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Everyday Survival – Laurence Gonzales ***

This, like every game of football comes in two halves. The first is a delight. There was no doubt while reading this that Everyday Survival would be awarded five stars. The second gets into a bit of a mess that doesn’t really merit more than two stars – so the resultant rating is an average.
I absolutely loved Laurence Gonzales’ description of how we make mistakes and errors when the way we are programmed to react, allowing the older, lower segments of the brain to take control, fails to cope with a misunderstanding or unnoticed change in the situation. I won’t spoil his policeman after training to disarm someone with a gun anecdote here, but it is absolutely wonderful – I’ve been telling everyone I can think on ever since. I even experienced this sort of error myself this week. Every Thursday I have to go and switch on the heating in a hall where I will be running an event in the evening. This Thursday I went along and flicked the switch. However, when I came back later the hall was cold. I hadn’t noticed someone had left the heating on. I was just programmed to flick the switch and didn’t notice I was turning it off rather than on. For me this was just a mild irritation. Gonzales shows us how it can lead to people putting themselves at risk or losing their lives.
The book is also interesting in the way it ventures into an exploration of early man, and apes to see where this programmed ability and survival risk comes from. However, then the book wanders, drifting out into global warming, our impact on the planet, the nature of entropy and our role as energy conduits, which collectively results in a handful of chapters that have none of the appeal of the early chapters, which ramble and really give the reader very little more than a vague sense of unease.
The contrast I think is nicely summed up in a wonderful line Gonzales gives us. ‘Exactly how does the big bang, some 10 or 20 million years ago, go about producing Fruity Cheerios?’ A wonderful idea, ruined by substituting ‘million’ for ‘billion.’ A real shame.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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