Monthly Archives: November 2012

Book: The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander
How to raise your kids (and how not to raise your kids).

Rambling framed as theory. Self-help style.
272 pages, ★★★

Bullying is a serious issue. We start by reading dozens of graphic examples of ‘bullycide’ (bullying-induced suicide) and fatal accidents that resulted from excessive physical torment. The next section is even more hard-hitting, when the author describes how schools sometimes support the bully—and even blame the victims. I was lucky to grow up in such a relatively peaceful place.

According to this book, the bullies, the bullied and the bystanders are not people, but roles that anyone can assume at any time. Many people switch between roles until they become comfortable with just one (according to this book).

We all know bullying when we see it. We all know where to intervene and where not to. But in large schools, all staff need to abide by the same moral compass, and that’s where written rules step in. Three sets of rules in this book are particularly useful:

First, the difference between teasing and bullying is detailed on page 32. Second, the difference between flirting and sexual bullying is detailed on page 36.

Finally, the author describes the ideal family. She coins the term, “Backbone family”, and describes a family that resembles that of Alex in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”. (Young Alex is open-minded and inquisitive, and his family generally supports him.) The author derides families that are rigid, incompetent, careless (“Brick Wall” and “Jellyfish”).

Credible theory aside, there’s a lot of repetition in this badly-organized book. It’s designed for skim-readers. On the negative side, there are even a few things missing, such as:

First, the author tells us how some families unwillingly encourage bullying behaviour in their children, but she doesn’t say whether other families can encourage “victim” or “bystander” behaviour. (I don’t know whether this is possible, but it’d be useful to know either way. It’s too controversial to write, perhaps.)

Second, we can’t protect our kids from junk food and violent video games all of the time. But when they come home having eaten sugary snacks during a Halo marathon at a friend’s house (or, with mobile gaming, during the school lunch break), what should the parents do? That information would also be useful.

This book is imperfect. Some stuff is missing, while other stuff is repeated. And while the theory makes sense, I don’t feel it’s the most agreeable set of rules and definitions out there. Teachers should follow the guidelines that schools give them—not anything from outside sources. Don’t read all of this book. Just read pages 32, 36, 123 and 135 and you’ll be as clued-up as I am. ★★★

Book: Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind

Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind
This is not a biology book.

Like stimulating conversation based only very loosely on six plants.
381 pages, ★★★★★

Seeds of Change is not a biology book. This book belongs alongside The Importance of Living, A Natural History of the Senses, and Home. This book is really a primer for fascinating conversation.

The book starts with exceeding confidence:

“It is gratifying for an author if a book remains in print; it is even more gratifying if no amendment has to be made because of new evidence” — page xi.

Thus, these two outdated statements, left uncorrected by new evidence humoured me:

“The term, “Negro” is used in this book to refer specifically to a West African black with sickle-cell anemia” — page 4.

“The actual population [of India] today is nearly 700 million” — page 11.

But the contradictions stop there. The book suddenly becomes gripping, describing historical events with interdisciplinary knowledge and an excellent arts/humanities/scientific balance. Here are just a few fascinating snippets:

  • Quinine (without quinine, there’d be no WW2, no Panama Canal, and only 100 million people in India)
  • Sugar (cultivating sugar was brutal work; about one slave would die per ton of sugar produced)
  • Cotton (Liverpool was built to cater to the slave-trade)
  • Tea (an interesting history written from a purely colonial perspective)
  • Potatoes (the Irish harvested corn very differently due to the unique climate)
  • Coca (Popeye’s spinach binges were actually shots of cocaine; but Middle America knew no better and per-capita consumption of spinach soared sixfold in a few decades)

Sweet thoughts in this book include:

“Potatoes floating ashore from the wrecked Armada in 1588 were alleged to have colonised western Ireland” — page 238.

Another thought-provoking snippet is this:

“The illegal drug scene is an oddity that if the opiates and the coca derivatives were legalized, the drugs themselves would be cheap and there would be no criminality, no drug scene and much less money-laundering and thousands of addicts would foreshorten their lives and the genes which give rise to addiction (which may or may not exist) would not not multiply as they do now” — page 295.

I think there’s room for a sequel that features another five plants: hemp, cocoa, corn, rice and bananas. Each of them changed the world profoundly, and each come with an abundance of interesting stories to tell.

The topics in this book are so broad, so important, yet so little-known, that they make for excellent conversation. I wish for a sequel. ★★★★★