REBLOG: The Flat Book Society: 6 more days until our first offical group read!

Reblogged from: Murder by Death

Just a reminder that in addition to all the Halloween Book Bingo fun, The Flat Book Society’s first read starts September 1st.   Thankfully, it’s a 60 day read, something I think all us Bingo participants will appreciate.

Anyone seeing this for the first time – you’re welcome to join us for this read or any others. We’re a group newly formed to read what most people would call ‘popular’ science books; the ones that don’t make your eyes glaze over (hopefully) or put you into a coma.  There’s a list of books in the club in a continuous state of voting, so there’s no draconian group moderator (me) deciding what we’re reading next.

And now I think I’ve extended that welcome out long enough that there’s room for our club mascot, Huggins (whom you can click to go to the club).




Original post:



REBLOG: The Flat Book Society: Our First (and Second) Reads!

Reblogged from: Murder by Death

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

Voting for the first two books came to an end today and we have two books tied at 7 votes each, so they’re our first two reads.

Starting September 1st and running through October 31st:

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary RoachThe irresistible, ever-curious, and always best-selling Mary Roach returns with a new adventure to the invisible realm we carry around inside. 

The alimentary canal is classic Mary Roach terrain: the questions explored in Gulp are as taboo, in their way, as the cadavers in Stiff and every bit as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars.

Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis?

In Gulp we meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of—or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. With Roach at our side, we travel the world, meeting murderers and mad scientists, Eskimos and exorcists (who have occasionally administered holy water rectally), rabbis and terrorists—who, it turns out, for practical reasons do not conceal bombs in their digestive tracts. Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.


And Starting November 1st running through December 31st:

Forensics: An Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermidThe dead talk. To the right listener, they tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died – and who killed them. Forensic scientists can use a corpse, the scene of a crime or a single hair to unlock the secrets of the past and allow justice to be done.

Bestselling crime author Val McDermid will draw on interviews with top-level professionals to delve, in her own inimitable style, into the questions and mysteries that surround this fascinating science. How is evidence collected from a brutal crime scene? What happens at an autopsy? What techniques, from blood spatter and DNA analysis to entomology, do such experts use? How far can we trust forensic evidence?

Looking at famous murder cases, as well as investigations into the living – sexual assaults, missing persons, mistaken identity – she will lay bare the secrets of forensics from the courts of seventeenth-century Europe through Jack the Ripper to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.

Reminders will definitely go out closer to our starting dates, and threads will be setup beforehand.  (There is one thread for each in the club now for general comments).

If either (or both!) of these books sound good to anyone not already in The Flat Book Club, our door is always open and everyone interested is welcome.


Original post:


Nonfiction Science Book Club Reading List

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements - Sam Kean Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime - Val McDermid Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution - Rebecca Stott

You may have seen MbD’s posts on the new nonfiction book club and the suggestions for future reads floating down the dashboard in the last couple of days:

There’s now a list containing all the books that have been suggested so far:

The discussion group is currently still named for the buddy read that inspired it, “The Invention of Nature” — the group page is here:

— and the corresponding book club page is here:

Do take a look and see if you’d be interested in joining!



Original post:


A Good Start

“This is the essence of discrimination: Formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.” (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987) (Brennan, J.), on remand, 692 F. Supp. 1286 (M.D. Fla. 1988)).

This rule, reaffirmed by the landmark Supreme Court decision which, over the dissent of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, first recognized the infection with a contagious disease (tuberculosis) as an actionable handicap under federal law, forms the initial bond between star litigator Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the unlikely team at the center of this movie. Because through these words, black attorney Miller begins to realize that his colleague Beckett faces a handicap which, in essence, is not so different from that confronted by many of his fellow African Americans. And because this is an incredibly effectively scripted Hollywood movie, we, the audience, easily get the point as well; even if we’re white, and even if we’re not gay and/or suffering from AIDS like Beckett.

Of course, the insidiousness of the AIDS virus places those afflicted with it in a class of their own, and while the movie spares its viewers the pictures of some of the virus’s most graphic effects, it does go to considerable length to show the physical decline associated with it – not only in the person of Beckett himself, for whose role Hanks literally almost starved himself. Some of the patients surrounding him in the movie’s earlier emergency room scenes really were AIDS patients, whom Hanks had approached when preparing for the movie, and who had subsequently agreed to participate; and as Hanks emphasized during an appearance in Bravo TV’s Inside the Actors’ Studio, not all of them are still alive. – Denzel Washington’s appropriately named Joe Miller, middle class everyman in everything but the color of his skin (one of the movie’s obvious bows to political correctness), displays an attitude uncomfortably familiar to many of us; shunning gays in general and the HIV-infected Beckett in particular, out of a mixture of ignorance about AIDS, prejudice against those suffering from it, and prejudice against gays. Both Hanks and Washington give strikingly emotional, profound performances that rank among the best in their respective careers – Hanks deservedly won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Beckett, but Washington unfairly wasn’t even nominated for either. Yet, neither of them would have been able to shine as much as they do without their exceptional supporting cast; to name just two, Jason Robards, commanding as ever as Beckett’s homophobic former boss (and role model!), and Antonio Banderas as his devoted lover.

By the time of Philadelphia‘s release, some of the early myths about AIDS had begun to disappear, and the yearly growing numbers of newly infected patients had brought it out of its erstwhile obscurity as “the gay plague.” But indepth knowledge was still far from widespread, and therefore the movie – which was inspired in part by the real-life case of New York attorney Geoffrey Bowers – not only brought awareness to the disease in general, but also made a couple of important points, from educating the public about the disease’s method of transmission to emphasizing that it is by no means limited to gays and can even be contracted in something as life-affirming as a blood transfusion. (Indeed, several European countries were rocked by transfusion-related AIDS scandals right around the time of the movie’s release). One of Philadelphia‘s most quietly powerful scenes is the testimony of a female witness who was infected by just such a transfusion, and who emphasizes that having AIDS is not a matter of sin or morality: “I don’t consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent, I’m just trying to survive,” she responds when asked to confirm that in her case “there was no behavior on [her] part” involved and contracting AIDS was something she was “unable to avoid.” – Moreover, four years before Ellen DeGeneres rocked the showboat with a kiss during an episode of her sitcom, and Kevin Kline and Magnum macho Tom Selleck locked lips in In and Out (the screenplay of which was inspired by Hanks’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia), it was by no means a given that a movie would get away with letting Hanks and Banderas exchange acts of tenderness from caresses and kisses on the hand to a slow dance at a gay party.

Given Philadelphia‘s fundamental message and the memorable performances of its protagonists, it is a pity that the movie doesn’t entirely avoid Hollywood pitfalls, such as its soggy ending with grease literally dripping off the screen and the undeniable taste of a sugar-coated afterthought, transmitting the message that even dying of AIDS is really not so terrible, at least for the surviving family who can still unite around the television set and wallow in their memories of their lost loved one. And while I do buy Joe Miller’s transformation from a (somewhat stereotypical) homophobic male to a reluctant supporter of gay rights, I don’t really see why Beckett suddenly assumes a cliché gay look the second he has been fired; not to mention that I suspect not everybody in his situation would have enjoyed such overwhelming support from his family.

But ultimately, it is the movie’s overarching message that counts. “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me; it’s just you and I my friend … and my clothes don’t fit me no more: I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin,” sings Bruce Springsteen, the movie’s other Oscar winner, in “Philadelphia”‘s title song. And Justice Brennan wrote in the Supreme Court’s Arline decision that in amending federal law, Congress was motivated by “discrimination stemming not only from simple prejudice, but also from archaic attitudes and laws.” This movie goes a long way in dispelling such attitudes. It alone isn’t enough – but it is, as Andrew Beckett jokes about the 1000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean, at least a good start.



Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia TriStar (1993)
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Executive Producers: Ron Bozman / Gary Goetzman / Kenneth Utt
  • Producers: Jonathan Demme & Edward Saxon
  • Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tak Fujimoto
  • Tom Hanks: Andrew Beckett
  • Denzel Washington: Joe Miller
  • Jason Robards: Charles Wheeler
  • Antonio Banderas: Miguel Alvarez
  • Lisa Summerour: Lisa Miller
  • Karen Finley: Dr. Gillman
  • Joanne Woodward: Sarah Beckett
  • Anna Deavere Smith: Anthea Burton
  • Mary Steenburgen: Belinda Conine
  • Robert Ridgely: Walter Kenton
  • Charles Napier: Judge Garnett


Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks
  • Best Music, Song: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”.
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 49 (Andrew Beckett)
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 68 (“Streets of Philadelphia”)
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama: Tom Hanks
  • Best Original Song – Motion Picture: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
MTV Movie Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Best Male Performance: Tom Hanks
ASCAP Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
  • Most Performed Songs from Motion Pictures: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
Grammy Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
GLAAD Media Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Outstanding Film – Wide Release: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1994)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1994)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actor: Tom Hanks





Casualties of War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.


In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).

Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.

But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”

Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.

The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease.  Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.

So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.

Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.


“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock

“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
  • Director: Wolfgang Petersen
  • Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
  • Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
  • Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
  • Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
  • Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
  • Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
  • Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
  • Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
  • Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
  • Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
  • Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
  • J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)


Major Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard



Mordecai Siegal, James R. Richards (eds.), et al.: The Cornell Book of Cats

The Cornell Book of Cats: The Comprehensive and Authoritative Medical Reference for Every Cat and Kitten - Mordecai Siegal, Cornell Feline Health Center, James R. RichardsIndispensable

“A cat is only technically an animal, being divine.” – Robert Lynd.

“The twenty-first century may be the century of the cat,” says Franklin M. Loew, former Dean of Cornell University’s renowned College of Veterinary Medicine in this book’s preface, citing statistics according to which even at the end of the 20th century, the number of cats in the United States alone already equaled that of the entire human population of Europe (and with sinking birth rates among humans, it is not hard to guess where that particular trend is headed in the near and midterm future).

Authored by the staff of Cornell’s Feline Health Center, “The Cornell Book of Cats” is an indispensable reference guide for every cat owner who cares about his or her feline companion(s). The book provides detailed coverage on every aspect of feline life, from the cats’ origin and breeds to cat (mis-)behavior, nutrition, anatomy, reproduction and all major instances of disease and infirmity. Particular attention is given to kittens, aging cats, skin and sensory disorders, internal disorders and medical emergencies. While the explanations do rely on a number of medical/veterinary terms, they are generally clear, comprehensive and easy to understand; in addition, most of the veterinary terminology is defined in a 22-page glossary at the end of the book. Numerous figures, tables, sketches, statistics and photos further illustrate the text; and treatment suggestions are provided for all diseases and disorders described. As the authors point out, this book is not intended to make a visit to the vet unnecessary in each and every instance (and sometimes, the remedies suggested here are only the beginning of the path to complete treatment) – but the book does help a cat owner determine when the often not inconsiderable expense of a visit to the vet is truly warranted. Moreover, it is a tremendous supplementary resource to even the best vet’s recommendations, and it provides a wealth of background information on our four-pawed friends. Highly recommended.

“A house without a cat, and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat, may be perfect house, perhaps, but how can it prove its title?” – Mark Twain.




Barry Scheck / Peter Neufeld / Jim Dwyer: Actual Innocence – When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

Actual Innocence - Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, Peter NeufeldA scathing Verdict on the U.S. Criminal Justice System

“Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” – U.S. v. Garsson, D.C., 291 F. 646, 649 (1923) (Judge Learned Hand)

While you may find “Actual Innocence” in the “true crime” section of your bookstore, this is not your typical fare of a more or less well-written and soon-to-be-TV-movie account of a harrowing crime, or series of crimes. And while the book undeniably shows the hands of two lawyers who know how to craft a closing argument, and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, this is at heart, as the authors point out – and disturbingly so – a “work of nonfiction.”

“Actual Innocence” (which was originally subtitled Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted) is an account of the work of Scheck’s and Neufeld’s “Innocence Project,” describing some of the Project’s most prominent and successful cases, and a scathing condemnation of the shortcomings of the American system of criminal justice – particularly, under the Supreme Court’s holding in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 404 (1993) (Rehnquist, C.J.) that “a claim of ‘actual innocence’ is not itself a constitutional claim.” Under Herrera and the cases following it, a federal court can reject a defendant’s petition for relief even if it is based on proof of innocence, even if that proof is, as in the cases represented by the Innocence Project, of a scientific nature (DNA evidence showing that the defendant cannot have committed the crime he has been convicted of), and even if the deadlines for submitting that proof are so short that it is virtually impossible for a defendant to present evidence obtained post-conviction in time for a consideration at least in the state court system, which review has to precede a review by the federal courts.

In Herrera, the Supreme Court upheld a Texas death sentence after the defendant had missed the state law’s 30-day deadline to get a new trial based on new evidence. And while that particular case involved questions of the reliability of circumstantial evidence, admissions of guilt and eyewitness identifications (briefly, at night and without live testimony by one of the witnesses), these exclusionary rules apply regardless of the type of evidence presented. In the cases that Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer describe here, this sometimes meant that DNA evidence which, due to scientific advances, had only become available years after the conviction, was not admitted, even if it conclusively proved that the wrong person had been convicted. The defendants were left to petition for executive clemency, which is discretionary and, more often than not, depends on the amount of political pressure exercised.

It is often argued, particularly by proponents of the death penalty, that the criminal justice system functions well, and that even in the best system, regrettable errors cannot be prevented. The authors of “Actual Innocence” make a compelling case for the contrary. Even if a lawyer’s shortcomings in the representation of his client may, in theory, lead to the reversal of a conviction, the bar here is almost as high as that for the presentation of proof of innocence. In Texas, e.g., not even a lawyer sleeping during the trial or showing up drunk is considered ineffective and, like in other states, most mistakes made out of inexperience with the handling of murder/felony trials will not be enough to support a reversal, either. Moreover, scientific evidence, such as a “DNA fingerprint,” is often not available to indigent defendants, who are most likely to be hurt by inefficient trial attorneys because they lack the means to hire counsel experienced and sophisticated enough to handle a trial of that nature. These more often than not are the ingredients of a cocktail which, without timely and forceful intervention, can be as lethal as the death penalty itself; even if there is not, in addition, abuse on the prosecutorial side – failure to fully investigate and/or disclose the evidence available in the case (including exculpatory evidence), racial bias in the jury selection, misconduct by scientists acting as the government’s experts, etc.

American TV again and again broadcasts reports on persons released from prison, sometimes only days before their execution, based on belated proof of their innocence. All of these cases expose, in differing ways, the inherent weaknesses of the U.S. criminal justice system. While I did not practice in the U.S. long enough to feel comfortable echoing unreservedly the verdict handed down by the Scheck, Neufeld and Dwyer, who declare the country’s criminal justice system “a shambles,” many facts recounted by them ring true to me, too. I also stop to consider if not only a Democratic president (Clinton) imposes a moratorium on the death penalty but a Republican governor, a one-time declared proponent of capital punishment, takes the same action and orders an investigation because “since the reestablishment of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977, there have been persistent problems in the administration of the death penalty as illustrated by the thirteen individuals on death row who have had their death sentences and convictions vacated by the courts” and “the number of death sentences and criminal convictions being vacated or overturned has raised serious concerns with respect to the process by which the death penalty is imposed.” (Former Illinois Governor H. Ryan, Executive Order Creating The Governor’s Commission On Capital Punishment, May 4, 2000).

Of course, not every claim of innocence is justified. But any criminal justice system should be able to allow for the presentation of conclusive proof of innocence, regardless how belatedly. And while the question of guilt or innocence may not have dominated the discussion on the case of executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh – to many people, even those otherwise opposed to the death penalty, the poster child for its application – I am not exactly comfortable with the assessment by former President George W. Bush, who in 6 years as governor of Texas oversaw more than 150 executions, that McVeigh was “lucky to be an American. This is a country that will bend over backwards to make sure that his constitutional rights are guaranteed, as opposed to rushing his fate.” (New York Times, May 12, 2001.)

Jared Diamond: Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared DiamondFifteen Years

It was Jared Diamond’s answer to the last question of a 2005 presentation of “Collapse” at Frankfurt University’s Museum of Natural Sciences. Given the comparative shortness of human existence in our planet’s entire history, what does it matter, someone asked, “if in 20,000 years or so we do exterminate ourselves, and another species takes over. It’s happened to the dinosaurs and the mammoths … why should we be any different?” My own thoughts had run along similar lines earlier that evening: surrounded by skeletons of species extinct for 100,000s of years, I had recalled a recent visit to a historic museum chronicling social development in a part of Germany – and I, too, had reflected on the rocket speed that had brought us from the Stone Age to the 21st century, and I had wondered, “what if?”

Yet, even knowing the book presented that evening and its author, his answer came as a clarion call. “I don’t think we have another 20,000 years,” Jared Diamond said in his impeccable German and with the same unassuming, polite composure with which he had answered all preceding questions. And he added: “I think it’s closer to fifteen years.”

Fifteen – not fifteen thousand or even just fifteen hundred. In the grand scheme of cosmological development, that’s less than a millisecond.

And this is precisely why “Collapse” is so important. For much more than exploring select past societies’ failures (primarily those of pre-European Easter Island, the Anasazi, Maya and Vikings), which it contrasts with select success stories (New Guinea, Japan), it actually asks what we, living today, have to learn from the past in order to avoid the fatal mistakes of those unable to secure their own survival; a question highlighted even by the book’s very first chapter, which examines no past society at all but modern-day Montana: serene, sparesly-populated, big-skied, mountain-river-and-valley-graced Montana, which both geographically and figuratively seems leagues away from the problems associated with modern metropoles like New York and Los Angeles (or isolated Polynesian Easter Island, for that matter), and whose social, political and ecological landscape is nevertheless every bit as fragile as theirs. Indeed, for us today the issue is no longer a mere matter of one society’s (or species’s) extinction in favor of another. For us, Jared Diamond emphasizes, the issue is that of our planet’s survival as such. In this, our situation actually does very much resemble that of the Easter Island’s inhabitants, who had nowhere to go after depriving themselves of their natural resources by reckless logging and their island’s resulting desertification, and who were ultimately driven into cannibalism. Like their island to them, our earth to us is the only inhabitable world … in our own solar system (tried to settle on Mars or Venus lately?) and probably also beyond: for all we know, those far-away galaxies of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Discworld belong to the world of science fiction only; “fiction” being the operative word.

Bearing this in mind, the subtitle of “Collapse” is as important, and even more telling than the book’s title itself: “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” It indicates that: (1) failure, even under adverse conditions, is not a necessity; and (2) whether (or how well) a society survives depends crucially on its values and goals, and the choices resulting therefrom, both collectively and individually. And of all the factors that Jared Diamond highlights as impacting a society’s survival – environmental changes, changes and conflicts of interest within that society, changes in neighboring societies and in the two societies’ relationships, technological advances, and the inability, unwillingness or other failure to anticipate or acknowledge the impact of choices made – it seems to me that this last point, the question how we play the hand we’ve dealt ourselves by our past and present choices, will ultimately prove decisive. The author himself likes to say he is “cautiously optimistic” in this regard, pointing to his young twin sons, who have practically their entire life yet to live. I hope, however, that his answer will also prove justified by the growing respect he enjoys in public opinion and with national and international decisionmakers.

So does he have all the answers? No – and he himself would probably be the first to emphasize that he actually has many more questions than answers (only coming from him, it wouldn’t sound like a cliché). Is “Collapse” argued less stringently than, say, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Guns, Germs and Steel”? Personally I don’t think so, but I’m admittedly biased. What’s the use of “popular science writing” anyway – why doesn’t he, like any other good scientist, seek peer review and a discussion with his colleagues? Well, I believe that he does enjoy a spirited scientific debate and welcomes comments that force him to put his own theories to the test. Yet, it only takes one look at the broad space that pseudo-arguments like those he refutes as “one-line objections” at the end of “Collapse” still occupy in the public debate (“The environment must be balanced against the economy,” “Technology will save us,” “This is just another end-of-the-world-prophecy like the many that have already proved false in the past,” “Environmental concerns are a first-world luxury,” and of course the ubiquitous, “Why shoud I care anyway?”) to realize this book’s necessity. This is also why I have decided to set aside my reluctance to review any of his books; although personal acquaintance and unconditional respect render me patently incapable of objectivity, and a review like this might be construed as an exercise in flaunting an association with an internationally renowned scientist and award-winning author (even worse, an association occasioned not by any achievement of my own but by mere coincidence). But “Collapse” concerns us all – it’s as simple as that.

In signing my copy, Jared referenced the aforementioned never close, but long-lasting acquaintance: “to 2005 – – –.” Both on a personal and a global level, I hope those three dashes stand for much, much more than fifteen years.


Favorite Quotes:

“[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”

“The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean – once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There was no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own [world], we won’t be able to get help.”

“Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.”

“Science is often misrepresented as ‘the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory.’ Actually, science is something broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.”

“History as well as life itself is complicated – neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.”

“People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental population problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!”

“Above all, it seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. … By invoking this assumption [i.e., that they were/are better environmental stewards than other peoples or parts of contemporary society] to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be OK to mistreat them if that assumption could be refuted. In fact, the case against mistreating them isn’t based on any historical assumption about their environmental practices: it’s based on a moral principle, namely, that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess, subjugate or exterminate another people.”

“For anyone inclined to caricature environmental history as ‘environmental determinism,’ the contrasting histories of the Dominican Republic and Haiti provide a useful antidote. Yes, environmental problems do constrain human societies, but the societies’ responses also make a difference.”

“Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.”

“The Anasazi did manage to construct in stone the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America until the Chicago steel girder skyscrapers of the 1880s.”

“Many of our problems are broadly similar to those that undermined … Norse Greenland, and that many other past societies also struggled to solve. Some of those past societies failed (like the Greenland Norse) and others succeeded … The past offers us a rich database from which we can learn in order that we may keep on succeeding.”

[On the beginning of the mid-1990s’ genocidal war in Rwanda:]
“Within six weeks, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, representing about three-quarters of the Tutsi then remaining in Rwanda, or 11% of Rwanda’s total population, had been killed.”