What you are about to read is not sexy

For such a great title, Proofiness gets off to a rough start.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by nonfiction writers known for their pizazz as much as their knowledge—my most recent nonfiction read was by the utterly hilarious Mary Roach—but it’s worth noting that Charles Seife is a decidedly dull writer. I mean, he tries—on one page, he jokes that “Ramsey County’s voter turnout lists seemed to have been lovingly maintained by a pack of wild raccoons”—but it comes across sort of like a high school science teacher trying to pal around with a classroom of uninterested students (not entirely surprising, considering Seife is a professor). Assuming the people reading this book are doing so of their own free will, the jokey pandering is odd. Then again, maybe he’s just a big nerd with a dubious sense of humor.

Unfortunately, Proofiness kind of missed the mark for me, at least in the beginning, and a low-ish opinion of his audience’s intelligence was a general problem I had with Seife, and the book overall. The first few chapters are devoted almost entirely to an overview of what I would consider basic math. On one page, Seife suggests “Most people think that ‘average’ means typical—that if, say, the average salary at a company is $100,000, then each employee earns $100,000, more or less.”

…Really? I mean sure, if you polled the general population, that’s probably the case. Shit, a significant percentage of the general population doesn’t know who the vice president is. But we’re not talking about the general population—we’re talking about the decidedly smaller universe of people choosing to read a nonfiction book about statistics. Give us the benefit of the doubt.

Seife does touch on some hugely relevant topics: poll results, elections, the validity of the Census, faulty science, the court system. In fact, despite my bias after reading three chapters of Stats 101, I was still intrigued and even shocked by some of his better points—did y’all know that part of the reason OJ Simpson was acquitted was the use, in court no less, of a highly inaccurate statistic? (No really, am I the only one who didn’t know this?)Proofiness also has a healthy dose of pessimism, for which I have always had an affinity. In particular, I enjoyed reading about something known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which explains everything from global warming to that dickwad that orders lobster for dinner when you’ve all agreed to split the bill equally. Here, edify yourselves:

“The tragedy of the commons occurs when an individual can take an action that benefits him, yet the negative consequences of that action are diffused—such as when they’re divided among a large group of people or when they take a long time to materialize. In situations like these, people act selfishly, getting as much benefit as they can, but as a consequence, we’re all worse off. …Tragedy of the commons is an immutable fact about society. If the benefits of our actions are divorced, to some extent, from their negative consequences, we’re going to take those actions—even if they lead to a very unfortunate outcome for everybody. The tragedy of the commons is a result of human nature.”

Overall, Seife gets his point across: When people see numbers, they assume truth, and there are zillions of situations where that results in people believing, or being told to believe, things that are false. It’s a conclusion that has serious implications for the way we approach politics, the economy and human nature itself. I just wish he had said it with a bit more flare.


Long story short, this book ruined statistics for me. Which, even though it makes watching the news or reading magazines decidedly less fun, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for such a (relatively) short read, Seife spent far too long explaining the basics and too little time going in-depth on the real-world implications of shoddy number-crunching. He could have used a read-through from someone more prone to sensation (even though part of his thesis is a condemnation of over-sensationalizing things). I think an edit from Michael Moore would have done him well. Personally, I’d prefer Seife in small doses—a weekly column debunking whatever statistic is currently being thrown around by pundits would probably be awesome—but the book is worth a full read only if you don’t feel up to snuff on your middle-school math (which, hey, many of us don’t). If you do, and still want the dirt, skip Chapters 1-3.

TITLE: Proofiness
AUTHOR: Charles Seife
PAGES: 260 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE:Zero, Decoding the Universe
SORTA LIKE: Freakonomics meets A Short History of Nearly Everything
FIRST LINE: ” ‘In my opinion, the State Department, which is one of the most important government departments, is thoroughly infested with communists.’ “

Up in smoke

Well I made it through the weekend without crying on the floor of any bathroom, and finished my addiction memoir to boot. It may or may not have been karma that I read the last 50 pages while nursing a severe hangover on my couch, but a mission accomplished is a mission accomplished.

There’s something I want to say before going into the book itself, which was as heartbreaking and poignant as I expected it to be. Because in order to really, I think, appreciate Beautiful Boy, you have to step back and put the family’s story in context. Not the context of addiction itself, though that too is important, but the context of being young, of being at an age where drugs aren’t hard to come by and more importantly, aren’t unusual to do.

See, in my opinion at least, there is a pervasive sentiment among teenagers and 20-somethings that the majority of drugs are basically okay. This isn’t, as adults like to believe, simply a product of drug use at some point in youth becoming “cool,” nor is preventing drug use simply a matter of eliminating or tampering peer pressure. Many teenagers do drugs for the same reason addicts do—because they want to get high. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, mushrooms, acid—I could tell many of my friends that I had done any of the above without raising eyebrows. And I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions. Heroin, crack and meth (the latter is the focal point of Beautiful Boy) are the triumvirate of what I’d consider untouchables, but that’s three out of many. It stands to reason that cultural acceptance (however age-based) of the many is likely to make the few seem decidedly less unsafe.

It’s problematic, to say the least. I don’t know why, or when, drugs cease to become a real threat (which isn’t to say that people don’t develop addiction later in life). It may be a physical change; it may be a mental one; maybe it simply becomes unfathomable to call up a drug dealer past the age of 35. But what’s important is that between, say, ages 15 and 25, the ten years during which drugs seem most prevalent, they are also the least frowned-upon.

Continue reading “Up in smoke”

Yossarian lives

This week at work, I was looking over a reporter’s story, about the recent death of the inventor of the MetroCard, and stumbled across this: “15 cents of every fare dollar collected goes to collecting that fare.” Huh? I asked him to change the line, for the sake of all that isn’t meta about business reporting, but it stuck with me, as this is how pretty much all of Catch-22 is written.

Keeping that in mind, you can imagine the nerves I’ve had this week over finishing what is only the third book in my endeavor–so I’ll take my pats on the back now for having done it. The truth is, Catch-22 was the perfect type of book for this project—entertaining and compelling but without being a page-turner, the kind of title that in another time (i.e a month ago) would have languished on my shelf after the first 100 pages, just because.

There’s a lot to say about this book, which it seems most people I talked to have either never read or can’t remember because they haven’t picked it up since high school. I’m pleased to report that, for me at least, Catch-22 lived up to the hype that comes with picking a modern classic. I can see why the book has its reputation, which isn’t something I can say for every equally reputable thing I’ve ever read.

So, I would take this time to pause and outline the plot, except…there really isn’t one. Catch-22 primarily follows Yossarian, a World War II bombardier stationed off of Italy, as well as a dozen other reappearing characters. There’s the colonel who keeps increasing the number of missions his squadron needs to complete to be discharged, so as to impress the higher-ups and potentially earn a mention in The Saturday Evening Post. There’s the mess hall operator who starts what’s essentially an international cartel of fine foods and military equipment, whose business acumen goes so far afoul of his patriotic duty that he is at one point paid to bomb his own men. There’s the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, killed during a mission before he even reported for duty (a sitcom-level fluke) and subsequently reported by officers to have never reported for duty at all, lest they take the blame for his demise. And so on — the cast is utterly absurd, and the way the book is written highlights that absurdity perfectly. Sort of like an endless loop of that “Who’s on first, What’s on Second” baseball skit.

Indeed, what you come away with after Catch-22 is the sheer absurdity of war itself, which is I imagine what made it so subversive in 1955. The details with which history concerns itself–the enemy, the battles, the victories–are almost wholly absent from this book. It could be any war, anywhere, fought by anyone. The men involved in the military are more caught up in the politics of success, posing for photo ops and vying for the possibility of promotion, than they are concerned with victory over the Germans. And Yossarian, who is painted by the other characters as a loose cannon with potentially crazy ideas about war and patriotic duty, is in many ways the sanest one. One exchange, between Yossarian and another soldier about Colonel Cathcart’s yet again increasing the number of missions needed for discharge, sums this up perfectly:

“You know very well that I don’t approve of Colonel Cathcart any more than you do.” Clevinger paused for emphasis, his mouth quivering, and then beat his fist down softly against his sleeping bag. “But it’s not for us to determine what targets must be destroyed or who’s to destroy them or—“
“Or who gets killed doing it? And why?”
“Yes, even that. We have no right to question—“
“You’re insane!”
“—no right to question—“
“Do you really mean that it’s not my business how or why I get killed and that it is Colonel Cathcart’s? Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, I do,” Clevinger insisted, seeming unsure. “There are men entrusted with winning the war who are in a much better position than we are to decide what targets have to be bombed.”
“We are talking about two different things,” Yossarian answered with exaggerated weariness. “You are talking about the relationship of the Air Corps to the infantry, and I am talking about the relationship of me to Colonel Cathcart. You are talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive.”
“Exactly,” Clevinger snapped smugly. “And which do you think is more important?”
“To whom?” Yossarian shot back. “Open your eyes Clevinger. It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead.”
Clevinger sat for a moment as though he’d been slapped. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed bitterly, the thinnest milk-white line enclosing his lips tightly in a bloodless, squeezing ring. “I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”
“The enemy,” retorted Yossarian with weighted precision,” is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on, and that includes Colonel Cathcart. And don’t you forget that, because the longer you remember it, the longer you might live.”

Coincidentally, Clevinger dies.

There is only one downside to reading Catch-22, and that would be that the type of war highlighted in this book is somewhat anachronistic in 2010. The central message–that the men behind American military strategy are besieged by the same petty bullshit that the rest of the world is, they just happen to be playing with life and death–still resonates, but the specific circumstances of planes and bombings and a war in which America is playing the part of backup support, is a little removed from the wars we’re fighting today. I’m not sure what Joseph Heller would write if he could re-imagine Catch-22 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some part of me very much wishes he could (he died in 1999). Given the news last week about our use of third-party security companies, I think it would be something about the irony of a war fought out of (essentially) revenge and greed, yet executed by a very impersonal and inefficiently complex network of hired guns. In any case, just a thought.


Catch-22 is timeless, as the topics of war and authority are wont to be. The length is somewhat intimidating, even if you’re not trying to get it knocked out in a week, but I’d say the payoff is there. Having not spent an inordinate amount of time considering the mindset of men at war (which I’m also not entirely sure is the same today as during wars of the 1940s) Catch-22 was incredibly thought provoking for me.

Even though there are literally dozens of quotes I could share, I’ll leave you with one, from a conversation between an old Italian man and Nately, a young American officer; because in between all the scenes of painfully dark comic relief in this story, are the kinds of truly poignant moments that make a book great.

Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!” he declared.
“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”
“Anything worth living for,” said Nately,” is worth dying for.”
“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for.”

TITLE: Catch-22
AUTHOR: Joseph Heller
PAGES: 463 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Closing Time, Picture This
SORTA LIKE: Fahrenheit 451 meets Stripes
FIRST LINE: ”It was love at first sight.”

Oscar wow

I waited way too long to read this book. I know it doesn’t really matter, since books are timeless, etc., but had I known how easily I would have flown through this, I probably would have picked it up back in 2007, in hardcover. So I guess I can just chalk it up to a 30% discount. Go me.

Some things you should know, without really giving anything away.

1. This book is far less literary than I anticipated. And I don’t mean that in the inevitably negative way it’s going to come out. But I think, having not read much about it when it was popular and being persistently unenthused by the back-cover plot summary (seriously, it’s still not compelling and now I’ve read the book) I based a lot of my assumptions about Wao on the fact that it won the Pulitzer, among approximately seven jillion other awards. Because of this, I assumed it would be a dense read, something I’d have to put my back into to get through. In that sense, I was woefully wrong. Wao is incredibly readable and engrossing, without at any point sacrificing sophistication of prose for ease of consumption, or vice versa. That’s a hard thing to pull off.

2. Book’s got mad Spanish. Most of it is written in an English-heavy version of Spanglish, with Spanish slang terms thrown in willy-nilly, and minimal effort is made to qualify or translate them. As a former Spanish major and current resident of Brooklyn, I found myself keeping pace with most of the terminology, though I definitely missed some stuff. I decided not to look anything up and instead absorb the words through context/phonetics. It would have felt wrong to stop reading every five minutes to bust out my now-ancient Spanish-English dictionary. (Also, I didn’t want to look for it. ..Mostly that).

3. You know these people. Whether or not you love Jonathan Franzen, one thing most people seem able to agree on is his ability to create complex and believable characters. Having finished Freedom just a few weeks before embarking on this adventure (and thank God, because I could not have finished that 700-page monster in a week), I have to say I agree, with the caveat that Franzen’s characters, like so many in literature, are complex and seem believable, but don’t always seem real. They don’t seem like people I know. By contrast, Wao is chock full of people I’ve seen on the street, in school, at the bar—Díaz doesn’t need to spend a ton of time explaining motives or describing the thought patterns of his characters; the few bold strokes he paints of each are enough to have you anticipating their emotions and motivations, because you feel you know them. That, as an author, is an incredible feat.

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Almost as important as Oprah’s book club

In addition to guilt-tripping me into completing books, I had hoped that some part of this endeavor would be discovering things about myself and my reading habits; maybe in some way stumbling across what exactly turned me from a “books first, everything else later” kind of girl into “Did you guys see the last episode of Bad Girls Club?” As luck would have it, I’ve made my first discovery already, and it has everything to do with choosing what to read next.

You see, as I stopped worrying so much about finishing one book before moving on to the next, the weight of my reading choices diminished significantly. If, say, 50 pages in I felt even the slightest bit displeased or bored with a book, I could easily add it to the pile on the nightstand (whose shelves are devoted entirely to half-finished novels) and pick up something else. Nothing was set in stone.

Today, staring at my shelves, whose 200+ unread books are themselves a veritable library of options, I found myself hamstrung by an inability to decide what comes next. And it’s because I no longer have the liberty of indecision — whatever I choose I have to finish, and I have to devote a significant amount of time over the next seven days to the task. There will be no tossing aside, or leaving at home in favor of getting 20 pages further in some other half-read novel. I feel like I’m committing to a weeklong cruise with someone I’ve just met, whereas before it was more like, you know, meeting a guy in a bar. You’ve got my attention for now, but I can’t say I won’t be talking to someone else in a half hour. It dawns on me that this indecision/lack of commitment isn’t unprecedented for me, or by any means exclusive to books. Look at television: five years ago, I had to sit down and watch a show when it was on. Maybe I’d try to juggle the three-plus remotes it took to successfully record something, but for the most part whatever I watched was a commitment, something I was determined to participate in as it happened.

Continue reading “Almost as important as Oprah’s book club”