Book Review – The Boy Who Played With Fusion, Clynes

I’m not sure that ‘giftedness’ is a gift

Copyright Dennis Mitton


In The Boy Who Played With Fusion Tom Clynes writes an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy, biography of young Taylor Wilson. Taylor is different. He is an obsessive child except obsessive doesn’t capture the bonfire of his drive. He is immovable. He is an arrow shot that never quits until it hits its target. He is single-minded to the point of forgoing food, safety, and friends. He is the youngest person to have built a nuclear fusion reactor. To say that he would be a handful to raise is an understatement.

Clynes braids together three stories. One is the biography of an agonizingly obsessive and catered-to youth, another is a story about ‘extreme parenting’, and another is a story about academic giftedness. Strewn throughout the book is the breadcrumb trail of Taylor’s brother Joey. Joey is gifted, too, but is overshadowed in almost every way by the loud light of his brother. This book is about Taylor and not Joey, but any exploration of parenting and giftedness should have included more on the younger brother who was continually lost in his brother’s shadow.

The story of Taylor is a good one. It’s well written and interesting. The boy is demanding and obsessive from the womb. As a child, he jumps from interest to interest like most kids do except that Taylor jumps in with both feet and drags the family with him. Any boundaries that he bumps into are punctured by his parents for their own sanity. That he is catered to is understandable. I have a child like this myself. You give in or the entire family pays the price. At around ten, Taylor finally settles into nuclear physics and begins collecting gadgets and throw-aways and builds a makeshift ‘lab’ where he conducts experiments. From here Clynes details the story that leads to Taylor developing a fusion reactor in the basement of the University of Nevada. I applaud Taylor for much. When other kids were putting playing cards in their bicycle spokes, Taylor was collecting radioactive rocks and selling them on eBay to support his habit. If an equation stood in the way of his next step he hunkered down and learned the math. Though there is some darkness to the story, Taylor deserves what he has earned.

Making time for a quick meal. Let’s hope he decontaminated himself before eating.

Interspersed within the story of Taylor’s fusion project are the other threads of the story and they aren’t as bright. Taylor finally lands at an experimental high school in Nevada (The Davidson Academy) for exceptionally intelligent children where he has the same struggles as every high schooler. He stumbles a bit with girls and friends. He crosses lines that he hasn’t been held to in other schools where he was given free reign to roam. But normal teen angst seems exaggerated here where every child is exceptional, preened, and hand-selected. For most of the kids attending this is the first time that they have had to compete for excellence or for attention.

Extreme parenting’ is another theme drawn out through the book. If ‘extreme’ means excellent then I’m not sure that I’m on board. From Taylor’s first interests, the Wilson family becomes a business enterprise for keeping Taylor happy. Dad or mom spend weekends driving around the country to placate Taylor and family life revolves around talks, experiments, and the budding celebrity of their oldest child. The younger boy, at least in this book, is left almost entirely in shadows and is often found alone in his bedroom. Gifted too, his interests nor his personality are as loud or spectacular as his brother’s. There is an imbalance here fraught with potential for future problems.

At the helm of his fusion reactor

I don’t know Taylor and am guessing that as a young adult he is adjusted and kind. He seems to have a genuine sweetness and is incapable  of guile. His effusive love of science, and especially of physics, overrides any boasting or childhood pettiness. The book closes with Taylor’s decision to accept a Thiel Fellowship that comes with a $100,000 grant and the requirement to drop out of school to pursue ‘other work’. It’s not the decision I would have made. There are things he would learn in a university setting that he won’t otherwise. Living at school, reading Spanish peasant lit, competing and collaborating with other people as accomplished as you are, and befriending people from outside your culture and habits are things we rarely pursue on our own. And each is as valuable for health and happiness.

A good weekend read with lots of food for thought. 7e(-0.693(10)/20) stars.

See Taylor’s website here.
The Taylor Wilson page at Wiki here.
The book at Amazon.
Book reviews at Goodreads.





Book Review – Reset Your Child’s Brain, Dunckley

Why can’t my child be as wonderful as I was?

Copyright Dennis Mitton

51y2ed6edql-_sx331_bo1204203200_I’m cleaning up some book review files so will be posting a few over the next weeks as time allows. Enjoy or cajole or throw stones as you see fit.

Reset Your Child’s Brain, Victoria Dunckley, MD

There was a time – in the glorious and gilded days when I was a child – when we picked up our rooms and wore bow ties to school. I knew what a tough day mom had so I always offered to clear the table. I said ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No Sir’. And imagine my shock when, on my wedding night, I learned that girls and boys look different without underwear?

Yes. This is preposterous and silly. But there is a sense of urgency in Victoria Dunckley’s Reset Your Child’s Brain that harkens back to those good ol’ days that never were. She promises to ‘End meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time’. I don’t care what era or what the evils: this is a fantastic sales pitch that will never fail to sell books.

Dunckley’s argument is that electronic activities trick your brain into thinking you are under attack. Your heart rate and breath quicken. Plasma cortisol increases. You sweat. You begin to identify with game characters. You start to buy into the sales pitch. You become a minion. There is evidence that all of this is true – but to what degree?  The research is, by nature, correlative with almost no way to prove causation. What, really, is the cause of Johnny’s poor grades? Loss of the family dinner table? New math? Or mom’s iPhone? All have a part and no single ingredient will solve any crisis. Dunckley provides research references but take care to bring along a grain of salt. Any research involving children or even humans is tough to pull causation from. Most of these have a very small sample size which makes finding significant differences difficult at best. There might very well be something important here but as most doctors and researchers agree a lot more long-term research is required.

You see? Neither me nor any child I knew would have acted like this!

But I don’t in any way write Dunckley off. She’s a respected child psychologist who looks at the whole life rather than treating ailments symptomatically. And while maybe not a panacea, I can’t argue with her advice – lay off the electronics. Make sure important things are done first. Keep them active and socially involved. I’m not sure if this is a revolution in child rearing in the modern age or just good advice that your grandmother gave. I’ve done this with my own children. It will surprise no parent that after a steady stream of Teen Titans Go!  or Adventure Time my kids are sassy brats who think their parents are idiots. I notice a calming change when I put limits on game, phone, and TV use. But I can’t say for sure that I am stemming psychological changes or if I’m simply making sure that important things are done first. We make sure that the kids are active and play with friends. Electronics are mostly for free time when life slows a bit. Yes, I would prefer that they write to pen pals in Paris or read the classics in Latin but, geez, they’re kids. I whiled away in-between times with car models and Iron Man comics. I turned out alright. Maybe.

As an interesting and relevant aside, I encourage parents to read about ADHD treatment in France. Per the Amen Clinic, fully 80-85% of ADHD medications are prescribed in the US. France has much lower rates of all childhood behavioral issues but only prescribes medication after a full dietary, behavioral, and social work up of the entire family. Normal French discipline is cited as well by providing more stringent guidelines of proper behavior instead of the more free or non-existent discipline of American families. Interesting stuff.

See the Amen clinic write up here.
See Psychology Today here.

I encourage all parents to read the book. You have to tip-toe a bit through hyperbole but the information presented is important and relevant.

And a story with a question – I read about three pages of a Stephen King book and put it down scared out of my wits. I haven’t a clue as to the title but bushes began to uproot themselves and chase the poor heroes to their death. I was so scared I’ve never read anything else by King. I am sure that my blood cortisol and heart rate were elevated and that I began to sweat. I identified with the characters to the point of putting the book down I was so scared. So maybe – ? – it’s the content and not the medium? Or both?

Three and a half stars.


War, belonging, and evolution

Evolution explains why soldiers long to be back in the battle

I listened to an interview with Sebastian Junger recently about war, belonging, and his new book Tribe.

His take comes from evolutionary biology and the idea of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. This term is used to describe the context in which organisms evolve. It’s an tacit argument that we are best suited for a particular environment and that, when put in a novel circumstance, we may or may not be able to perform at our best or in predictable ways. (And many people believe that all of modern civilization is a novelty that we are unprepared for.) It’s the putative explanation for the ‘paleo diet’ (that and money) and for deer standing still in headlights: there is nothing in their evolutionary past that prepares them for a three thousand pound piece of steel moving toward them so fast that they aren’t able to respond.

Junger is a war reporter and, among other things, argues that human beings are happiest living in groups. Groups provide meaning and purpose to individuals who tend to be lost when unconnected. He notes that while women tend toward thoughtful organization, young men are hard-wired to protect and provide. He reports of repeated findings that young men, after returning home from overseas duty, long for the days of  battle. They had a noble purpose, camaraderie, and a common goal. In one study, cortisol levels were checked in a group of soldiers in the battle field. The results were reversed from what was expected. Without an enemy, the stress hormone was high. When the enemy was spotted, and a timeframe for the potentially lethal battle was known, nerves calmed and cortisol dropped. The explanation is that there is uncertainty before the battle. But when the enemy is spotted, then training kicks in. Polishing guns and stacking sandbags and loading ammo all become part of a familiar dance that you will perform with your closest friends. Like Northmen ravaging England, soldiers are happy to die in this way.  Then, imagine the confusion of coming home. After being relied on to defend and to save the country, we bring these men and women home to relative isolation and treat them as broken.

Junger notes that problems with these mostly young people don’t show up in the field but at home back on friendly soil. Once the homecoming parties are over, the vet is left alone without any overarching purpose except for whatever he or she can generate for themselves. Our prosperity and safety, it seems, contribute to our national problems by leaving people wired to do things with nothing to do. In the past, this was different. During WWII, the men who fought came home as heroes with a new charge of rebuilding the country.  Plumbing and truck driving were honorable professions that contributed to the country. Vets went to college in droves. Today we put vets on permanent disability when they self-identify as having PTSD. We treat them as broken and, when they recognize their brokenness, we reward them for it.

So what does this all mean? The ramifications swing from enormous to simple. It helps me understand why humans search for meaning. It makes me wonder how isolation contributes to health issues for Westerners everywhere. It makes me wonder how much life I’ve missed out on by keeping away from groups? It tells me to let the young kids sleep in the same room as mom and dad – this is, after all, how all animals live. It tells me, as evolution always seems to, that our history is a key to our future.


Do wasteful thoughts keep you suspended in mid-air?

There is hard ground below – make a softer landing by choosing your thoughts.

I’ve started reading Sean Carroll‘s so-far-fantastic-book The Big Picture. It’s tagged as an exploration of origins of life, origins of meaning, and the origins of the universe. What could be more fun?? My Kindle lists it at 840 pages but so far each one is worth reading so I expect it will jog all kinds of thoughts and questions that I will translate into daily posts.

The book opens with Wile E. Coyote defying gravity after running headlong over a steep cliff. Thinking about this I started to write one thing, and then, mid-paragraph, I thought that, no, this isn’t right, I always advise just the opposite. So I return to one of my favorite topics – things are often more complex than they seem – and offer up the following:

My first thought, with Wile E. floating above the hard sand below, was of my Mother. I’ve written much about my Father but my Mom is worthy of a few stories in her own right. What made me think of her here is how she stops in the middle of everything to assess the minutia of relationships. Everything is parsed and scrutinized. Motivations, real meanings or words, why someone used that particular word, is all sieved and funneled as she re-evaluates her entire history with that person. And that’s just before breakfast. Okay. I’m exaggerating a bit but it’s entirely exhausting to me. I am of that happy and dopey ilk who doesn’t notice these things. I know that when they are mad,people say things they don’t always think. I know that there are times when people play word-games and mind-games. In general, I’m just so interested in what I’m doing that I’m not that bothered by what you are doing. Some say it’s a flaw. I say it keeps me out of a lot of hot water. I finally did an end-around with my Mom during one of her “now, don’t tell your sister this…’ phone calls: I told here that I don’t want to know anything that I can’t tell someone to their face at the Christmas party. She said Okay and then didn’t talk to me for six months. We’ve got on fine ever since. I’m seriously out of the family gossip loop and I can’t say how many days or weeks of good living I’ve recovered.

How does this relate to the cartoon? My first thought when I read Carroll was how debilitating it can be to stop and assess every meaningless thing around you. But no more had I thought that than I tripped over the word ‘meaningless’. These things are obviously meaningful to my Mother. They are not to me. But I am a great fan of thoughtful living. Of moving through life intentionally. Of decoding your beliefs and culture and feelings.

So the takeaway is to choose what to think about. If it’s how your son-in-law wears his shirt around your house then that’s your decision. It’s okay. It’s not what I want to focus on. That’s okay, too. Just remember that when you are suspended in mid-air, you are going to fall and hit hard ground. Maybe what we think about can make the landing a little less bruising.

Have a little humility – life is mostly luck

Remember a little humility. Success in life is mostly luck.

Copyright Dennis Mitton

The single most important thing you can do to ensure personal success is be born in a first world country. Almost everything else we do is just jockeying for position. Imagine being born in Albania or Madagascar in the 1950’s or ’60’s. Keeping your belly full without working yourself to death was a full- time job. In your spare time maybe you learned to read and maybe you didn’t.

I thought about this today while I read about a certain type of brain damage that exhibits in linguistic problems. Not in memory like with Alzheimer’s, but in word usage errors. In one form you lose an understanding of or an ability to use – no one knows for sure – connecting words. Your speech comes out like a telex: Food. Table. Sit. The person speaking doesn’t appear to know that he or she is speaking like this but they believe that they are chatting away like they always have. Do they wonder why people around them have scrunched faces and are not moving to the table for dinner? Apparently these folks can improve in speech over time. But for those who speak gibberish, it’s harder. These folks also think they are carrying on a conversation but their speech is a mixture of words both real and made up and in no order. It’s as if words are stored in file boxes and when we speak the brain selects words by box number. But someone has gone and mixed up the words and made new ones. When the speaker says , “Say, Jane, shall we chambre the wine? Jane hears “Bluster mid lamp lamp rain otit.” How to live with this I don’t know. From either side of the conversation.

I thought about how heart breaking it would be for my wife to have such an odd condition. Or my child. How hard it has to be to live with someone like this, with such confusion. How impossibly hard for the person with the condition to be trapped inside a world of people who seem to have lost understanding.

It makes be feel humble for what we have. We’ve worked for things, true, and we work hard on our family. But it can all fade. Today or maybe in the morning. When my Dad was dying he told me to do what ever I wanted to do today. Leave now! You might think you have tomorrow but it comes and goes almost too fast to see it.

Do it before the bad guys break in

I think about a lot of things when I run. Today I thought about the ring and necklace found sealed in a mug in the Auschwitz Museum that I mentioned yesterday.

I’m a list junkie. I make lists just for the fun of crossing things off my lists. A few days ago, I was looking through some paper and found an old list of Things to Think About. Right in the middle, between ‘vitamin D metabolism’ and ‘who/whom?’ is ‘Think about dying’.

Hang on to that and move to television. I watch The Americans. It’s the best show on TV though I am a lousy judge – it’s the only show I watch. This week, after retiring and living a life that he felt was important, John Boy from The Waltons, here an FBI station chief, is approached by the bad guys. He attempts to flee through a closed glass door and a shard of glass pierces his stomach. He lays there and in a matter of mere minutes his life and hopes and dreams and loves leak out in a mess on the floor around him. I turn to my wife: this can happen to any of us at any time. One blink and it’s gone.

Then there was my Father, dying of cancer and well aware of the fact. “Denn? I don’t care what you want to do. Do it today. All my life I’ve kept a list in my head of things I would do if I knew I was dying. Now I’m dying. Not only have I lost the physical power to do anything but I’ve lost the emotional will, too. I’m just too tired to even think about it.”

So I went out and bought a Porsche. I sold it later but it was great. Good god it was glorious. Now, when my kids need me for the fourteenth time, or when my wife wants to watch The Americans, or when the dog stares at me with such a pure love for the alpha male that it’s comical, I enjoy it knowing that at any moment the bad guys can break in.


Book Excerpt – How I Learned to Judge a Man by the Content of His Character

In the series Fathers and Sons I took about a year to publish installments about how my Father came to be who he was and how he passed life lessons on to me. Since then I’ve published the series in a book, also titled Fathers and Sons, in both Kindle and Nook platforms. In this particular story – I write about how Dad taught me to judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin.

Mom and dad were sun worshipers. They loved to grease up and bake. When I was maybe nine or ten they decided that we needed a pool. A real pool. A little slice of sunny Palm Springs plopped down in misty Tacoma. Maybe they beat Kevin Costner to it and thought ‘ifIMG we build it then the sun will come”. These were days before credit cards or home equity loans so dad decided to start a lawn care business. We had the nicest yard in three counties so it was a good fit. Dad bought a truck – a green 1963 Chevy – a few mowers, lifted me into the truck to carry buckets, and we were off.

Business was good and we were busy. Once we had a call from a guy who was hosting a family get together on the next Saturday. Could we come over Friday and clean the place up – make it shine? We showed up Friday morning to see that he lived on one of those odd lots in Tacoma where the road is cut right through a hill. Backyards are flat and large and front yards are cliffs. Over the years – these houses were built in the ‘30’s – owners have terraced most yards to make them manageable. But not this one. The front fell right to the road with a grass carpet growing about a foot high. No one had heard of weed eaters yet so dad and the owner – who was maybe the first Black man I ever shook hands with – agreed to hit the back yard hard for the party and worry about the front another time. They shook on a price and we went to work.

It was hot and sometime around mid-afternoon the guy came out of the house with lemonade. We stood around for a minute cooling off and he dropped the bomb. “Hey. When you guys make it around to the front yard can you…” Dad busted right in. “We’re not doing the front. We can’t do the front. We talked about it.” The guy blew up. “Why in the hell would I hire a guy to do my yard and not do the front? You expect me to pay you for ripping me off?” He was yelling loud and waving his arms and even I knew we had been had. Without a word of discussion dad yelled to the sky “Den! Load up the truck. We’re outta here!”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy. I don’t know if he stayed in the yard and yelled back but I started tossing hoes and prongs and buckets in the bed of the truck as fast as I could. Dad tossed in the mowers and emptied the wheelbarrow on the lawn before putting it away. “Get in the truck!”

He’s a jerk but you don’t have to be one too.

We sprayed a little gravel and sped off. It was surreal for me as a young kid. We were working, sipping lemonade, and enjoying the day and in an instant it all fell away in a fury of arms and shouts. We drove about a mile or two and – it’s weird how memory works – parked in front of the Tacoma Public Library. I probably wondered if I was in trouble too. We sat for a minute while Dad kind of gathered himself up. Finally he turned to me and said, “Den? I want to let you know something. That guy back there was an asshole. (Now we were swearing together like men!) You’re going to meet all kinds and jerks and asses. It doesn’t have anything to do with him being Black. Asses come in white, black, red, yellow. It doesn’t matter. You’ll meet lots of asses and lots of good people and none of it ever has anything to do with their color. It comes from what’s inside.

Then we drove off. It’s the last I ever remember talking about it but it was an expectation in our home that people were judged on what they did not on what they looked like.

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