Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

16 AUGUST, 2012

Risk Intelligence, the Art of Uncertainty, and the Flawed Psychology of Airport Security


What the TSA has to do with Rilke and the boundaries of knowledge.

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” Rilke advised. “Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty,” asserted Stuart Firestein in his fantastic book on the value of ignorance. “You live out the confusions until they become clear, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary. Uncertainty has even been shown to be the key to happiness.

In Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (public library), Dylan Evans explores the psychology, sociology, and politics of uncertainty through what he calls “risk intelligence” — the essential skill of learning the boundaries of our knowledge and using that insight in honing our humanly flawed decision-making.

At the heart of risk intelligence lies the ability to gauge the limits of your own knowledge — to be cautious when you don’t know much, and to be confident when, by contrast, you know a lot. People with high risk intelligence tend to be on the button in doing this.


This is a vital skill to develop, as our ability to cope with uncertainty is one of the most important requirements for success in life, yet also one of the most neglected. We may not appreciate just how often we’re required to exercise it, and how much impact our ability to do so can have on our lives, and even on the whole of society.

As a frequent traveler who resents the tedium, frustration, and time-sink of airport procedures — so much so that I’ve begun turning down speaking appearances solely on the basis of travel time involved — I found particularly fascinating Evans’s exploration of risk intelligence through the lens of airport security:

The security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed many of the [airport security] measures “security theater” on the grounds that they serve merely to create an appearance that the authorities are doing something but do nothing to reduce the actual risk of a terrorist attack. Indeed, it is intelligence tip-offs, not airport checkpoints, that have foiled the vast majority of attempted attacks on aircraft.

Schneier may be right that many of the new airport security procedures are purely theatrical, but that begs the question as to why they are such good theater. In other words, it is not enough to point out the mismatch between feeling safe and being safe; if we want to understand this blind spot in our risk intelligence, we need to know why things such as taking one’s shoes off and walking through a body scanner are so effective in creating such (objectively unreliable) feelings of safety. It probably has something to do with their visibility; intelligence gathering may be more effective at reducing the risk of a terrorist attack, but it is by its very nature invisible to the general public. The illusion of control may be another factor; when we do something active such as taking our shoes off, we tend to feel more in control of the situation, but when we sit back and let others (such as spies gathering intelligence) do all the work, we feel passive and impotent. Maybe there’s a ritual aspect here, too, as in the joke “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” The default assumption is that the “something” is good, and we feel better. Psychologists have long known that the illusion of control is a key factor in risk perception; it is probably one of the main reasons why people feel safer driving than when flying, even though driving is more dangerous.

Politicians, Evans points out, have a vested interest in putting on this security theater, which lets them get credit for taking action. But current security measures are orchestrated on the presumption that every single person is equally likely to be a perpetrator, which is statistically inaccurate, can be avoided with better pre-screening measures, and proves highly costly on many levels:

To gauge the true cost of screening passengers at airports in the United States, it is not enough to look at the TSA’s operating budget; we should also take into account the extra time passengers have spent waiting in line, taking their shoes off, and so on. Robert Poole , a member of the National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel in the Government Accountability Office, has calculated that the additional time spent waiting at airports since 9/11 has cost the nation about $8 billion a year. It is by no means clear that this was the wisest use of the security budget. Every dollar spent on one security measure is a dollar that can’t be spent on an alternative one. The costs of the new security procedures do not end there. Long lines at airports have prompted more people to drive rather than fly, and that has cost lives because driving is so much more dangerous than flying. The economist Garrick Blalock estimated that from September 2001 to October 2003, enhanced airport security measures led to 2,300 more road fatalities than would otherwise have occurred. Those deaths represent a victory for Al Qaeda.

One of the principal goals of terrorism is to provoke overreactions that damage the target far more than the terrorist acts themselves, but such knee-jerk responses also depend on our unwillingness to think things through carefully. As long as we react fearfully to each new mode of attack, democratic governments are likely to continue to implement security theater to appease our fears. Indeed, this is the Achilles’ heel of democracy that terrorists exploit. One thing we could all do to help combat terrorism is to protect this Achilles’ heel by developing our risk intelligence.

The rest of Risk Intelligence goes on to explore everything from the mechanisms of climate change misinformation to how “the CSI effect” makes jurors in real-life criminal trials hold evidence to the impossible standards of fictionalized TV dramas. Underpinning these broader insights is a practical toolkit for enhancing our own risk intelligence in a way that translates into better, smarter everyday decision-making.

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16 AUGUST, 2012

Maya Angelou on Home, Belonging, and (Not) Growing Up


“I am convinced that most people do not grow up … our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”

In 2008, Maya Angelou — one of the greatest voices in American literature — penned Letter to My Daughter (public library), a collection of 28 short meditations on subjects as varied as violence, humility, Morocco, philanthropy, poetry, and older lovers, addressed to the daughter she never had but really a blueprint to the life of meaning for any human being with a beating heart.

In the first essay, simply titled “Home,” Angelou offers this poignant lens on identity, growing up, and belonging.

Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America’s great novel that ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.’ I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

Home is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant. Parents, siblings, and neighbors, are mysterious apparitions, who come, go, and do strange unfathomable things in and around the child, the region’s only enfranchised citizen.


I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.

We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.

Letter to My Daughter is a superb read in its entirety — highly recommended.

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15 AUGUST, 2012

A Lesson in Entrepreneurship, Perseverance and Publishing from Iconic Chef Julia Child


“Don’t for the love of heaven let anybody rush you into anything.”

On March 8, 1952, Julia Child, (August 15, 1912–August 13, 2004), sat down at her kitchen table in Paris and penned a fan letter to American historian and author Bernard DeVoto, discussing the peculiarities of French and American kitchen knives. But the letter was answered by DeVoto’s wife, Avis, described by one of her husband’s students at Harvard as “very good looking and very sexy-seeming and the only faculty wife who might have said ‘horseshit’ even to [Harvard] President Lowell.” This was the beginning of an epistolary friendship that unfolded into a rich and wide-spanning relationship, exploring the two women’s deepest thoughts and feelings as well as their most passionate professional pursuits and aspirations, as Avis became Julia’s confidant, great champion, and unofficial literary agent.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (public library) isn’t merely a collection of the 200 letters exchanged over the course of this extraordinary correspondence — it’s a powerful portrait not just of two visionary, worldly women who traveled extensively, read voraciously, and inhabited endlessly stimulating intellectual and social circles, but also of the sociocultural landscape of the 1950s and 1960s, including the evolving role of women and the changing stakes of creative entrepreneurship.

Avis Avis (left) and Julia Julia (right)

Buried in the correspondence are nuggets of Julia’s visionary culinary sensibility and cultural ethos as they were beginning to take shape. In a letter dated January 5, 1953, Julia writes Avis:

You display the true marks of a Great Gourmande … which always includes the warmest and most generous of natures … and is why people who love to eat are always the best people.

On January 19, 1953, some etiquette advice:

The young hostess should be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook, and this may be awful,’ or ‘poor little me,’ or ‘this didn’t turn out’… etc. etc. It is so dreadful to have to reassure one’s hostess that everything is delicious, whether or not it is. I make it a rule, no matter what happens, never to say one word, though it kills me. Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done … Grit one’s teeth and smile.)

A letter from December 1, 1955, bespeaks Julia’s remarkable work ethic:

Only wrote 16 notes and letters today, with three long calls in the morning and one in the afternoon, so I am exhausted and will go to bed on my electric pad and read a whodunit.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, however, is the absorbing insider’s look at the publishing industry that the correspondence reveals as Julia and Avis navigate the maze of bringing Child’s culinary ideas to the mainstream with the publication of her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Avis steered first to Houghton Mifflin and eventually to its home at Knopf. It was at last released on October 16, 1961. Filled with romantic idealism about how publishing ought to work, they consistently brush up against barriers to creative freedom and integrity, shedding light on how much has changed and how much has remained the same in the half-century since.

While the Childs were in Oslo, Julia taught cooking classes to small groups of her 'Wegian' friends and diplomatic wives.

On Christmas Day 1952, while trying to persuade Julia to leave Ives Washburn, a smaller publisher with a questionable reputation who had offered Julia a book deal, in favor of Houghton Mifflin, Avis passionately writes of a kind of integrity rare in the Fifty Shades of Grey era:

HM Co. is a monument of integrity and frequently loses money by refusing to descend to the sharp practices of some other publishers I could mention.

Julia writes back on December 30:

As you can probably gather, we don’t know beans about the publishing business, but want to avoid as many stupidities as possible.


[Family friend Paul] Sheeline had talked to his father-in-law, Donald Moffat, and Moffat felt that almost any deal which can be made by a budding writer with a publisher was a good one, in that the publisher is taking considerable risk. Although the news about Ives Washburn was discouraging, I have never been at all impressed with the fact that we are unknown writers … as I am convinced that if we can get the book into the hands of someone who knows about cooking, it will sell itself. So, although Ives Washburn appears to think they’ve got us in the bag, we are not committed to them in any legal way.

Julia proceeds to send Avis the beginning stages of the book manuscript and, in a letter from January 2, 1953, Avis exults:

Dear Julia: This is just to report that your second installment arrived this morning and I have just finished reading it through. I must say I am in a state of slight stupefaction. I am so keen about this proposed book that I am also feeling it can’t possibly be as good as I think it is. And knowing the publishing business, I am in a state of despair at the time it is going to take to have Houghton Mifflin make up their minds — I am nothing to them except wife of one of their authors, friend of most of the executives, and occasional reader of [manuscripts] and consultant. I am now trying to get Dorothy de S. on the telephone and she is still out to lunch and also it is that horrible week right after holidays and she may not be back this afternoon. I want to take the manuscript in to her house tomorrow afternoon and spend a couple of hours with her, showing her correspondence and so on. I know she will take fire as I have.

Later in the same letter, Avis reiterates her faith in Houghton Mifflin and concludes with some timeless advice, all the timelier for first-time authors in today’s go-go-go publishing grinder:

Certainly a border-line publisher may take advantage of a new writer, which is why you must stay out of the hands of any publisher who isn’t long established and absolutely first-rate. But there are twenty firms who rate that way. And a good publisher like HM or Harpers or Knopf or Little Brown and so on will give you the standard undeviating contract, pay you what advances are necessary, advertise as much as they can afford, even gamble on advertising appropriations if they believe in the book enough.


But you must resign yourselves to TIME. I don’t know how much of this you have written down, but the editing job alone is going to take months and months and months. Here I am talking as if HM had already signed a contract. And that will take time too. Don’t for the love of heaven let anybody rush you into anything.

Two days later, Avis speaks with a kind of idealism that casts a bittersweet lens on how publishing, or perhaps our cynicism about publishing, has changed in the past half-century:

No established publishing house ever takes advantage of a budding author… Any publisher who takes advantage of any kind of author is on very shaky ground indeed. The legal contract is on a sliding scale, ten percent, twelve and a half, fifteen after so many thousands sale, or was when I looked last. And any author who pays to get anything published is a mug and deserves what is coming to him — no reputable house ever engages in anything of the sort. Don’t dream of questioning any contract you get.

Julia's letter to Avis after Houghton Mifflin rejected her cookbook.

Over the following few years, however, Avis and Julia faced a series of hurdles in publishing the book in the form they had desired, dealing with a series of disappointments. Houghton Mifflin rejected the book in 1959, prompting Julia to write to Avis:

We must accept the fact that this may well be a book unacceptable to any publisher, as it requires work on the part of the reader. NOBODY has ever wanted to publish ANY of our recipes in any publication whatsoever thus far. So that may well indicate something. In fact it does indicate that we’re not presenting things in a popular manner. I am frankly not interested in the chauffeur— den mother type of cooking, as we have enough of it.

Indeed, underpinning Julia’s cool and composed professional communication to publishers was a turbulent restlessness articulated in her letters to Avis and her other partners in the book project, including — lest we forget that frustration is integral to the creative process — this line from a 1958 letter that captures the very essence of entrepreneurial stubbornness:

HELL AND DAMNATION, is all I can say. WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY? But I can’t think of doing anything else, can you?

Bearing the mark of a true friend, Avis is always there to console Julia in moments of insecurity, like when she reminds her, in a letter from March 25, 1958, of the usefulness of useless knowledge:

Well, all I know is this— nothing you ever learn is really wasted, and will sometime be used. You have come nearer to mastering a good many aspects of cooking than anyone except a handful of great chefs, and some day it will pay off. I know it will. You will just have to go on working, and teaching, and getting around, and spreading the gospel until it does. The alternative, that Americans do not give a damn about fine food and refuse to learn how to make it, is one I simply refuse to face.

On the set at WGBH, Child's crew, out of camera range, waits to hand up ingredients and finished dishes to the star for her first show, The French Chef.

The rest of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (published, by the way, by Houghton Mifflin), traces how the book concept went from shaky manuscript to cultural and culinary triumph as Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published on October 16, 1961 — a feat that wouldn’t have happened without Julia and Avis’s remarkable friendship and unflinching faith in one another. Their correspondence thus stands as a testament not only to the power of passion and perseverance in entrepreneurship, but also to the monumental grounding force of a truly great friendship.

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