Book Discussion: Cold-War-Era, Post-Nuclear-War Fiction

February 21, 2012 12:45 pm

I've been on a bit of a post-apocalyptic fiction binge. I've just finished reading three cold-war-era, post-nuclear-war books.

AlasBabylon(1stEd)I started with Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.  Published in 1959, it details a small town's struggle to cope with the results of a U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear war.  Much of the U.S. survives the war and enough government continues to exist to maintain order and rebuild the nation.

The bulk of the story is concerned with the need to find safe drinking water, food, sanitation, and supplies; the loss of electricity; the lack of medicines; etc.  The town creates a trading post where people can barter for supplies.  Some townspeople breakdown and can't deal with it, some townspeople take advantage of the situation to loot, rob, and steal.  The characters deal with reinstating order and protecting the town while waiting for contact from the outside world.

It was interesting and I really enjoyed it.  But, I feel like it may have been a little too optimistic.  Compared to the other books it feels lighthearted.  Sure some things go poorly and people die, but overall things aren't so bad.

A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz_cover_1st_edIn counterpoint is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr., published in 1960.  It covers the rebirth of civilization after a nuclear apocalypse.  Rather than a survival story, though, it's written in a much different style.  The only other work like it I know of is Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (which were published in 1951, 1952, 1953--I wonder if Miller read them and borrowed the idea).  Meaning, it's not a story of a character or set of characters, but it's a story of a civilization.  The book covers about 1200 years starting many centuries past the nuclear apocalypse and eventually seeing civilization obliterate itself again in another nuclear apocalypse.

After the initial nuclear war, civilization collapsed and slipped into warring tribes and factions.  A surviving scientist realized the threat to mankind's knowledge and worked with the surviving Catholic church to found a monastic order dedicated to seeking out and preserving knowledge.  These monks dedicated the centuries to collecting, preserving, and copying what they could find of any and all of mankind's knowledge; waiting and hoping for a day when that knowledge would help mankind rebuild civilization.

Miller does an excellent job of allowing the history of the world and civilization's downfall to devolve into mythology that then become wrapped up into the remnants of Catholicism.  It's a fairly intellectual-level book.  It's not about action, emotion, or being absorbed by the characters, it's about the big picture.

OnTheBeachFilling in the gap between immediate survival and civilization's collapse is Nevil Shute's hauntingly effective On the Beach, published in 1957.  In this version of nuclear holocaust the Southern Hemisphere is uninvolved in the nuclear war that encompasses the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.  Set two years after the war we follow the dying struggles of the Australian continent.  Having not participated in the war they have no direct losses, but the extreme radiological contamination in the atmosphere is slowly working its way to their continent.

Two American nuclear submarines survived the conflict and, having placed themselves at the disposal of surviving governments, perform scouting missions in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans searching for survivors in the Northern Hemisphere.  None are found.  The fallout slowly works its way south killing everything in its path.

Even with two years knowledge of their fate the population begins to fray as normal behavior becomes meaningless in the face of having only months, then weeks, then days left to live.  Slowly they lose contact with the remaining more-northern cities around the world as the contamination settles in.  Knowing their fate the government has prepared suicide capsules and injections, to be dispersed as the end draws near, to allow the people to die painlessly.

The novel ends as the young mother and father and their infant daughter become symptomatic.  As their sickness progresses they make the painful decision to inject their suffering baby and then take their own capsules, saving themselves from the final agonies of radiation-poisoning.  It was heart-wrenching and incredibly effective (perhaps especially to someone with an infant daughter sleeping in the next room).

On the Beach is easily the most depressing, and one of the most powerful, books I've read.  Yet even so, I'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed reading it, but it's definitely worth reading.

Car trouble update

February 15, 2012 5:37 pm

So we took Jess' car back to the shop and they said they'd look at it again without charging us anything until/unless they identified a problem.

They did a load test on the battery and, surprise, it wasn't providing enough current. (Well duh, it was dead and we had to jump start the car to get it to the shop.) So they put it on a charger for a few hours and then tested it again and it was fine. So they let it sit for several hours and then tested it again and it was still fine. So we had them keep it over the weekend and they tested it again Monday morning and it was still fine.

So we picked it up and came back home and it's been sitting since then until this afternoon when Jess needed to go somewhere again. And it started fine. So the problem seems to be fixed and the issue was just that the battery hadn't be charged up again after being dead originally.

Which just makes me wonder: When a customer brings in a car with a completely dead battery and you replace the alternator, shouldn't standard procedure be to hook the battery up to a charger to get it back to a full charge before having the customer pick up the vehicle?

Well, apparently not. So unless they did something else without owning up to it the residual problem was just an under-charged battery. Regardless, we didn't have to pay any more than we already had, so I at least don't have to be grumpy about that.

End of story.

Car trouble

February 8, 2012 10:12 pm


Jess' car's battery was completely dead when she went to use it last week.  Completely dead meaning no lights or anything.  I checked the voltage with my multimeter and found the battery could only provide a couple dozen millivolts, which I thought was unusual for most normal car battery problems (and the battery is only 4 months old).  My thought was something was leaving a load on the battery even when the car was off.  But since I know next to nothing about cars I didn't put much stock in the idea.

We jumped it and it ran fine and the alternator was providing a charge voltage (tested with my multimeter), though I don't have the ability to test how much current the alternator is providing.  A couple days later, Jess goes to drive somewhere and, again, the battery is completely dead.  So we jumped it and drove it to the shop.

I tell them what's up, along with my thought that something is leaving a load on the battery.  Their tests determine that the alternator is not performing correctly and replace it for somewhere north of $500 for parts and labor.

Yesterday, we pick up the car and it seems fine.

Today, Jess tries to drive it somewhere and it won't start and the battery is low.  It's down to 9 volts and, after some finagling to get the alarm to be quiet, I was able to determine that one of the circuits (meaning the circuit running through a specific fuse) is pulling a load off the battery of several hundred milliamps to almost a full amp (but I can't tell for sure how much since the battery is so low now).

I understand some load is normal (since you want things like your radio to keep its settings and your remote lock/unlock to work), but my reading suggests that up to maybe 50mA is acceptable.

So now I'm annoyed that I was probably right in my parasitic-load hypothesis and yet we paid for a new alternator.  It very well may have needed an alternator, but that clearly wasn't the _only_ problem, if it even was a problem, which I'm not convinced it was.

Would it be unreasonable to expect the shop to provide some kind of financial consideration when they fix the actual problem?

Book Discussion: Punished by Rewards (Part 3 - The Alternatives)

February 3, 2012 4:40 pm

51EJGHFCM5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_In Part 1 I discussed Kohn's argument for rewards/punishments creating self-centered individuals and how urging a focus on rewards/punishments can have unintended consequences by encouraging short-cutting the desired behavior in order to satisfy the requirements of receiving the reward or avoiding the punishment.

In Part 2 I discussed motivation and the interaction between it and rewards/punishments.

Here, in Part 3, I will go over Kohn's suggested alternatives to rewards and punishments.


If you have now bought in to the idea that rewards and punishments are not only ineffective but counter-productive, long term, (and even if you haven't) then you likely want to know what Kohn suggests as an alternative.

He starts with an important question, "What is your goal?"  If your goal is to simply elicit compliance with your demands then there may not be an alternative to rewards and punishment and you probably don't need one.  So the first question is, do you want blind obedience or internalization of principles?  Back in part 1 I asked you to consider the question of what is is you want your employee/student/child to achieve.  This is where it really matters.

When parents are asked what kind of people they want their children to become they usually respond with things along the lines of: caring, responsible, hard working, self reliant, upstanding, principled, etc.  Unfortunately, with the possible exception of "hard working," rewards/punishments will help develop none of these qualities.

Rewards and punishments make an appeal to authority and self-interest for why we should behave certain ways.  You do this because someone in authority says so and if you don't that person will make your life unpleasant.  You do that because someone in authority says so and if you do that person will make your life more pleasant.  It's condescending.  But it does encourage unquestioning obedience to power.  It reinforces the idea that "might equals right."  But we can pretty much all agree that it is a flawed sentiment.  It is not inherently correct to obey someone because they have more power than you do.

They also contribute to the idea that it's OK to manipulate the people around you to get what you want.  Is that not exactly what is happening when a parent bribes a child to pick up their toys?  Is that not exactly what is happening when a teacher promises a class party if everyone gets an A on the test?  And is that not exactly what is happening when an employer promises bonuses to (or threatens firing) employees based on their performance?

Just think how disturbing it would be to witness a husband tell his wife, "If you have all the floors clean when I come home I'll bring you some flowers."  So why do we think it's fundamentally different when we turn around and say to a child, "If you pick up all your toys I'll give you some ice-cream."?  It seems clear that the lesson is that manipulation is not only acceptable, but desirable.

The Alternatives

One piece of the alternative solution is to appeal to reason and empathy in our behavioral guidance (in so far as the situation permits).  "Because I said so" is one of the most useless phrases of parenting and almost universally breeds resentment.  It directly says that there isn't any meaningful reason to take this action other than I want you to and I'm in charge so you have to do as I say.  It comes with no influencing power except the threat of punishment for non-compliance.

Instead of threats or bribes, Kohn suggests explaining the reasoning behind a request.  A calm reasoned approach to help a person understand why they should do something.  As a manager telling your employees they'll be working late tonight is disrespectful.  Explaining to them that such-and-such needs to be done before tomorrow morning, and that you realize it's unpleasant to stay late, is less likely to result in disgruntled resentment (though it probably still won't make anyone happy).

Explaining to a student the utility of learning calculus is more effective (at least it was for me) than just saying it's part of the curriculum.  This idea really resonated with me because I always found a subject more interesting if I could see useful applications of it within my life.  Understanding that calculus was invented in order to accurately describe physics made it more interesting (especially when applied to specific problems).  Doing contrived problem set after contrived problem set of multi-variable equations while in college was not interesting.

Now, I'm sure every parent is going scoff at the idea of calmly explaining to your toddler why drawing on the wall with poop is unacceptable.  But what are they learning if you punish them?  They might learn that drawing on the wall with poop is unacceptable, they might learn that they need to be more careful not to get caught, or they might learn that you're mean and bully people around.  You don't get to control what they learn from the punishment.  So is trying to explain really such a horrible thing?

For those wondering, yes, Alfie Kohn does have children.  He freely admits that it is hard to use his recommended approach.  It requires a lot of patience.  It is much less effort to simply bribe or threaten, but the research still stands that the long-term consequences will be negative.

"Working with" Rather than "Doing to"

One of Kohn's themes is the idea of approaching children with an attitude of "working with" rather than "doing to."  He suggests that at some point our relationship with our children needs to change from doing things to them to doing things with them (or working with them to solve problems).  When you have an infant you take them on a walk.  As they grow our mindset should change to going on a walk with them.  This is the fundamental shift behind the idea of working with rather than doing to.

To acknowledge that at some point the child is becoming an individual with their own ideas, emotions, and desires is to realize that doing things "to" them can be as disrespectful as doing things "to" another adult.  He suggests we can apply the three C's to help with this process: Content, Collaboration, Choice.  And I'll keep this brief, since we're running quite long now.


Kohn suggests we should reevaluate our requests.  Does what we're asking make sense?  Is it reasonable?  Is there a good reason behind it or is it solely for our convenience?  Is it fair to demand compliance solely for our own convenience?


Kohn suggests that when a child makes a mistake we should try to work with them to find a way to make the situation right rather than punish.  Instead of bribing them to do what we want we should try to work with them to get the task done (in so far as the task permits).  With this approach a child is more likely to learn that they can come to you for help fixing something when they make a mistake instead of trying to hide from you to avoid punishment.  They can learn that you are there to help and not to bully.


This should be the opportunity for children to make real choices in their life.  This is not the idea of choices where we use the words "you chose" as a lead up to a punishment ("You chose to color on the wall, so you chose to go to your room.").  It is also not the idea of choices where we offer a couple of acceptable options so that we get what we want no matter the "choice."  This can even mean allowing children to make bad choices (when the results will hopefully present a learning scenario and not lead to permanent damage).

This is the process of letting children become autonomous.  In order to learn how to live their own life they need to be given the opportunity to make choices.  A lack of this opportunity sometimes manifests itself in complete disaster then the child finally leaves home to live their own life.  A sudden requirement of making choices can be disastrous to someone who hasn't had the opportunity to do so in an environment where it is easy to recover from bad choices.

Developing a self-awareness and autonomy can help children develop and uphold ethical and moral principles.  When they've been taught that they can and should think for themselves they'll be much more likely to stand up for the things they think and believe when challenged.  They'll also be less likely to accept outside influences because they will have learned the value of their own autonomy.

Final Thoughts

Due to length I've ignored most of the business applications that Kohn discusses.  They're also very interesting and Kohn dives into them fully in the book.

If you can't tell, I found the book very interesting, but I've done a weak and short job of presenting Kohn's ideas here.  If you found them intriguing I highly recommend you pick up the book and read through it yourself.  I hope to be able to apply Kohn's suggestions in my life.  I think it represents a better way of dealing with people, including children.  I don't want to control or manipulate my children because I hate being controlled and manipulated.  I do want to help them grow into responsible, caring, self-aware, principled adults.  And I realize it will be difficult to do so.