Book Reviews

Learning from The Sixth Extinction

I am taking a course online through my alma mater Colgate University called Living Writers. Each week, we read a book and then the author comes to campus to speak with the students. Alumni, parents, and the community have the unbelievable opportunity to join in online (and come to campus if possible) for these events. For me, this will mean a weekly live stream.

This week’s book is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. The idea that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet is new to me, but many of the overarching ideas about climate change are not. What is blowing my mind though is how much I am enjoying this book.

I have struggled to get back into non-fiction for a while, and climate change, while an extremely important issue, has never really been the one that I have really delved into. Ok, it’s boring. I said it. Greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, carbon emission statistics. I’ve never really found that interesting. Until now. I’m only half way through the book and already I have learned new things about the history of our knowledge of extinction and evolution, the great auk, golden frogs, coral reefs, and some really geologically interesting places where you can see our past and where our future might be headed. I had no idea that I could have an interest in some of the topics of this book, but there are some really cool photographs and illustrations and excellent writing, and all of these things are pulling me in!

Why am I writing about a random side project? I got me thinking. If I can get into this, a topic I always thought was boring, simply because of a great teacher, Elizabeth Kolbert, what topics might I be able to get students into that they previously thought would be boring? How can I catch them and spark that interest? I haven’t got all the answers yet, but it is making me see that anything is possible.

The Ghost in my Brain – Clark Elliott, PhD

I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.  This was the review I did for the 2016 edition.

Imagine a cold and snowy night, not unlike what we experience here in Ottawa.  It’s late, it’s been a long day, and all you want to do is get home.  But your brain is slowing down.  As you make your way to your car, your body just …. stops …. moving.  You have been walking the few short blocks to your car for an hour, so you are cold, and frostbite is a legitimate concern, but no matter how badly you want to get there, you are frozen and can’t move, not because you are literally frozen, but because your brain is used up and you just can’t make your body move despite your best effort.  Without having lived through an experience like this, it’s tough to imagine how this could even be possible, but Clark Elliott describes it so well in the opening chapter of his newest book, The Ghost in my Brain:  How Concussion Stole my Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get It Back, that you almost feel like you’re there, like you’re living it right alongside him.

In starting with what it is like to experience concussion and the debilitating nature of his experiences, Elliott helps us to not only understand just how difficult it is to live through this kind of brain trauma, but also why finding an effective treatment is so imperative.  His ability to describe the experience is remarkable and really makes the reader feel like they are living the experience.  Since reading this book, I have somehow magically met others who have experienced or are experiencing debilitating concussions, and they too are facing the same challenges that he did:  doctors that don’t understand or think they are fine based on a limited subset of testing, treatments that consist of nothing more than just rest, which while helpful, does not fix the permanent damage, and a world that doesn’t understand what a concussion is like and is not equipped to accommodate it.  Perhaps most troubling is the experience of hopelessness and helplessness as a result of no longer being able to do what you could do before.  That feeling would drive just about anyone crazy.  Elliott, through sharing his many experiences of trying to find help and not getting any, helps the reader to really feel that sense of frustration, that feeling like you want something so badly and you know there has to be a way forward and yet nobody can help, that sense that you can do more and be more if only your brain would just do what you’re trying to tell it to do.  You’re left wanting a solution.

In the middle section of the book, Elliott changes pace and spends some time noting all of the things he discovers about the brain as the result of the damage that happened to his.  He asks brilliant questions like, “Why was it that one day I couldn’t walk across a parking lot, but the next I could run a marathon” (49)?  It’s a great question!  The disconnect would be very baffling to anyone.  Elliott makes many conclusions about the brain and about the ways in which people suffering from a concussion adapt to and work around their condition.

When it comes to concussions, Elliott notes that there seems to be three different power levels in the brain:

Set A – the working set – is immediately available, and also recharges rapidly within a few hours.  Set B – the first level of backup batteries – can be accessed if Set A is exhausted, but takes longer to recharge, possibly up to several days.  Set C – the deepest level of backup batteries – can be used as a last resort at times of extreme demand when Set B is exhausted.  But caution must be exercised – Set C charges very slowly, over the course of up to two weeks. (57-58)

I had never really thought of that before, but in looking at my own abilities, I do see the three sets in action.  They all have longer action life and shorter recharging times than they would with a concussion, but they are present.  This is merely one of many interesting connections in the brain that Elliott notes, but I won’t spoil the fun by giving them all away.

Finally, Elliott concludes the book with his treatment.  As a former hockey player, I have seen my fair share of concussions, and generally given thanks that I haven’t had to experience one myself. Head injuries are not something to be messed around with.  But in all that time, I never saw anybody be treated for it.  You get a concussion, you rest, and when the headache goes away, you go right back to practice. I have since learned about the long-term effects of concussions, especially when it comes to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  But again, the research is still just figuring the disease out, and so far, it can only be diagnosed in an autopsy.  There is little knowledge of how it works, how to avoid it (beyond not playing contact sports), and how to mitigate its effects.  Nobody ever talks about a legitimate treatment plan for concussions.  Until now.

Elliott’s treatment comprised of working with two different doctors:  Donalee Markus, a neuroscientist specializing in cognitive restructuring, and Deborah Zelinsky, an optometrist with skills in neuro-optometric rehabilitation.  With Donalee Markus, Elliott had his first real testing that led to results, followed by treatment involving a series of puzzles.  With Deborah Zelinsky, he went through a series of tests, after which he was prescribed a set of glasses with a very

specific goal in mind.  He went through six phases of this over several years, which the book outlines in great detail.  In fact, the book spends far more time on the Zelinsky side of the treatment, and he speaks fondly of his “magic glasses.”  Together the puzzles and the glasses combine to change Elliott’s life.

While Elliott focuses more on his work with Zelinsky, he notes something about Donalee Markus that really stuck out to me:

In those first two hours we spent working together, I found Donalee to be really engaging – smart, organized, and compassionate.  Her knowledge of clinically applied neurology was vast.  I could tell that she “got it” right from the start.  And critically important to understanding how she works is that she pays close attention to the people with whom she works.  She is watching, and thinking, and asking, and listening – teasing out small clues to what is going on in the brain. (208)

The italics are Elliott’s, but they really highlight the important part.  Here is a doctor who is one of the best in the world, and yet while her knowledge is important, her attention to her patients, her compassion and empathy and need to understand the people she is working with, these are the qualities that make her outstanding at what she does.  These qualities are qualities that we can all strive to develop within us.  We may not all be able to treat concussions with neuroscience, but we can all pay close attention to the people with whom we interact on a daily basis, and we too can use that attention to detail in order to make a difference.

Overall, the book is a worthwhile read, especially for those with an interest in concussions and/or any of the brain sciences.  That said, this is not a scientific book.  There are not research findings beyond just one case study.  More than anything, this book leads a person to ask a lot of questions.   How exactly do the puzzles help?  How did she know which puzzles to give him and how to sequence them?  How did earlier research lead to this result?  How many others have been treated in a similar way?  Are there treatment options available to us here in Canada?  Does treatment of concussion in this way help prevent CTE?  Could this be applied to athletes who experience milder concussions more frequently or does this only work on extreme cases such as Elliott’s?  How do the glasses work?  Why did the glasses help, even when he was sleeping?  Why/how did the glasses affect the way in which Elliott heard music?  The questions go on and on.  The Ghost in my Brain is an introduction to an area of research that I never knew existed, one worth exploration and more study given the prevalence of brain injuries and their disastrous consequences.

The Organized Mind – Daniel J. Levitin

I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.  This was the review I did for the 2015 edition.

Our brains are busier than ever before.  We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumor, all posing as information.  Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting, and at the same time, we are all doing more.  Consequently, trying to find the time to schedule all our various activities has become a tremendous challenge.  Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salesclerks helped us find what we were looking for in stores, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence.  Now we do most of those things ourselves.  The information age has off-loaded a great deal of the work previously done by people we could call information specialists onto all of the rest of us.  We are doing the jobs of ten different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favorite TV shows.  It’s no wonder that sometimes one memory gets confounded with another, leading us to show up in the right place but on the wrong day, or to forget something as simple as where we last put our glasses or the remote. (xx)

This was the first of many insights contained in The Organized Mind, a book that promises to teach us how “any reader can use their (leaders in the information age) methods to regain a sense of mastery over the way we organize our homes, workplaces, and lives (cover flap).”  Daniel J. Levitin promises to show us “how new research into the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory can be applied to daily life (cover flap again).”  In many respects, Levitin did not disappoint, but if you are looking for some quick tips on how to be organized, this is not the book for you.

The book is extremely dense, moreso than one would expect from a book that purports to be about practical applications, and the science goes into more detail than one would expect to present to people not in the field.  There is so much going on in this book, that at times I found myself lost or couldn’t remember the larger point that Levitin was trying to make.  The tips and insights are left to the reader to draw out, interspersed between the science in a way that makes them not always obvious.  On the other hand, if you have an interest in psychology or neuroscience and want to know why people are so overwhelmed these days (and maybe figure out how to improve the situation), this book would be exactly what you seek.  There are many interesting scientific findings and other tidbits of insight and information to be discovered.

The book is organized into three parts.  The first part goes into a bit about how we ended up with cognitive overload and some of the basics of attention and memory.  The middle, second part, which is also the bulk of the book, talks about how to organize various aspects of your life with each chapter’s title beginning with “Organizing” and ending with a different aspect of our lives.  Finally part three concludes the book with what to teach our children and the power of the junk drawer.  On the surface, this book seems highly organized.  So how could a reader get lost?

The first section sets the premise for the book in many ways.  Levitin introduces the concept of the highly successful person (whom he calls HSPs) as people who perform exceptionally well in this age of information overload, but we quickly discover that these are people who have executive assistants who take care of organizing their lives.  The idea then is to off-load as much of the daily organization in our lives as possible into external processes.  By making as much of the unimportant stuff as possible a routine or ritual that we don’t have to think about, we will have more energy, time, and cognitive space for what is really important.  He further teaches us how to sort our tasks/to-do piles like one of these people.

However, in the same chapter is also the opening paragraph with one thought on why there is so much cognitive overload, a section on how much information we process on a daily basis along with how that has changed through time, a section on categorizing information and how we have come to do that which includes a flow chart on familial relations (which comes in really handy if you don’t know the difference between a second and third cousin and cousins once or twice removed), and then back to how we can use categorization like an HSP.  The flow makes sense if you are looking at it from above in a big picture sort of way.  But if you don’t have time to read all nearly forty pages in one shot and you have to set it down and pick it back up, it is very easy to get lost in the middle of the loop and lose track of the point.  This same pattern continues in all the other chapters as well, some of which are considerably longer than forty pages.

The second chapter of the opening section contains an overview of the basics of attention and memory.  It is good review for people with some background on the subject.  Most importantly here, Levitin sets up and explains the difference between mind-wandering mode and intensely focused attention, concepts he will return to frequently to talk about how the brain works in a variety of situations.  Perhaps the most important thing to gain here is that both modes of thought are important and useful in their own way.

In the main body of the book (part two), Levitin goes about organizing our lives.  He begins with our homes, which makes sense because off-loading where to locate everyday items by organizing our homes is probably the easiest and quickest thing to get organized.  Essentially, the take-away message from this chapter is to do as your mother probably taught you as a child and have a place for everything and everything in its place.

Following our homes, Levitin next sets about to organize our social world.  This chapter contains a number of interesting pieces of information about how the brain work, including the role of oxytocin in establishing relationships and growing trust and how people with Autism show lower levels of oxytocin than average in their brain chemistry.  The chapter also outlines in detail a number of attribution errors that people make that distorts and misrepresents what is going on in the social world. While there are not a whole lot of tips per se in this chapter, an insightful reader could apply what they have learned to maximize the benefits of their social connections while minimizing the feeling of being left out.

The fifth chapter delves into organizing our time.  This is a subject about which much has been written and there are millions of different organizers on the market to help people organize their time.  Levitin does not focus at all on these organizers and does not offer an organizing solution here.  Instead, he discusses the psychological factors that go into time management:  dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (including implications for Autism and ADHD), the problems with the constant attention shifting involved in multi-tasking, and when and why we procrastinate.  There is an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person.  Levitin points out that this is true because busy people have developed the tools necessary to be able to organize their time especially effectively.  Interspersed throughout are tips and tricks for how to avoid the pitfalls of poor time management.

Levitin moves from time management into organizing information for the hardest decisions.  This is actually one of the most focused chapters of the book as he sticks mainly to how to make medical life and death type decisions.  Levitin points out our tendency to conflate factual probabilities that can be tested and proven (such as the odds of rolling a dice and getting a particular number) with subjective probabilities (such as the odds of attending a particular event) which are not really probabilities at all, but more just speculation on how a person feels at the given moment in time.  Perhaps the most important piece of advice to come from this chapter comes in the form of a quote:  “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. (228)”  Realistically speaking, the odds are that any person will be in the majority and a person should make a decision based on that fact alone, rather than playing the “what if” game and wondering if they are in the 5% (or 10% or 1%).

After organizing all the personal parts of our lives, Levitin next focuses on the business world.  Levitin discusses optimization and different possible hierarchical structures.  He adds a few useful ideas about leadership and teambuilding and prepares for the worst.  Perhaps the most noteworthy thought to take away is this:

It is now well known that some of the most productive companies – Google, Twitter, Lucasfilm, Huffington Post – provide perks such as in-house gyms, gourmet dining rooms, nap rooms, and flexible hours.  Google paid for 100, 000 free employee massages, and its campus boasts wellness centers and a seven-acre sports complex with basketball, bowling, bocce ball, and roller hockey.  The statistical software giant SAS and Toyota distributor JM Family Enterprises feature in-house health care; Atlantic Health System offers on-site acupressure massage; Microsoft’s campus has a spa; provides free yoga classes; Intuit lets employees spend 10% of their time on any project they’re passionate about; Deloitte encourages employees to donate time to nonprofits for up to six months by offering full benefits and 40% of pay.  Giving employees environments like these seems to pay, and it makes sense from a neurobiological standpoint.  Sustained concentration and effort is most effective not when fragmented into little pieces by multi-tasking, but when apportioned into big focused chunks separated by leisure, exercise, or other mentally restorative activities. (308)

While the average person may not have the benefits of such a luxurious work environment, we can learn to take restorative breaks and not spend so much of our time multi-tasking.

Finally Levitin discusses what we should be teaching our children so that they can grow up to be effective and organized adults.  Critical thinking and the ability to detect the bias of a source of information were key points.  He points to research that shows that people tend to view a bias in their favour as a neutral piece while viewing neutral writing as biased against their point of view.  Levitin also ranks problem solving and the ability to estimate reasonably as essential and impactful skills that will be the key to the quality jobs of the future.  He discusses the future of education and how things will need to change to adapt to the changes going on in the world at large.  A key element of this is having students doing more finding and using of the information (as opposed to the learning/memorising of facts that are emphasized now).

As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure.  We are now less sure of what we know and don’t know.  More so than at any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it.  This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively. (369)

In order to teach the next generation of citizens these skills, it would be prudent for us to develop these skills.  The Organized Mind is a good place to begin.

Levitin discusses at length the value of the junk drawer, that place where you put things that don’t fall neatly into other categories.  The junk drawer comes up again and again throughout the book, and the book concludes with an entire chapter dedicated to the junk drawer.  Junk drawers are essential as they hold things that cannot be categorized well, giving you a place to know exactly where an item is, even if it doesn’t have a logical home grouped with other like objects.  Junk drawers allow for successful organization of everything else.

The Organized Mind might very well be the junk drawer on cognitive research into attention, memory, and organizational skills – a very well organized junk drawer, but a junk drawer none the less.  It contains much valuable information and several brilliant insights into how and why people forget and/or confuse information and how we can organize our lives to off-load information out of our memories, making our lives more manageable.  Like the junk drawer, it is full of some of the most useful stuff.  The items in the junk drawer are well organized, but the drawer is so over-flowing that it can be overwhelming when you are looking for something specific.  Make sure you have plenty of time and try to off-load as much of your daily cognitive overload as possible before delving into this fascinating book.

Thieves of Bay Street – Bruce Livesey

I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival.  This was the review I did for the 2012 edition.

In 2008, as the world economy melted down led by the U.S. housing market, a select few American Hedge Fund managers cashed in the insurance policies that they had taken out on products they knew to be faulty and made billions of dollars at the expense of those invested in their falsely propped up funds.  As Canadians, we sat back on our high horse, grateful that this type of fraudulent behaviour doesn’t happen here.  Or so we thought.  As it turns out, these things do happen here, with greater frequency and impunity than anywhere else in the developed world.

Bruce Livesey in The Thieves of Bay Street outlines chapter after chapter of frauds, scandals, and investment scams that happened right here in Canada.  In case after case, including the 2008 meltdown, Livesey delineates the myriad of ways in which investment brokers and big banks separate you from your money.  The book has sixteen chapters, each dedicated to a different financial nightmare.   But perhaps the best way to introduce this book is the close of Livesey’s introduction:

This book sets out to reveal why Canada has become a popular place for investment fraud and thievery, and what the consequences are – and not just for the Alice Campbells of this country, those small investors who can lose a lifetime of savings with one wrong turn.  It will examine how bankers and brokers and the very wealthy rob from investors and companies, and how our vaulted financial institutions peddle dangerous investment products and contributed to the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, the reverberations of which are threatening entire national economies.  It’s about the ways that credit rating agencies, underwriters, analysts and lawyers enable fraud, and how regulators and law enforcement sit on the sidelines and do little to stop the fiascos from unfolding.  If, like so many of us, you’ve bought the line that Canada’s financial industry is safe and sound and worthy of your respect, prepare to be robbed of something yourself:  your faith.

There are a few problems with the system as a whole.  First, all the incentives are connected to making a lot of money.  By letting people commit fraud, the people behind it can get very rich, and since they know they can get away with it, there is no disincentive to this.  Also, the regulatory bodies are provincial; there is no national oversight, with the possible exception of one very small branch of the RCMP that does pathetically little.  (The number of investigations is small, and the percentage of convictions is embarrassingly low.)  Most of the time, the people sitting on the regulatory bodies are also a part of the industry.  Worse, the credit rating agencies are also run by people in the industry, and they have the power to manipulate the ratings for their own gains.  When somebody does notice something amiss, these overseeing bodies flick them aside like a cow swatting flies, to the effect that nothing substantial is accomplished.

One of the scariest chapters of this book comes near the end and describes situations in which somebody realizes that a scam is in the works, informs the various regulating and investigative bodies, from the financial regulators to the RCMP, and they do NOTHING about it.  In fact, many times they dismiss the case with the wave of a hand.  A great example of this is Conrad Black.  He broke several financial regulations in Canada, was reported to investigators, and yet nothing was done.  It took the Americans to prosecute Black, and they did so knowing that they had to because Canada wouldn’t.   But his case is not the only one.  Many of the cases examined in this book had early warning signs that were completely ignored.

Often, it is up to the Americans to prosecute our financial criminals.  In the rare case where a Canadian is charged and prosecuted, the punishments are minimal.  Fines are usually far less than the amount stolen from investors, and very rarely is jail time imposed.  The victims of these fraudsters can lose their entire life savings, often followed close behind by their health due to the intense stress.  The perpetrators don’t even lose the money they stole.  What does this say about Canada’s priorities?  It sure does not give off a good image of us to the world, as corroborated Livesey in chapter fifteen.  It also does nothing to help the Canadians whose livelihoods and/or pensions have vanquished into thin air.  As somebody preparing to begin saving for retirement, this picture of the financial industry is chilling to the bone.

These systematic problems lead to the question of “what can be done?” – a question that Livesey raises in the afterword to the book.  The conservative government, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, took steps to attempt to create a national regulatory body, but they face steep opposition from the handful of families that have the power and influence over their provincial regulatory bodies.  It has been over two years and still no national regulatory body has been established.  In a recent development, the supreme court of Canada ruled the law developed by the Conservatives to tackle this issue is unconstitutional.  This begs the question, “what can we do?”  Sadly, no solution has been presented.

Nearing the end of the book, Livesey raises a key question that one starts asking almost from the very beginning.  He says, “In fact, the evidence is overwhelming:  you can’t trust the financial industry to look after your money.  So whom can you trust?”  As I read this, I couldn’t help but think, “Finally!”  But much to my dismay, no answer is provided.  This question is followed by a recap of all of the people who cannot be trusted, from your friends and family who can also be swindled to the people doing the swindling.  So we come back again to whom can be trusted with our hard-earned money?

In a similar vein, I also wound up wondering what ordinary investors can do to avoid having something like this happening.  Suppose that we want to do our due diligence and learn about the companies in which we invest; how do we go about finding that information?  How do we find their financial statements and what can we do to verify that they are accurate?  Or what should we do instead of investing?  Maybe the solution is to avoid investing and just stick all our money under our mattresses again, although I would bet that nobody would advocate for that.  The problem with this book is that it offers no answers to any of these questions.  It identifies the problem, but there is no proactive quest for a solution.

I blame this lack of solution on the fact that Livesey is a journalist rather than an economist.  He makes his living by finding and telling the story, by pointing out the problems, not by trying to find their solutions.  However, for those of us faced with the decision on what to do with our hard earned income in the hopes of making it grow enough to retire on, the story is not enough.  We need solutions.  Where is the story that tells us what to do next?

A number of economists from around the world have proposed what is called the Robin Hood Tax, which may be a solution, or part of a solution, to this problem.  If adopted, this would impose a 0.05% tax on financial transactions by institutions, including stocks, bonds, commodities, etc.  It would not impose the same tax on individual investors.  The purpose would be to raise more money from the financial sector that has traditionally managed to avoid their fair share of the tax burden, while possibly slowing down speculation which theoretically could help to stabilize the markets.  The originators of this idea have proposed to use the money raised to help end poverty and hunger around the world (like Robin Hood, taking from the rich to help the poor).  Another option for the use of this money would be to help pay back those small investors who lost their life savings from the mismanagement of fraudulent investors.  While I am merely an amateur who knows very little about this tax and what it could really do, my knowledge of its existence suggests that Livesey could have found out something about it and included it in the book.  And who knows how many other brilliant ideas are out there as solutions that have yet to be exposed because we are all so focused on the problem that we fail to search for the solution.

If we are to move beyond the financial industry as described by Livesey and create for ourselves the safe and stable markets that as Canadians we like to believe we have, we must proactively search for solutions.  We must advocate for some independent regulation of the financial markets and protect the rights and assets of the millions of Canadians who work hard for their money and just want a safe place to let it grow so that they can retire comfortably.  We must do something to change these circumstances or we will be at the mercy of these financial giants indefinitely.