Jennifer Ackerman Explores The Genius of Birds : Our Flying Aliens

Until they are annihilated by science, our assumptions seem so simple, rigorous, even unassuming. Birds, for example, are obviously incapable of “thought.” After all, the tiny brains, the jerky movements – they’re too twitchy to have anything resembling our own internal hamster-wheel minds. Jennifer Ackerman delightfully transforms our long-held default perceptions of birds in The Genius of Birds with lovely, lively prose, and great stories about science and scientists. Since birds are pretty much everywhere you look, this book will change the way you see the world around you.

ackerman-the_genius_of_birdsAckerman lays out her case in the Introduction to the book, so thoroughly and enjoyably that you might be tempted to think she’d be hard-pressed to outdo herself. Resist that temptation. Ackerman begins by reminding us how our prejudice against the very possibility of bird intelligence is reflected in our language, from “lame ducks” to “eating crow” to “bird brains.” Then the science from the last two decades comes to our rescue, and Ackerman introduces us to the varieties of birds that, once you observe closely, are clearly doing amazing things with their brains. Ackerman’s genius is for finding the great stories and characters who are reshaping not just our understanding of birds, but of thought and cognition as well.

She begins with the rock star of the bird intelligence world, the New Caledonian Crow, remarkable creature that can solve a logic puzzle that would challenge a five year-old human. From there, she head to the Barbados, where we meet Louis Lefebrve, who invented the first scale of intelligence for birds. Her portraits of the scientists and the birds they study are perfectly balanced and paced. She weaves together different strands and different birds, even as she digs down into what precisely we mean by intelligence. As she points out, behaviors that look intelligent may be the result of layered simple processes. For example, the stunning displays of flock behavior, when we see birds move in groups with amazing precision were once thought to be an indicator that the birds might somehow be telepathic. It turns out that they’re not keeping track of the entire flock; rather it’s just the closest seven (or so) fellow flyers.

As Ackerman demonstrates the many ways in which birds are in fact using their brains, she also explores the neuroscience that shows how brain size is not as directly proportional to intelligence as we are inclined to intuit. Indeed, some birds have incredibly densely packed neurons. And others, many, are using their brains in a manner that we could not hope to equal. “Caching behavior” is the name given to birds’ ability to hide food in thousands of spots over many miles and find them all. It’s a feat of memory that is simply alien to humans.

jennifer_akerman-2017The sum of these engrossing stories of scientists and the flying aliens they are studying is nothing less than transformative. The ubiquity of birds ensures that everywhere we look, we’ll see them anew, not as large insects (probably next to be revised!), but as superbly-adapted alien intelligences, with minds so different that both humans – and our science – are just now catching up.

Jennifer Ackerman’s art – and science – is evident both in her book, and in our conversations. She is a natural storyteller, and in The Genius of Birds, she’s found the perfect venue for her talents. You can hear our lightning round conversation by following this link, or just listen below.

If you prefer to let your mind take flight, here’s a link to the in-depth interview, or fasten your seat belt and listen below.


Annie Jacobsen Experiences Phenomena: Science, Sensibility and the Supernatural

We like our science in well-defined, straight lines, like a map. “Here Be Science,” we read. And, “Here Be Monsters.” Science is not so willingly refined, alas, and neither is everything outside of it. This gets really messy when we’re depending on science to help us, for example, wage a war. In our military messes reside both great science and great stories. So-called psychic powers have been “scientifically” (if not correctly) explained for well over a hundred years, so it is no surprise that we’ve attempted to exploit them as weapons.

jacobsen-phenomenaIn books like The Pentagon’s Brain, Area 51 and Operation Paperclip, Annie Jacobsen has been exploring our unadvertised military history and finding extraordinary stories. With Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis, Jacobsen ups her own game to scare up the true stories of the US government’s psychic research programs. Conspiracy theories and science fiction may seem a bit mundane compared to Jacobsen’s tense, absurd and often terrifying story.

Jacobsen traces the most modern beginnings of our attempt to use human psychics as weapons begins at the end of World War II, alongside Operation Paper Clip. This was the rush to grab all the Nazi scientists before the Russians could. It was not just science we found; evidence of research into the supernatural was found as well, and soon enough the arms race was paralleled by a psychic race that probably continues to this day. Jacobsen’s book focuses on the characters, from Dr. Henry Karel “Andrija” Puharich to Uri Geller, James Randi, Ingo Swann and astronaut Edgar Mitchell. As we grow to know and like (or, at least, enjoy reading about) the people, Jacobsen carefully orchestrates the complicated history of science meeting the supernatural with an eye towards war.

Having interviewed many of the participants herself, Jacobsen’s knowledge feels intimate, and readers who have been through this wringer will find clarity and re-assurance with regards to the reality of her reportage. No spoilers: so far, there’s no good working hypothesis to account for so-called psychic powers. That said, Jacobsen manages to evoke true chills as she describes experiments and successes. Some participants are quickly (and entertainingly!) written off, but some simply disappear into the government machinery. Watch for a fellow named Patrick H. Price. He might be someone you’d prefer not to meet.

Jacobsen’s grasp on this huge, complicated and often contradictory history is nothing less than astonishing. Given the topics and situations, only the footnotes and veracity of the text separate it from contemporary science fiction and horror novels. And for readers of say, Stephen King’s Firestarter, the pleasures (and terrors!) of what actually happened during the MKULTRA project are refracted in and magnified by the cultural and fictional mythology. Yes, Phenomena does read with the speed and intensity of a novel. The fact that it’s true makes it even more compelling.

At the heart of this book is a conflict that is not and may never be resolved. How do we feel; what do we do, when science gives us no ground upon which to extrapolate, but results suggest that there is some mechanism that must be explicable by science at work? Fascinatingly, it all comes down to humans, individuals, characters, who simply don’t reside on one side of the line. Perhaps the human population has grown to the point where the statistics are coughing up human anomalies with increasing frequency. Beyond science, you’re left with humans and stories.

It is often said that holding two mutually exclusive ideas in one’s mind requires something extraordinary. While training soldiers to be psychics proved to be problematic (to say the least), this book offers up the kind of ESP we can all aspire to: to hold in our minds an extraordinary and self-conflicting narrative. Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena is an example of our only and most powerful psychic ability: storytelling.

While it is tempting annie_jacobsen-2014-pgcto post an audio file consisting of an hour of silence, which is to say, psychic communication between Annie Jacobsen and I, all that happened on the printed page as I read the book. When we sat down to talk, it was two friends shooting the breeze about a mind-boggling work of non-fiction that one happened to have written. We tried to tease out the themes and keep the narrative stories intact, so that they can better warp your mind. We start small; here’s a link to download the lightning round, or just pop in your “mind reading” earbuds to listen below.

If you prefer a longer experience of hearing the voices of people who are not actually there with you, download a telepathic 45-or-so-minutes here. Alternately, you can prove the reality of these Phenomena by playing those voices right out loud below.

Garrett M. Graff Visits Raven Rock: While the Rest of Us Die

For the past two generations, we have had the ability to be the authors of our own annihilation. But the reality of this realization has not managed to discourage a tiny fraction of sunny optimists who believe post-Apocalyptic survival is possible. We have a new generation of so-called “doomsday preppers,” hyper-rich survivalists who are building luxury bunkers within which they hope to survive and start anew. Unsurprisingly, they’ll still be at the top.

graff-raven_rockBut they’re not the first to have a go at this game. The US government is the original doomsday prepper, as revealed in the terrifying, can’t-look-away history by Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die. Graff’s book is both page turning and thought-provoking. Graff does nothing less than map out, in compelling detail, the impact of our nuclear arsenals on our government’s perception of its own mortality. As soon as we knew that we could destroy all life on earth, we sought to make ourselves the exception.

Graff begins his book with a vision of Richard M Nixon. drinking, depressed, on the verge of resigning as a result of the Watergate scandal. He’s taking what will be his last trip on Air Force One as President. The proof of that is that he still has what we now call the “nuclear football.” In retrospect, it is a frightening moment.

You’ll find many more of these sorts of scares in this book than you expect as Graf expertly takes us through the history of modern Armageddon. Once we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, it didn’t take long for the government to realize that a single shot could now cripple our nation. We had to de-centralize the government in secret, to prepare for the possibility, the eventuality of nuclear war.

Graff finds a powerful storyline amidst a complicated tangle of history and follows it with clear expertise. Having come to the realization that it might be mortal, the US government seeks to prevent its own extinction. Graff describes acronym-rich plans for COG (Continuance of Government), in example, the “Designated Survivor” program, which runs some 20 levels deep and quickly to absurdity, with plans to install the an Illinois DA as the president should the 19 before him be vaporized in an attack. Chillingly, ECG (Enduring Constitutional Government) involves tossing our large portions of the Constitution. Even more frightening is the fact that this program is so classified little is known bout to this day.

The history of Civil Defense is equally illuminating, and not in manner that will calm our fears. In the earliest years of nuclear ignorance, there was some thought that the “duck and cover” drills some might remember might help. But as the totality of nuclear destruction became clear, Civil Defense was quickly eroded as the government sought to take care of number one. Visions of “bomb-proof” underground cities never came to fruition.

In the run-up the The End of All Things, we’ve had a few dress rehearsals, most of which went badly. Graff offers a particularly poignant look at the chaos that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. Our ability to learn from our mistakes apparently does not go too far in informing our plans. This is not to say that plans have not been altered, but rather that the no matter what is being planned, readers of the book are not likely to benefit.

As for the abandoned bunkers made obsolete by our advancing understanding of just how bad it would be, well, they’re now being re-made and re-sold to ensure that the 0.01% can survive along with the government. Graff effortlessly takes us to the edge of post-Apocalyptic survival for those who can afford it. We can be certain that some of us at least, think we are ready for The End. The rest of us are collateral damage. We won’t even get an acronym.

garrett_m_graffGraff’s storytelling skills cannot be suppressed, and when we sat down to talk, I was happily surprised to find that he was talking about some of details I found most enjoyable and compelling. That said, if you follow this link to [download] our in-depth interview, we only whet your appetite for destruction. Heck, you might as well listen to the whole damn shebang below, right now. As long as the nuclear football is still in play, the Game is on, until we are over.


For Ariel Levy The Rules Do Not Apply: The Laws of Refraction

We are busybodies by nature. We love to eavesdrop. Other people’s problems – and their memoirs! – prove to be perfect distractions from our own, which tend to be pretty mundane. We all have stories to tell. The ones we want to read had better be well written.

levy-the_rules_do_not_applyAriel Levy has one hell of a story tell; wrenching, awful, horrific, an emotional gut-punch. Perhaps the inciting incident as we like to call it, tenderized her. But she was already writing for The New Yorker. She had the skill to not just write a story, but identify one. She looked at herself and understood that her story made the grade, but as well, that it would only do so if she were able to approach her entire story with the same level of skill (but not [continuously] the same level of intensity) that she brought when she wrote about herself the first time for The New Yorker. Her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, brings fists-clenched, fine writing to every sentence. She does not need or use her fists often. Her story itself does most of the punching.

Levy is the child of a generation of women who grew up as the rules regarding how women should live and behave were bring burnt to the ground. We meet her as she embraces her parents and their embrace of post-70’s hippie culture. She’s going to be a writer, and the fierce determination she exhibits is both a promise and a warning. For readers, it is a promise of tight, to-the-point writing. For Levy, it is a warning that she may prove to be as skilled at making things difficult for herself as she is in extricating herself from those difficulties.

Levy has a life that is unusual enough to initiate our interest as readers, and the wherewithal to follow that up with well balanced prose. She can be precise and dispassionate when it moves us faster, and she can be searing when she’s angry, in love, betrayed, obsessed or mortifyingly sad. As the pages fly, readers will discover good reasons for all her feelings.

What happens to Levy is best left discovered in the book itself. As a reader, I was appreciative of her ability to write prose so supple that I was able to immerse in it almost as if I were an ice skater, flying across the pages. The speed with which you devour this book is in no way indicative of how long it stays with you. Ariel Levy is in your life to stay, and readers will be thankful, ultimately for the journey she provides.

airel_levy-2017Sitting down to speak with Ariel Levy, I was happy to find her happy. It is there in the memoir, but any sense of happy might well be undercut by life itself and in specific, Levy’s life, which has been considerably more complicated and god-awful than many. The upshot is that we had a really fun and intense and wonderful conversation about how she wrote what she wrote as well as how she made it through what she wrote about to actually get around to writing it.

Ariel Levy kicks ass, takes no prisoners. Here’s a link to download the instant gratification conversation, which is just long enough to a) Make sure you want to hear the longer, in-depth interview b) Buy the book, in no particular order. In a hurry? Just listen below.

And, since you’ve decided to do both, why not start with the in-depth conversation, follow this link, or listen right here!

Elan Mastai Lives through All Our Wrong Todays: Lighting Fools

It’s easy, so easy, to forget that our world could be perfect, right now. Utopia is within our technological and sociological grasp. Food and shelter for all, meaningful lives, we can do this. It’s just that we are a bit too busy turning the world into an unlivable hellhole.

mastai-all_our_wrong_todays-smImagine a visitor from that utopia, visiting our world. They’d start at “unlivable hellhole,” but pretty soon the word “dystopia” would be rolling off the top of their tongue as easily and as often as if they were a New York literary agent or a Hollywood movie producer. Obviously, this visitor’s story would make for a great novel. And All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai certainly tells this story – to begin with.

The brilliance of Masti’s first novel is that he gets past this premise pretty quickly. First, he invests in a small cast of well-drawn characters. We meet his father, Victor Barren, and his girl, Penelope Weschler. Lionel Goettreider is the genius who built Tom’s utopia, which is to say, our utopia, but for … Tom. We love these characters, particularly Tom who is no genius. This is problematic for Tom, because he’ll need more than a bit of genius to set things right.

All Our Wrong Todays does so many things effortlessly right that listing them is prohibitive. It will surely make you laugh out loud early and often. Mastai’s prose manages to serve sentiment and snark with equal ease and authenticity. On a sentence level, you’ll find plenty of examples that you’ll want to read aloud for their sheer wit, insight or both. The book is written in short chapters engineered to make you turn the pages relentlessly, and it works. Prepare to lose a day or two, and even better, spendd the following days paging back, re-reading the best bits because they’re just so damn funny and damnably insightful.

When it comes to playing with the time-travel and science fiction utopian premises, Mastai demonstrates a truly sense-of-wonder inducing level of imagination and skill. For me, the idea of a visitor from utopia seeing our world as dystopia would be enough. But even early in the novel you get a riff on waking up that is so inspired technologically and socially that it’ll turn your head around. These moments come often, as Mastai manages the trick of one-upping himself in terms of plot and time travel permutations with a skill you won’t notice because you’re so busy being entertain, immersed and boggled.

None of this skill would matter quite as much if Mastai did not make us care so much about his characters. Tom Barren is wonderful – snarky, sweet, confident (generally when he should not be), and still learning about himself. Penelope, Victor, Lionel, they all bear their humanity both crudely and gracefully, like most of us. And for all that Mastai is capable of science fiction invention to rival anyone, he ultimately keeps his focus on the human element. Yes, you’ll laugh and be amazed. But the gut punch is emotional.

elan_mastai-2017-smEarly on in the novel, Mastai mentions Kurt Vonnegut, and in particular, Cat’s Cradle. When I spoke to him about his book, he was quick to bring both up, and I have to say, the comparison is apt. That’s not something I’d say lightly. And while we managed not to give away any of the novel’s surprises (there are many!) we did get to talk about Mastai’s humor and his take on science fiction, as well as his experiences with it. You can follow this link to download the MP3 or listen below.


John Scalzi Shores Up The Collapsing Empire: An Entire Universe of Smart Snark

The world is always going to hell in a handbasket – no matter what world, no matter when. In The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi, it’s more than one actually. For all the years it took to build an “empire,” the whole shebang, from End to Hub, was tied together by the Flow, a galactic physical phenomenon that enabled faster-than-light travel and all the trappings of great space opera. Turns out The Flow, in pace for what felt like forever, was in galactic terms, temporary. A flash in the pan. Oops. Bad place to build an interstellar civilization!

scalzi-the_collapsing_empireAs The Collapsing Empire begins, Batrin Wu, who was running it, is reluctantly passing the torch to his daughter, Cardenia. Not that he thinks she’s not capable or deserving – it just wasn’t in the plans, which, ahead of the Empire itself, have collapsed. Greed being an eternal human value, the Nohamapetan family gets some slick parts moving fast to see if they can tip all this in their favor. From Hub to End and back, humans are doing what they do best; inventing, lying, stealing, cheating, discovering, studying and arming up for combat. As ever, we are our own biggest problem. Given that we are also on tap to supply the solution, it’s clear that many things will have to give.

The primary upshot of this combination of forced change met with both scurrilous and heroic behavior is some 300-plus pages of top-notch page-turning, illuminating snark that will have you laughing and looking around to realize that in five hundred, one thousand, ten thousand years, we’re not likely to change that much. When science supports the plans that make us wealthy, we are all scientists. If that’s not the case, we get out our “pragmatic skeptic” hats.

Line-by-line, Scalzi’s an amazing writer. There are many wonderful sentences here that are a joy to read. And while the primary mode is dark humor, Scalzi understands that to carry this off successfully, you need to have great characters, good and bad. On one side we have Marce Claremont, a wonderfully wrought gentle scholar soul. He seems like just the sort of fellow you might want to pause and have along talk about science with. On the other side you have Kiva Lagos, the foul-mouthed hilarious Owner’s Rep on the ship Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby. For all her boldness, she’s someone you want on your side. Ghreni Nohamapetan, on the other hand, is equally entertaining but someone who is better appreciated on the wrong side of an airlock without a spacesuit.

In the tradition of starting at the end, The Collapsing Empire does perhaps too good a job at setting up the sequel(s). Every moment reading this book is both fun and thought-provoking, and any ending is bound to inspire the desire for more. But the trick of this novel is to entertain you with language about a universe that never will be while making you think quite critically the world that is – all the while laughing about the follies of both.

john_scalzi-2017-400In my conversations with both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, the follies that are generally on display are mine. Here’s a link to my conversation with John Scalzi; or just listen below and amaze your friends with the wit and wisdom of John Scalzi.


Cory Doctorow Elects to Walkaway: Utopia As Nothing to Lose

Utopia is good, right? Everybody’s happy by definition, it’s not just a good life, it’s a perfect life. Which is to say that there’s nowhere to go but down. When you think about it that way, and you will as you read Cory Doctorow’s immersive and intense Walkaway, it begins to seem as if all the dystopias and utopias miss the point. Doctorow’s gripping glimpse at a possible day-after-tomorrow is a ripping yarn that will quickly shred your assumptions not just about how the world works, but why and why it matters.

doctorow-walkawayHubert, Etc [he has lots of middle names] is getting old, too old to enjoy the parties that attend the breakdown of the world as we now know it. 3D printing, vat food and a host of technologies now bubbling at the fringes of society have undermined any sense of order. The world is split between the Default, the crumbling remnants of what you likely see around you, and what’s in-between. The in-between is where things get interesting, because the technologies simmering now are flowering here. They’re portable, which means that if someone decides to move in and seize your community, you can “Walkaway” – drop it, leave and start anew elsewhere with the same level of comfort. Hubert, Etc leaves, and your reading life gets really interesting.

Doctorow told me in our conversation that he took a different tack in composing this book, which results in a richer read, where the future, like the past is a foreign country. They certainly do things differently here, and in a manner that has ideas of all sorts jumping off the pages. Even as the plot keeps the yarn a-ripping, Doctorow’s creation not only of the world, but the characters who inhabit that world and their assumptions about that world will surely mess with your head in the best possible manner.

Walkaway meshes the science fiction toolkit seamlessly with a great story that easily leads us from the familiar to the astonishing, generally while we are not expecting anything other than the fun to be had on every page. By careful world-building, the elements of story (character, plot, etc.) are given dimensions subject to joyful stretching, revisions and imaginative excess. Humor is a key element in Walkaway; expect to laugh out loud, a lot, and modify your reading habits accordingly.

For all that Walkaway is fun and sense-of-wonder-inducing, it’s also very political, fueled by an honest rage that burns off in snark and “that would be funny if it were not so true” commentary. Where some offer stark choices, utopian splendor or dystopian decay, Cory Doctorow takes an essential first step in a new direction. When faced with a dilemma – as in two choices – Doctorow’s Walkaway revels in the third choice. Those who would rule this world fear nothing more than those who can build another.


In my conversations with both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, the follies that are generally on display are mine. Here’s a link to my conversation with Cory Doctorow; or just listen below and amaze your friends with the wit and wisdom of Cory Doctorow.

I managed to get Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi to hang around long enough to speak to me together. Apparently I was there! Here’s a link to our conversation, or listen below. A word of warning; we do talk about the soon-to-be-included in the DSM “asshole personality disorder.” As a bad cue reader, I may resemble that remark!