Book Review: Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter is an evolutionary story about what sets human beings apart from other animals. Walter specifically identifies six traits of humans that can be found in no other species: Big toes, opposable thumbs, the pharynx, laughter, tears, and kissing.

The big toe is important in that helped humans walk upright which in turn modified our anatomy leading to larger brains and skulls. At the same time the body adapting to walking and running means the birth canal is too small to allow easy egress of our big heads. So human infants are born far earlier in their development than other mammals and that is why humans are so helpless in their early years. In fact the long period of ongoing learning and development is uniquely human.

The opposable thumb is well-respected as the difference between humans and other animals, allowing us to create and manipulate tools. Our hands are also central to our ability to communicate and the genesis of language.

The pharynx is most fascinating in that it physically allows us to speak. I never knew that it does this by intersecting the airways and the esophagus, which does not happen in oher mammals. The price to pay for being the animal that speaks is that we are also the animal that can choke. Being able to speak gives rise to consciousness and the prefontal cortex of the brain.

Laughter allows us to connect emotionally to others and is rooted both in our primal urges and our ability to walk upright.

Crying is the most mysterious as humans are the only beings that have tears that well up and drip out of the eyes as a means of expressing emotion (as opposed to merely keeping the eyes clean). One theory is that crying actually brings us back into a state of equilibrium. Crying is also a means of body language to communicate emotions to other humans.

Finally, kissing is a learned cultural trait that allows us to communicate our love and affections in a way that feels really good.

Walter writes all of this in a lively style that makes it a fun and engrossing read. In many ways it is a gentler version of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape which Walter cites several times. It’s a work of popular science, and it hems & haws with a number of “probablys” and “we don’t know for sures”, but I think it teaches an illuminating lesson in human evolution and unique traits.

Interesting Quotes:

If we were born as fully formed and physically mature as the babies of contemporary great apes, human gestation would last not nine months, but twenty-one! This means we are born a fully year premature. We may define “full term” as nine months in the womb, but by ape standards we are fetuses that have arrived twelve months earlier than we should have. – p.34-35

We tend to think that the forces of evolution are terrifically at rooting out all wastefulness to make the brain thoroughly optimized for smooth, clean operation. But the truth is that evolution feels it way toward success, tinkering and puttering until it stumbles across marvelously inventive solutions to the problems that need for survival presents, and then shambles on. Our brain, amazing as it is, is not an efficient machine, but a maddeningly complicated organ that stubbornly resists analysis. – p. 107

Quite possibly we cry not because we are getting agitated and upset, but because it is a way for our nervous system to bring us back into equilibrium.

One study reveals, for example, that if the nerves central to the sympathetic system are paralyzed, patients cry more. But when important parasympathetic nerves are damaged, they cry less. If crying was driven by the sympathetic nervous system, it would be the other way around. In other words, we don’t cry because we are upset, which is the way it feels, but because we are trying to get over being upset. That may be the real reason why feel better after we have a good cry. p. 173

Our simian cousins, gifted and intelligent as they are, don’t have the capacity for the powerful marriage of thoughts and emotions. They can feel rage, frustration, or loss, but they do not reflect on them. The random emergence of genes that connected the emotional and intellectual parts of our brains to lacrimal glands that sit above our eyes gave us a new way to express those elusive feelings. And in the bargain we gained an emotional stamp we can put on our cries for help that no other creature possess. – p. 179

Movie Review: The Departed

On Friday night, Susan & I finally saw the Boston-based crime drama The Departed.

This movies is the goriest and most brutal I’ve seen since The Gangs of New York. Not surprisingly, the two films share the same director Martin Scorsese. Other things in common are that they are stories about Irish mobsters and star Leonardo DiCaprio. They also share some great acting although The Departed’s villain Jack Nicholson is not up to par to Daniel Day Lewis’s great villainous performance in The Gangs of New York. I generally don’t like Nicholson, but he gets far enough away from playing himself in portraying a Whitey Bulger type of mob boss. Overall, the all-star cast is impressive including DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga (who plays the only female character). Mark Wahlberg may have put in the best performance of all since I didn’t even recognize him. He plays the obnoxious hardnose cop who turns out to be the only trustworthy character one can count on.

Beyond the great acting, witty dialogue, and a good story there are some flaws in the movie. First, it is way to violent for my tastes. I’d consider seeing it again to work out the intracicies of the plot if I could see a version without all the point-blank gunshots to the head. The body count in this film is seriously high, I think the number of people killed in this movie is larger than that actual murder rate in Boston. The finale has the most major characters killing one another since Hamlet and contributes to an unsatisfactory, over-the-top ending. The idea of rats is overstated as it seems that all the cops are working for the mob and all the mobsters are in the police force. Finally, the big clue of the Citizens bank envelope is handled so unsubtly it is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Then again I have extreme difficulty telling the difference between DiCaprio and Damon who look alike to me, so maybe I’m not to bright.

Overall, an above average movie, but far too violent.


Independent Book Stores

Three recent articles of interest regarding bookstores:

First an article about the people responsible for opening new independent book stores at a time when the independent book store is is said to be on it’s death bed:
‘We’re not in it for the money’ The number of independent bookstores has been steadly growing. But will they survive? — By Teresa Méndez in the Christian Science Monitor.

Part of what these stores – and the larger independent community – are working to do is find a niche, a way to create an experience the warehouse-size stores cannot, whether through knowledgeable handselling, hosting author and community events, or carrying a particular genre.

Following up on the news of the 98 new independent bookstores in the country, some advice to keep the independent bookstore alive:

Wicked Witch of Publishing Takes Over Pretend Independent Bookstore. Will She Thrive—or Just Survive? — By Lynne W. Scanlon in The Publishing Contrarian.

Where do I find the mass grave of the 2500 bookstores that went out of business between 1990 and 2006? I want to stand beside it and bid adieu to Murder Ink, Coliseum Books and Micawber Books—bookstores-turned-white-elephants that have recently succumbed at the ages of 34, 32, and 26, respectively—as their corpses are tossed on top of the bones of their erstwhile predecessors. Then I want to grab the owners of the 97 new independent bookstores that arrived on the scene in 2006 by the scruff of the neck, drag them to the edge of the grave and scream: “Don’t make the same mistakes these guys did.”

Finally, an article on bringing bookstore ideas into the library, albeit ideas from chain bookstores. I’d love to see an independent bookstore-inspired library. The smell of pathcouli would be as strong as the voices of the prophets of doom.

What libraries can learn from bookstores: Applying bookstore design to public libraries — By Chris Rippel in

Crosstraining would benefit libraries. Training circulation and reference staff in the mysteries of interlibrary loan would increase their ability to answer questions and advise patrons about the interlibrary loan process. Crosstraining catalogers and reference staff could produce better cataloging for use by reference staff and improve reference staff’s understanding of the access provided by cataloging.

This quote speaks to a constant struggle at my own library. We’re constantly in trouble when “the expert” is not around, but on the other hand when everyone is cross-trained it’s hard for each individual to keep track of all that information and overall service is watered down. Quite a conundrum.

Not scared enough?

One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.

U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.

I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.

I read a good book last year on this trend called False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear by Dr Marc K. Siegel which I reccomend for those interested in reason over fear.

Web 2.0 and Library 2.0

Until recently I had no idea what Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are, and furthermore little interest. Mainly because these trendy terms kept popping in everything I read and I have a strong aversion to trendiness. I even read one blog that stated that one can increase traffic to one’s blog by including the terms Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 (we’ll see if this post can oust the current champ, my review of The Painted Veil). Once I got past the hype and the trendiness I’ve discovered there are some very interesting things behind these terms. In fact I’m already well involved in the phenomenon through this blog and other resources I use everyday. So while still trying to avoid the trendiness, I’m going to explore Web 2.0 and Library 2.0.

Last week I attended a web conference on work about Web 2.0. While the presentation wasn’t too great and the lecturer used the word “cool” far too much, I did learn some fascinating stuff and added a lot of new bookmarks (including signing up for and account with the Web 2.0 bookmark tagging tool I’ve also been accumulating various articles and blog posts on the subject. So here is my list of what I’ve found thus far to be read and evaluated.

Web 2.0

Library 2.0

One question I had about Web 2.0 that I was not able to ask in the conference I attended regards authority. The lecturer seemed to think that the best information and the best resources would rise to the top simply based on high referal rates from users. I can’t help but be concerned about the possibility of “tyranny of the masses.” Will the loudest voices drown out the wisest voices within Web 2.0? And what about the insidous influence of corporations to guide public tastes to their products? Jessamyn West has an interesting reflection on “why reference and authority matter” at

Finally, while not entirely on topic, I have a number of interesting-looking articles on libraries, technology and the future of libraries to read:

Henry Knox and “The Noble Train of Artillery”

This week is the anniversary of one of the most interesting events of the American Revolution. After the initial battles of the Revolution in 1775, the British army held the city of Boston while Continental troops under command of George Washington attempted to lay siege to the city while holding the high ground in neighboring communities. Things were in deadlock though because the British controlled the sea and could easily sail in and out of the port.

A young man named Colonel Henry Knox came up with a logical solution. The Green Mountain Boys had captured a large number of cannon at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. If this artillery could be brought to Boston and used to fortify Dorchester Heights, the Continentals Army would then be able to take shots at British shipping and thus control the harbor.

The story of the band of men under Colonel Knox swiftly transporting 60 tons of artillery across Massachusetts in the winter of 1776 is one of daring and intrigue. On the one hand marching through the snow and ice must have been miserable, but on the other hand crossing frozen rivers and transporting cannon by sleigh made actually eased the effort compared to what difficulty they may have faced in warmer months. Knox and his men successfully brought the cannon to Boston and in the dark of night fortified Dorchester Heights. The British had no choice but to evacuate the city.

The story is so fascinating to me I am surprised there aren’t really and books or documentaries about it. Last year I read Ye cohorn caravan: The Knox Expedition in the winter of 1775-76 by Wm. L. Bowne, but it was no more than a pamphlet and dry one at that. One can still follow the Knox Trail to this day. I think an interesting book would be to follow the trail today and recount the adventures of Knox and his noble train of artillery. Perhaps that will be a book I will write.

Concert Review: Marcia Ball

Jan. 25, 2007 — Marcia Ball at the Regattabar, Cambridge, MA.

At the invitation of Susan’s friend Donna, we met up with a large group at the Regattabar in Harvard Square’s posh Charles Hotel for a concert by Marcia Ball and her band. Self-described as honky tonk, Ball plays a mix of electric blues, cajun, and a lot of stuff that actually sounds like early rock & roll along the lines of Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Bill Haley. Each song left a lot of time for improvisation and solos by the guitarist, saxophonist, and Ball herself on piano. A highlight of the show was Marcia Balls’s performance of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”.

The Regattabar is an odd venue with high ceilings around the edge of the room and the performance space all but shoved in a corner under a low ceiling. We owe much praise to Donna for getting us excellent front row seats, but it is still a bit odd watching a show in this cavelike environment, albeit it is not as clausterphobic as Club Passim.

Susan and I felt the guitarist bore a stunning resemblance to our friend Mike G. Not just that he was a skinny guy with glasses, but als that the guitarist seemed to stand and have mannerisms in the way of Mike G. When we found out the guitarist was also named Mike we knew we couldn’t be fooled anymore by his simple disguise of a soul patch.

All in all it was a fun and entertaining show. The best part for me though was to see Donna so thouroughly enjoying herself, snapping her fingers, and singing along.

Book Review: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by James Morris

Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress is the first in the Pax Britannica trilogy of history books about the British Empire by James Morris (better known today as Jan Morris, the world’s most respected travel writer).

This volume traces the rise of the Empire from a few scattered holdings to dominance over 2/3’s of the Earth during the period 1837-1897, the first 60 years of Victoria’s reign.

Although a thick book well over 500 pages in length, it is actually a rather quick read due to Morris’ lively writing style. It is not an exhaustive work but it does hit upon the many thoughts, trends, and events that gave rise to British Imperialism. At times Morris seems wistful about Britain’s lost imperial past and times amused by the mores of Victorian era Britons. Being rather anti-imperialist myself I feel Morris is not critical enough, but on the whole Morris tells the story warts and all. His main thesis is that a missionary zeal drove the expansion of British influence worldwide. In the process the prostelyzing goal shifts from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the gospel of British civilization.

As a reader of British fiction, I found this book helpful in finally knowing something about all those cultural touchstones that appear in British literature. At last I know a bit about the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War, Gordon of Khartoum and Dr. Livingstone. The Crimean War, however, is only mentioned in passing.

To help illustrate the breadth and diversity of this work I include a couple of sentences summarizing each chapter.

1. A Charming Invention — Queen Victoria accends to the throne in 1837, while Emily Eden travels in India with her brother. Nothing seems to indicate that Victoria will soon be Empress over a vast swath of the Earth.

2. High and Holy Work — Britain not only bans the slave trade but also the Royal Navy is saddled with the task of preventing the smuggling of human chattel.

3. Sweet Lives — The Boers get bored with British interference and trek off to settle their own country where they can be racist, cranky, and slaughter the natives. Morris holds a bizarre romantic attachment to the Boers while at the same time making them sound like the most awful people ever.

4. Roots in Their Soil — Religious and political reform join forces to eliminate the Thuggee cult of stranglers in India.

5. Laws of War — The British venture into Afghanistan and find themselves in a quagmire that eerily resembles current day headlines.

The presence of the army in Afghanistan, it said, was apparently displeasing to the great majority of the Afghan nation; and since the only object of its presence there was the integrity, happiness and welfare of the Afghans, there was no point in its remaining.

6. Merchant Ventures — The traders, voyageurs, and imperialists of the Hudson Bay Company.

7. White Settlers — Settlement in Nova Scotia, Australia, and New Zealand.

8. An Act of God — The horrors of the Irish famine, and the indifference of the British to their suffering neighbors due to a devotion to market economics instead of the religious charity and reform they brought to other parts of the world.

9. ‘What a Fine Man!’ — Short sketches of the military and colonial leaders who would shape the Empire.

10. Grooves of Change — The British become enamored with technological progress from the machinery of Crystal Palace to the medical plants of Kew Gardens.

11. The Epic of the Race — The bloody and tragic Indian Mutiny which forever changes the relationship of Britain to its colonies. Attitudes shift from a communal of effort of joint improvement to the Imperial imposition of British ways.

12. Pan and Mr. Gladstone — The British acquire the Ionian isles, use them for imperial R&R, and are completely ignorant of the local culture.

13. The Imperial Style — The empire settles on Gothic architecture and constructs hill stations to oversee its colonies.

14. Illustrious for the Nile — The search for the source of the Nile leads to a feud between explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Speke wins.

15. Governor Eyre — An uprising in Jamaica meets bloody reprisals from the British colonial rulers that cause a furore back in Britain.

16. ‘Ain’t the Pentateuch Queer’ — Missionary zeal, the schism of the church in South Africa, and superstition in the ranks.

17. The Humiliation of the Metis — In Canada, a mix of indigenous peoples and French Canadians efforts at self-determination in Manitoba are ruined by a British doublecross.

The British were now exporting to their dominions a kind of package civilization, offered in competition with the local product, and backed by powerful service arrangements.

18. In the Pacific — The British squabble with the Americans on the high seas and along the US/Canadian border at San Juan Island.

19. A Fixed Purpose — The rivalry of Gladstone and Disraeli and their conflicting visions of empire.

But the sense of duty, too, powerfully contributed to the passions of Empire. It was less a missionary duty now: the idea that the world’s natives could be converted to Christian Britishness had lost some of its conviction. But it was still, in its austere way, a philanthropic mission. Justice, security, communications, opportunity — these were the advantages of civilization which the British now diligently if aloofly distributed among their subjects. . . . The British had no doubts about the merits of their own civilization, or qualms about their mission to distribute it across the world: but they had coe to suppose that not all aspects of it were transplantable (p. 389-90).

20. Ashanti — The British enter into black Africa and brutally take on the proud, mystical, and militaristic Ashanti.

Africa was a brutalizing influence upon the Empire: not because the black peoples were more brutal than others, but because the British though them so, and behaved accordingly (p. 404).

21. By the Sword — The British secure because of their strong but dated Navy are shocked by the opening of the Suez Canal, but eventually take control of that as well.

22. South of the Zambesi — The British meet the Boers again and are humiliated in battle once again, a rare loss in a string of Imperial victories.

23. The End of the Tasmanians — The aboroginal people of Tasmania are erased by genocide.

24. The Rebel Prince — The inspiring yet tragic story of Charles Stewart Parnell and the doomed Irish Home Rule movement.

25. The Martyr of Empire — Gordon of Khartoum became a national hero by waiting for Krusty to come to Sudan.

26. Scramble for Africa — The European powers divy up Africa for their own commericial and imperial causes.

The idea of Empire was becoming vulgarized, like some fatidious sport cheapened by arrivistes. It had often been brutal in the past, and often misguided, but it had seldom been mean. Eve in hypocrisy its aspirations were at least grand, and it had been enobled by the lingering vision of the evangelicals. Even in moments of vindictive frenzy its furies could be interpreted as divine, and most of Victoria’s imperialists genuinely believed the British Empire to be an instrument for the general good of the world.

Africa and the New Imperialism tainted this conception. There were still visionaries genuinely concerned with the betterment of the Africans, who saw the humiliation of tribes and ancient kingdoms only as sad means toward honorable ends. Generally, though, the African scramble was a chronicle of squalor — chiefs gulled, tribes dispossesed, vast inheritances signed away with a thumb-print or a shaky cross (p. 520).

27. An Imperial Fulfillment — By the time of Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, empire is firmly established and the sun never sets on the British Empire.

Movie Review: The Case of the Grinning Cat

Tonight I went to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square and used my membership voucher to see The Case of the Grinning Cat or Chats Perchés in the original French.

This documentary set in Paris follows the filmmaker Chris Marker’s fascination with giant yellow cats with great big grins that suddenly begin appearing painted on the city’s rooftops in 2001. Without learning who the artist or artists of these graffiti tags are, the movie traces the cats’ development and spread across the city, becoming a cultural phenomenon. Eventually images of the grinning cat begin to appear in Paris’ many political demonstrations from 2002-2004. Marker brings his camera to demonstrations in search of the cat who appears during the Chirac/Le Pen electoral crisis, Iraq anti-war demonstrations (my favorite banner says “Make Cats Not War”), anti-racism rallies, an AIDS die-in, and protests against Prime Minister Raffarin. Marker captures the spirit of the protestors while gently chiding them for their excess and misdirected efforts. The focus of the film really shifts more and more away from the cats and to the demonstrations. At the end of the film, Marker reveals that the cats themselves have faded away and suggests that they left due to popular interest in a celebrity scandal (at least that’s what I think he’s suggesting).

The value of this film lies in the time capsule manner in which a specific time and place are caught on film. Whether he’s filming spray-painted cats or people on the march, Marker is really good at capturing the small details. The camera captures an eye-level view of the streets and Metro of Paris often zeroing in on a particularly beautiful moment or person. Through what is really just a collage of images a story emerges about Paris in the post-9/11 world.

Here are some other reviews of The Case of the Grinning Cat (which I haven’t read yet so as to not color my own review) from the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Village Voice. Images of les chats may be found here and here.