‘The Soul of an Octopus’ opens up a whole new world

By Ande Jacobson

Naturalist, Sy Montgomery, opens up a fascinating world that is foreign to most of us in her 2015, best-selling memoir, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. She tells her story of how she was introduced to her first octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA and was hooked. She was taken with their curious nature, their intelligence, their cunning, and their charisma. The book is her personal tribute to all that is the octopus as she educates her readers by dispelling many misconceptions and fears and bringing these extraordinary creatures to life on the page. The first thing she teaches readers is that the scientifically correct plural for octopus, contrary to common belief, is not the Latin “octopi.” The word octopus is derived from the Greek, oktṓpous, so the plural is instead “octopuses” despite what Dictionary.com may imply. She also gives an initial description of the animal thusly:

“Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin.”

Through her years working with the folks at the New England Aquarium, she joined an inner circle of staff and volunteers in getting to know a succession of octopuses. Behind the scenes, she was able to interact directly with these magnificent animals, letting them get to know her as she did them, and when she was with them, she felt time stand still. Each had its own unique personality. Some were game players. Others were downright cuddly in a slimy, octopus kind of way. And all of the octopuses she met there over time become dear friends as she, along with the octopus experts in the inner circle, plunged their arms into freezing water to let each octopus taste them with their suckers and get to know them.

An octopus is effectively a very dexterous snail without a shell, although it is far more capable and wily than a snail. Through many examples, Montgomery shows just how smart these creatures so alien to land dwellers actually are. She notes that as she watches them, they watch her with just as much fascination. Unlike mammals, octopuses have decentralized nervous systems that allow their arms to act independently without direct commands from their brain, a point that Montgomery drives home describing how one particular octopus stole a bucket of fish unnoticed while actively interacting with three people simultaneously. An octopus can also regenerate their arms if they get bitten off by a predator.

The key to determining the sex of a given octopus is to examine the tip of their third right arm. In females, their suckers extend to the tip of all of their arms. In males, the suckers do not extend all the way to the tip of their third right arm, known as the hectocotylized arm. While it would seem an easy task to identify the sex of an octopus, the animals often keep the tips of their arms curled, so it can take some time before the crucial arm tip is visible, even for those handling the octopuses directly. Montgomery provides a detailed look at how octopuses reproduce through her description of the Seattle Aquarium’s Annual Blind Date.

On Valentine’s Day each year, the Seattle Aquarium brings a pair of Giant Pacific Octopuses together to give them an opportunity to mate. The pair doesn’t always get along, but often they do, and the day brings a very large audience to observe. Montgomery documents one such event when she got the opportunity to fly across the country to attend the blind date several years into her study of octopuses.

Most octopus species are loners, only coming together at the end of their lives to mate. A female can lay up to 100,000 eggs, each the size and appearance of a grain of rice. The last undertaking of a female octopus is often laying and meticulously caring for those eggs until just before they hatch. Very few newly hatched octopuses survive to adulthood as the young are left to fend for themselves, their mother dying just before they emerge, and their father nowhere to be found. When they first hatch, they float amidst the plankton until they grow big enough to swim to the bottom of the sea to find a den, evade predators, and to hunt for their own food. If they do survive, octopuses are very short-lived; the Giant Pacific Octopus being the longest lived species lasts only 3-5 years.

Montgomery tells her story of her introduction to, and certification in, scuba diving. She describes her difficult start to her dive lessons and provides a detailed look into the dangers of the sport recounting not only her own experience, but also that of one of the close friends she made in Boston who was injured so badly he could no longer dive at all. She was determined to dive and after being certified, was invited to accompany some research teams on a couple of very eye opening expeditions around the world. Although focused on octopus behavior, she was also exposed to a whole new world in the wilds of the oceans off Mexico and French Polynesia. Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet, and there are far more animal species in the oceans than on land. Many aquatic animals can only be observed through dives, and others live so deep in the ocean that they have never been observed by humans.

It took Montgomery several years to complete her research for this book, and over that time, she came to know a few individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium. Because octopuses will often eat one another, the aquarium can only have one in their main public display tank, and as that octopus ages, they’ll acquire another younger octopus that they keep behind the scenes in a barrel type arrangement until the old octopus dies. Montgomery describes a few of the mishaps they had over the years with their octopuses. Unlike most of the aquatic animals cared for at the aquarium, octopuses are serious escape artists. Between their curiosity, intelligence, and dexterity, it’s a real challenge to create a truly escape-proof tank. They can hide in very small spaces, and if they do get out, they can actually run across the floor for a brief period. They can live outside of water for just under 30 minutes before they suffocate.

The book is a loving adventure story providing an inside look at these incredible creatures and is well worth a read. The writing is a little colloquial at times, and there are a few editorial errors, but the story is compelling and hard to put down.


Reference:
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery


A Good Reed Review also gratefully accepts donations via PayPal to help defray the costs of maintaining this site without creating paywalls.
Donate with PayPal

‘Why We Sleep’ shows that sleep makes us smarter and healthier

By Ande Jacobson

Matthew Walker, PhD is a world renowned sleep researcher who shares some astonishing, well-kept secrets in his 2017 New York Times Bestseller, Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams. In this fascinating book, Walker starts with the basics such as what sleep actually is, how widespread sleep is in the animal kingdom, and why it is needed. He goes on to explain what the various stages of sleep do for us and what happens when they are missed. He closes with an enlightening discussion of how our societal norms help and harm us with respect to sleep. To accomplish this, he breaks the book into four main parts including:

  1. This Thing Called Sleep
  2. Why Should You Sleep?
  3. How and Why We Dream
  4. From Sleeping Pills to Society Transformed

He draws a startling and compelling conclusion at the end. He also provides a helpful appendix drawn from the NIH Guide to Healthy Sleep with 12 common sense tips.

Walker’s book packs insights from decades of research and over three million years of evolution into under 350 pages, and it’s worth reading every word. He is a masterful storyteller citing numerous studies and expanded material via footnotes throughout the book to support his assertions. In format, while the index is extensive, the one thing missing is a consolidated bibliography that would help readers refer back to those informative studies. Continue reading

Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ takes readers on an unforgettable journey

By Ande Jacobson

Dan Brown is known for writing entertaining adventure stories centered on his fictional character, Harvard professor of symbology, Robert Langdon. Langdon is drawn as a kind of super-sleuth who uses his knowledge of symbols, particularly religious symbols, to solve earthshaking crimes. Brown’s 2013 book, Inferno, is the fourth in the Langdon series and takes a rather Malthusian look at the world as it intertwines imagery and symbols from Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno in a plot threatening human existence. Although written in 2013, the story has unexpected relevance now as the world takes steps to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Continue reading

Are we training people to fear rather than think?

By Ande Jacobson

Historically, the bastions of higher learning were centers of intellectual stimulation where students could gain exposure to myriad concepts, ideas, and philosophies and could participate in scientific advancement. The learning process gave students not only exposure to a broad spectrum of ideas, it helped them learn to examine those ideas critically to separate fact from fiction. It also taught them important skills to deal with intellectual and social challenges. It sometimes made them uncomfortable and encouraged them to use that discomfort to stretch themselves and grow. They learned the great value of being challenged intellectually as well as skills necessary for conflict resolution without resorting to violence. Starting around 2013, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt noticed a disturbing trend that was beginning to assert itself and was antithetical to the broad pursuit of knowledge on which colleges and universities thrived. This trend was exemplified by a combination “three Great Untruths:”

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

These three concepts are the basis for Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. They use the following criteria to determine if something is a Great Untruth (it must meet all three criteria):

  1. It contradicts ancient wisdom (ideas found widely in the wisdom literatures of many cultures).
  2. It contradicts modern psychological research on well-being.
  3. It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.

Continue reading

To dream of a world without caste

By Ande Jacobson

Isabel Wilkerson ends her latest book with a powerful truth:

            “A world without caste would set everyone free.”

The book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and it should be required reading for everyone, particularly in the United States. Most people in the U.S. are aware of the nation’s history of slavery that was theoretically vanquished after the Civil War. As many historians and journalists have written, it wasn’t really, and there is a much deeper pathology at play. Wilkerson crystalizes the formation and perpetuation of the caste system that persists to this day in the U.S. through a detailed exploration of how it relates to caste systems in India and in WWII Germany in her latest book which is part personal essay, part investigative journalism, and part history text. As difficult as many of the stories she relates are, she also offers ideas on how we might address and reform this vicious hierarchy, though to do so will require effort on all our parts. To do so would also allow us to finally achieve the key ideal set forth in our Declaration of Independence, i.e., true equality of all people. While the founders didn’t actually mean everyone, or even all men, the ultimate ideal expressed is still one to which we should all aspire. Instead, we have to date been plagued by a system of equality that is based on inequality. In other words, for the favored members of society to be equal amongst themselves, all others must be unequal. This U.S. system has been based on caste since before the founding of the nation despite the advances in equality stated in the law. Continue reading

‘Musicophilia’ – how music touches us all

By Ande Jacobson

In the preface of Oliver Sacks’ landmark book Musicophilia, he muses about how human interactions with music might puzzle a highly intelligent alien being with no frame of reference conjuring a scene from the world of Arthur C. Clarke. Science fiction aside, music is central to human existence, and yet on the surface it’s confounding trying to discern its purpose. Music can touch us in ways nothing else can. It can provide great solace. It can bring us to tears. It can excite us and inspire us. It can stimulate the brain and enhance learning. It can also torment us. Music can have these effects on us just by listening as well as in the course of making music. In the face of certain brain injuries or disease, it can also provide insights helping with diagnosis and can reach people who are otherwise uncommunicative. Drawing on extensive case studies, Dr. Sacks instructs, entertains, and enlightens readers on the complexities of human perceptions of music and just how important music is in innumerable circumstances. While this book will fascinate any musician wanting to understand their own musical drive, it will also delight non-musicians by opening up a whole world of perception they previously took for granted. Continue reading

How the South Won the Civil War unmasks the American paradox

By Ande Jacobson

Professor Heather Cox Richardson, a prominent professor of American history at Boston College, has gained notoriety in the last several months as the author of a popular series entitled “Letters from an American” which appear on her website as well as on her professional Facebook page on a nightly basis. She began writing these letters in early November 2019 in response to numerous questions she received trying to make sense of the political events of the day. In these letters she provides a nightly roundup of the day’s political news, and along the way, she provides lessons delving the depths of American history to show where many of these ideas and tactics originated. On April 1, 2020 (after she was well into her nightly series), her latest book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, was released. In this book, she describes what she refers to as the American paradox. This paradox is based on the principle that throughout American history, equality depended on inequality. She shows how this paradox started before the founding of the country and ripples throughout our nation’s history driving much of the division we see in American society today. Continue reading

Clive Fleury’s ‘Kill Code’ is a compelling read

By Ande Jacobson

In December 2018, TCK Publishing released a new science fiction novel, Kill Code, by Clive Fleury. This gripping dystopian story is packed with action, intrigue, and a hero who might just have bitten off more than he bargained for as he tries to right the wrongs he’s seen all too often. In a not-too-distant future look at the little blue marble in space, the planet is ravaged by climate changes. The planet, and especially the Los Angeles area, has heated beyond all imagination, and there are really only a few hours of daylight that are even partially tolerable. The oceans have risen so quickly that weekly measurements show massive encroachment on waterfront areas, and humans have been pushed further and further inland. Over the top of it all, corruption is rampant, normal citizens have lost almost everything, and Hogan Duran wants to do something about it.

Duran is a former soldier and disgraced cop living in squalor with his former police partner, Max Creeling. Creeling is now wheelchair bound after a shooting that ultimately got them both removed from the police force. Instead of just squeaking by, Duran wants to make a difference. After years of scrambling to get what work he could, an opportunity finally presents itself that Duran just can’t ignore. The prestigious National Security Council (NSC for short) beckons to him to join. Well to be fair, Duran had applied and been rejected several times, but finally he’s invited to take the entrance exam. There’s just one small problem. The test can be deadly. If that weren’t bad enough, Duran comes to realize, beyond the challenges of getting in, there are some terrible secrets that are even more dangerous.

The book is short, only 149 pages, and it moves very quickly, much like the pilot of an action-packed television series. This is not surprising given Fleury has produced, directed, or written several projects for television and film, so he knows those mediums well.

The story is told in first person from Duran’s point of view, so the reader can only know what he knows. The reader learns Duran’s and Creeling’s backstories early on, and when Duran makes his way to the gleaming NSC headquarters to try to win entrance into the elite NSC forces, several other characters are introduced, each with secrets in their past that unfold to Duran slowly throughout story. As such, some of the supporting characters are a little underdeveloped or single dimensional because Duran can be fooled, and by extension, so can the reader. Although portions of Kill Code read a bit like a script, Fleury adds plenty of descriptive material to allow the reader to easily visualize the settings as Duran experiences them.

There are a few minor editorial issues such as using the subject form “Max and I” when it should be “Max and me” as an object, but they can generally be forgiven as the reader digs into this fast-moving, near-future world.

In addition to being Fleury’s first novel, Kill Code is the first book in a series under development. While the series may well take the reader in numerous, unexpected directions, this particular story doesn’t so much resolve as setup the next installment of the story. As such, the last chapter ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging. Still, overall the book is an enjoyable read, and even though the world is dystopian, it provides a nice escape from the current world’s reality.

Kill Code is available in both paperback and digital formats.


References:
Kill Code: A Dystopian Science Fiction Novel
TCK Publishing
Clive Fleury’s other projects
Clive Fleury’s Author website


A Good Reed Review also gratefully accepts donations via PayPal to help defray the costs of maintaining this site without creating paywalls.
Donate with PayPal

What if you could see the future?

By Ande Jacobson

TCK Publishing brings a lot of new authors to light, and one of their latest is Jenna Ryan. Her debut novel, The Channeler: A Future Forewarned (Continuum Series Book 1), was published in January 2019. Classified as a young adult fantasy romance novel, Ryan covers a lot of ground in the book’s 241 pages. The story, told in first person by protagonist Caleb Michael Swift, nicely captures the college experience while mixing in copious amounts of supernaturally inspired angst. Caleb seeks a normal life as he navigates his junior year in college. He has lived with his “aunt” Nikki from a very young age. Readers eventually find out that Nikki isn’t really his aunt. She was his mother’s dearest friend, and she took him in after his mother’s untimely death. Caleb never knew his father, and as the story unfolds, he learns some very surprising things about him. Continue reading

Follow Peter Green into AfterLife, his new, “unliving” state of being

By Ande Jacobson

Peter Green and the Unliving Academy is Angelina Allsop’s first published book, initially offered under the title The Dead Orphanage, and it is also the first in her Young Adult (YA), AfterLife fantasy series. The book is filled with Allsop’s unique view of “AfterLife,” as distinguished from “Life.” There are plenty of otherworldly creatures such as werewolves, witches, vampires, poltergeists, skeletons, zombies, and ghosts, as well as a full assortment of “unliving” humans not possessing any special powers when compared to their peers. Of course, all of the unliving can do a few things unheard of in the living world. Continue reading