Aletta has the audacity to believe she can carve out bits of normalcy while imprisoned in a British concentration camp in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). She grows, adapts, and takes joy in her small daily insurgencies. When facing a lack of paper for her journal, she steals every copy of the posted camp rules she can find. Because, as she reasons, among the many rules imposed by the Brits, none forbids the stealing of the rules. To Aletta, imprisonment is a state of mind, so she wages her tiny war against the British Empire with her only weapons: hope and imagination.
The Lost History of Stars
Author: Dave Boling | Publisher: Algonquin Books | List Price: $25.95
Hardcover: ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4 | Sale Date 7 June 2017 | Pages 352
Purchase at Amazon IndieBound Powell’s
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-61620-714-4 | Sale Date 11 July 2017
Purchase at Amazon Kindle Kobo
Born and raised in South Chicago, Dave Boling now lives and works as a sports columnist in the Seattle, Washington area. His first novel, Guernica, an extraordinary historical tale of love, family and war set in the Basque town of Guernica before, during, and after its destruction by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, became an international bestseller and has been translated into 13 languages. Prior to journalism, Boling played football at the University of Louisville and worked as an ironworker in Chicago, a logger in the Pacific Northwest, a bartender, a bouncer, and a laborer in a car factory and steel mills. Boling began writing fiction at age 53.
When humans put pigment to wall in Lascaux Cave more than 17,000 years ago, the point was to minimize the distance between object and representation, to be as close as possible to possessing the real horse. To gain its power, as imbued in a symbol.
The clearest human mastery of symbolism comes with our use of language. Suppose you are being menaced by something and thus scream your head off. Someone listening can’t tell if it’s in response to a suicide bomber or Komodo dragon. Most animal communication is about such present-tense emotionality.
Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the starts of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “protowords,” where one means “Predator on the ground, run up the tree!” and another means “Predator in the air, run down the tree!” Evolving the cognitive capacity to make that distinction is useful, as it prompts you to run away from danger. Language pries apart a message from its meaning, and as our ancestors improved at this separation, their advantages accrued.
Our brains are winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor.
The height of the symbolic features of language is our use of metaphor. Metaphors are everywhere in language — we may literally and physically be “in” a room, but we are only metaphorically inside something when we are “in” a good mood, “in” cahoots with someone or “in” love. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when ordering all of them on deck, and that June doesn’t really bust out all over. These capacities evolved so recently that our brains are, if you will, winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor. As a result, we are pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and literal, at remembering that “it’s only a figure of speech” — with enormous consequences for our best and worst behaviors.
If humans (or any other mammal) bite into rancid food, the insular cortex lights up and processes gustatory disgust, causing us to spit it out, gag, feel nauseated, make a revolted facial expression. Ditto for revolting smells. We wrinkle our nose, raise our upper lip, narrow our eyes. All of this behavior is intended to protect us from toxins and infectious pathogens.
As humans we do some fancier things. When we think about rancid food, the insula activates; when we look at faces showing disgust, the same occurs. Most important, if you think about a truly reprehensible act, the same occurs. The insula mediates visceral responses to norm violations; the more activation, the more condemnation. This is visceral, not just metaphorically visceral. When I heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, “feeling sick to my stomach” wasn’t a mere figure of speech. When I imagined the reality of the murder of 20 first-graders and the six adults protecting them, I felt nauseous. The insula not only prompts the stomach to purge itself of toxic food, it also prompts the stomach to purge the reality of a nightmarish event. The distance between the symbolic message and the meaning disappears.
Hearing about virtuous moral acts makes drinks taste better.
This linking of visceral and moral disgust is bi-directional. As shown in a number of studies, contemplating a morally disgusting act leaves more than a metaphorical bad taste in your mouth — people eat less immediately afterward, and a neutral-tasting beverage drunk afterward is rated as having a more negative taste (conversely, hearing about virtuous moral acts made the drink taste better).
The physiological core of gustatory disgust is to protect yourself against pathogens. The core of the intermixing of visceral and moral disgust is a sense of threat as well. A socially conservative stance about, say, gay marriage is not just that it is simply wrong in an abstract sense, but that it constitutes a threat — to the sanctity of marriage and family values.
This element of threat is shown in a great study in which subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of America as a living organism, with statements like “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the US as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration (without changing attitudes about an economic issue).
First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.
My guess is that people with a stereotypically conservative exclusionary stance about immigration rarely have the sense that they feel disgusted that people elsewhere in the world would want to come to the United States for better lives. Instead, there is threat by the rabble, the unwashed masses, to the American way of life. How cerebral is this intertwining of visceral and moral disgust? Does the insula get involved in moral disgust only if it’s of a particularly gruesome nature — blood and guts, body parts?
It is clear that the intertwining of visceral and moral disgust is, at the least, greatest when the latter taps into core disgust. To repeat a neat quote from psychology professor Paul Rozin, “Disgust serves as an ethnic or out-group marker.” First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.
Literal cleanliness and orderliness can release us from abstract cognitive and affective distress — just consider how, during moments where life seems to be spiraling out of control, it can be calming to organize your clothes, clean the living room, get the car washed. The ability of literal cleanliness to alter cognition was shown in one study. Subjects examined an array of music CDs, picked 10 that they liked, and ranked them in order of liking. They were then offered a free copy of one of their midrange choices (number five or six). Subjects were then distracted with some other task and then asked to re-rank the ten CDs. They showed a common psychological phenomenon, which was to now overvalue the CD they’d been given, ranking it higher on the list than before. Unless they had just washed their hands (ostensibly to try a new brand of soap), in which case no re-ranking occurred. Clean hands, clean slate.
We intertwine physical and moral purity when it comes to our own actions. In one of my all-time favorite psychology studies, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated that the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Subjects were asked to recount either a moral or an immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, the researchers offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil and a package of antiseptic wipes. The folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. Another study, showing the same effect when people were instructed to lie, demonstrated that the more adversely consequential the lie was presented as being, the more washing subjects did. Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate weren’t the only ones to at least try to absolve their sins by washing their hands, and this phenomenon of embodied cognition is referred to as the “Macbeth effect.”
In one study, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than subjects who were truthful.
This effect is remarkably concrete. In another study, subjects were instructed to lie about something — with either their mouths (i.e., to tell a lie) or their hands (i.e., to write down a lie). Afterward, remarkably, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than control subjects who communicated something truthful: the immoral mouthers were more likely to pick a mouthwash sample; the immoral scribes, hand soap. Furthermore, as shown with neuroimaging, when contemplating mouthwash versus soap, those who’d just spoken a lie activated parts of the sensorimotor cortex related to the mouth (i.e., the subjects were more aware of their mouths at the time); those who had written the lie activated the cortical regions mapping onto their hand.
Another fascinating study showed the influence of culture in the Macbeth effect. The studies previously cited were carried out with European or American subjects. When the same is done with East Asian subjects, the urge afterward is to wash the face, rather than the hands. If you are going to save face, it should be a clean one.
Finally, this intermixing of moral and physical hygiene affects the way we actually behave. That original study on contemplating one’s moral failings and the subsequent desire to wash hands included a second experiment. As before, subjects were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward subjects either did or didn’t have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a subsequent (experimentally staged) request for help. In another study, merely watching someone else wash their hands in this situation (versus watching them type) also decreased helpfulness afterward (although to a lesser extent than the subject washing). Many of our moments of prosociality, of altruism and Good Samaritanism, are acts of restitution, attempts to counter our antisocial moments. What these studies show is that if those metaphorically dirtied hands have been unmetaphorically washed in the interim, they’re less likely to reach out to try to balance the scales.
Our brains’ confusion of the metaphorical with the literal literally matters. We know that there is an array of mechanisms used by various species for recognizing kin and degree of relatedness — e.g., genetically shaped pheromonal signatures and imprinting on the female whose birdsong you heard a lot while you were still inside an egg. And we’ve seen among other primates there are cognitive components as well. For instance, male baboons’ degree of paternalism can be predicted by their likelihood of being the father.
By the time we get to humans, the process is mostly cognitive. We can think our way to deciding who is a relative, who is an Us. And thus, we can be manipulated into thinking that some individuals are more related to us, and others less so, than they actually are — there are numerous ways to get someone to think that an Other is so different they barely count as human. But as propagandists and ideologues have long known, if you want to get someone to feel that an Other hardly counts as human, there is only one way to do it: engage the insula. And the surest way to do that is with metaphor.
Excerpted from the new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2017 Robert Sapolsky.
If you ever feel that the world is against you, you are not alone. We all have a tendency to assume that when anything goes wrong, the fault lies within some great conspiracy against us. A co-worker fails to give you a report in time? They must be trying to derail your career and beat you to a promotion. Your child drops and breaks an expensive plate? They must be trying to annoy you and waste your time. WiFi in a coffee shop not working? The staff must be lying about having it to lure you in and sample their crappy espresso.
But the simple fact is that these explanations which we tend to jump to are rarely true. Maybe your co-worker thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with play-doh. Maybe the WiFi router was just broken. This is where Hanlon’s Razor comes in.
Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model best summarized as “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”. Like Occam’s Razor, this heuristic is a useful tool for rapid decision-making and intelligent cognition. Applying Hanlon’s Razor in our day-to-day lives, allows us to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improves rationality. Hanlon’s razor allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy. In this way, the value of Hanlon’s razor is pronounced in relationships and business matters.
It’s a simple fact that most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices based on that. We all lead complex lives wherein (as Murphy’s Law states) things are constantly going wrong. When this occurs, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent. People are quick to accuse corporations, politicians, their bosses, employees, coffee shop workers and even family of trying to derail them. When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we too have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time. Instead, the perpetrator becomes a source of intense irritation. To assume intent in such a situation is likely to worsen the problem. None of us can ever know what someone else wanted to happen. The smartest people make a lot of mistakes. Inability or neglect is far more likely to be the cause than malice. When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.
The phrase ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774. Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”
Goethe wrote similarly in The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774:
Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.
German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord used Hanlon’s Razor to assess his men, saying:
I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.
Hanlon’s Razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models in our latticework of knowledge. Here are some examples of it’s useful interactions:
Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s Razor to what we see.
For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem. A similar issue has occurred a number of times with YouTube content policies. When videos discussing LGBTQ matters were filtered on the restrictive viewing mode, many people took extreme offense at this. The reality is that again, this was an algorithm error and not a case of homophobia on the part of their programmers. Countless videos which do not discuss anything related to LGBTQ issues have also been filtered. This shows it to be a case of confirmation bias, wherein people see the malice they expect to see.
One of the most valuable uses of Hanlon’s Razor is in relationships and communication. It is common for people to damage relationships by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them, or behaving in a way intended to be annoying. In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.
Douglas Hubbard expands upon this idea in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it:
I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.’ People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.
A further example can be seen when semantic barriers interfere with communication. We have all encountered people struggling to speak our native language, perhaps because they are a tourist or have recently moved to the county. You have probably seen someone gets frustrated at them or even been the one getting annoyed. Or if you have ever traveled to or lived in a country where you are not fluent in the language, you might have been the one people got annoyed at. Realistically, the person asking you for directions or struggling to order their coffee is not mixing up their nouns and speaking in a strong accent on purpose.
Hanlon’s Razor tells us they are merely inarticulate and are not trying to waste anyone’s time. The same issues occur when a person uses language which is considered too complex or too basic. This may form a semantic barrier, as other people assume they are trying to confuse them or are being blunt.
A short-cut to regulating what can be strong reactions to inadvertent events is to conscientiously reframe the perpetrator as a toddler knocking over a vase. Their actions are rendered unintentional and clumsy, highlighting their need for help, maturation or supervision, allowing you to rapidly regain composure and not take it personally.
Like any mental model, Hanlon’s Razor has its limitations and its validity has been contested. Some critics consider Hanlon’s Razor to be an overly naive idea which can blind people to true malice. While people have malicious intent far less often than we think, it is still something which must be taken into account. Sometimes actions which could be attributed to incompetence are in fact consciously or unconsciously malicious.
An instance of Hanlon’s Razor being proven wrong is the Mafia. Prior to the 1960s, the existence of the Mafia was considered to be a conspiracy theory. Only when a member contacted law enforcement, did police realize that the malice being perpetrated was carefully orchestrated.
To make the best use of Hanlon’s Razor , we must be sure to put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence. Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behavior which is intended to be harmful.
Though some wartime propaganda art has since become iconic, plenty of posters from the World War II era are rare, with few original examples having survived through the decades. World War II Posters, a new book, brings to light some of those artifacts. The book features highlights from the more than 10,000 posters collected over…
I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.
Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books , died today, March 20, 2017, after an illness. He was 87 years old.
Nobel Laureate Poet Derek Walcott has died this Friday at 87 years old. Walcott’s poetry centered around his life in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and with the complex colonialist legacy that created his world — but it contains multitudes, and it travels around the world as much as its voraciously erudite author did. By turns epic and compact, Walcott’s poetry has a dazzling musicality and lyricism. It begs to be read aloud; you can almost taste the words as you read them.
To celebrate his legacy, here is a stanza from In the Village, a poem about Walcott’s time in New York’s Greenwich Village:
Who has removed the typewriter from my desk,
so that I am a musician without his piano
with emptiness ahead as clear and grotesque
as another spring? My veins bud, and I am so
full of poems, a wastebasket of black wire.
The notes outside are visible; sparrows will
line antennae like staves, the way springs were,
but the roofs are cold and the great grey river
where a liner glides, huge as a winter hill,
moves imperceptibly like the accumulating
years. I have no reason to forgive her
for what I brought on myself. I am past hating,
past the longing for Italy where blowing snow
absolves and whitens a kneeling mountain range
outside Milan. Through glass, I am waiting
for the sound of a bird to unhinge the beginning
of spring, but my hands, my work, feel strange
without the rusty music of my machine. No words
for the Arctic liner moving down the Hudson, for the mange
of old snow moulting from the roofs. No poems. No birds.
Related Story: Derek Walcott In The New Yorker
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Each letter of the alphabet is a steadfast loyal soldier in a great army of words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. One letter falls, and the entire language falters. Vera Nazarian
Each letter of the alphabet is a steadfast loyal soldier in a great army of words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. One letter falls, and the entire language falters. Vera Nazarian
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