20 July 2013

India: Delhi

Ask us now how it whirls, the wilful wheel of sky,
This despot is used to oppress and terrorize,
Pullign down the mighty is his chief delight,
What an acrimonious streak in his nature hides!
The crow feeds itself on meat, the phoenix on bones survives,
To rank the crow above the phoenix, is it justified?

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

[Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, ruling over a tiny area of India at the pleasure of the British East India Company.  After he helped lead an abortive rebellion, the British exiled him, and ended the pretense of Mughal rule.]




Stepping out of the airport with Lizzie, I felt like nothing so much as a giant gullible target.  Huge and white and clutching enormous backpacks, we might as well have been wearing a sign saying "Steal from me, swindle me, beg from me!"  We'd read the guidebook, so we were wary of people offering to sell us discount diamonds, asking us to come to a private tea-room to chat, or any of the other ways in which goofy foreigners are swindled every day in India.  Reminding myself to be paranoid, I stolidly squared my shoulders and we trudged to the pre-paid taxi stand.

As it turns out, this ride, taken less than five minutes after landing in Delhi, was a whirlwind preview of some of the most important features of India.  I wouldn't realize this until later, of course.
  • If it's fixed-price, there's no incentive to be nice.  The booth operator, hunched in his dingy brick hut, took a handful of rupees and sullenly slid back a slip of pink paper.  Where were we supposed to go?  What was this paper, covered in unintelligible code, for?  Was this all of my change?  But like almost all waiters and other folks in positions where there's no haggling, he just wanted me to take it and leave.  With exceptions, this is the general rule in India: there are just so many people everywhere, always wanting something from the little men in the little booths, that they just can't afford to care.
  • If they might get more money out of you, it's always a big smile.  The taxi driver, on the other hand, was grinning and glad-handing, gesturing us over to his cab and laughingly fending off other drivers who tried to poach us.  He helped us with our backpacks and into the back of his yellow cab, and he'd tell us anything and introduce himself and whatever else we might want, because we were frightened and foreign and might be dumb enough to give him an extravagant tip.
  • Appearance is not important: if it runs, it's put to work.  The cab itself was missing a rear door, and several gaps in the side suggested that it might be missing some other parts as well.  Certainly, it had only a passing familiarity with the idea of "cushion" or "upholstery" or "seat belts."  It clattered and putted uncertainly away from the airport, and taught us one of the fundamental working principles: if you can cobble it into service, then you put it to work.  Niceties were not necessary.
  • Traffic rules are really only the lightest of guidelines.  They say this about many places, often with a laugh.  But India leaves all of them in the dust, even including other developing places like Cambodia.  The taxi driver took up two lanes or even three (defying both physics and dotted yellow lines), swerved wildly at unexpected times, and accelerated and braked only according to the physical possibility of moving forward, not according to any such silly things as traffic lights.
  • The poor are poor.  The poor are a constant presence in India, even along such a well-traveled highway as the one from the airport to Dwarka suburb.  In any empty spots along the road, there are tents constructed from garbage and plastic sheeting in long rows, where tiny communities ply obscure and dangerous trades (rag-picking, begging, or worse).  The very poorest lack even a tent, and sleep on odd bits of sidewalk or pavement all over the city, rolling out a sheet of canvas and covering themselves with a single blanket against the night's mosquitoes.  Starvation is a real thing, and is sometimes held off only by temple charity.
  • The smells.  All the smells.  Both heavenly and hellish smells are everywhere in India, and it is no exaggeration to say that a few minutes' walk has exposed me to both the best thing I've ever smelled and the most grotesque odor I can imagine.  Lagoons of untreated waste, industrial effluents, and rotting carcasses are on the same street as luxurious restaurants redolent of delicious spices.
  • You can handle this.  Stepping out of the taxi, chatting with the driver, and realizing we'd completed our First India Task made Lizzie and I spontaneously grin at each other.  "Okay," she said. "We did it."  And it's true, we had.  And that has always been the way, wherever we've gone and whatever we've done, and it would prove to be the way in India, too: if we kept our heads about us, we could always deal with whatever weird and exotic and foreign situation we found.  India would be no different, despite the enormous challenges that awaited us.


Where you see the pug-prints of the desert deer,
Wise, discerning folk had once stood surprised.
The world goes on changing, Zafar, with changing times,
What sights it then displayed, what it now provides!

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

A large part of our success in India, though, might have had to do with our very soft landing in the country.  I had the great good fortune to be friends online with a Delhi resident named Debashis, who offered to let us stay at his flat during our time there.  The unbelievable graciousness of this offer to someone who he'd never met in real life was exceeded only by the kindness of both Debashis and his parents, Bikram and Ratna, who lived with him.  We stepped out of that taxi and right into their arms.

I hadn't planned on imposing too much, much less joining their family.  But Bikram and Ratna welcomed us like their own children, and it was not too long before I felt like Debashis was my brother.  They not only gave us a room in which to sleep, but Debashis took time away from his lawyering to escort us around to the Delhi sights, while Ratna spent hours preparing us elaborate home-cooked meals and Bikram would sit and speak with us about the fascinating politics and economy of the country.

It would be impossible to overstate just how important Debashis and his parents were to getting us on our feet in India.  We owe them a huge debt.  They kept us from feeling like another pair of confused tourists, and made us feel that we were part of Indian life, to at least some small extent.

A big part of Indian life, as in any country, is the food.  Debashis' family is from Bengal, so that was Ratna's specialty, but they also made an effort to make sure we got to try delicacies from all over.  So we would not only be given piles of rotis or puris, those delicious discs of special bread, to scoop up the spice of curry and the roasted piles of vegetables, but they also served biryani (spiced vegetable rice) and took us to try South Indian cuisine.  It was magnificent, and in huge quantities.

Indian table manners vary regionally, but most everyone eats with their fingers - or rather, with the fingers of their right hand.  It took a considerable amount of time to get used to the process of eating rice and curry with my fingers, but by the end of our trip I had become quite good.  You mix up your food as you'd like, then use your fingers as a scoop, pushing the food into your mouth with a deft motion of your thumb.  Done properly, your hand - and shirtfront - stay mostly clean.

Bread (naan, roti, etc.) could be a bit more challenging, because it can be tough to rip off a piece of naan with one hand.  It only takes practice, though: pin the bread down on your plate with your forefinger and middle finger, then use your thumb and other fingers to rip off a piece.

Debashis admitted that sometimes you just cheat and use your left hand.  That wouldn't even matter, except there's a good reason for the taboo against using your left hand: that's the hand you are traditionally supposed to use for bathroom purposes.  Like in some other areas of the world, Indians do not typically use toilet paper, but rather use water - bathrooms come equipped with buckets or special sprayers for your convenience.

As you can see, there was a lot to learn, even in the most mundane areas.

As this course of instruction with Debashis progressed, we went zipping around Delhi, visiting the sights.  And there are so very many, because Delhi is not just a single city: ruined monuments, bustling new temples, exalted churches to emerging religions, widespread parks, crumbling forts, and imposing government buildings.  Like its country, the city is a palimpsest, layered and combined.



Many a king of noble note has the world witnessed,
How many pelf and power once did they possess,
All of them were in the end humbled down by death,
Where is Darius, where Alexander, whither Jamshed of regal crest?
None has lived, nor will live for ever on this earth,
Only the actions of the just smell sweet in the dust.

Bahadur Shah Safar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda


Rudyard Kipling, born in Mumbai, wrote "White Man's Burden" in 1899.  It is both a command and a warning to his own British nation, at a time that would turn out to be near the apex of their rule over the vast lands of India.  He wrote:
Take up the White Man's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
The whole of the British Raj, the two-hundred-year British domination of India and Pakistan, might be found in those lines.  And it was with such a spirit - that grudging pride and noblesse oblige - that in 1911, King George V laid the foundation stones for a new city and capital on an ancient site: Delhi.

Before he laid down these first stones of a New Delhi - simple blocks of white sandstone - the King of Great Britain and Emperor of the Indies grandly remarked, "The relics of the dynasties of bygone ages that meet the eye on every side, the splendid palaces and temples which have resisted the destroying hand of time, all these witness to a great and illustrious past."

There have been an uncertain number of cities in the place now known as Delhi, each of which saw their time and have been eaten by the all-consuming dust.  According to legend, the first of these was perhaps the capital of the kingdom of the Pandavas featured in the holy Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic.

Even today, Delhi comprises not a single city, but a composite of cities built and building upon each other simultaneously.  The long lines of the slumtowns expand every year, filling the gaps between the indifferently-preserved ancient districts, the shining new technical campuses, and the dusty suburban middle-lands.  In few places in India do so many of the modern traumas of the country live in fractious proximity: the Raj, the skyrocketing disparity between rich and poor, the fracturing of the Partition, and the conflict between ancient tradition and a new world.  Delhi is a city of cities.

Some of these cities are in fragments, only slender reminders of once-great empires. With Debashis, Lizzie and I went to the Qutub complex, which is the location of the Iron Pillar - an unassuming, slightly reddish iron pillar that is perhaps two stories high.  To look at it and the rough inscriptions on its side, one would never know that it is perhaps 2,500 years old.  It is wrought iron, and it is almost completely pure.  Its construction was a marvelous feat of metallurgy created at the height of the Gupta Empire around the fourth century B.C.E., when the Gupta lands sprawled over all of the north of India and before they began to collapse under Hun invasions.  It remains the symbol of Delhi even today.

The most visible symbol of another dynasty, the Maurya, is also in column form.  At a the ruins of a late ruler's mosque, we saw the proud remains of one of the Ashokan pillars.  The powerful Emperor Ashoka, who united almost all of India and institutionalized Buddhism, scattered these pillars across the land to bear witness to his edicts.  To see the pillar, a jutting piece of stone broken at its top, was deeply moving: since I was in high school, I had yearned to see one of these pillars, established by the man who made Buddhism a world religion.  It made me feel truly close to history, and ranked among only a small handful of sights I have been privileged to witness - the Ara Pacis in Rome or the Great Wall in China, perhaps.  To be close to the pillar was to be close to history itself, from a time when the shape of the world changed by the will of one great man.

Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, may have been a great man, but he was not a sovereign, like Ashoka.  He stood arm-in-arm with the other leaders of the Indian independence movement.  I won't tell you the story - you know the story, or should.  You may also know the less savory aspects of Gandhi's life, such as his endless contemplation of sexual temptation, vestiges of racism, or the way in which he is regarded in his home country (many Indians regard his veneration as unjust, and harshly criticize him).

But as so often with great stories, the story itself and the moral behind it ends up becoming more important than the unforgiving light of truth.  Gandhi was imperfect, but he also stands for an ideal of nonviolence that he brought into practical political action.  And while critics of Gandhi's influence may point to the conscience of Britain, the pressures of war, or the guiding hand of Nehru instead, it ultimately cannot be denied that he forged compassion into a thing of power, and helped lead a people into freedom and fought for the unity of India.

It was a privilege to be able to visit the site of his cremation, the house where he spent his last days, and the spot where he was assassinated in 1948.  The museum itself is an odd building - the first floor is tasteful enough and informative, but the second floor is stuffed with inane art projects and interactive exhibits.  And the attendants!

Let's be clear: the fun part of an interactive exhibit is interacting with it.  If there's a giant life-size replica of a locomotive that flashes its lights and pretends to take you on a journey across India to the salt beaches, the fun part about it is pushing the big lever.  It is not fun to watch the flashing lights.  Yet the attendants at the museum didn't understand this.  They would see us walk in and run to beat us to the controls at each exhibit, apparently because we couldn't be trusted to figure out button technology.

I'm not a saint-philosopher, nor a tavern-mate,
I'm God's humble creature, a sinner reprobate.
Love is my religion, love, my creed and trait,
Call me what you like, O idols, - an atheist or a man of faith.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda


After nearly a week of the sights of Delhi, we had to take our leave.  We had train tickets for Jaipur, the Pink City, but it was going to be hard to imagine an India without Debashis and his family.  Who would tell us how to eat and shovel more puris onto our plates?  Who would tell us about the politics of the north and the difficulties of an India that was emerging onto the international scene as a serious force?  Who would make wry comments as we shuffled onto the grounds of the monument?

We left, but we were sad to go.  Not to say goodbye to the city - and we would, as it happens, return to Delhi - but sad to kiss Bikram and Ratna goodbye, and give Debashis a final hug at the train station.  At the beginning of our Indian journey, they made us feel like we still had never left home.



It is the ebb and flow of breath that accounts for the flow of life,
This coming and going is with the breath: stop it, and the world is dark.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, trans. Kishan Chand Kanda

14 July 2013

"A Cook's Tour," "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," "Thinking, Fast and Slow," "Proof of Heaven," and "River God,"

A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander
River God, Wilbur Smith


A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity and a big success, with a series of books, cookbooks, TV shows, and even a novel.  Ever since his enjoyable and irreverent Kitchen Confidential, his star has risen concurrent with his reputation as the "bad boy" of the kitchen.  And the results have become just as cliched as that sounds.

Bourdain's work is often enjoyable because it's purposefully brash and slightly self-deprecating.  On No Reservations, his travel show, he complains about himself and marvels at the exotic sights around him in a smoker's mellow tones.  Bourdain makes the viewer, or the reader, feel like an insider to the experiences of a lovable rascal.  Usually, it succeeds and it's a lot of fun.  In A Cook's Tour, though, it feels forced and self-conscious.  It's impossible to avoid the feeling that Bourdain can see his own puppet-strings, as he sprays adorably outrageous sentiments about the nice things in the world, and sprays adorable outrage at the not-so-nice.
One look at the abject squalor of the capital city’s crumbling and unpaved streets and any thought that Cambodia might be fun flew out the window. If you’re a previously unemployable ex-convenience store clerk from Leeds or Tulsa, however, a guy with no conscience and no chance of ever knowing the love of an unintoxicated woman, then Cambodia can be a paradise. You can get a job as an English teacher for about seven dollars an hour (which makes you one of the richest people in the country). Weed, smack, whores, guns, and prescription drugs are cheap and easy to find. You can behave as badly as you wish. Shy boys on motorbikes will ferry you from bar to bar, waiting outside while you drink yourself into a stupor. You can eat dinner, then penetrate indentured underaged prostitutes, buy a kilo of not very good weed, drink yourself stuttering drunk, and be driven safely home to your spacious apartment – all for under thirty dollars. Cambodia is a dream come true for international losers – a beautiful but badly beaten woman, staked out on an anthill for every predator in the world to do with what he wishes.
Much of the book registers these same tones: a sneer that's slightly too self-conscious and bilious to be enjoyable.  The boyish delight of discovery, which can help mitigate this snarl, is in short supply.  That's a shame, because the glee in sensory pleasures and childhood remembrances is one of the best things the author offers in the book - there's just not enough of it, especially when compared with its predecessor.  Kitchen Confidential was huge and roaring and fun, a bonfire that makes A Cook's Tour seem a flicker of light in comparison

Sophomore works often suffer this fate.  They say the same problem occurs with some bands that strike it big - their first album is about their lives, but their second album can only be about their reactions to their newfound success.  That's just not that interesting.

The book also features some of the famous Bourdain contempt for vegetarians, which is offered with almost no reflection.  It's the written version of an unpleasant smirk.  I include it here out of personal distaste and derision.
Today, while lesser mortals cower around their veggie plates in hemp sandals, cringing at the thought of contamination by animal product, St. John’s [restaurant] devotees – and there are a lot of them – flock to his plain, undecorated dining room to revel in roasted marrow, rolled spleen, grilled ox heart, braised belly, and fried pig’s tails.
It was a very ballsy position to take back in the early nineties – and it’s an even ballsier proposition today, when the Evil Axis Powers of Health Nazis, Vegetarian Taliban, European Union bureaucrats, antismoking crystal worshipers, PETA fundamentalists, fast-food theme-restaurant moguls, and their sympathizers are consolidating their fearful hold on popular dining habits and practices.
There are better cook's memoirs, including Bourdain's first book and others like Blood, Bones, and Butter (by Gabrielle Hamilton).  Enjoy them instead.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

I've lost count of how many "one year experiment" books we've seen these days.  One year to cook like Julia Child, one year living the Bible, and now - from Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, Lacuna, and Flight Behavior - one year of eating locally.

Let me emphasize from the outset that I sympathize with her position, because I think locavorism is environmentally responsible and re-connects you with the land in a necessary way.  But this book is just terrible, and I don't see how it could convince anyone of anything but the neurotic priggishness of the Kingsolver clan.

The plan:
The story is pegged, as we were, to a one-year cycle of how and when foods become available in a temperate climate. Because food cultures affect everyone living under the same roof, we undertook this project—both the eating and the writing—as a family. Steven’s sidebars are, in his words, “fifty-cent buckets of a dollar’s worth of goods” on various topics I’ve mentioned in the narrative. Camille’s essays offer a nineteen-year-old’s perspective on the local-food project, plus nutritional information, recipes, and meal plans for every season. Lily’s contributions were many, including more than fifty dozen eggs and a willingness to swear off Pop-Tarts for the duration, but she was too young to sign a book contract.
These are good intentions, but they pave the way to an unbearable text.

I understand that the "year-as-a-___" books lean heavily on their gimmick, and so a reader might be interested in exactly how close the author stuck to their guns.  Did Rachael Held Evans, we wonder, really spend an entire year living as a Biblically submissive wife - or did she slip up and disagree with her husband?  When A.J. Jacobs spent a year reading the encyclopedia, did he make it through the whole thing within the year or did he start skimming?

But these sorts of discussions are only interesting to the extent that a lapse is meaningful in a larger way, because it indicates the implausibility of that lifestyle.  For example, it might not actually be possible for a modern woman to shun society during her menses as required by the Old Testament - if Evans' accidentally touched a man's hand during that time and "contaminated" him, that lapse speaks to the feasibility of a completely Biblical life.  It makes sense to include it.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, on the other hand, reads all too often like the diary of a failing dieter.  It dolefully trundles through problems at length, but manages - despite being far too overwritten - to skirt around many deeper meanings.

Here is a sample of one of the many moments of quaint discovery in the book, overcoming an issue (in this case, "What to do with rhubarb?").
Rhubarb isn’t technically fruit, it’s an overgrown leaf petiole, but it’s a fine April stand-in. Later at home when we looked in Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Fruit for some good recipes, we found Alice agreed with us on this point. “Rhubarb,” she writes, “is the vegetable bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer.” That poetic injunction sent us diving into the chest freezer, retrieving the last package of our frozen Yellow Transparent apple slices from last summer. For dinner guests we threw together an apple-rhubarb cobbler to ring out the old year and ring in the new. Rhubarb, the April fruit. I’m a monkey’s uncle.
It doesn't just read like it's from Sky Magazine or some other in-flight publication, it's also the sort of revelation-without-an-actual-revelation that's peppered in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle's pages.

There might have been a chance to wring out a salvageable work from this text, even if it lacked insight, if it was well-written.  A pleasant and funny account of a family's trials as they attempt to drastically change their life would be worth reading.  Alternately, the drama of an upscale family attempting an overambitious ethical dream could also be interesting.  Kingsolver does neither, instead writing a book so involved in itself that it forgets the reader.

Here's an example:
For three hundred miles we drove that day through desperately parched Sonoran badlands, chewing our salty cashews with a peculiar guilt. We had all shared this wish, in some way or another: that it wouldn’t rain on our day off. Thunderheads dissolved ahead of us, as if honoring our compatriot’s desire to wash her car as the final benediction pronounced on a dying land. In our desert, we would not see rain again.
Notice that, even in the span of a paragraph, the book gets far too wrapped up in its own momentary theme.  These ten-cent words, double-gilded and ornamented with crepe, are less like the elements of a sentence and more like the sort of tiny carved chair your grandmother wouldn't let you sit in.

And the smugness!  Despite Kingsolver's best efforts to hold it back, it's lapping at the top of the dam.
In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.
The two co-writers don't much help.  Kingsolver's husband is a lesser villain; his columns are moderately interesting and filled with facts, though it was certainly a good choice to limit them to their brief blurbs.  The daughter's contributions are... well, exactly what you'd expect from a 19-year-old.
“Just try one, Camille, you might like it this year,” Mom would say, enthusiastically serving me a single green shoot. Yeah, right! I would think. Ever so gingerly, I would spear the menacing vegetable with my fork and bring the tip of it to my tongue. That’s as far as I would get before dramatically wincing and flicking the asparagus down in disgust.
Camille Kingsolver's writing isn't that poor, considering her age and role, but neither does it add much - especially since, as she later reveals, she spent much of the year eating in her college dining hall instead.

Last of all - and sorry for this repetition - of particular interest to me was the discussion of vegetarianism.  I think this is something any serious environmentalist should contemplate, and I was glad to see Kingsolver, the ardent locavore, tackling the issue.  Alas.
I find myself fundamentally allied with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Uncountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie-burgers—are lives plumb wasted. Animal harvest is at least not gratuitous, as part of a plan involving labor and recompense. We raise these creatures for a reason. Such premeditation may be presumed unkind, but without it our gentle domestic beasts in their picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes would never have had the distinction of existing. To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Next, erase civilization, brought to you by the people who learned to domesticate animals. Finally, rewrite our evolutionary history, since Homo sapiens became the species we are by means of regular binges of carnivory.
The nut of her argument seems to be that agriculture also involves animal death, so it's hypocritical to avoid meat.  That's a common argument, and even one I can respect, even though it turns the perfect into the enemy of the good (can we really make no progress, if perfect nonviolence is not attainable?)
But the rest of the nonsense is almost insulting in its sophistry!

Yes, there is an undeniable charm in "gentle domestic beasts," but the idea that we should continue to raise, slaughter, and eat them because of that charm is inane.  It's like suggesting that it would be a shame to have prevented WWI, because then we might never have turned out all those biplanes with their "picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes."  There have often been marvelous consequences to villainous practices, but we must still stop the villainy!

Almost beneath mention is the succeeding argument that an end to eating meat would mean an end to the culture and history built on that practice.  The Arabian Nights and Uncle Tom's Cabin involve slavery as pivotal elements to their plots - did the ending of slavery mean that we were rejecting these works of art?  How can Kingsolver suggest, with a straight face, that widespread vegetarianism would imply a rejection of Charlotte's Web, that famously pro-slaughter text?

The reasoning in this paragraph, particularly aggravating as it might be, represents the muddled thinking and lack of insight in the whole.  Insult is added to injury by way of the writing, which is in love with itself.  Skip this book, and read Jonathan Safran Froer's Eating Animals instead.  It's a more serious and more tolerably-written experiment in changing one's food lifestyle.


Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

When I become really enthusiastic about a book, I become annoying about it.  For a period of about a month, I will suddenly veer off in conversations, starting a rapid and cheerful new thought by saying, for example, "That reminds me of part of Thinking, Fast and Slow when Kahneman..."

Every so often, you simply find a book that explains some of the secret workings of the world.  And you want to share that with everyone, even if they don't want to hear about it anymore.

The center of Kahneman's book is his theory, developed in conjunction with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky, that human thought takes place in two different modes - the titular fast mode, which he calls System 1, and the slower System 2.  System 1 operates on broad rules of thumb or heuristics, jumping to conclusions according to principles that are likely to arrive at the right answer most of the time, while System 2 is the more laborious process of contemplative thought.  Kahneman goes through a long list of cognitive phenomena, discovered both by himself and by other researchers, and assembles them into order under this two-system schema.

As an example: one well-known phenomenon mentioned in the text is the "availability heuristic."  This is the principle we often unconsciously use to determine the frequency of an event.  It boils down to the easy availability of examples when we think about that event.  If many examples come to mind, then we assume that the event happens frequently.

Suppose, then, that someone asks you if Neighborhood X is a dangerous place at night.  If you can easily think of examples of muggings happening there, then you are likely to think that muggings are frequent, and thus that Neighborhood X is indeed dangerous at night.

It's a good rule and well-documented in the literature, and Kahneman explains that it makes sense for System 1 to use it to sort through most information.  It is, in fact, pretty likely that Neighborhood X is a bad place to be.

Unfortunately, it's imperfect.  This can be seen when you think about other examples, such trying to judge how dangerous a fall from a height might be.  The news often runs stories about people falling from significant heights - two, three, or more stories - and surviving without much harm, so you will be inclined to think that it might not be that dangerous to fall from the second story of a building.  But the fact is that it's simply much more newsworthy when people are not injured in a serious fall, and so that's what you hear about, and that's what comes easily to mind.  Your judgment will be skewed away from caution, in defiance of reality.  In Kahneman's formulation, the hasty System 1 has failed.

In hindsight, this might seem like common sense.  It makes sense that we don't bother to think too deeply over most aspects of our lives - proverbially we can't "worry about every little thing."  There simply isn't the time or energy, no matter how clever or thoughtful we might be.  In fact, even if we could, it would probably be too exhausting to give any useful results.  You wouldn't be able to get anything done if you spent all day second-guessing your intuition.

But the key to successfully using all the best aspects of your two-system human brain, Kahneman suggests, is to simply recognize some important danger signs.  When they occur, you should pause to examine your intuitive System 1 conclusion with System 2's thoughtfulness.

To draw on another example, we might turn to the phenomenon of anchoring, which psychologists have been scrutinizing for years.  Anchoring occurs when you ask someone to put a number on something - the price of a car or the monetary value of the loss of a limb.  If you suggest your own amount beforehand, they are likely to incline towards it, no matter their own judgment.  Thus many lawsuits ask for huge sums, knowing that while the verdict may not match their request, the simple act of requesting will skew the result significantly up.

Kahneman discusses one practical result:
Finally, try your hand at working out the effect of anchoring on a problem of public policy: the size of damages in personal injury cases. These awards are sometimes very large. Businesses that are frequent targets of such lawsuits, such as hospitals and chemical companies, have lobbied to set a cap on the awards. Before you read this chapter you might have thought that capping awards is certainly good for potential defendants, but now you should not be so sure. Consider the effect of capping awards at $1 million. This rule would eliminate all larger awards, but the anchor would also pull up the size of many awards that would otherwise be much smaller. It would almost certainly benefit serious offenders and large firms much more than small ones.
In his clear, personable prose, Kahneman examines phenomenon after phenomenon and explores their practical effects in our daily life.  Pleasantly, he avoids many of the flighty generalizations and irresponsible suggestions of pop-psychology books.  He seldom indulges himself in the shock value of the unproven, sticking to relating well-supported problems of psychology rather than the all-to-common "some research has suggested" nonsense of many popular texts (I'm looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell).

This is an indispensable book.  Read it.


Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander

It almost seems like kicking Alexander while he's down to do this review, but I am playing catch-up, and it's not my fault that last week a lengthy article was published in Esquire exposing him as a fraud.

So, the short of it: Alexander claims he was a competent neurosurgeon who ran into trouble after personal trauma (Esquire suggests he is more likely just a sloppy operator), but whose life changed after he was struck with a terrible infection, losing brain function as he lay in a coma for a week (Esquire interviewed his doctor, who says that Alexander was intermittently conscious and delirious, and never so ill).  During this illness, he experienced a vision of heaven - white tunnel and all - and now is moved to evangelize about the truth of the afterlife.

In Alexander's lengthier telling, which also showcases his decent writing style:
I’m a neurosurgeon. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976 with a major in chemistry and earned my M.D. at Duke University Medical School in 1980. During my eleven years of medical school and residency training at Duke as well as Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard, I focused on neuroendocrinology, the study of the interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine system—the series of glands that release the hormones that direct most of your body’s activities. Mine was in some ways a perfect storm of near-death experiences. As a practicing neurosurgeon with decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room behind me, I was in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me. Those implications are tremendous beyond description. My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going. The place I went was real. Real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison. This doesn’t mean I don’t value the life I’m living now, however. In fact, I value it more than I ever did before. I do so because I now see it in its true context. This life isn’t meaningless. But we can’t see that fact from here—at least most of the time. What happened to me while I was in that coma is hands-down the most important story I will ever tell. But it’s a tricky story to tell because it is so foreign to ordinary understanding. I can’t simply shout it from the rooftops. At the same time, my conclusions are based on a medical analysis of my experience, and on my familiarity with the most advanced concepts in brain science and consciousness studies. Once I realized the truth behind my journey, I knew I had to tell it. Doing so properly has become the chief task of my life.
In many ways, this book was a let-down.  I'd loved works like Heaven Is for Real because they were so hilariously transparent, but Alexander is careful and methodical in his story and the revelations.  In fact, the book is quite convincing, filled with medical detail:
Once in Major Bay 1, I continued to decline. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) glucose level of a normal healthy person is around 80 milligrams per deciliter. An extremely sick person in imminent danger of dying from bacterial meningitis can have a level as low as 20 mg/dl. I had a CSF glucose level of 1. My Glasgow Coma Scale was eight out of fifteen, indicative of a severe brain illness, and declined further over the next few days. My APACHE II score (Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation) in the ER was 18 out of a possible 71, indicating that the chances of my dying during that hospitalization were about 30 percent.
Further, Alexander takes care to establish himself as a credible skeptic.  This is common, but in his case, it's actually done well.  He really sells himself as a scientist who was only reluctantly converted.
Just as Holley had run out the door to follow the ambulance, her cell phone had buzzed. It was her longtime friend Sylvia White. Sylvia always had an uncanny way of reaching out precisely when important things were happening. Holley was convinced she was psychic. (I had opted for the safer and more sensible explanation that she was just a very good guesser.)
So while I had hoped for a fun romp through some nonsense, I was actually presented with the puzzling case of a credible, intelligent, accomplished man who was credibly asserting his personal experience.  While it wasn't really "proof of heaven" - and he admits as much, since it's just anecdote - it wasn't the muck that I was, shamefully, expecting.

While the book is of a higher caliber than many of the other similar works I have read, its philosophy does have a lot in common with the works of Sylvia Browne.  Browne is a popular fraud of a psychic who has written voluminously on the exact way the afterlife works (right down to the geography and bureaucracy), and she has laid out a description that rang very similar to Alexander's.  Both of them invent and capitalize these otherworldly bureaus where you are processed and pass on.  Browne talks about the Gate and the Hall; Alexander talks about the Gateway and the Core.  And both use broad and inchoate language to articulate the vast knowledge that they experience once dead.
Why am I so sure of all this? For two reasons. The first is that I was shown it (by the beings who taught me when I was in the Gateway and the Core), and the second is because I actually experienced it. While beyond my body, I received knowledge about the nature and structure of the universe that was vastly beyond my comprehension. But I received it anyhow, in large part because, with my worldly preoccupations out of the way, I had room to do so. Now that I’m back on earth and remember my bodily identity, the seed of that trans-earthly knowledge has once again been covered over. And yet it’s still there. I can feel it, at every moment. It will take years, in this earthly environment, to come to fruition. That is, it will take me years to understand, using my mortal, material brain, what I understood so instantly and easily in the brain-free realms of the world beyond. Yet I’m confident that with hard work on my part, much of that knowledge will continue to unfold.
But it must be said that this is the best-written of any believer's book on the afterlife that I have encountered.  Take the description of a sort of purgatory, for example:
Grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the muck, groaned or screeched, and then were gone again. I heard an occasional dull roar. Sometimes these roars changed to dim, rhythmic chants, chants that were both terrifying and weirdly familiar—as if at some point I’d known and uttered them all myself.
Now, despite this unusually high quality, it has to be remembered that it all appears to be predicated on some pretty vital falsehoods.  Alexander was not an innocent man in some personal trouble, he was probably a slipshod surgeon.  And he was never clinically dead, he was delirious for a week.  These are important facts, and it's sad and crude that he simply falsified them in order to craft a more dramatic and persuasive story.  Be aware of them: if you read this book, check out the pertinent journalism.

But ultimately, it's probably not worth your time to explore a well-written bamboozle.  It's not bad enough to be entertaining, and it's not honest enough to be important.  Skip Proof of Heaven.


River God, Wilbur Smith

This book has a strange popularity on the internet - I have seen it recommended in all sorts of places (Reddit, Goodreads, Somethingawful, etc).  I'm not sure why, though, because it's a good bit of historical fiction, but not extraordinary.  Set in ancient Egypt, it follows the exploits of the eunuch slave Taita, who is the guiding hand behind one of the wives of a pharaoh during a turbulent time of invasion.  The writing is decent and the plot is suitably interesting, but the enthusiasm for this book is disproportionately enthusiastic.  It's odd - maybe the thing just snowballed.

In River God, our narrator, Taita, is a supernal genius.  He is brilliant at every conceivable discipline, essentially inventing mathematics, engineering, military tactics, political maneuvering, financing, and all the sciences.  He puts this comically broad skillset into practice in support of the young girl he's raised from childhood, Lostris, and her lover, Tanus.  Taita's clever positioning soon elevates the pair to the side of the Pharaoh, and thereon into guiding all of Egypt.

The writing is well-paced, moving swiftly along and engaging the reader's interest.  It's not graceful or subtle, though, and can become a little pulpy:
Behind me I heard the gravelly rasp as Memnon drew the blue sword from its scabbard on the side panel, and from the corner of my eye I caught the steely flash of the blade as he went on guard.
Worse, the characters are singularly one-dimensional and boring, hooking our sympathies through reliable but crude methods.

On the plus side, it is interesting to have a narrator and protagonist who is personally removed from the action - as a eunuch slave, he is always an adviser and bystander to events, seldom able to revel in triumphs or claim personal success, even though when he is the author of the victory.

Overall, River God is a decent book, but not great.  It's an easy read and might be good for passing a few hours, but don't look for any depth.