About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

117 - Why Sh*t Happens

And now, in the "yes, I picked this one for the title" category, 117 was Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day, by P.J. Bentley (Rodale, 2009). This'll be brief (I've been blogging for much of the afternoon -- a convenient way to pay attention but not too much attention to the aforementioned daughter and the gaggle of friends she was entertaining), but this was a quick non-fiction read with a novel frame story around it. If you're a reasonably bright layperson who's interested in science, this would be a perfect traveling or vacation read.

Essentially, Why Sh*t Happens is Freakonomics or The Economic Naturalist for the physical and life sciences. And yes, I'm an applied econ wonk, so that's a good thing. In each of 39 short chapters, Bentley introduces a clear, often humorous overview of how things work by asking the reader to imagine ... the crummiest bad day you can think of, magnified by a factor of 10.

You start out by oversleeping, and when you finally get up, you slip on the soap in the shower, and cut yourself shaving. Breakfast doesn't go much better, with a bagel that catches fire, a superheated cuppa joe that explodes all over you, and (yum) a nice refreshing swig of sour milk. After finding that your MP3 player's gone through the wash and having a talented bird decorate both you and your car as you're leaving for work, you're so rattled that you leave your briefcase at home, spin out while speeding around a curve, and put diesel in your gas tank by mistake. Oops. You leave your car at the service station, successfully catch the bus despite tripping on the way there, and sink into a seat whose previous occupant has thoughtfully deposited a nice, sticky, ABC wad of gum. Distracted by the gum in your hair, you miss your stop, and end up caught in the rain and then lost, braving a bee sting, a superglued finger, a cell phone that jams a nearby police radio, and a puncture in your brand-new expensive sneakers before you finally make it to your office.

A colleague stops you to sign a form on the way in, and the pen leaks all over your hand. You slip into this morning's meeting just a few minutes late, only to realize ... you're in the wrong place, and have crashed a meeting of complete strangers. Frustrated, you slam the bathroom door a bit too forcefully, and tear your sleeve. When you get to your desk, you find the IT guy hard at work, trying to remove the virus with which you've inadvertently infected the entire company. You fidget with a juice bottle while waiting for him to finish, get your finger stuck, and eventually find that it's hopeless: your PC won't reboot even when the repairs are done. ("It's worse than that; it's dead, Jim.") While carrying it to the local computer morgue, your finger gets caught in a heavy door and broken.

Finally, time to go home and shake off the black cloud. Nope, no such luck. Your bandaged finger makes you clumsy, so you drop your house keys down the storm drain, and then pull a muscle in your shoulder while in the process of retrieving them. Trying to cook seems like a bad idea, so you pop something in the microwave. Unfortunately, you use a plate with metal decorations, and the resulting sparks startle you into dropping your drink, covering your nice white carpet with broken glass and red wine. You order a pizza, but get hot pepper in your eye, which makes you drop the 'za on the floor and come up with a nice tasty mouthful of grit, dust, and possibly broken glass. You decide to settle for a cup of hot cocoa and some mindless TV, but a lightning strike fries the TV, and you blister your hand with spilled cocoa. A relaxing CD? Scratched. A decadent chocolate dessert? Delicious, until you break a tooth on the fork? How 'bout just a nice hot bath? Great, until you stub your toe on the tub, which then overflows while you're whimpering over your boo-boo.

The story alone is so over-the-top that it's funny, though you're not quite sure if you should laugh or groan as things get worse with each passing chapter. I ended up doing both, along with paging ahead frantically to see what science lesson Bentley was going to tie in this time. If there's a formula to it, I couldn't figure it out, so I really just needed to wait and see. The cut-yourself-shaving chapter, for example, touches on the biology and function of our skin and hair. The swimming MP3 player tackles the physics behind batteries; the superglued finger, the chemistry of glue; the dropped keys, gravity; the broken tooth, dental anatomy. At only 7 pages (more or less) each, none of the chapters is able to delve into its topic in much depth, and most of the science was more along the lines of "Oh, yeah, I remember learning about that" than completely new information. (Guess I'm still trying to get smarter than a 5th grader, eh?) Hard-core science wonks (who at last count, make up between 20 and 33% of my readers) will probably find the book superficial at best, and simplistic or flat-out wrong at worst, but for the simple but curious social science dilettantes (who make up 100% of Cafe Hazelthyme's authors), it was a fun afternoon.

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