Daniel J. Levitin Reveals A Field Guide to Lies: Identifying Information in the Wild

Humans have such an affinity for story that we are easily misled. Every shiny sentence carries with it the possibility for truth of one kind or another. On one hand, it is obvious that made-up fiction, even the most outlandish science fiction, romance, horror, or mystery, may be the means of conveying subtle but intractable and important truths.

levitin-a_field_guide_to_liesOn the flip side, it is equally obvious that many statements of so-called fact are nothing of the kind. In the latter case, we often really need to know what is true and what is false, and Daniel J. Levitin’s book A Field Guide to Lies proves to be witty, though-provoking and flat-out useful in this regard. He gives fib-spotters everything but a special hat to wear– no binoculars required.

The book is divided three sections; one dealing with numbers, one with words and one with “the world.” Numbers are pretty easy to deal with, and Levitin has a lot of fun here. He asks what one might make of the claim that “In the thirty-five years since marijuana laws stopped being enforced in California, the number of marijuana smokers has doubled every year.” On the face of it, this sounds plausible (the section deals with “Plausibility”). But as Levitin points out, assuming just one smoker 35 years ago and then doubling that number 35 times adds up to more than 17 billion. Clearly, we’re being misled. And so it goes – but not without an enjoyable classification by Levitin.

While Levitin believes that graphs are the most succinct way to present numerical information at a glance, he also demonstrates that they are an excellent way to present misinformation. We see pie charts that add up to far more than 100%, and bar graphs that have left-right or up-down axes that are scaled to deceive, not inform. He also dives into some symbolic logic problems that are extremely informative with regard to debunking BS-artists. All of this he does with a nicely understated mordant sense of humor. This is quite easily the best field guide to anything you’re likely to read this year.

Once he’s done with numbers, Levitin turns his attention to words, most specifically their misuse and abuse. Here he dives into our storytelling nature, which makes us easy marks. And then, from Baby Mozart to experts at everything but the subject upon which they are currently being asked to speak, Levitin goes another hunt for lies in the wild. His discourse on alternative explanations is priceless, and especially important when it comes times for citizen to listen to plans for the future. It turns out that for all that humans are concerned with and think about the future, we’re pretty bad at predicting it.

Levitin even gets us to “counterknowledge…misinformation packaged to look like fact and that some critical mass of people have begin to believe.” This might seem to account for the vast majority of verbiage on offer today. and again, the draw of a good story has everything to do with this. Just witness the moon landing conspiracy theories. What could be a more powerful human truth than the accomplishment of a moon landing? Obviously, the cover-up.

daniel_j_levitin-2016_by_peter-pratoAnd so it goes, but perhaps just a bit less effectively thanks to Levitin. When he and I spoke about the book, I heard the last bit of his previous interview while waiting, and he was asked to opine on current events. During that interview, and ours afterward, he pointed out that he had been handed the opportunity to add to the lying landscape by offering an option that seemed like expertise but was in fact outside his range of expertise. He declined to offer an opinion.

You can hear our lightning round interview here:

Or you can sink into our in-depth interview here:


Forrest Leo Meets The Gentleman: The Devil You Don’t Know

Lionel Savage has a problem – his marriage. Since this Victorian poet tied the knot, he’s been unable to write. The situation has grown dire and his solution is appropriately, so far as he is concerned, extreme. There’s just one last quite damnable party that he finds he must endure, and there he meets The Gentleman. we (think) we know the gentleman by many names, which is to say Legion. But as Lionel and the gentleman discuss matters at hand, they unexpectedly hit it off. And we as readers realize that this is not the Devil we think we know.

leo-the_gentlemanForrest Leo’s The Gentleman partakes of many bits and pieces, yet feels quite whole in and of itself. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and H. Rider Haggard are the mountainous peaks looming in the background. In the foreground, look for P. G. Wodehouse and a butler named Simmons who makes life possible and passable for the generally miserable and selfish Lionel. As Lionel’s fondest unspoken wish comes true, the adventure to undo that wish begins.

Prepare to laugh out loud, early and often as you read The Gentleman. Leo writes hilariously dyspeptic misanthropic prose as Lionel. And fortunately for the reader, one Hubert Lancaster was tasked with putting together the manuscript for The Gentleman. Hubert cannot leave well enough alone, and constantly comments in asterisked footnotes, generally discounting much of what Lionel has to say.

The Gentleman is sort of a satire of Victorian adventure novels, but it embraces them to the degree that it’s a ripping yarn full of almost- and misadventures. The amazing accomplishment is that Leo loves his characters, and he crafts a story that is not only funny as hell, and just as rude, but also strangely poignant. While the plot moves at a breakneck place, it never feels overstuffed. Leo has a great sense of balance in terms keeping tension alive along with emotional impact. The poignancy also derives power from and lends oomph to the whimsical aspects of the tale.

Along the way expect some short excerpts of bad poetry, and actual insights into the competitive nature of writing. And lots of laughs, as well as shout-outs to your favorite Victorian writers. You’ll finish it in a day or so and be on your guard for the alread0finished sequel. The book is choc-a-block with wonderful illustrations which add nicely to the effect. In The Gentleman, Forrest Leo gives readers a Dev’l they can make deal with.

forrest_leo-2016When I spoke with Forrest Leo, it was clear that the reason readers have so much fun with the book is that he has so much with the book. I learned of the unusual beginnings, which one might never guess from simply reading the text. You can hear our lightning round interview by following this link to the MP3 audio file; or just settle into your winged chair and listen right here.

You can hear our in-depth conversation, by following this link to download or listen to the MP3 audio file, or just listen below.

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It: Walk a Mile in Her High Heels

To be honest, Jessi Klein was probably wearing flats when we spoke. To be tellingly honest, I never noticed her shoes. In her engaging, hilarious memoir, You’ll Grow Out of It, Klein divides women into two types; poodles and wolves. Poodles, tells us, are women like Angelina Jolie, who are naturalistically, effortlessly feminine. She puts herself squarely in the group of “wolves” which is to say, women who have to work at it. This after she tells us, in the beginning essay, that she was a tomboy as a girl and she’s now grown up to be a “tom man.”

klein-youll_grow_out_of_itIf you’re beginning to twig to the fact that Klein is going to give you a bit of an insider’s view of how women think, then you’re on the right track. You’ll Grow Out of It, which clearly does not apply to Klein in so many ways, offers readers a glimpse into Klein’s agile perceptions. From her 28th birthday at Disney World to the 100-plus wedding dresses she tried on, You’ll Grow Out of It is by turns funny, sweet poignant and always the stuff of truth. She clearly understands that brevity is the soul of wit and in the short pieces here you’ll find plenty of wit, lots of wisdom and more laughter than in most so-called TV comedy. It’s the sort of book that begs you to read it aloud to anyone in your vicinity, and to re-read it when you have the chance.

Klein really does delve into all the aspects of a modern woman’s life from growing up as a tomboy and into what she calls a “Tom Man” to encountering a man accurately described by the title of the story “The Cad” to shopping at her favorite store (“Anthropologie”) to “How to Get Engaged” to the aforementioned “The Wedding Dress” to “How I Became a Comedian” to “Get the Epidural.” She’s barely passed the age of [mumble mumble, I’ve learned enough to say nothing], and yet she covers a goodly portion of life. Anyone wanting a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent, imaginative artist who happens to be a woman can do no better than to dip into Klein’s mind.

Rest assured you’ll laugh out loud, early and often. But more importantly, you’ll find some smart and witty prose delivering a sometimes-scathing vision of Americana – but not too scathing. Klein is having a good time in her life, and reading this book, you’ll not only see why, you might get a few tips you can use yourself

Men who want to get an idea of what sort of intellect they are attempting to court would do well to read this, as well as women who might feel as if they have just found a sort of soul-mate. But if you just want to be amused by someone who is smart and funny, then the chances are you will be glad that Jessi Klein never grew out of it. Moreover, you’ll be glad that someone told her she would. It’s physics; for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. It’s how we launch rockets, or in this case, lives.

jessi_klein-2016-largeOccasionally, I find that one interview informs another. For example, having spoken with Dr. Glade B. Curtis about Your Pregnancy Week by Week, I found myself perhaps a little more familiar with women’s perceptions thereof, and inclined, by virtue of that knowledge, to ask questions fearlessly, for example, about lingerie. Or pregnancy.  As Klein pointed out when we spoke, even the word can make you uncomfortable, unless, etc. So I learned about Spanx.  Who knew?

You can hear my lightning round interview with Jessi Klein by following this link to the MP3 audio file or just listen below.

You can hear our in-depth conversation, which Jessi herself was kind enough to call a conversation, by following this link to download or listen to the MP3 audio file, or just listen below.