Ardent Audible listener with a long commute!
Last night, I realized Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks” had ruined my uneducated, uncomplicated boring and cheap occasional drink. I wanted a drink to go with my take-out Japanese food last night. I went to a liquor store, found the right aisle and selected a reasonably priced Junmai Ginjo-shu. I knew what I was getting (fairly high grade rice wine) and why I wanted sake labeled Junmai (made with rice only, no added alcohol from other sources). A couple of weeks ago, I wouldn’t have known what to look for.
- In the future, I’ll ask the pedigree of tequila and avoid mixto.
- I no longer think Amaretto di Serrano is made from almonds. It might taste of almonds, but it’s made of apricot pits.
- If I run into anything bottled by Dogfish Head Brewery, I’ll try it. It might be brewed or distilled from a recipe that’s thousands of years old.
- I’ve never liked a whisky or bourbon I’ve tried, and now I know why – and what I should look for in the future.
I do wish Audible had a true table of contents. “The Drunken Botanist” has three sections: Part I is devoted to fermentation and distillation, from Agave to wheat. Part II discusses specific fruits, nuts and trees. Part III talks about gardening, and has some great recommendations for selecting plants, and helpful gardening tips.
Throughout the book, there are fun drink recipes, introduced by the “tap, tap” of a utensil on a glass.
NPR’s Rene Montagne had a fun interview with Stewart on Morning Edition, and the New York Time’s Steven Kurutz and the Los Angeles Time’s Debra Prinzing liked the book, too. I’ll join them in raising a Champaign mojito in a toast to Stewart and her new book!
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As I listened to Temple Grandin and Richard Panek’s 2013 “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum” I realized Grandin’s book is much more than “just” a book on autism. I desperately hope this book it isn’t overlooked or undervalued because of its title.
In Grandin’s parlance, I am “neuro-typical” (not autistic), and so is my entire family. I do know people with autism and I have friends with autistic children, but I don’t have a particular passionate interest in the disorder. The Amazon reviews I’ve read make it clear that “The Autistic Brain” is an extremely important book for the autistic community who have the passionate interest I lack. I believe “The Autistic Brain” is equally important for “neuro-typicals” - especially parents.
The seachange in “The Autistic Brain” is Grandin’s hypothesis that people think in at least three different ways: in pictures, or visually, as she does; verbally, or in words, like the majority of people do; or in a new category, patterns. I know I am primarily a verbal thinker, but by concentrating, I can and do think in pictures or in patterns, for short periods of time. When I am able to do that, I often solve problems I can’t solve otherwise. Grandin proposes the idea that an autistic person’s education, skill development, likely abilities and strengths should be tailored to their type of thinking. I agree completely, and it should be taken a step further: it should apply to “neuro-typicals” too.
For parents, she talks about some important child raising tactics: for example, if you’ve got a kid who really knows math well and the kid’s in “baby math”, the kid may get bored and act out. A lot. Give the kid real math to do, and you may have a model student. And math doesn’t have to go in the order it’s usually taught: basic math; algebra; geometry; calculus . . . and if a kid doesn’t ‘get’ algebra, try geometry, or statistics, or something else. These, and her other education recommendations, apply equally as well to “neuro-typicals.”
The book starts with a discussion of the genetic, biological and environmental causes of autism – as well as other usually less disruptive neurological conditions, such as migraine and depression. Grandin’s explanation of how and why the brain works, and some of the things that can go wrong, is the most understandable I have ever heard. By analogy, Grandin describes an engine (the brain) misfiring by describing how the engine is supposed to run, but pointing out that the engine is missing a sparkplug, has a clogged hose, or doesn’t have enough gas – or perhaps, all three.
For those of us who have long been puzzled by the actions of autistics acting out, Grandin discusses the often extreme sensory problems autistics can have. I realized I actually knew what that was like. Twenty years ago, I had a case of the flu so severe that I lost the ability to screen out noises in other apartments in my building, and I could only wear the softest cotton clothing – and that hurt. When the landlord started refinishing the hardwood floor in the next apartment over, the noise was so excruciating all I could do was put my hands over my ears and cry. I was only that sick for a day. Some autistic children were born that way. I will never again wonder, in annoyance, why a parent ‘can’t control’ their autistic child’s sensory tantrum again.
Grandin’s book also discusses, among so many other things: problems with even peer reviewed and published scientific studies caused by inaccurate assumptions, improper data collection, and bad analysis; the problem with diagnosing hypersensitivity or under sensitivity based on outward behavior; incorrectly applying diagnostic labels to individuals, and how that can hurt their development; how a typographic error erroneously caused a misdiagnosis of autism; why the ‘epidemic’ of autism may not really be an epidemic at all; the tablet/iPad revolution, and why it works so well for autistics; identifying sensory disorders; the number of undiagnosed autistics in Silicon Valley (she estimates 50%); what drugs may help autistics, and why; the upcoming and new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM-V) . . . and so much more.
The narration was clear and crisp, and Andrea Gallo did a good job with the scientific terms and distinguishing the authors’ voices from discussion; and with quotes.
When I joined the Army at 17, I only finished my first two mile run because two burly male trainees in my company literally dragged me the last half mile. 18 months later, I was a member of the women's cross country team at an army school that competed in the Garden State Athletic Conference. My endurance was phenomenal, and thanks to a very small team, I earned points for our team at meets. I was so far at the back of the pack, the only advice the coach ever gave me was to wear a better bra. I would have followed his advice, but athletic bras weren't even made at the time.
David Epstein's "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance" (2013) gave me an explanation both for why the training was so effective for me (I am a quick responder); why I had and still have endurance; and why - although I cut my two mile time by 32% - the only time I would ever see my astounding teammate (who is still a top ranked Ultra Runner) during a race was at the starting line, where she quickly disappeared from sight.
Epstein's discussion of the geographic origins and genetic factors that make the right body for a sport is not only understandable, it's fascinating. Epstein adroitly addresses the subject of race and sports performance, a topic most scientists and sociologists avoid because they are afraid of being accused of racial prejudice. He discusses the origins of man,and how migrations of Africa affected the genes and gene mutations that occurred in those populations. Epstein raises, in some detail, the genetic differences between athletes of recent African origin, especially Jamaicans (sprinters) the Kalenjins of Kenya (distance and marathon runners). The discussion of the difference between the congenital traits that give male and female athletes advantages and disadvantages in athletic competition.
Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour theory (Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008) argues that practice is the key to athletic success. Epstein points out the statistical flaw in the argument that extraordinary performers need 10,000 hours of practice to be great: the studies Gladwell relied on studies were based on individuals who were already successful, in varying degrees, in athletics - not us average Janes. I could practice basketball 10,000 hours, and I'd be much a much better player - but I would still be 5'5". I probably would have fun in a rec league and there would be lots of health benefits, but no amount of practice would ever make me a world class point guard.
"The Sports Gene" raises many, many questions. There is the effect of geographic location of birth and training, such as altitude. Culture can make a difference: children who run miles to school every day have an advantage over children who are driven. Endemic disease, like malaria, means there are more people with sickle cell trait, which protects against malaria - and makes someone with more fast twitch muscle. Strong sports programs in schools and early identification of talent make a huge difference. Epstein uses the example of an athlete in Sudan, who, no matter how good she is, has almost no chance of competing internationally because of the country's war.
Importantly, genetic differences mean what training and practice works for some athletes may make other athletes worse - or, in some cases, kill them. "The Sports Gene" discusses sudden deaths in sports, which, alarming news stories aside, largely isn't unexplained. There have been 10 sudden deaths of Division I college football players since 1974 caused by sickle cell trait. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is another leading cause of sudden athlete death. There are tests for both. Modified training can prevent the former, and an implanted defibrillator can prevent the latter.
The questions Epstein raises can't be answered yet: DNA sequencing names the gene sequences, but It doesn't tell us what the genes do, or what happens if the genes are in the wrong order. Scientists are finding that out, but we are just starting the exploration of an enormously complex gene world.
Epstein's answer isn't that genes are everything; or practice is everything. It's a combination, sometimes one much more than the other, plus opportunity.
As much as I love this book (if only to imagine a whole generation of students suddenly interested in genetics and statistics because this book makes the sciences real, and not an obscure discussion about breeding sweet peas) the narrator annoyed me to no end. No accent is better than really bad accents.
Finally, I desperately wish Audible had a true table of contents. I couldn't find one on line, so here it is from a relisten to the start of each chapter: Introduction (Audible 1-1) Ch 1 - Beat by an Underhand Girl: The Gene-free Model of Expertise (1-2); Ch 2 - A Tale of Two High Jumpers, or 10,000 Hours , Plus or Minus 10,000 Hours (1-3); Ch 3 - Major League Vision and the Greatest Child Athlete Sample Ever. The Hardware and Software Paradigm (1-4); Ch 4 - Why Men Have Nipples (1-5); Ch 5 -The Talent of Trainability (1-6); Ch 6 - Super Baby, Bully Whyippets, and the Trainability of Muscle (1-7); Ch 7 - The Big Bang of Body Types (1-8); Ch 8 - The Vitruvian NBA Player; Ch 9 - We're All Black. Sort of. Race and Genetic Diversity (2-2); Ch 10 - The Warrior-Slave Theory of Jamaican Sprinting (2-3); Ch 11 - Malaria and Muscle Fiber (2-4); Ch 12 - Can Every Kalenjin Run? (2-5); Ch 13 - The World's GreatestAccidental Altitudinous Talent Sieve (2-6); Ch 14 - Sled Dogs, Ultra Runners, and the Couch Potato Genes (2-7); Ch 15 - The Heartbreak Gene: Death, Injury and Pain on the Field (2-8); Ch 16 - The Gold Medal Mutation (2-9); Epilogue: The Perfect Athlete (2-10).
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This book was written in 1994, and its underlying philosophy holds true today, even if a few other theories on evolutionary psychology have eclipsed what Wright has written here. (Just as what Charles Darwin has written is still powerful despite the work that has been done after his death, interestingly.) For those of us who are atheists, a book like the Moral Animal becomes extremely important because it shows that morality does not need to come from a deity, and instead likely comes out of our own interest in passing our genes to the next generation. Although I personally feel that at least some morality need not come out of clinical self-interest. Nor does it always need to be explained. The Moral Animal along with Wright's latest book, The Evolution of God, have, inadvertently or tangentially, done more for the cause of atheists than any works before, during or since.