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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in btripp_books' LiveJournal:

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    Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
    10:18 pm
    Howdy ...
    After many years of not reading (the details of this strange condition, a side-effect of running my own publishing company, can be found in the early entries here), I got back into the habit around 2002, and in February 2004 began to post (in my main LiveJournal) little reviews of books as I read them.

    In November 2005, I discovered LibraryThing and began to log in my extensive library. As there is a "review" section for every book listed there, it occurred to me that linking back to my book review posts might be a useful thing to do.

    However, I didn't want to "blur the lines" dividing what I primarily use LiveJournal for and what I see LibraryThing being. As such, I started this new journal, just for my book reviews, and have copied over all the book review posts from my main journal to this new one.

    Still under development:   BTRIPP's Reviews - Alphabetical by Author


              {EDIT}          By the way...

    EVERYTHING ON THIS SITE (http://btripp-books.livejournal.com/ and all subsidiary pages)
    IS COPYRIGHT © 2007-2015 BY BRENDAN TRIPP.

    Due to recent developments at LibraryThing.com relating to users' book reviews, I felt a need to make a formal statement of copyright claim.


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    Thursday, June 18th, 2015
    3:56 pm
    For those about to Tweet ...
    So, this was one of those books that I got wind of on-line and dropped a note to the publisher to request a copy. Fortunately, it's another title from the good folks at Wiley, who are always quite accommodating of my asking for review copies.

    To be honest, I've been using Twitter for so long (over 8 years … I was one of the first 3 million users – out of nearly 650 million total users), that I wasn't particularly anticipating learning very much in this volume, but with enthusiastic referrals like that one ==> from Chris Brogan (click on pic for a bigger version … he seems to be enjoying it!), I could hardly have not opted to give it a read.

    Now, Twitter Power 3.0: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time isn't just a book about using Twitter, but about using it as a vehicle for building brands. In it, authors Joel Comm (who you may recall I've reviewed previously) and Dave Taylor both set up (quite literally – the first third or more of the book is pretty much step-by-step on getting a Twitter account going) Twitter for those unfamiliar with it, and delve into their recommendations on how to use it for business.

    The book starts at about a basic level as one could ask for … explaining “social media”, and how that's evolved, and why it's important … then moves into looking at Twitter in the context of the whole social media environment. The book is extensively illustrated with screen grabs, so the reader doesn't have to use too much imagination to follow what's being detailed … and among these in the early bits is even a shot of the fabled “Fail Whale” … once a familiar and all-too-nearly-omnipresent “feature” of Twitter, now a semi-fond memory of the early days on the service (when was the last time you saw the Fail Whale?).

    Some of the things that the authors coach their readers on are things like picking a name, and the ways that can impact things down the road … walking one through considerations that are well thought-out, and might have been missed by some “late adopter” deciding that it was time “to get on that tweety thing”). While I agree with most of the (very common-sense, really) material in this, I did have a slight disagreement with their blanket statement about putting numbers in your ID (ala classic AOL accounts) being “something you should really try to avoid”, with my counter-example (and, admittedly, this would only apply to a limited number of users) of Chicago Tribune's digital honcho Bill Adee having the rather clever Twitter handle of @Bill80. Perhaps the best part of the set-up chapters is how they walk the reader through the process as Twitter will present it, and suggest (sometimes quite strongly) things to skip (such as when Twitter wants to get into your email to let you know who's already on the service – which, if you use it right when you join, will result in a lot of contacts hitting your account, and finding pretty much nothing there … so this is a step they recommend holding off on until you're gotten some “there” there in terms of content).

    In my opening above I noted that I wasn't anticipating learning much about Twitter in general, but I was wrong on that count. For instance, if you're needing/wanting to set up multiple Twitter presences, but don't want to be having to follow a whole slew of mail boxes (I am quite familiar with this problem), you can use one Gmail account for them all (!) … how? Well, Gmail ignores periods in the stuff to the left of the @ sign … j.ohndoe and john.doe are exactly the same to Gmail, however, to Twitter those are totally different addresses and will let you set up new accounts on what is (on the other end) the same email, just but adding those periods. Pretty cool. They also follow this tip up with some other interesting Gmail hacks (that I may use eventually).

    One odd feature here is that they hand “the mic” over to a Matt Clark of a design company called TweetPages for the fourth chapter. While “bringing in an expert” is a laudable concept, the book already has two “cooks” and shifting over to a third voice makes that section stand out. I really think this would have been better addressed if Comm and Taylor had sat down with a half dozen designers working with Twitter (I'm sure there are hundreds of consultancies out there would would have loved to be credited here), and presented a “processed” take on the (no doubt variable) information on “Twitter Setup and Design”. This not to say that the material he brings to the book is trivial … I bookmarked a number of things for my own use here, including where Clark says that, even with your profile pic, you should pay attention to the SEO value of the element … he uses the example of re-naming “IMG43879852895.jpg” as “TweetPages-Matt-Clark.jpg” as something that takes just a few seconds but could result in noticeable increases in search traffic … and he provides URLs to a number of very useful things, from a tool that helps in identifying fonts, to one that will alphabetize lists, to another which suggests free (open source) alternatives to commercial software, etc.

    If there's one thing that having the “guest” chapter does, it provides a “pivot point” for the book, as following that the book makes a significant shift in focus and tone, from the careful hand-holding of setting up one's Twitter presence, to nitty-gritty marketing advice on “Building a Following on Twitter” and “The Art of the Tweet”. Now, I have some additional caveats here … as so much of what they're talking about in these parts seem to me (who has been using Twitter for a very long time) as being “pie in the sky by-and-by” kind of results. I have never run, or been associated with a project using, a Twitter element that came anywhere near the sorts of following/responses/retweets that they talk about here. Maybe I'm “snakebit” when it comes to this sort of stuff … but this reads to me like it's the “1%” telling the hoi polloi how things work on their end of the world. I seem to recall that I had a very similar issue when reading Joel Comm's Ka-Ching (about running on-line businesses) five years ago … it sounded great, but represented results that neither I, nor anybody I knew, had ever been able to achieve.

    The book then goes into “Connecting with Customers”, “Team Communication”, “Build Your Brand”, “Drive Follower Behavior”, and “Make Money on Twitter”. Similar caveats apply here … the theories seem sound, but I've never seen it work like this (an example: “out of 200 followers, your {tweet} generates 12 replies, and you can see by searching for your username that it also picked up four retweets” – I'm pretty sure there are lottery games with better odds than those sorts of numbers happening) … although the authors have had a great deal of success in Twitter, so I suppose are case studies in how it can happen. There are some tips in here, though, which are golden … such as following somebody you know is at a conference and the hashtags that are being used there to “virtually” attend. There have been dozens of conferences I wish I'd have been able to get to, that this would have been a great way to at least “listen in” to the chatter.

    Twitter Power 3.0 closes out with some excellent additional useful info, with one section presenting a dozen third-party programs that work with Twitter, from the near-essentials of TweetDeck or Hootsuite, to things that follow trends or send alerts when selected key words are mentioned … and a final chapter that features five pages of Twitter accounts that the authors believe are key for marketers to follow from their own lists (and a Twitter newbie loading these in when getting set up would “hit the ground running” on good info!).

    This is brand new, just out a couple of months, so you should be able to find it in the stores catering to business/internet books, and the on-line guys have it at about a quarter off cover at this point. I found this an interesting read, tempered by the above-noted caveats (my jealousy at their results?). Certainly if one was totally new to Twitter, this would provide a great starting point, and it has enough useful stuff in it to make it a worthwhile read to even “old hands” on the service.


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    Sunday, June 7th, 2015
    11:58 pm
    Good News For "Type-A" Types ...
    As I've noted here from time to time, books coming out from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program do have a tendency to just be “meh” … probably being due to being something of a “pig in a poke”, where one requests review copies on a couple of sentences of description in most cases. However, every now and again there's a “WOW!” book and Kelly McGonigal's The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It is one of those. Now, I need to preface this all with a bit of a caveat: While Ms. McGonigal is a PhD (in Psychology from Stanford), I'm not sure how “grounded” her material is in a wider scope of research … while much of this is referenced to various studies, I don't get the sense of it being exactly massively vetted, and I kept wondering if this was like some of the “newagey” stuff out there (albeit, pointing in a rather different direction) which cherry-picks bits of research, often out of context, to support a “revolutionary” stance. And, frankly, the central thesis of the book is sufficiently removed from the realm of “common knowledge” that it could well have been featured in Woody Allen's “Sleeper” … where is character wakes up after 200 years in cryogenic suspension to a world where deep fat, steak, cream pies, and fudge are deemed health foods … so why not “stress is good for you” as well?

    The author describes how she used to be “like everybody else” in believing stress is bad for you, and taught classes and workshops to get folks to “do whatever you can to reduce the stress in your life” , but then she ran across a study that changed her mind. I'm having a hard time effectively paraphrasing this, so forgive the long quote – but this is the “launching point” for the book:

    … In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?
          Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
          The researchers concluded that it wasn't stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.
          That number stopped my in my tracks. We're talking over twenty thousand deaths a year! According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would make “believing that stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.
    She obviously “connected the dots” and realized that her “anti-stress” work might well be killing people. She then looked at various health “crusades” that generally had backfired, from graphic anti-smoking materials to “shaming” strategies for weight loss, a lot of what passed for “common knowledge” in the medical community has turned out to be counter-productive when actually studied. And, just like smokers increasing their smoking in response to autopsy pics of cigarette-blackened lungs, or overweight subjects doubling their calorie intake in the wake of “eat healthy” campaigns, McGonigal realized that her audiences frequently were more depressed and distraught than before she “told them what to do” about stress. After digging into the subject she'd pretty much done a 180° turn:

    … The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.
          The new science also shows that changing your mind about stress can make you healthier and happier. How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life. The best way to manage stress isn't to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.
    Needless to say, this sounded like great news to somebody like me who's spent decades driving the body and mind to the limits of exhaustion – or in the Cowboy phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” – nice to think I wasn't killing myself all that time!

    One criticism I've seen about the author's work here is that she doesn't have a sharply-defined concept of “stress” … she does offer up a definition, however: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”, which one does have to admit is a bit wide-reaching and non-specific … and she does address the fact that covers a lot of ground. However, one person's major stressor might be another's minor irritation (she uses her personal fear of flying as an example which a lot of people would find laughable), and vice-versa, so having an “umbrella” that is big enough to cover “being out of cigarettes” and “death of a family member” is probably a good idea.

    There's another key psychological field that plays into the main thrusts of the book, and that's “mindsets” … “Mindsets are beliefs that shape your reality, including objective physical reactions … and even long-term health, happiness, and success.” … and what's amazing about this work is that a single brief “intervention” addressed at changing one's mindset on something can seed seemingly permanent change. One study she cites was done with hotel housekeeping staffs, who were generally overweight with bad cardiovascular numbers … much as if they were sedentary (and they believed that they “weren't exercising regularly”) … the researcher, Alia Crum (another Psychology PhD at Stanford), developed an information program (posters and 15-minute presentations) describing how their work was exercise, burning as much as 300 calories an hour, and exposed a test group to this. The test group's mindset was changed from seeing their work as “hard on their bodies” to being “intensive exercise”, and, with just this shift, they began to lose weight, and improve their over-all health … results not seen in the “control groups” which did not have the material presented to them.

    Crum also did research on how one's expectations effected hunger hormones … where what one had been told about a food, in this case a milkshake, determined the blood chemistry the subjects exhibited. She also developed a protocol for testing stress reactions, where subjects (including the author) went through a mock job interview, structured to be a horrible experience. One set of subjects first saw a 3-minute video about how stress can enhance performance, and the other set saw a video about how stress is worse for them than they thought … and both groups were tested for the presence of two “stress hormones”, DHEA and Cortisol, in their saliva during the experiment. Remarkably, the variable of which video was shown determined the ratio of these hormones, with the “stress is good” message providing a positive mix.

    So, how did the “stress is bad” mindset get so established in the medical and psychological orthodoxies (let alone public opinion)? In 1936 Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye was doing a series of experiments involving injecting various substances into rats. He was noticing that the rats were having the same bad reactions no matter what he was injecting them with … and eventually generalized a theory that the structure of the experiment (injections, etc.) was what was making the rats sick (and eventually dead), and came up with “stress” as the word for the cause. His definition of stress was “the response of the body to any demand made on it”, not (in the author's description) “just a response to noxious injections, traumatic injuries, or brutal laboratory conditions, but anything that requires action or adaptation” – leading to pretty much anything being a potential lethal stress-inducer.

    His work became a world-wide phenomenon (he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 10 times), and he published and lectured all over the globe … with the funding of the tobacco industry(!). Yes, back in those days, cigarettes were often marketed as a way to relax, and Selye even testified in Congress “that smoking was a good way to prevent the harmful effects of stress”. Also, most of his research (and those following) was based on investigations of lab rats, in hideous situations (the author describes it as “The Hunger Games for rodents”) that was then generalized to humans … even though humans (thankfully) rarely are subjected to the extreme degrees of “stress” that the poor rats in these studies were.

    One of the things glossed over in these experiments is that sometimes the rats sailed through with no bad effects … which led other researchers to look at what might be “good”in stress. The author sums up these as: “The stress response helps you rise to the challenge, connect with others, and learn and grow.” … with specific examples of the various ways those happen. The stress response releases hormones that can be very beneficial, if “framed” properly, and this is where the “mindset” work comes in … even a very brief re-framing of what one expects out of stress can make a remarkable difference in how that stress is processed – not only mentally, but in terms of one's bio-chemistry.

    There's quite a lot in here about how various researchers have implemented mindset-shifting programs in numerous settings, from “last chance” inner-urban schools to video game players … the subjects that got the messaging were able to re-frame threats into “challenges”, and overcome what previously seemed insurmountable.

    The author shows that there are a lot more dimensions to stress-response than the familiar “fight or flight” dichotomy … she also proposes a “tend and befriend” aspect, which is typified by those who have been through horrific experiences frequently devoting their lives to help others. In this form, substances such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin come into play, directly shifting how the brain is relating to situations around it.

    A third modality she presents really hit home for me, the “defeat response” … which I feel is more prevalent than one would want to think:

    The defeat response is a biologically hardwired response to repeated victimization that leads to loss of appetite, social isolation, depression, and even suicide. Its main effect is to make you withdraw. You lose motivation, hope, and the desire to connect with others. It becomes impossible to see meaning in your life, or to imagine any action you could take to improve the situation. Not every loss or trauma leads to a defeat response – it kicks in only when you feel that you have been beaten by your circumstances or rejected by your community. In other words, when you think there is nothing left that you can do and nobody who cares.
    Yeah, it sounds like she's been reading my poetry!

    The book is full of lots of stories from school systems, corporations, governmental programs, and psychological research which offer examples where the sort of mindset adjustment making stress appear as a beneficial factor in one's experience lead to vastly improved results versus “control” groups that got no messaging, or groups who were unfortunately exposed to “stress is bad” messages … results that not only were notable in their statistics, but also appear to have long-lasting effects.

    Now, the copy I have is an “ARC” – advance reading copy – which often does not represent the final format of the book … I'm hoping that the published version (which came out last month) has set up the “exercises” in a more structured way, as they're easy to miss here, and they offer a lot of benefit … it would be great if those were in “boxes” or somehow otherwise set outside the general flow of the text, making them easier to find and refer back to. That was one of my few gripes with The Upside of Stress.

    As the author somewhat intimates at points, even reading the book may have the sort of mindset-shifting effect to move the reader towards a more positive interface with stress … after all, if a 3-minute video on how stress can be a positive factor can change physical responses, how much more would reading a 300-page book with the same message help make those changes? While I'm not suggesting this is a “magic pill” for stress … stranger things (NLP, placebos performing better than actual drugs, various spiritual practices) have happened. In any account, it's an interesting read, and I can't think of anybody whose existence is sufficiently stress-free that they wouldn't get something out of this. As noted, it's only been out a month as of this writing, so your odds are pretty good of finding it in your local bookstore … and the on-line guys seem to have the hardcover for about a third off of cover price at the moment. I must admit, the caveats outlined at the top of this review still hang over this a bit … I hope that what McGonigal is outlining here is real and that the research will eventually come to solidify this version of stress, replacing the “tortured rats” model of Selye and his followers … but on some levels it has that “too good to be true” scent, making me hold off of a 100% endorsement of it.


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    Sunday, May 31st, 2015
    12:35 pm
    Struggling with Science ...
    This was another of those LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program books that I put a request in for due to my being the doting father of a daughter who is studying to be an engineer. These days, almost anything that deals with females going into the STEM fields gets my attention, as I'm (obviously) rooting for my kid to be the most awesome engineer ever, and anything I can do to make that less painful for her, I'm up for. Evidently, the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” is in sync with this, as Eileen Pollack's The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club is about the third or fourth book I've gotten from there that's more-or-less on the topic.

    As those who have read many of my recent reviews, I seem to be in a zone of having issues with how the books I've been reading have presented themselves via their sub-titles. I am not the first person to note that “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” is not particularly representative of the actual thrust of this book. While being “thematically” accurate, this is largely an auto-biographical tale, focused on the author's experiences in attending Yale as a physics major, and not some in-depth look at the societal factors leading to the still-substantial difference in the gender mix in the sciences.

    Not, mind you, that this material isn't in there, but … and this is just my “gut feeling” … it seems to have been added on in order to turn the author's personal story into something more “generally applicable”.

    I hope I'm not indulging in “spoilers” here, but Ms. Pollack opts to not go forward with a career in physics, and instead becomes an author and writing professor. It is, perhaps, a testimony to her skills in composition that I went through most of this book not really “getting” how long ago most the narrative happens … as I ended up with a “huh?” moment when the dates finally sunk in – having felt that I was reading something far more recent in her life than the 30 years or so in the past this all occurred. Not that this is “ancient history” (she and I are only a year apart – so I probably have a visceral identification with her college experience, if in a very different context), but I was surprised about 2/3rds of the way through the book to find this was a middle-aged woman's recalling her grade school, high school, and college years.

    Why surprised? Well, this is going to sound bad, but it's really hard to nail down with other words … a lot of this is awfully whiny, with stories about how she wasn't appreciated at various levels, or how she got stuff, or didn't get stuff, or acted differently, or whatever, which read as a lot more immediate that revisiting long-past slights.

    Of course, I'm a guy, and so probably don't have the appropriate sensitivity to how those situations impacted little Eileen … but my ability to empathize with her (despite being a "right-end-of-the-bell-curve" kid myself) definitely has a point where it drops off into less-sympathetic impressions.

    Since the first 2/3rds of the book (which is convenient divided up into sections of her early years, her Yale years, and her revisiting things three decades later) is pretty much just a bio … I guess it wouldn't hurt to do the broad strokes. The author was from a small town in the “borscht belt” of the Catskills in upstate New York, where her Jewish grandparents owned a small resort hotel, and her father was the town dentist. She starts the narrative very early on, when she is shocked that the stuff she's noticing (like thinking) at “age 3 or 4” isn't some major discovery on her part … setting up a pattern of thwarted expectations that tend to recur throughout the story. She's described by one teacher as “obnoxious”, and from her descriptions of her behavior at various points, that seems to fit. For much of the early part of the book, she's keen to point out how she was living in a wholly different reality than most of those around her … she tells of a time when she was being tested for possibly skipping a grade (3rd?), and was in the office of the teacher who was putting her through various assessments. A pigeon gets into the office, the teacher freaks out, gets up on the desk, and is later quizzical why she didn't get more upset … her response: “Why should I be upset? This isn't my office. I'm not the one who needs to clear up after it.” … which is obviously set up to show how “different” she was (even though she makes a point to say that she remembered what she said from 50 years ago ... how much dialog do you recall verbatim from when you were 8 or 9 years old?).

    There's a lot of auto-biographical stuff here that, while adding “color” to the telling, probably doesn't do much to advance the supposed thesis of the book … do we need to know about her crushes … the nearly-inappropriate relationship she has with a high school teacher, which does have elements that impact the story, but it's just uncomfortable in the telling (she thought they'd get married, he turns out to be gay), etc.? And, do we really need to know about her hormonal imbalance (too much testosterone) that only got addressed (kickstarting her periods) with a visit to the doctor in college? These may make the bio more interesting, but don't do much for main point of the book.

    So, the first third of the book sets her up as a brilliant, but unfocused kid. The second part of the book is her experiences at Yale … and how she had to struggle through a wide assortment of difficulties that she (no doubt rightly) perceived as being things that a male would not have had problems with (from not wanting to speak up in class to ruining a pair of hose she was wearing in a lab). Again, a lot of this comes across as “poor me” rather than “this was a universal experience of all women on the Yale campus”.

    The last third of the book involves her going back to Yale (and her grade and high schools) to see how things had changed, or not. She was welcomed back by the various departments, etc., and set up with situations where she could interview students. This leads to the key informational part of the book … after having interviewed (briefly, because she went to the wrong office initially) a female department head, there was a reception for the author, which ended up being attended by a large number of female students (and the department head), with the students raising a number of issues that the department head didn't realize were problems, resulting in her clearing her schedule and giving nearly full attention for the next several days to Ms. Pollack … introducing her to a lot more contacts, etc. This provides the real “meat” of the book.

    Anyway, The Only Woman in the Room is not coming out until this Fall (it has a September 15 release date), so you'll have a while to wait if you want to check it out … although you can pre-order it at the moment from the on-line big boys (at a 45% discount). While the book is well-written, and the story is engaging up to a point, it still feels like it's an auto-biography that ended up getting a sociological coda added onto it to make it appealing to a large enough market to get published. I had, when requesting this, hoped for something more integrated, and possibly more informative (not that there isn't a whole lot of data eventually presented here). I just didn't feel that the “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” theme was particularly advanced by the author's life story. Again, this may be my being a cynical "privileged" male brute, lacking the sensitivity to fully empathize with the tale … so you might connect better with it than I did.


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    Saturday, May 30th, 2015
    11:16 pm
    The sign points, the road falters ...
    ghtds1.pngI really must stop believing in sub-titles … I've had quite a run of books that purported (via the sub-title) to be about one thing, but never quite got there, or went in some completely different direction. On one hand, I'm kind of pissed off when this happens … having devoted a chunk of time to actually read the book, in expectation that it was going to be going somewhere it really wasn't … but I guess it's “my fault” for taking the sub-title at its word(s).

    I'm afraid that Graham Hancock's The Divine Spark: A Graham Hancock Reader: Psychedelics, Consciousness, and the Birth of Civilization ends up on that list. While there is LOTS about Psychedelics, and a bunch about Consciousness, the “tease” that got me interested in this in the first place was the “Birth of Civilization” part, which, while referenced, certainly does not play a significant part in the book.

    Now, I've been a big fan of Graham Hancock for a long while, and have, fairly recently, been following him on Facebook, where I saw him discussing the book, and excerpting bits from his parts of it there. I reached out to Disinformation Books (which I was surprised to find is now part of Red Wheel / Weiser) for a review copy, which they eventually provided. The first thing to note about The Divine Spark is that Hancock is primarily the editor of a collection of 26 papers dealing with (generally speaking) hallucinogens, their history, their sources, their chemistry, their use, etc. … only 3 of which are Hancock's. The rest are a smattering of MDs, PhDs, familiar names like the solid Robert Schoch and the off-the-wall Russell Brand, plus a motley crew of drug enthusiasts and reality theorists … with item lengths ranging from a very brief 3 pages, to nearly 30.

    As long-time readers of my reviews will no doubt recall, I have a certain amount of experience in this sphere, having studied shamanism back in the 80's (with much of the entheogenic enhancements discussed herein in trips to Peru and elsewhere), as well as having the experiential resources of a near-classic “misspent youth”. So, when I found the book a bit over-the-top in enthusiasm for psychedelics, it makes me wonder how it would be received by somebody whose interface with mind-altering substances was more in the tequila zone. Admittedly, in the past several decades I've been “clean & sober” and a non-participant in any chemical enhancements (I was very rah-rah when I read Hancock's story – included in this collection – about giving up his long-time intensive daily Cannabis use … having had a couple of friends who completely ruined their lives with their dedication to that particular plant, at the expense of everything else … and quite disappointed in his recent posts of having started smoking again, thanks to Colorado's new marijuana laws).

    The book is broken up into five sections: On Consciousness, Expanding the Mind, Serious Research, Experiencing Psychedelics, and Supernatural. Individual pieces cover personal experiences with LSD, MDMA, Ayahuasca, even home-cooked DMT (who knew?), detailed notes from assorted scientific and quasi-scientific experiments dealing with psychedelics, to discussions of things as variable as the Casimir Effect (a method of extracting “free energy” from vacuum oscillations), stars being conscious (“Perhaps the reason galaxies don't fall apart is because they are not dumb balls of gas reacting to nothing more than the laws of physics, but are instead joined-up communities of intelligent dynamic beings.”), the existence of Richard Dawkins as a proof of the existence of God (OK, so this is Russell Brand's blithering). And, there's lots of reports of things experienced when in altered states, especially working with Ayahuasca in assorted settings.

    Again, I kept waiting to get to that “Birth of Civilization” stuff, and not finding much on the subject. There is work referenced here, in a couple of places, by a writer that I had not previously encountered, by the name of Michael Winkelman, who appears to be a researcher who only publishes into the text book channel … meaning his books (several of which sound fascinating) are painfully expensive, with one appearing to have a list price of $132.00 (for just a 336-page hardcover), whose Kindle price is just shy of a hundred bucks! His work is touched on in at least a couple of these pieces and, again, seems to be the source of the concept that entheogens are what dragged early man up towards “Civilization”:

    Winkelman uses the concept of psychointegrator plants to refer to experiential, phenomenological, or psychological aspects of their physiological effects. He suggests that the resulting mentation (how you think) and emotion (how you feel) may produce a holistic state of psychological integration and emotional growth. … Psychointegrator plants are traditionally used across cultures in a religious, spiritual, and often therapeutic context and may enhance some of the innate capacities of consciousness, integrating various forms of information.
    Needless to say, I was disappointed that these theories where not better represented in the text, as the idea that what we are as modern humans represents a dynamic interface between basic hominid “meatware”, and the unique (albeit complementary) chemistry of this group of plants. If Winkelman's books were available in “mass market” editions (rather than the type of books you have to rent!), I'd have had an order in for 2 or 3 of them already.

    Obviously, despite my disappointment in this (highlighted in the sub-title) subject not being covered more than in passing, there is quite a lot of very interesting material in The Divine Spark … although, again, I wonder how well this would come across to folks who haven't been exposed to these sorts of experiences. It will no doubt be extremely popular with fans of hallucinogens, as the book reads, over-all, as quite “druggy”.

    One piece really appealed to me as a libertarian … a brief paper by Hancock called “The Consciousness Revolution” … where the author looks at models of consciousness and how they, through religion and politics, become locked into particular dogmatic and ideological views.:

    I refer here to the so-called “war on drugs” which is really better understood as a war on consciousness and which maintains, supposedly in the interests of society, that we as adults do not have the right or maturity to make sovereign decisions about our own consciousness and about the states of consciousness we wish to explore and embrace. This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behavior toward others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behavior toward others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.
    I do wish I was able to be more enthusiastic about The Divine Spark, as much of it is fascinating, but I kept getting that “designated driver” vibe reading it … like hanging out with one's wasted friends who are having a great time, and you're not. This has just been out for a month or so, and should be easy to find … the on-line guys have it (of course), and are currently knocking off about 20% from the cover price (heck, you could get it for 1/3rd of the price of the cheapest Winkelman book).


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    Sunday, May 24th, 2015
    10:54 am
    One a week?
    This was another LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program book … that I was waiting for a long time (it was from the January 2015 “batch” but just arrived a week or so ago) … and I got “faked out” by it, because it had been offered previously, and a bunch of LTER reviews were already up on the site … leading me to assume that all of those folks had gotten their copies of Rachel Swaby's Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World and I hadn't (I contacted the publisher, Broadway Books, and they kindly sent me a copy of the recently-released paperback, which pretty much arrived simultaneously with the ARC – uncorrected proof  “advance reading copy” – from the LTER offer). As regular readers of this space will no doubt suspect, the reason I was so hot to get a hold of this is that I wanted to get it read, reviewed, and passed along to my engineering student daughter … figuring this would be inspirational to her (as it was, I gave her the “finished” copy).

    As one would correctly surmise by the book's sub-title, this is 52 brief biographical sketches of women in the sciences, some “household names”, but most not. The author opens up her thought process in selection to a remarkable extent in the introduction, noting:

    Accomplishments alone could have warranted inclusion in a different kind of book, but to be here, narrative – a secret bedroom lab, an ocean-floor expedition, or a stolen photograph that helped solve the structure of DNA – needed to be the twin pillar of achievement. I didn't include scientists if I didn't feel like I could travel beyond the bullet points of a dazzling career.

    She also points out:

    The scientists in this book aren't included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did – although by that criteria, many would fit. They're included because … their ideas, discoveries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world.

    Obviously, a book like this needs some sort of organization, and while it could have been done chronologically (admittedly, each section is arranged by year, but this causes a somewhat confusing “retrograde” flow of time periods), given that another of Swaby's selection criteria was that “the book includes only scientists whose life's work has already been completed”, it is by “field”, with sections covering Medicine, Biology and the Environment, Genetics and Development, Physics, The Earth and the Stars, Math and Technology, and Invention. Personally (and this is a minor quibble), I found those categories a bit on the hazy side, leading to less clarity than there might have been … but one understands that these women were not strictly siloed into handy categories in their lives.

    There is a surprisingly expansive timeline here, going as far back as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who is listed as a German Botanist, but is included for her detailed scientific illustrations of insects, and those primarily in Suriname (on the north coast of South America), to as recent as Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014), an American Chemist, who, in a lifetime working for DuPont, invented Kevlar, and contributed to the development of Lycra and Spandex. It's also somewhat surprising that the list isn't dominated by 1900 dates, with about a third being 1800s or before (although some of these ladies were very long-lived, with nearly half the list living into their 80's and beyond).

    Of course, in a book with 52 individual stories, there's not much of an “arc” to speak of, and so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few things that grabbed my attention (although, in the reading of it, I found it hard to add bookmarks, as nothing stood out as “essential” for the description). One that was mentioned in one of the quotes above, was the “dirty secret” of DNA … which featured one of the less-long-lived subjects of the book, Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), who was an English Geneticist … Swaby says that (generally-credited discoverers of DNA) Watson and Crick “simply wouldn't have made their discoveries when they did had it not been for two crucial pieces of information passed from Franklin's lab at King's College in London to Watson and Crick's at Cambridge without her knowledge {bolding mine}. The two pieces were an unusually clear photo of DNA that Franklin had calibrated and captured (she'd developed a very precise process for obtaining photographic images of these molecules), and an internal report summarizing her past few years of work … these allowed Watson and Crick to correct a number of key errors they had in their data, and so publish the results before Franklin had a chance to synthesize her results into a submittable paper.

    Another surprising story is that of Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), more generally known as a Hollywood actress. Here she's an Austrian (born Hedwig Kiesler) Inventor, who developed a frequency-hopping communications system (to help the Navy aim torpedoes, which were experiencing a 60% failure rate), the 1941 patent for which (that did not emerge from being “classified” by the military until two decades later) is the basis for “Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems”. Swaby follows up with:

    While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the real recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1996. Her response: “It's about time.”

    There are some famous names (as scientists) in here as well. One being Virginia Apgar (1909-1974), an American medical doctor who is likely familiar to any parents for the APGAR score for newborns, which she developed, but which was later cleverly re-worded by a resident to spell out her name … A-Appearance (Color), P-Pulse (Heart rate), G-Grimace (Reflex irritability), A-Activity (Muscle tone), and R-Respiration. Prior to her coming up with the test, newborns weren't generally “examined” after birth, letting addressable issues turn into life-threatening situations. She later moved on to head the Congenital Malformations division at the March of Dimes.

    Another name that anybody around in the 60's will recognize is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), and American Marine Biologist whose book on the disastrous side-effects of pesticide use, Silent Spring, was a major catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Her influence was felt both in the celebrations of Earth Day, and in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Perhaps most media-known of this list would be Sally Ride (1951-2012), American Astrophysicist, and more famously, Astronaut. She beat out over 8,000 other applicants for her 1983 space mission, giving an icon for every STEM-loving girl on the planet.

    Given that there are 52 bios in a 230-page book, none of these are particularly in-depth looks at their subject … each running 3-6 pages – enough to give some background, provide those “narrative” elements that Swaby was looking for, and hit the high points of what, in a lot of cases, were long and distinguished careers.

    There aren't any “boring” parts in Headstrong, the author's search for stories and the brevity of each topic assuring that, and it's a pretty breezy read. The cover features the pictures of a dozen of the subjects (none labeled, so after Sally Ride and Hedy Lamarr, I had no clue who was who), and one thing that I think would have improved the book would have been pictures in the chapters themselves … although in some cases these might have been hard to come by.

    This just hit the bookstores last month, so should certainly be available. I anticipate that this is going to be a classic for girls like my daughter, sort of a “vision board” for the whole spectrum of scientific achievement. The on-line big boys have it at nearly 30% off of (a very reasonable) cover price at this point, and that might be your best bet at the moment, unless your local book store is given to matching discounts. Aside from the “encouraging my daughter” aspects, I enjoyed reading this in the context of a fairly neglected “history of science” storyline. If your interests are in that direction (or in Feminism in general, I suppose) you'll find a lot to like here.


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    Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
    11:52 am
    Fascinating stuff ...
    This seems to be something of a theme in recently-reviewed books here, but this title also took a somewhat circuitous route into my hands. I had requested Jonathan D. Moreno's Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century in the May 2012 “batch” of books being offered in the Early Reviewer program over on LibraryThing.com. However, I didn't win it (instead the “almighty algorithm” deigned to match me with Death Metal Music that month), although I was interested enough in it that I'd put it on my Amazon “wish list” with the anticipation that one day I'd order a copy. However, in August of 2014, Moreno's Impromptu Man came up in LTER, and I requested and won it. The current book came with that as a “throw in” from the publisher … I was amazed that “they remembered” that I'd wanted this (I wrote them, and it was actually purely happenstance), and that's how I got Mind Wars - so it's “sort of” another LTER book.

    If not uniquely so, Moreno is certainly well-positioned to have informative views on the subject of “brain science and the military in the 21st Century”, having been described as the most interesting bioethicist of our time, and having served as a senior staff member on three presidential, and a number of Pentagon, advisory committees, as well as holding a chair at University of Pennsylvania in Medical Ethics, and being the US representative to the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee. He grew up in the Medical field, as his father was noted psychologist (see Impromptu Man for his biography of his father), and the younger Moreno was familiar with many of the top researchers of the time.

    This actually comes into play at points in this book … as in researching it, Moreno discovered some very disturbing work that had been done by a couple of long-time “family friends”, and he found it hard to reconcile some of the experiments that had been done by these otherwise much-respected scientists. In fact, the book begins in the 60's, where his father had a Hudson-valley location for his institute (and government approval for dispensing LSD), when Dr. Timothy Leary notoriously opened up his much-less-clinical operation just a couple of dozen miles north in Milbrook, NY. While popular culture, understandably, associates LSD with the hippies and related movements, its origin (and initial supply) is much more closely linked with mind-control experiments of the military. This is the “rabbit hole” that Moreno first jumps into. The copy that I have is the second edition … the first, in 2006, really broke new ground, showing:

    ... that the security establishment's interest and investment in neuroscience, neuropharmacology (the study of the influence of drugs on the nervous system), and related areas was extensive and growing. However, no one had attempted a systematic overview of developments in neuroscience as they might affect national security, nor had anyone raised the many fascinating ethical and policy issues that might emerge from this relationship.

    His work lecturing on the initial edition of the book also seemed to have loosened up channels where he'd previously been “hitting walls”, his “prediction that neuroscience would be of increasing interest to national security agencies” was not only borne out, but

    ... matters moved more quickly than I had guessed. To my surprise, within two years after the first edition of Mind Wars I began to receive invitations to participate on intelligence community advisory committees that have provided important analyses of the state of the science and its future prospects.

    While a lot of this book is “gee whiz!” looks at what is being worked on (systems that let users operation machinery – be it a replacement arm or an attack drone – with just one's thoughts, scanners that can “read” the content of thoughts, etc., etc., etc.), a substantial portion of this is rather into the nitty-gritty of the brain, and the details of how they're coaxing that machine to work with machine machines … and with a philosophical overlay across the whole work, putting all this science in the context of the related ethical issues. On this point, here's a bit that I bookmarked in the first chapter, “DARPA on Your Mind”:

    It is ironic that discussions about national security often fail to involve the optimal means of ensuring that people are safe to live their lives: keeping the peace. The sad fact is that there is a specific marketplace for the material of war, not of peace. Even though we might like to think that military and intelligence assets ultimately keep the peace, the fact is that it's a lot easier to monetize and market firepower than peaceful easy feelings.

    While essentially, un-illustrated, there is one page with diagrams of the brain which I found very useful, especially the one on “the forebrain and brain stem”, which details several systems and subsystems and eventually nearly a dozen specific points – many of which I was only familiar with the name. Moreno almost waxes poetic in his introduction of the brain: “Weighing only about three pounds but containing one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, with more possible connections than stars in the universe, the adult human brain is evolution's greatest achievement.” Of course the poetry exists in an environment that is largely funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), so the first use of most of this new tech is so that “ultimately, human abilities may be augmented so that combat soldiers could have vastly more powerful and faster robotic arms and legs, and pilots could control vehicles through intentional thought alone.” Making quadriplegics get up and walk, or thinking your microwave oven into operation, are only happy by-products of the research.

    In a discussion of proprioception (from Wikipedia: “the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”) and how we might get feedback from machines, there is this fascinating section:

    Interestingly, tactile feedback may not even be a necessary part of the equation. The Brookings Institution national security scholar Peter W. Singer observes that the “sixth sense” of feeling bodily connected to the tools we use emerges over time. He imagines that controlling a prosthetic arm could become as second nature as driving a car, wherein one develops an intimate knowledge of its maneuverability and size through repeated experience. In the words of philosopher Robin Zebrowski, “it has been shown that our brains actually allot neural space to those tools which we take up consistently. The tip of the cane actually does become part of the person's body, to a degree never before realized. Each of us is bound, bodily, to the tools that we use in a deeply neurological way.” Thus, in a limited sense proprioception may naturally incorporate prosthetics or other neurally controlled robotics as an emergent property, without needing to be engineered from the get-go.

    Unfortunately, nothing in the middle five sections of the book, “Mind Games” (Abu Ghraib -like humiliation, Manchurian Candidate -like “brainwashing”, U.S. LSD programs, Soviet ELF – extremely low frequency wave – projects, etc.), “How to Think about the Brain” (“remote viewing” programs that lead into a discussion of historical views of brain/mind duality, the “localism-holism debate”, specific brain region/chemical functions, etc.), “Brain Reading” (various tests, systems, sensors, scans, predictive modeling, etc. that seek to get into people's heads), “Building Better Soldiers” (sleep issues, metabolism issues, reaction time, memory, and processing issues, fear/emotion issues, genetic enhancement issues, etc.), and “Enter the Nonlethals” (various non-killing approaches from drugs, smell, acoustic beams, microwave pain inducers, and the related legal/ethical arguments around these), had anything that jumped out enough to me for me to have flagged with a little bookmark, but I'm hoping the little “laundry list” of topics here will give you a sense of where Moreno was going in those parts of the book.

    The final chapter, “Toward an Ethics of Neurosecurity”, is almost a separate treatise in itself, and is pretty much Moreno taking all the details preceding it and giving it his “bioethicist” spin. Let me apologize in advance for the following lengthy quote, but I think it's a key point he's making, and I didn't feel that either my attempting a paraphrase or cherry-picking smaller bits did it justice.

    ... For those who are deeply concerned about the exploitation of science for military purposes, an obvious answer seems to be that the scientific community should simply swear off cooperation with the national security agencies, including accepting research contracts. Call this the purist approach. Based on some historical experience I shall elaborate, I believe the purist answer is shortsighted. In the real world, this kind of research is going to continue and it's best that university researchers be those who do it, rather than building top secret science fortresses with researchers who are not answerable to anyone but their commanders. It is critical for the well-being of our democratic society that the civilian scientific community is kept in the loop and that the rest of us can have at least a general idea of the kind of work that is being done, even though for legitimate reasons many of the details may not be generally available.
         An important reason to keep the scientific process as normal as possible, including transparency in interactions among scientists, is that science sets an example for an open society in which secrecy is minimized. Secrecy makes it harder for our elected representatives to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of overseeing government-funded science, and for experts outside of government to contribute to sound policymaking. One way a democratic society can minimize secrecy is to keep national security agencies linked to the larger world of academic science. For the same reason, suggestions in Congress and elsewhere that DARPA should pull back on its external funding should be resisted. The link between the academic world and the national security establishment makes for a healthier society than if each were isolated from the other.

    Now, I feel bad that I've only really been able to scratch the surface of all the amazing work that Moreno details in Mind Wars, but I hope the above gives you a good indication of what you can expect in the book. The new edition has been out a couple of years at this point, but it is still in print, so you at least have a sporting chance of being able to find it in your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it, of course, but aren't cutting much off the cover price (which is quite reasonable for the existing paperback edition). The new/used vendors also don't have it for way cheap, but you might save half off of the retail if you went that way with a “very good” copy (and remember, paperbacks tend to lose condition a lot faster than hardcovers in the after-market).

    I really liked this one, the writing is crisp and intelligent, and Moreno makes a valiant effort to make a lot of difficult concepts approachable. That said, there were parts of this that were somewhat of a slog, simply due to the density/complexity of the material involved. If you're interested in military stuff, mind stuff, tech stuff, heck, even drug stuff, you'll probably going to get a lot out of this. I'm excited to pass my copy along to my engineering student daughter, who is focused on robotics and was fascinated to hear me talk about the “thought control” elements detailed here!


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    Monday, May 11th, 2015
    6:19 pm
    How to become a "Thought Leader" ...
    Speaking of books that took odd paths to get into my hands … Tim McDonald, a buddy I've known from the Social Media Club of Chicago (who, ironically, is currently “taking time off from social media”), has a personal project he's working on called #365DaysOfGiving, where he (wait for it …) gives away something every day for a year. This manifests variously, from postcards on his travels, to very expensive tickets for events, to framed graphics of his favorite sayings, to, well, books. He'd attended the book launch party for this, and was offering it on his list. As it turned out, I was one of a number of people who requested it, and he (randomly) sent it off to somebody else, but when I mentioned that I'd do a review of it, he was essentially wanting to “gift” that to her, and so (over my protestations – at this point I can pretty much hit up any publishing house for review copies of new books, and was certainly willing to do so in this case) he ordered me a copy from Amazon.

    I figured that it would only be polite to bump this up to the top of my “to be read” pile when it came in, so I got Dorie Clark's Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It  read over the past week. This book is, essentially, a how-to manual for becoming a “Thought Leader” ... and, as I've always somewhat aspired to this sort of role (albeit, hoping for “organic growth” to get me there), I was certainly interested in the topic.

    Ms. Clark's bio is interesting … from her site: “At age 14, Clark entered Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. At 18, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College, and two years later received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School” … so she's smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, I suspect that her experiences give her a somewhat “unrealistic” view of what is generally possible for “most folks”. While I mean this to be a mild caveat on the book, I did find myself reacting to a number of things in here with some incredulity as to their "general applicability".

    As regular readers know, I fall back on this crutch way too often, but sometimes the best option for giving you the “broad strokes” of the book is to pass along the contents listing … of course, for some books that would be pointless, but others, like this one, are very clear on how the info's set out … so:

                      Part 1 – Finding your Breakthrough Idea
                              - The Big Idea
                              - Develop Your Expert Niche
                              - Provide New Research
                              - Combine Ideas
                              - Create a Framework
                      Part 2 – Building a Following Around Your Ideas
                              - Build Your Network
                              - Build Your Audience
                              - Build a Community
                      Part 3 – Making It Happen
                              - Putting Thought Leadership Into Practice

    Now, I'm pretty sure that most of my issues with this come from my own personal situation … I'll have been stuck in my current job search for six years as of next week, so when Clark talks about “becoming a recognized expert in your field”, I have to ask “and what field would that be?” … if I was in my 36th year in Public Relations, or 22nd year in Publishing, I'd have an answer for that (and I'd anticipate that I'd already be a “thought leader” in either by now), but no. While my situation is, quite likely, extreme … I'm guessing that not being on the cutting edge of one's field is a majority state – especially among Millennials, who are notorious for job/field hopping. While Clark insists: “If you want to become recognized as the best in your industry, you'll have to fight for it, but the promise of this book is that your goal is possible”, I can't help but see a parallel to Lake Wobegon's “... and all the children are above average” in the possibility of each and every reader becoming the “best” in their industry!

    However, we're talking about you, not me … you're likely in “an industry”, you've got some ideas, you want to be a “thought leader” … well, Stand Out does systematically walk you through the steps. Interestingly, the book starts with a story of a gal who was in a VC firm, who did an analytic report on its performance … not even looking to be a “thought leader”, she got to that by just sticking to her guns on the (very disturbing) report … she faced a lot of resistance on what she was researching, on releasing the results, and doing subsequent articles on it … and came out as a go-to voice on (the pitfalls) of venture capital. So this is possible even if you're not specifically looking for it.

    There are many, many stories in here illustrating specific points, more than I could possibly name-check in this review … in fact, they're the saving grace of the book, as they show how many of the steps here (which, as noted, frequently sound on the surface pretty much only achievable by some tiny minority), have played out in people's lives on the way to their becoming a “thought leader”. The other recurring element that is of great value in this are the “Ask yourself:” lists at the end of major sections. Starting with “The Big Idea” (once she gets out of the way that one need not be an Einstein, Gandhi, or Jung to come up with significant idea), there are subsections walking the reader through how to get to a “big idea” - “What Assumptions Are We Making?”, “What's Next?” (trends), and “What Can You Draw On From Your Own Experience” - each of which focuses on the experience of particular individuals, and offers a list of questions to elicit what you may have to offer (such as: “What experiences have you had that others in your field most likely have not? How does that difference shape your view of the industry?”).

    The next part, “Develop Your Expert Niche” addresses the questions of how to best stand out: “Building a base of knowledge in a narrow subject area may seem like a career-limiting move, but sometimes it's the only way to get past the competition.”, noting Robert Scoble's recommendation (for tech blogging – but generalizable from there) of “... choosing one segment to specialize in so that your coverage can be much deeper than that of even the better-funded players … if you write exclusively about that subject you're going to rapidly outstrip {the other players} and become the definitive source on the subject”. Clark suggests looking at what you're a “local expert” in, or what you are “passionate” about (even your long-time hobbies), as a way of narrowing down the niche. Once one finds that, it's time to look for ways to “distinguish yourself” in it … even if by being “not that” of the expected traits (and example she gives is how Rachel Ray got hired by Food Network for not being a chef). Next there's “developing” your niche – digging deeper into the subjects, and “expanding” your niche – moving in to adjacent areas, or producing new channels of exposure.

    Not being “in an industry”, the next part was one I had issues with, as “Provide New Research” can be painfully broad if one is not starting from some settled place. However, the section walks you through some illuminating examples, and the “Ask Yourself:” questions, such as: “Who are the usual information sources in your industry? Who else is knowledgeable but doesn't often get asked for their insights or opinions? How can you reach out to them?”.

    I felt one of the key parts of the book was the “Combine Ideas” chapter, as this is where the successful “mashups” come from. One of the examples Clark offers is how Steve Jobs' college class in calligraphy ended up spurring some of the typographical features of the Mac … and refers to this ability as “Janusian thinking” (from the two-faced Roman god Janus). The focus here is how to take the things you may know from one area and bring them to bear in another … with some very interesting examples. She states: “If you want to develop breakthrough ideas, something outside the norm, you need to be willing to live outside the norm. At times, that can subject you to scorn … even when you're not being attacked, you may be greeted with a subtler form of skepticism …” {people not seeing the potential in your ideas}.

    The last part of the first section is “Create a Framework”, which is set up in regards to Kübler-Ross' work on grief or Maslow's famed “needs” structure. Clark suggests: “If you want to make a mark in your field, try to spell out the fundamental principles behind it. Surprisingly often, the central tenets of a field have never been consciously articulated.” … and follows up with questions about what in your field are “mysterious”, “secret”, or “misunderstood”. The more “systematized” you are able to make the material, the better it will be understood – and spread: “Creating a framework means helping others think about a topic …”.

    That, of course, brings us to the second part of the book - “Building a Following Around Your Ideas” - with individual chapters on building one's Network, Audience, and Community. This is very nitty-gritty, and familiar territory for those toiling in the social media trenches. She gives and extensive look at Seth Godin (obviously in the “Create a Tribe” sub-section) and how he's built himself up into a global phenomenon, and offers several other stories from varied settings. This part of the book, however, didn't lend itself as much to cherry-picking quotes, so I'm pretty much going to leave it at this.

    The last part of the book (consisting of the one chapter “Putting Thought Leadership into Practice”), is for a fairly rarefied audience … those who have both come up with a breakthrough idea, and have built their “tribe”. Needless to say, most people reading it won't be there. The subsections here are “Making Time For Reflection”, “Making Time For Luck”, “Making A Living”, and “Making the Effort”.

    Despite all the aforementioned concerns about the “general applicability” of Stand Out  (and, I must admit, Ms. Clark does address a lot of my own personal issues up front in terms of how “a generalist” can find that one idea … although, she sort of stumbled into hers, as one 700-word blog post she'd done for the Harvard Business Review “took off” and gave her the platform to build all the rest on), it is quite an engaging read. Her combining direct discussion of the main points with examples of how this has played out in “real life” is quite effective, and, as noted, the questions for digging into one's own experiences are awesome.

    While this book is probably best for those in a significant position in an identifiable “industry”, it is a worthwhile read for anybody who has ever contemplated the possibility (dream?) of becoming a “thought leader”.  This is brand new (just out a couple of weeks), so should be available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line guys are offering it at about a 25% discount. I just wish that I were in a better position to put the info in here to use!


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    Sunday, May 10th, 2015
    5:02 pm
    Maybe with a different sub-title ...
    I came to having Jeff Goins' The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do through a relatively unusual route … author Chris Brogan (he gets mad anymore if you call him “social media guru”) - whose books you've seen covered in this space previously, put out an offer in one of his on-line vehicles about being able to get a copy of this for just covering shipping, and I figured if Chris was pushing it, it was probably something worthwhile. Which is making me somewhat uncomfortable, as I was expecting something more ... direct, perhaps ... for a book sub-titled “A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do”, and this is proving to be one of those occasional titles that everybody else loves (97% of the 217 Amazon reviews of this are 4 or 5 stars, with 86% at five), and I can't figure out why.

    As regular readers of this space (and my personal blog in particular), will know, I have had a long bout with unemployment, and when I signed up to get The Art of Work, I assumed that it was a book-length permutation of one of those self-assessment things that would help guide me to some new unsuspected realization of what I was “meant to do” which would lead me into some vastly rewarding new career. Nope. In fact, while this does have some material along those lines, it's a whole five pages in an appendix at the back of the book.

    Now, this is no doubt another example of “Brendan isn't like the other kids” … I have never found parables and related teaching stories particularly convincing or moving … with these sorts of things typically eliciting mental comments of “who cares?” and “why am I reading this?”. I certainly appreciate that there is a whole genre for that sort of stuff … and a wide audience that can't get enough of it. But that's not me. And, as you might suspect at this point … most of this book is stories about people encountering some sort of adversity, and either finding some way of dealing with it, or finding a way out of it due to some external factor or whatever (did I mention the “who cares?” reaction?). As noted … it may be too sweeping to say I never get anything out of these kind of stories, but it's pretty close … and that's the core of this book. To me, this might as well be describing things the author is seeing in the clouds as a way to discuss electronic circuitry … I want to hear about the circuitry … and that's limited to that one appendix.

    There is a “system” here, and it encompasses the over-all arc of the book … as each chapter is set up to somehow “illustrate” the subject of one of these:
    1. Awareness

    2. Apprenticeship

    3. Practice

    4. Discovery

    5. Profession

    6. Mastery

    7. Legacy
    The first three of these are in a section called “Preparation”, the next three in a section entitled “Action”, and the last in its own section, “Completion”, with an additional “Conclusion” section following. The book shifts in and out of narratives about the people featured in the various chapters, moving into “commentary” which does offer some concrete “action points”, but it was hard (for me at least) to get much out of that. Here's an example out of the “Accidental Apprenticeships” chapter (which otherwise is dealing with a gal from Singapore who ended up with an older guy who, when she got pregnant, wanted her to have an abortion … she didn't want to, and her family threw her out and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, she encountered somebody who got her into being a “doula”, and the next thing she's doing TED talks) about finding mentors:

    How do you find these people? Where do they come from? It's hard to tell. Likely they'll surprise you, appearing seemingly out of nowhere at just the right time. The whole thing will look like an accident or a mystery but, of course, it is far from it. As Paulo Coelho writes, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” There's some truth to that. Fortune favors the motivated. When a person is determined to not just succeed but to do work that matters, the world makes room for such ambition. You won't be able to predict how this apprenticeship unfolds, but you can be prepared for it when it comes.
    OK, how does one APPLY that? Again, this is about as “direct” as things get here … how do I force the universe to send me a mentor to make everything head in the right direction? Clap my hands and say “I do believe!” until Tinkerbell appears with a magic wand?

    Now, these chapters aren't just filled with wishful pablum, the Apprenticeship chapter does have some interesting historical material about how this worked in the age of guilds, etc., and more recently in the arts, and even including a story of how Steve Jobs passed off a program written by Wozniak as his work to fraudulently get an engineering job (that's some funky “apprenticeship”). The closing instructions for this chapter are:

    These experiences are impossible to engineer but easy to recognize once you know what to look for. … Sometimes the people who help us find our calling come from the least likely of places. It's our job to notice them.
    Yeah, but HOW? Do we wait forever until the “mentor” arrives? Waiting for pixie dust to fall on one's head does not sound like a plan, let alone a "proven path".

    Jumping ahead to the “Discovery” step, in the chapter “Building Bridges”: this is about a couple who decided to pull up stakes in the U.S. and move to one of the poorest countries in Africa – Burundi – where they intended to grow coffee. The husband had a passion for coffee, and they pretty much just went to Africa to follow that … it was a year and a half, in a backwards place where they didn't even speak the language (and they brought their kids), before they even started the business. Goins seems to think this was a swell plan, and notes:

    {they} uprooted their family and moved to a remote part of the world because it was an opportunity to make a difference doing what they love. As it turns out, this is a great formula for moving in the direction of any calling: find what you love and what the world needs, then combine them.
    Personally, this sounds more like a recipe for a good way to end up either dead or impoverished and stranded in a festering hell-hole, but hey, what do I know?

    Goins then goes into a discussion of “callings” and how the idea that “you just know” what you're supposed to be doing isn't true, and that most have to “take a leap” and go with it. Additionally, this chapter spends a lot of pages discussing a biblical parable (that of Samuel), an approach which rarely clarifies any point. Of course the difficulty here is “finding what you love” (or, at least it is for me), and then finding some way that this activity can be packaged in some manner that the world will not simply ignore it. In the case of this couple, they'd identified a neglected coffee industry (started by the Belgians in the 1930's) which produced a very high quality bean, and they figured they could make something of this. However, is this a “plan” for you? I suspect that the ability to find a personal passion and a niche that would support it is vanishingly rare … and, of course, there's nothing here to get you from “I wish” to your goal.

    I really wanted to like this book … and, mind you, it's not an unpleasant read, just nothing that I could connect with. As noted up top, I had sincerely hoped that I would have found something useful for me here, but I'm obviously not the “parable and postulate” kind of guy. You, however, might find this sort of stuff splendid (acid test: do you think the proposition “do what you love and the money will follow” is a universal law or a Big Lie? … if that resonates with you, you'll probably like this book, if you're like me, not so much).

    The Art of Work just came out in March, and as I mentioned, people are falling all over themselves praising it. The on-line vendors have it at nearly a third off of cover price at the moment, and it's reasonably value-priced going in. While I was horribly disappointed in it, I realize that I'm an “outlier” on the cynical/bitter end of things, and get nothing out of stories like the ones at the core of this … but you might find them highly instructive.


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    Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
    10:57 am
    An unexpected seeker's memoir ...
    I think it is very fortuitous that I hadn't read Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion prior to a book I reviewed a week or so back, as had Harris' book been “fresh in mind”, the other would have suffered more in the reviewing. Just as I was hoping in my review of that other book that there might be someone “who will take the useful concepts of this and run with them”, this comes close to providing the sort of narrative for a “rational religion” (or, as the sub-title would have it: spirituality without religion). However, upon further reflection, I believe that I found out about this book when doing some background research for the review of the other ... so there's a timeline involved.

    Given that I've read and reviewed most of Harris' books, I ended up chastising myself that I hadn't recalled some of the notable bits of his biography. Admittedly, I read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation more than seven years ago, but I very clearly was commenting in my review of the former about the author's spirituality … yet this was something that rather blind-sided me in the current book. Who would think that the clear-headed Atheist of “Letter” would have been a life-long seeker of things spiritual? But, there it is, the author is another inquisitive mind digging into psychology, brain science, and practicing Buddhism … hardly what one would expect for somebody whose name rolls off the tongue with “Dawkins”, etc. This is hardly a “Pilgrim's Progress” for the Atheist camp, but Harris does define it thusly:

    This book is by turns a seeker's memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I”. I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. … Just as a modern treatise on weaponry would omit the casting of spells and would very likely ignore the slingshot and the boomerang, I will focus on what I consider the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry.
    I'm sure that the author could have produced a tome many times this one's length had he indulged in a fine sorting of gems out of dung, but he does keep this moving along on a particular heading ... which can be reasonably triangulated with notes such as “many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception” which is countered with “millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available” … i.e., there seems to be something happening out there (or, more to the point, in here), but the valuable bits are hard to isolate when encased in the deposits of bronze-age belief systems churned through millennia of power-hungry control freaks.

    Waking Up takes the reader through a journey across five specific sections, each covering several sub-topics … the main chapters are “Spirituality”, “The Mystery of Consciousness”, “The Riddle of the Self”, “Meditation”, and “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles”. His first steps are to sort out the bits from the other bits of religion, and how these can't (or shouldn't be) seen as equivalent (please pardon the extensive quote, but I found his analogy quite on-target, along with its surrounding contextifying material):

    Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation – because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
    I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
    The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don't always point to the same underlying reality – and when they do, they don't do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.
    As opposed to some of his previous books, Harris doesn't spend a lot of time picking apart specific religions (although he does have a few zingers strewn throughout the text!), but he walks through the various chapters in a fairly logical (albeit, frequently from a Buddhist perspective) progression. The “Spirituality” chapter covers “The Search for Happiness”, “Religion, East and West”, “Mindfulness”, “The Truth of Suffering”, and “Enlightenment” … an arc which is obviously informed by Buddhist thought, but the specifics are hardly doctrinal, with his looking at ancient Greek philosophy, the lens of Theosophy in popularizing Eastern thought, the mysticism indulged in by Newton, and the phenomenon of the Dalai Lama. At one point he is contrasting the east and west version of medicine and spirituality … with the West being clearly the place you want to find your medical care, but things are flipped around when it come to spiritual traditions:

    As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.
    Much is made here of meditative states, and there's even a box with how-to instructions, with the Cliff's Notes versions on Suffering and Enlightenment, which gives an opportunity to criticize his stances, if one is coming from the hard-core Atheist camp.

    The second chapter looks at Consciousness from both philosophical and medical standpoints … asking questions about “transporter” tech (if the transportee has appeared at the destination before the de-materialization of the traveler at the source, is the subsequent removal murder?), with fascinating materials about patients whose corpus callosum is severed, rendering the two halves of the brain virtually independent, creating a situation where there is, for all intents and purposes, two people in the one body. Indeed, other studies show that the corpus callosum can't sufficiently transmit enough data to “synch” the two brain halves in even undamaged brains, leading to the assumption that there are always multiple “consciousnesses” operating (an example he gives in this section is when you can't remember a name that you know you know … one part of the brain knows the name is known, but the operative part can't, for whatever reason, access that data point … a frustration that I frequently have!).

    In the third chapter,”The Riddle of the Self”, where he contrasts what he calls “the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” with the general feeling “that our experience of the world refers back to a self … a center of consciousness that exists somehow … inside the head” … and tries to pick out what it is that we call “I”. His aim here is to argue that “the conventional sense of self in an illusion – and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment” … and he posits that “the selflessness of consciousness is in plain view in every present moment – and yet, it remains difficult to see.”, which leads him to discuss (and instruct a self-guided demonstration) the “optic blind spot” as an example of a similar “not noticed” but clearly evident (once one finds a way to see it) reality. He goes quite a bit into the “Theory of Mind”, and material related to that, from Jean-Paul Sartre to V.S. Ramachandran.

    The chapter on Meditation is largely grounded in the author's own practice, and the studies he made with various teachers from a number of traditions. There is also a basis here in more brain biology, examples of perceptive quirks (negative space being “filled in” as an actual present element, etc.), some general philosophy, and even some art … which leads to a sidebar called “look for your head”.

    The final chapter, “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles” gets into the crunchy bits … in talking Gurus, he notes how Alan Ginsberg was strident in his defense of some of the more extreme (and challenging to justify) actions of “crazy wisdom” Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa (whose books I've read, and who I had the chance to hear speak once … an engagement he arrived at several hours late), he paints G.I. Gurdjieff as a “gifted charlatan” (despite the popularity with “smart successful devotees” in his lifetime, and the on-going influence of his writings), discusses Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and rattles off a string of others, ranging from Joseph Smith to L. Ron Hubbard, and even Charles Manson. He does almost a side-issue section on Near Death Experience reports, focusing largely on the Evangelical Christians who have grabbed on to the NDE stories as “proof” for their version of Heaven (frequently with details as ridiculous as Hubbard's DC-8 space planes) … based on reports that “seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not deliberate fraud.” This does allow Harris to transition to the drug discussion, as (in opposition to the insistence of the Evangelicals that these visions are unique and have no parallel in other contexts) they are almost exactly like DMT experiences, and he even throws in a long quote from psychedelic adventurer Terence McKenna to give a first-person narrative to the comparison. He discusses various psycho-active compounds, some from his own experiences, others from related literature, and looks at how various drugs interact with the brain's chemistry. One interesting bit goes back to Aldous Huxley, where it's suggested that the main function of the mind is to act as “reducing valve” to filter down what ends up actually being part of our awareness … Harris argues against this on a number of functional and medical bases, but he gives the concept its due.

    His conclusion wraps things up pretty well (given as open-ended a subject as this), with at least one good jab at religion: “sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core”, which sets up what could be viewed as a closing statement:

    Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. … Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.
    Needless to say, I found Waking Up both a surprising (the “seeker's journey” that I hadn't expected), and delightful read. While I'm certainly “in the choir” to which Harris is preaching, I'm also hoping that others will read this and (in the last words of the book) “open your eyes and see”. This just came out last fall, so should be out there in the surviving bookstores. I got mine through the new/used vendors (“like new” copies are going for about 1/5th of the cover price), and the main on-line guys have it at a substantial discount (oddly, this is only available in the US in hardcover, although there's an export paperback available via the used channels – at twice the price you could get the hardcover – go figure). I highly recommend this to anybody who has an open mind about what it means to be conscious.


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    Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
    11:01 am
    That's the way you do it ...
    I've met Ann Handley of MarketingProfs a couple of times, and her new book was getting a lot of play over in the marketing discussions of Facebook, so I dropped a line to the good folks at Wiley to request a copy of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. I was a bit hesitant about slogging into this, as, frankly, having been a professional writer of one kind or another for decades, I'm a bit resistant to having people tell me what I should be doing in what I've been doing for (in many cases) longer than they've been alive. Fortunately, Ms. Handley is not dictating from these pages like some schoolmarm with a Ruler of Pain at the ready (or the “style guide” equivalent), but as a fellow wordsmith bringing the consensus view of a lot of fellow marketing communicators on what works and what doesn't and how to get your verbiage closer to the former. The book also has a particularly comforting Epigraph*: Beware of advice – even this. - Carl Sandburg

    One thing I especially liked about the book is that it's presented in “bite-size chunks” … with its ≅300 pages divided up into 74 chapters spanning five “parts”, with a sixth part devoted to Content Tools. The other five are: Writing Rules: How To Write Better (And How To Hate Writing Less), Writing Rules: Grammar And Usage, Story Rules, Publishing Rules, and 13 Things That Marketers Write. There's a lot of humor in this (like the chapter heading “The More the Think, the Easier the Ink”), and a lot of context building (such as having Ben Franklin's personal daily schedule displayed in the “Writing Is a Habit, Not an Art” chapter).

    Early on, Handley presents a 12-point “Writing GPS” … a GPS because “in writing you need a road map to get you to where you need to be”. This serves as a framework for the first section of the book (“Writing Rules”), as the chapters that follow pretty much step through these in sequence:

    1. Goal.

    2. Reframe: put your reader into it.

    3. Seek out the data and examples.

    4. Organize.

    5. Write to one person.

    6. Produce The Ugly First Draft.

    7. Walk away.

    8. Rewrite.

    9. Give it a great headline or title.

    10. Have someone edit.

    11. One final look for readability.

    12. Publish, but not without answering one more reader question: what now?

    This list, I think most writers will agree, is a pretty good approach to getting work done. One quirk in how things are handled here is that Handley refers to what I'm calling chapters as “rules” - even though these generally feel more along the line of how Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Hector Barbossa framed the Pirate's Code: “more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. Of course, not all of these are created equal, some chapters run to 8 pages or so, and some are a mere handful of lines.

    So, the basics on Everybody Writes: it's very useful, it's very entertaining, it's crammed full of good stuff, and if you're in Marketing Communications, you should definitely go grab a copy, because you'll be happy that you did. That being now out of the way, I'm going to indulge in cherry-picking some bits & pieces that I bookmarked while reading through it.

    In the “Develop Pathological Empathy” section she notes:

    ... you have to meet people where they are, with an attitude of benevolence and largesse, to help them find answers to the problems that they have. All of your content – your product pages, your landing pages, your customer support text, your About Us pages, and so on “need to use language to support people's needs and goals”. {that quoted bit is from Facebook's Jonathon Coleman}
    In the “Keep It Simple – but Not Simplistic” chapter she delves into her journalism school experience for some classics:

    No one will ever complain that you've made things too simple to understand.
    and

    Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.
    To which she adds:

    Simplicity comes primarily from approaching any writing with empathy and a reader-centric point of view to begin with – that is, it's the result of writing with clarity and brevity, and in human language ...
    There's an interesting chapter on readability, which looks at the various scales and provides information on and links to resources for testing your text (including one that's built in to Microsoft Office that I'd been unaware of). I'd never really looked into this, personally, and was interested in the following … a score of 90.0 to 100.0 would be understood by an average 11-year-old student, a score from 60.0 to 70.0 would be understood by 13-15 year-olds, and a score of 0.0 to 30.0 is best suited to college grads … and she breaks out how an assortment of types of material fall on that scale.

    Another suggestion I found on-target was for writing goals … that one should “make sure you measure your writing in output (words) rather than in effort expended (time)”, which is coupled with a concept taken from boxing – one's “weight class” (an idea borrowed from Mitch Joel), where a novice writer might be only good for 50 words at a sitting, while a “heavyweight” can “churn out 5,000 words … before breakfast”. The idea here is to know what your limits of quality composition are … and to work to build up those “writing muscles”, to 250 words, 500 words, 750 words, etc. Interestingly, I recent found a resource on-line for doing 750 words as an exercise (http://750words.com/) … Handley notes that 750 words is about 3 pages of text, so getting to the point where you can generate that without much strain is a fairly significant accomplishment.

    There's a section on words one may be misusing or confusing … but I'm hoping that most writers aren't having problems with those words … the part, however, on “usage confusion” is very useful, with discussions of “fewer vs. less”, “bring vs. take”, “who vs. whom”, “that vs. which vs. who”, and several others that I'm sure even the most seasoned word mongers trip up on from time to time!

    The book's full of anecdotes, quips, and borrowings from industry sources, and the fifth part is a platform-by-platform look at “writing for” Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, email, hashtags, landing pages (and other web real estate), blog posts, annual reports, and how long everything from these to podcasts ought to be. There's also a look at infographics and resources for developing them.

    As you can no doubt tell by this point, I'm a fan of Everybody Writes, and really have nothing negative to say about it. This came out last September, but I'm sure it has settled in to its long-term niche in the brick-and-mortar bookshop shelves, with the on-line sources having it at predictable discounts. Of course, it's targeted to Marketing Communications folks (like me), and might not be quite the awesome resource to playwrights, poets, and technical manual writers. However, if you want to improve your marketing writing, you'll want to add this to your stack of "books about writing" (oh, come on, you know you have one).


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    Monday, April 27th, 2015
    9:21 am
    Not just one story ...
    This is another book coming into my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program. Due to the number of Buddhist books in my collection, it was hardly surprising that the LTER “almighty algorithm” opted to hook me up with this, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting this to be when I clicked “request” on Scott Carney's A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, but I'm sure, in retrospect, that I'd have been off in my expectations. It's a very odd book … not so much in its subject matter (although I'm sure many would find that odd enough), but how that's structured, and approached. From the title/subtitle, you might expect it to be a basic non-fiction tale of somebody who ended up dying on “Diamond Mountain”, and it is that in the widest arc here, and that trajectory gives the book its basic skeletal outline, but that in and of itself would be fairly thin, as the implied protagonist is a fairly minor (although sufficiently connected to allow his tale to suffice for the “story”) character in the over-all world of the book.

    For regular readers of my reviews, the fact that I ended up without a single little bookmark should give you pause. The lack of these meant that there were never any particular points in the narrative that I stopped to say “hey, that would be a good way to illustrate this aspect of the book”, or to generally highlight something that I might want to eventually get back to. This also means that I'm “working without a net” in writing this, having to play off of raw recall, rather than having juicy quotes to fall back on (although I may end up pulling some stuff out of the book if it catches my eye tonight).

    It might be useful to quote the book jacket's blurb about the author, as this leads well into the obvious question, “what's the book about?” … “Scott Carney is an investigative journalist who blends narrative nonfiction with ethnography.” … roll that around in the folds of your grey matter for a bit. What you're imagining from that statement in terms of what the book's about is probably pretty close. It's got a journalistic narrative feel to most of it, and deep dives into ethnographic waters, albeit in terms of Buddhism and Cults and Megalomania, and assorted relatively damaged or delusional people.

    While the “spine” of the story is how Ian Thorson ended up dead on that mountain, most of the “meat” of the book deals with Geshe Michael Roach, a Princeton grad who made his way to Tibet, and was able to study at the Sera Monastery, returning to the U.S., on the recommendation of the Dalai Lama, to work with a New Jersey based teacher, Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tarchin. Working with this Lama, in 1976, he had a moment of enlightenment and based most of his subsequent career on that experience.

    Now, Roach's background sounds very solid … doing a lot of dharma work over a lot of years ... and his enlightenment experience sounds perfectly legit, but his “take” on the Gelugpa form of Tibetan Buddhism is idiosyncratic at best, and “heretical” (he was eventually in trouble with various more traditional elements) at worst. While, I am hardly an expert on the subject, I did spend a number of years studying (and, to be very clear, not practicing - mine is an “outsider's view” certainly) Tibetan Buddhism, including attending the Avalokitesvara initiation twice and the Kalachakra three times. Back then, I never heard of Roach nor encountered mention of his “personal deity form” of Vajrayogini, who is very similar to the Hindu goddess Kali in her descriptions. While my lack of experience with this is likely to have been from rarely having the opportunity to have complex iconographies of thangkas, etc., specifically explained to me, it is my impression that Geshe Roach had focused his practice (and subsequent teachings) on a particularly esoteric corner of the Tibetan Buddhist cosmos, and as his work developed, he moved farther and farther away from Gelugpa orthodoxy, and closer and closer to a classic American “Cult”.

    As I likewise spent a number of years in the orbit of one such cult in my youth, I have a pretty good radar for the sorts of things that come with that, and Carney's descriptions of Roach's organization certain have that vibe … right down to running off to the desert to have an environment of isolation where the group's teachings and practices wouldn't have to run into the cognitive dissonances of friction with the “common world” – such as enveloped Roach's center in New York. However, Roach has so many things in the “plus column” (his work, at the behest of his teacher, as a diamond merchant in New York – in which he was remarkably successful, and helped fund numerous Buddhist outreaches and institutions – is a substantial one, plus the work he did to make a vast amount of Tibetan documents available via scanning and releasing on CD) that is impossible to write him off as an insignificant figure.

    The book spends a lot of time backgrounding Buddhism, the various characters involved in the tale, and even the geography and history of key locations … at times to the virtual abandonment of the narrative. Aside from Michael Roach and Ian Thorson, the other “key player” in the story is Christie McNally (later Lama Christie McNally), who started out as an eager follower of Roach, then became his lover (tantra partner), inspriational embodiment of Vajrayogini, main organizer, and eventual partner of Thorson. Each of these characters is essential to the story, but it is Ian Thorson whose life tracks the over-arching flow of the book. Thorson was a seeker, who was noted as having been suspected of being neurologically damaged, his manifestations of spiritual exuberance often appearing more “clinical” than “mystical”. He had a similar passion of esoterica such as Vajrayogini, and a history of being willing to “go all in” for his metaphysical pursuits. His path leads him to latching onto Roach and his organization, and is in place when Roach and McNally eventually have a parting of the ways.

    The main reason that Roach's group ran off to the desert was to have major multi-year retreats, and it was in a second of these that McNally and Thorson were evicted, and ended up sneaking back into the area (in a cave up on the mountain), to still carry out the retreat in the presence of the rest, if in secret. This is, essentially, what causes Thorson's eventual death, as the couple is living without any dependable food or water or fuel or pretty much other creature comforts, and Thorson ends up succumbing to the privations before McNally is able to summon any outside help (also not aided by their well-secluded cave location).

    I'm giving short shrift to a lot here (perhaps McNally most of all), but it is a complicated story that keeps jumping into different contexts … from Thorson's family's attempts to have him “deprogrammed” at points, to the interesting conflicts between Roach's organization and the orthodoxy. There is one bit here which sort of frames the rest, at least at what was the arc of Roach's teaching:

    The Great Retreat broke the hierachy between Roach and Tibetan authorities. Now that he was under the direct guidance of angels, there was no need to appeal to the Dalai Lama. With Lama Christie by his side, he promised they would breathe new life into Tibetan Buddhism. They would forge a faith that shucked off anachronistic Tibetan traditions and make their interpretation of ancient Buddhist wisdom relevant for modern-day America.
    Thorson was pretty much just a damaged seeker caught up in that maelstrom, but it's a fascinating read.

    Again, A Death on Diamond Mountain is not the most linear of tales, but it is more informative than most narratives would be, largely from the journalistic chops of the author. This book, while basically a story (or, is that a history?), is hardly a “thriller”, but more a telling set out on which to hang bits of research, creating a work with unexpected depth, if not a simple synopsis. This just came out a few weeks ago, so should be widely available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it for the usual discount. While I found writing about the book very frustrating, reading it was a pleasure. Whether this was due to my familiarity with a lot of the component elements (leading to it being quite engaging for me), or not is something you may want to consider, but I liked it, and you might too.


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    Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015
    9:31 am
    Wagering with Pascal?
    I had really high hopes for this when I “won” it from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, as I was anticipating some nice logical presentation about a rational society's “God substitute” coming out of Science. Eh, not so much. Not that it doesn't have its moments, but Nancy Ellen Abrams' A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet suffers from being something of a self-therapeutic exercise that bizarrely floats off into the sorts of mushy introspection that is typical of new-age writers and not what one would expect of “hard science” folks. I guess I got confused by her extensive referencing of her “famed astrophysicist” husband, Joel Primack, and how she starts off the book in nearly “full Dawkins” mode:

    I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in. If I am going to have God in my life, it has to be a God that cannot help but exist, in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don't need to believe in these things; they just exist.
    However, her personal struggles with addiction (in her case, “food addiction”) hang heavy over the book, as what ultimately drives her to seek out an otherwise unnecessary deity is the notorious “God stuff” of popular addiction management … as without a God to release her responsibility to, she could not keep from over-eating, plain and simple, so “science be damned”, there was going to BE a God in her universe. In retrospect, I suppose I am being harder on Abrams than I should, as it's her husband who's the scientist ... she has a philosophy degree from University of Chicago, and is a lawyer - so weaseling around the theistic 12-step doctrines to make them look less creepy is what's she's trained for. This doesn't make them any more palatable from where I'm sitting, however.

    Needless to say, I would have found this a MUCH better book without those elements … and maybe somebody without a “doughnut problem” is out there who will take the useful concepts of this and run with them, generating an actual “rational deity” that could, indeed, enhance “the Future of Our Planet” by freeing it from the bronze-age insanities of the big-ticket monotheisms. There is a core of logic here which could be built on … hooked into the concept of “emergence”. Noted cosmologist and science writer Paul Davies provided a Foreword to this (the other is by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to throw an additional bone to the theists, I suppose) and in it he frames the idea in Abram's conceptualization:

    The core of her bold challenge to the atheist position is that because emergent phenomena can be real in their own right, even if they depend on a lower-level substrate to instantiate them, a God that is the product of the human mind and human society can also be real. After all, life emerges from and is dependent on, the chemical substrate of organic matter, and life is not only real but has its own (emergent) agenda consistent with, but transcending, the chemical substrate that hosts it. So too can it be for an emergent God. … Her God is not even cosmic but planetary, being tied (until now at least) to our particular terrestrial species. … For those steeped in traditional monotheism, a God that springs solely from the collective human intellect seems like heresy. But for those who reject the idea of God entirely as ridiculous and superfluous, an emergent God holds many attractions.
    The first part of the book looks at the evolution of the idea of God, from the earliest flat-world-with-a-dome conceptions, through the great ancient polytheisms, into the Dark Ages, the Medieval period, and on into the Renaissance, when God and Nature began to diverge. Abrams argues that up till then, our vision of God moved in lockstep with our understanding of the cosmos, with God being the element that harmonized humanity with the cosmos “as the culture best understands it”. Living in an astrophysics/cosmology household, the author obviously has a better grasp on the “twenty-first-century scientific” understanding of the universe (with dark matter, dark energy, and other hard-to-get cosmic realities) than most, but it's her belief that we need to develop a concept of God that fits that universe.

    ...the idea of God has persisted through thousands of years and thousands of cultural changes neither because God is an independently existing being in control of the universe nor because it's a purely psychological need. God persists and always will because it's a fundamental characteristic of the connection between ourselves and the universe. That we're connected to the universe is inevitable and indisputable, but until we had a scientific understanding of the universe, we could not imagine how.
    She argues that the disconnection of the idea of God from the realities of the cosmos is the seed of the present insanity of most religions …

    In each subset of these belief systems, a somewhat different version of God's character and expectations of us is held not only to be true for the believers but to be universally and eternally true.
    In the next section she picks apart those ossified version of deity in relation to our current understanding of the universe, and how various aspects of physics rule out most of the cherished “God stuff” that the believers (of assorted stripes) hold so intensely to. This is then followed by a section in which she starts to set up a justification of God, returning to the “emergence” theme. Looking at how the laws of thermodynamics were largely framed on emergent phenomena (entropy being an averaged factor of trillions of atoms – which at the time were purely theoretical), and how scaling is important to understand the whole. An example she gives is of an ant colony … on the level of the individual ant, everything is a response to some chemical signal, but over the entire colony we perceive an intelligence expressing as a system. This is due to having a sufficiently higher level consciousness“We humans are able to do this because our kind of intelligence discerns abstract patterns in social behavior and constructs theories.” She goes down a bit of a rabbit-hole here, looking at culturally inherited expectations and aspirations which shape how we see God, even to the point of suggesting that God is, from generation after generation of people working with the concept, hard-wired into our neurological make-up … an idea that I might disparage if it wasn't for my study of shamanic expressions across cultures, where certain key elements appear in widely differing contexts, leading me to posit that there is, likewise, a real (and physically hard-wired) “otherworld” in which the shaman is able to operate.

    On the subject of familiar belief systems, perhaps my favorite part of the book is how Abrams borrows the Nordic concept of Midgard (that's Earth to the Marvel Comics' Asgardians such as Thor), and blends this with the Uroboros – the snake eating its tail. On this “Cosmic Uroboros”, there are three realms, the extremely small on the tail end, the extremely large on the head end, and “Midgard” inbetween … that “Goldilocks” zone of “just right” sizes for us to be able to understand them without too much difficulty – from about the size of an ant to the size of the Sun. On the extremes are things as small as 10-25cm and as large as 1025cm, with the head/tail coming in at the GUT – grand unified theories – zone around 10+/-30cm … creating a scale which essentially encompasses the entire of the universe. It's in Midgard, however, that we can have a meaningful God.

    Abrams tries to fit a lot of traditional religious thinking into the following bits, including life after death (she has an interesting thing about being an “honored ancestor”, and how we should live our lives as “our great-great-grandchildren's keeper”). Unfortunately, she sort of lost me as she tried to sort things out ... for every reasonable suggestion that we (and any other similarly sentient alien life forms) are the universe's “brain” (by which it explores and understands itself), there were a handful of things that felt more like her working through a need for something to pray to. As Dennis Miller would have it, however, your mileage may vary.

    A God That Could Be Real is brand new (it just came out last month), so it's possibly in a book store near you, and the on-line big boys have it available for about a quarter off the cover price. I liked a lot about this book, but really resisted a similarly large amount of it. Again, I felt that had the author not been dealing with her addiction issues via 12-step theism-based approaches, and came to the subject from a more solidly science-based perspective without that other baggage, it would have been a far, far better book.


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    Tuesday, April 21st, 2015
    1:38 pm
    Meet Harry Wormwood, SEO expert ...
    This is another of those books that was made available to me by the good folks at Wiley … one of the best sources of books on marketing, social media, etc. A few months back, my contact there sent out a list of new books coming out and this was on that, and I figured it would be an interesting read, as I'm such a dinosaur when it comes to SEO and stuff like that.

    As regular readers of this space will no doubt recall, I ran my own publishing house for a decade, starting back in the 90's, so I have a rather hands-on perspective on the book biz, and “author wrangling”. I bring this up because this was one of those cases where a more assertive editorial hand would have improved the book. I can't recall another book which so clearly brought up the classic quote (generally attributed to Vince Lombardi): “act like you've been there before” … in the original context, telling players not to overly celebrate reaching the end zone, but in this case something like “don't be so impressed with yourself just because you've got a book out”!

    While the “peacocking” tones down as Win the Game of Googleopoly: Unlocking the Secret Strategy of Search Engines progresses, in the early parts Sean V. Bradley sounds like Steve Martin's character in “The Jerk” being so impressed that his name is in the phone book … with his repeatedly pointing out belonging to some speaking organization, and now being published (hey, once in the introduction would have covered it - really). Between that and the endless mentions of his hot model wife, it's real easy to dislike the author from the get-go here.

    He's also a car salesman … he dropped out of college and ended up selling cars, and because of his youth, got assigned to doing the dealership's web sales … in which he excelled. However, it's hard for the image of the “ethically challenged” car salesman (think Danny Devito's role of Harry Wormwood in Matilda) to not hover over this book, because everything that Bradley advocates comes from a “cash first” profit-driven standpoint … plus almost all of his examples involve car-sales sites, which is his area of expertise.

    Frankly, I'm not sure that the majority of this book's material is particularly translatable to other industries … I spent a lot of time turning his instructions around in my mind to see how they could be applied to organizations and projects that I've been involved in, and frequently couldn't trace out any direct parallels. On the other hand, every car dealership in the country should (and probably does) have a copy of the book by this point, as it's certainly a doctoral-level course in how to push car sales on the internet.

    While the specifics are largely focused on how to move that SUV, the broad strokes on the search industry are fascinating. For instance, Google is so huge that its unique monthly visitors are just about equal to the next four (Bing, Yahoo!, Ask, and AOL) combined, and that's not counting that the #2 “search engine” in terms of traffic is Google's own YouTube! Google gets 1.1 billion unique visitors per month, which means that over 15% of all the people on the planet use Google at least once a month (and YouTube gets almost as many). Between Google and YouTube, they get over a hundred billion searches per month. The point that he's making here is that there really isn't any “plan B” … you're either maximized for Google, or you're picking up the crumbs.

    So, it's Google or nothing. The next thing he does is break down the Google page … which I was not familiar with in this context. These sections are PPC (Pay Per Click ads), Organic Results, Local Search (G+ Business listings), News articles, and “Top 10 Results”. He cites some really amazing (frightening?) statistics here … for instance, only 5 percent of searchers will go past the first page of Google results … which he notes: “If you are not on the first page, you are statistically invisible.” Another shocking figure is how low the click-through is on the PPC listings … these are the money machine for Google (pulling in $55 billion in 2014!), but only 6% of searchers will click on the PPC listings. Frankly, I found this staggering, because I'd have doubted that (statistically) there were anywhere near enough people using the search engines who were smart enough to recognize an ad when they see it … yet 94% of the folks being served PPC ads pass over them to get to the other listings on the page.

    Needless to say, he uses this as an illustration of just how essential getting those high first-page listings are, since you can't even realistically buy your way into getting clicks.

    This leads into some serious “how to do it” material on domain names, key words, geo-targeting, title tags, heading tags, etc. … including his recommendations for software packages to walk you through the system. This section could be called “why I hate SEO”, because (as a writer) it all comes out as such a mess of keywords and product mentions that there is no way to make it look like anything other than … well, a scam. However, I guess the world is a LOT more interested in grabbing the dollars than making pretty prose, so I'm no doubt in a minority who think it's a horrible thing to do to words (a domain that he seriously holds out as good is the massively unwieldy cheapmanhattanplumber.com … but he points out that “exact match domains” are efficient if the words that folks are searching on are in the damn URL). He gets deep into keyword research (and tools for same), but notes that one has to be careful to not “keyword stuff” one's site because Google (thankfully) has gotten its programs smart enough to see that happening.

    As the phrase goes: “It's all about the Benjamins” … or at least in the author's world. Here's a quote, which, quite rationally, throws whatever ethical babies might have been in play out with the bathwater (when discussing SEO strategy for heading tags):

    I am going to focus on what Google wants. As mentioned in Chapter 2, it's all about Google. No egos, no distractions, just focus on exactly will appease Google, and you will be successful.
    Now, to be perfectly honest, I bookmarked this section for my own edification, as I have never been fond of using “H tags” because in web1/web2 sites those headers just looked ugly and made pages both look bad, and like every other damn page on the web. However, these days with the ability to dictate the look with CSS, those tags are less gross, and the SEO use of them would, indeed, seem to be called for (if making the page read like they were written by an idiot savant).

    He goes on into how to optimize graphics and videos (he's very big on videos – recommending car dealerships to do endless versions of these to grab the most search volume). His recommendations for SEO work on YouTube pages is very interesting, and is one of those things that should be useful across most industries … it's another piece from reading the book that I've already put into action on some YouTube channels I manage. Of course, he also goes on at length on car videos … how dealerships should do dozens of variations with names of local towns, or how x model is better than a half-dozen comparable competitors' models (and a version done for every town name in the region, etc., etc., etc.).

    Social media is a blood sport in Bradley's world as well:

    Every time you have one of your pages ranked for a search, it means another page (possibly a competitor) is ranked lower. You want your social profiles to rank for branded searches as well as unbranded searches. … The biggest mistake that so many businesses make is that they try to do too many social sites. … In fact, by focusing on the right ones, you'll be able to maintain the highest chance of dominating on search.
    In this context, “the right ones” start with G+, simply because it's Google … he also goes into depth on strategies for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Flickr … but some of the stuff he says is so “sleazy” - like if you don't have at least one “action per hour” to a post on Facebook, you should delete it and post something else hoping for engagements to trigger the algorithm to build visibility. He notes the elements that are judged by that algorithm to justify more views … which he notes only run 5-10% of your likes/friends (if that!) “organically”.

    One of the last things he deals with is responsive and mobile web designs. He strongly recommends against having a separate .mobi site, as it will cut your traffic in half, and totally mess with the way Google directs your traffic. Personally, one project I've been working on just switched from a basic HTML site with a WordPress blog attached to a Ning site because the new version has built-in responsive design (and Google is just now changing the rules to make this a big plus).

    Anyway, verdict on Win the Game of Googleopoly - some really good material, but in a generally insufferable format. I'm sure if you flushed your scruples down the toilet and let Harry Wormwood Sean V. Bradley, CSP (can't forget his speaking accreditation, can we?) train you to game Google, you'll vastly improve your SEO results (your soul, maybe not so much). It's been out since January, so should be in the brick-and-mortars, with the online vendors offering it at a slight discount. I'm glad I got the info that's in this book, but I can't say I enjoyed reading it!


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    Sunday, April 5th, 2015
    10:59 pm
    A brilliant look at a vile subject ...
    This was one of those remarkable Dollar Store finds … it's always a pleasure to run across a book, that had better-than-even odds of being something that I would have bought on its own merits, sitting there on the shelf with all those other one-buck books. Of course, long-time readers of this space will know that I'm a big fan of Ann Coulter (minus, of course, when she's under the sway of her "imaginary friend" problem), and Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama is pretty much her at her best. It's also a relatively recent release, coming out in 2012, in time for the re-election campaign of the subtitularly-mentioned POTUS.

    Now, my liberal-leaning readers can (and probably should) just stop reading NOW. Ms. Coulter and I are in fairly solid agreement with our distaste (to use the mildest word for it) for the Left/Progressive agenda, and the maddening hegemony it holds over the realms of media, entertainment, and education … and it is this nauseating political stance (and the institutions that propagate it) that is really the subject here. Of course, those on the Left will say this book is R – A – C – I – S – T and anti-black, but if you were to actually read it (I know, a hard concept for Liberals, who prefer to hold their opinions in spite of any contravening facts), it becomes VERY clear that the “villains” in the tale are the knee-jerk Leftist press, and the vile pandering politicians for who “victim culture” is a key to imposing “progressive” programs which serve nobody but the politicians and related power brokers.

    As I was reading this, it became evident to me that this was yet another “book I wish they'd teach in the schools” (obviously, a ludicrous concept given how unyielding a death-grip the Left has on the “education industry” in this country) because this is an intense light being shone on the lies, deceit, falsehoods and brainwashing that passes for news and civics these days.

    Frankly, Ann could have issued an update to this any time in the recent past, as the media (and the insufferable current administration) has repeatedly fanned the flames of racial conflict, inflating minor issues into national “outrages” to suit their nefarious ends, and this book is chock full of similar stories to those in recent headlines.

    As regular readers of my reviews may recall, I have a “system” of tearing off little bits of paper (typically register receipts) to mark places to come back to in a book, either for things to quote in these reviews, or (generally in the business books) things to look into and/or follow up on. I think I usually have only 4-6 of these in any given book, but Mugged has well over a dozen … and this in a book that I'm not running off to check mentioned web resources from. Here, I've primarily flagged “you go girl!” passages where I felt that Ms, Coulter had either scored a serious “debate point” or exhibited that delightful snark which endears her to me and her other fans … such as:

    The North's zero-tolerance policy for a backward culture forced the white trash out of both the Irish and southern rednecks, leaving just enough of htem in their natural state to populate modern reality shows and the Kennedy family.
    Of course, Ann's snark is based in a deep resentment of the insanity that the Left has imposed on America …

    Next, liberal judges and academics decided it was a bad idea ot punish criminals. Instead, they suggested we try to understand the criminal, persuade him that the system is fair and give him 157 second chances.

    Between 1960 and 1973, the number of FBI index crimes – which are serious offenses such as murder, rape, robbery, arson, assault, kidnapping, and burglary – nearly tripled from 2,019,600 offenses a year to 5,891,924. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had to die, be raped, or have their property destroy or stolen because liberals had some neat new ideas about crime.
    Of course, the Left doesn't care, because any failing in their policies get blamed on “racism”, and phony stories are fed to the press, who like packs of wild dogs are salivating to sink their teeth into a nice juicy “controversy”, no matter how thin the data is to support it. A substantial part of the book is in-depth looks at story after story after story that the media and politicians blew up … and then never mentioned again when their lies became evident enough to be inconvenient for continued spewing (much like the “hands up, don't shoot” meme out of Ferguson, MO, which ended up being a total fabrication, yet was echoed on major talk shows, university events, and even on the steps of the Capitol). While leftist rags like The New York Times will shift stories from A-1 to somewhere back with the lost pet ads, Coulter digs through the research materials (she's a big fan of Lexis/Nexis) and show how, time after time, the fake outrage gets covered everywhere but the facts (inevitably disproving the media story) get swept under the rug … hundreds of media outlets spewing the lies, but only a small handful eventually following up with the real story, usually long after the fact and with no fanfare.

    When it comes to claims of racism, empirical evidence is irrelevant. It's not the number of racist Web sites {most of which “didn't even have enough visitors to register on Web site trackers”} that's important, but their mythopoetic resonance with the master political narrative of the day. If blacks murder more whites than whites murder blacks, it doesn't matter because that's not the story. As racism becomes less of a factor in American life than agoraphobia, the media work overtime to find illustrations – true or not – of their larger thesis.
    Again, Ann looks in detail how bogus story after bogus story was spun out as real, only helping the hard-core Left. I can not imagine a person of good character who could read this book and not be enraged at the press and the “progressive” political machine they support … but I know they're out there … it's pretty clear if you look at the Amazon reviews for Mugged, as for a book that's running 2/3rds to 3/4ths 5-star reviews (depending on edition), there are those 1-star reviews where Leftists heads are exploding in rants about “racism”.

    Another very interesting part of the book is where it traces the “co-opting” of the anti-slavery movement, and the changing electoral maps. The Republican party was the party opposing slavery and the oppression of blacks, right up into the 1960's, and the Democrats were the party clinging to “Jim Crow” and similar tactics … yet if you ask the average person today which way that played out, they'd probably have the Leftist through-the-looking-glass inversion as their view of it.

    In closing, here's another telling quote (in a section looking how the “progressives” will attribute anything said by a conservative as “racist”, but will give a pass to even the most blatantly racist speech – a lot of Joe Biden whoppers cited – if said by one of their camp):

    As French philosopher Jean-François Revel said of the left, while most regimes are judged on their records, only communism is judged only by its promises. Similarly, modern liberals are judged on their motives; conservatives are judged on what liberals claim we really meant
    I wish more people would read this book, as it is a wake-up call on how vile, conniving, duplicitous, and untrustworthy the mass of the Mainstream Media and their political co-conspirators are, especially when dealing with questions of race. I'm surprised that, having gotten to the dollar store shelves, this hardcover (which appears to be out of print at this point, in favor of the subsequent paperback) isn't going for less in the new/used channels, although deals on the paperback can be had. I hope you'll make the effort to get this, because it's important to understand how twisted the “progressive”/Left/Liberal narrative is!


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    Saturday, April 4th, 2015
    11:00 am
    A look under the rocks ...
    This is a scary book. Even more so than a “horror” title, as it's delving into corners of reality where the public narrative gets warped, and how easily said narrative is manipulated. Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator came to my reading pile through a somewhat convoluted path … it had initially been brought to my attention at a Social Media Club of Chicago event where Gini Dietrich, principal of the Arment Dietrich agency (and author, previously reviewed here and here), used it as a key point of a presentation … highly recommending it, in fact. This became odd when I got into the book, as she had apparently written a blog post slamming it, and earned herself a footnote in this paperback edition for her claiming the book was “hurting an entire industry”. Of course, she was addressing a room full of marketers, and maybe she felt this was important information for us to get.

    Frankly, this book brings to mind the famed (and variously re-formulated and mis-attributed) quote about “laws and sausage” … in that the less you know of their making the more you like/trust them. The author here was a hot-shot edgy marketer who figured out ways to totally “play” the media, and especially the “blogosphere”. Holiday worked the trenches … buying billboards, only to later deface them, with the interest of creating a story of how much people hated his client and/or product – in order to create buzz and seed subsequent coverage. More centrally, he discovered that he could feed stories into “low level” blogs that were frequently picked up by “higher level” blogs, which were eventually picked up by substantial news vehicles … none of which would ever vet the information being fed them! And, bizarrely, it wasn't just “manipulators” like himself that were creating false stories, even major outlets like Politico would create stories from nothing, assigning resources to cover non-existent campaigns only so they could generate endless fabrications, all simply to generate clicks and ad revenue.

    The economics of the Internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important – and more profitable – than the truth. With the mass media – and today, mass culture – relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications. … Blogs need traffic, being first drives traffic, and so entire stories are created out of whole cloth to make that happen.
    Call me naïve, but I always wondered why so many things I'd click on in Facebook ended up in total-waste-of-time sites/stories which not only didn't provide the info that I was looking for when I clicked, but spread the info that was there over page after page after page … it was those clicks and page views that were the point … the story was only a lure to get my mouse involved. Doh!

    As scary as the revelations of how little quality control there is out there are, what's really scary here is that this book is a virtual manual for “how to manipulate the system”. Holiday walks the reader through project after project where his efforts (and sometimes a small amount of cash) managed to create stories about stuff that was purely the fruit of his imagination … but were getting exposure in the highest tiers of the media pyramid. This starts at the level of small “hyperlocal” web sites (this is where he targeted the aforementioned billboard vandalism) … he notes:

    What's important is that the site is small and understaffed. This makes it possible to sell them a story that is only loosely connected to their core message but really sets you up to transition to the next level.
    The next level is what he calls “the legacy media”, the web components of major media, the newspapers, the TV stations, the major magazines.

    Legacy media outlets are critical turning points in building up momentum. The reality is that the bloggers at Forbes.com or the Chicago Tribune do not operate on the same editorial guidelines as their print counterparts. However, their final output can be made to look like they carry the same weight.
    He gives an example of getting a useable quote out of a site like Wired.com which you could then re-purpose for what looks like a major endorsement on your product packaging, appearing as if you'd scored a cover story in the magazine. But these vehicles, too, are simply stepping stones:

    The sites that have already taken your bait are now on your side. They desperately want their articles to get as much traffic as possible, and being linked to or mentioned on national sites is how they do that. These sites will take care of submitting your articles to news aggregator sites like Digg, because making the front page will drive tens of thousands of visitors to their article. Mass media reporters monitor aggregators for story ideas, and often cover what is trending there … In today's world even these guys have to think like bloggers – they need to get as many pageviews as possible. … You just want to make sure that such reporters notice the story's gaining traction. Take the outlet where you'd ultimately like to receive coverage and observe it for patterns. You'll notice that they tend to get their story ideas from the same second-level sites, and by tailoring the story to those smaller sites (or site), it sets you up to be noticed by the larger one.
    Even more surprising, he notes that sometimes you just have to target smaller groups, if they're being read by the “right people”:

    Katie Couric claims she gets many story ideas from her Twitter followers, which means that getting a few tweets out of the seven hundred or so people she follows is all it takes to get a shot at the nightly network news.
    The bulk of the first half of the book is Holiday going through 9 specific “tactics” in substantial detail. Here's how he sums up the “help pay their bills” (tactic #1) chapter:

    In the pay-per-pageview model, every post is a conflict of interest. It's why I've never bought influence directly. I've never had to. Bloggers have a direct incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially or, conversely, more favorably, to write without having to do any work, to write more often than is warranted. Their paycheck depends on it. It's no wonder they are vicious, irresponsible, inaccurate, and dishonest. … They call it a “digital sweatshop” for good reason.
    In the “give them what spreads” chapter (tactic #3), he has seemingly contradictory advice, on one hand:

    ... “if something is a total bummer, people don't share it”. And since people wouldn't share it, blogs won't publish it.
    Yet, on the other hand:

    According to {a Wharton School} study, “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes” … The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.
    He notes that positive stories are also good, but the strength of feeling that they spur is the key indicator (although these need to be things that people want to share, sadness, for instance, doesn't get much traction). Of course, this means that “rational” materials don't stand much of a chance of going viral.

    Navigating this quandary forces marketers and publishers to conspire to distort this information into something that will register on the emotional spectrum of the audience. To turn it into something that spreads and to drive clicks. … The press is in the evil position of needing to go negative and play tricks with your psyche in order to drive you to share their material on-line … the kind of stuff that will make you hit “share this”. They push your buttons so you'll press theirs.
    He goes into some detail about why it's sometimes frustratingly difficult to get to the point of being able to comment on some blogs … “The site doesn't care about your opinion; it cares that, by eliciting it, they score free pageviews.”

    A click is a click and a pageview is a pageview. A blogger doesn't care how they get it. Their bosses don't care. They just want it.
    Trust Me, I'm Lying is split into two “books”, the first being “Feeding The Monster – How Blogs Work”, and the second “The Monster Attacks – What Blogs Mean”. All of the above is from the first part, where Holiday goes into the nitty gritty of the blogosphere, but the second evolves from his “repentance” (to a certain extent), when he began to see how dangerous and out-of-control the system has become. The final twelve chapters are a point-by-point listing of bad situations brought on by the sort of manipulations detailed in the first twelve chapters, with subjects such as the “Illusion of Sourcing”, “Facing the Online Shakedown”, “The Myth of Corrections”, and “The Dark Side of Snark”. The details in there are more grim (though less quote-worthy), with a lot of “mea culpa” tinged commentary … here are a couple of bits from the “Cheering On Our Own Deception” chapter:

    Nobody online wants to point out how fake and insidious {this} is because it's too lucrative.

    I never got over the shock of discovering that it was basically impossible to burn a blog. No matter how many times I've been caught leaking bad info, spinning, spamming, manufacturing news – it never changed anything. The same bloggers continued to cover my stories and bit when I created news. They don't mind being deceived, not at all.
    The book ends strong, with a chapter on “How To Read A Blog” which starts with a long lists of “translations” such as:

    When you see a blog begin with “According to a tipster ...” know that the tipster was someone like me tricking the blogger into writing what I wanted.
    When you see “We're hearing reports” know that reports could mean anything from random mentions on Twitter to message board posts, or worse.
    When you see “leaked” or “official documents” know that the leak really meant someone just e-mailed a blogger, and that the documents are almost certainly not official and are usually fake or fabricated for the purpose of making desired information public.
    This is then followed by a “Conclusion” where Holiday takes a look at what can be (or is being) done to counter the chaos of what passes for news, and delves both into philosophy and naming names of both the good and bad actors in the game. An addition to the current edition of the book are two appendixes, one with a few case studies that analyze in detail specific campaigns, and another that's a collection of several articles that he wrote for The New York Observer likewise picking apart various elements of the business.

    Trust Me, I'm Lying is not a pleasant read … in many ways it's the equivalent of moving a rotting log to suddenly be face-to-face with an entire environment of vermin that have been contentedly operating just out of sight. However, it is, by the same token, a revealing look at the news infrastructure that has devolved to the point of being cynically driven by rumor, lies, and slander. I actually paid “full price” (the on-line big boys have it at about 35% off of cover) for this as an add-on to another order, but you could maybe get it for half that if going through the new/used vendors. While a difficult read (due to content, not the writing), this is likely more “for anybody” than most business books, since everybody is subject to the “poisoning the well” across the information infrastructure of the internet, and so might find it interesting to see how the lies we're being constantly fed are generated.


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    Friday, March 27th, 2015
    4:29 pm
    The only thing we have to sphere is sphere itself?
    One of the fathers of the whole “2012” thing, José Argüelles, has been on my radar for a long time, but I wonder how much he's known by the “general public”. I recently picked up a copy of his Manifesto for the Noosphere: The Next Stage in the Evolution of Human Consciousness which came out in September 2011, six months posthumously (and a year prior to the 12/21/2012 “end date”). I am sure I would have loved this back in the 1980's when his The Mayan Factor and Earth Ascending came out (heck, he was instrumental in popularizing the “Harmonic Convergence” in 1987, which found me down at Tulum in the Yucatan with a merry band of shamans and Zen practitioners) … however, at this point it's almost embarrassing, and one is tempted to feel that it was a blessing for him to die prior to all his predictions falling flat.

    It was Argüelles' work that inspired Terrance McKenna to develop his “Timewave Zero” stuff (after coupling the Mayan calendar round to the progressions of the I Ching), which is a very deep rabbit-hole, probably best appreciated by those experimenting with DMT.

    This book is not significantly more grounded than that, although it has some very interesting info on calendar systems in general ... albeit with Argüelles blaming the ills of the modern world in no small part to the (admittedly) unnatural restrictions of the Gregorian calendar and our time cycles (the “unconscious timing frequency” of 12:60 versus the “universal synchronization” frequency of 13:20).

    So, what is this “Noosphere”? (BTW, it's pronounced pretty close to “Noah's Fear”)

    Just as the biosphere is the unified field of life and its support systems … so the noosphere is the unified field of the mind, the psychic reflection of the biosphere.”
    and, further …

    The conscious activation of the Noosphere is the next stage in the evolution of life on Earth, bringing with it a truly planetary consciousness. This transition to the Noosphere is the most significant change since the appearance of abundant complex life on Earth at the end of the Precambrian period some five hundred million years ago.
    Argüelles was obsessed with Pacal Votan, the Mayan ruler whose (now famous) tomb was discovered buried deep within the Pyramid of Inscriptions at Palenque. By his calculations, the tomb was opened (in 1952) exactly 1,260 years (oh, that dang 12:60 ratio) after the burial. I'm not particularly good at “following along” with these sorts of numerical coincidents and so he largely lost me at this point as far as that goes. The book also features diagrams of systems involving the Earth, overlaying “mystical” realities on physical realities and positing assorted levels such as the Noosphere – Circulating Thought Belt, and the Theosphere – Primal Self-Existing God Source … “your mileage may vary” on these sorts of things, but I have a hard time taking them seriously, as they're filled with so much “wishful thinking” elements and so little solid establishing factors.

    One thing he discusses here that I found notable, however, was the “Cybersphere” and the “Technosphere”, which reminded me very much with other theories, such as that of “The Singularity” (which I suspect is a lot more reality-based than Argüelles'). It would be ironic if he had gotten that part right (if in dismissing it as a transitory stage).

    By the end of 2010, some 5.2 billion mobile phones were in operation. Probably no other technology in human history has attracted the attention of the individual human being, nor transformed so immediately the nature of his/her self-perception. The mobile phone personalizes the present moment into a synchronistic medium of instantaneous ego gratification. … Through this technology and its attendant social networks, each person finds his or her individual world compressed into an electronic instrument the size of the palm of the hand. This is the technological analogy or precursor of the noospheric concept of psychic compression and interiorization. … This new threshold of technological innovations also desensitizes and abstracts the individual from the surrounding world. It is the supreme “subjectivization of consciousness”, where each being becomes surrounded in his/her own electro-ego bubble, virtually unaware of the world around them, much less the plain fact that the biosphere is necessary to sustain them.
    He goes on quite a bit on how the Noosphere is an “ego-free state” (full of flowers, rainbows, and unicorn farts … or similar) so the Technosphere/Cybersphere is something to be quickly dashed through.

    Interestingly, the Noosphere concept is taken seriously in a number of settings … the Russians, it appear, consider it science and have conferences and institutions devoted to its “study” … apparently based on the writings of Soviet geochemist Vladimir I Vernadsky. The concept (and name) itself comes from Jesuit writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose works on the subject were suppressed by the Church until after his death in 1955, and was continued by Vernadsky and what Argüelles describes as “little-known” philosophers Edouard Le Roy and Oliver Reiser. Reiser's synthesis of these concepts supposedly even influenced Carl Jung and Buckminster Fuller (although I have a sneaking suspicion that the author was largely “name checking” Fuller to point out that he had had a few phone conversations with the famed thinker), and on to the likes of Lovelock and Sheldrake.

    If you're looking for real “woo-woo”, here are how he defines “The Four Types or Stages of Cosmic Civilization”:
               I. Planetary-cosmic – Psycho-technical unification
               II. Helio-cosmic (stellar) - “New Solar Age”
                     {featuring the “Emergence of Homo noosphericus as a biosolar telepathic being (“biosolar” refers to a biological being that is consciously activated by higher solar frequencies).}
               III. Galacto-cosmic – omnigalactic Supermind
               IV. Omnicosmic – metagalactic
    Needless to say, the evidence for any of this is slim to delusional, and largely comprised of intricate diagrams whose “proof” appears to be slapping on labels such as “Projecting Lens of the Boundless Universal Self” or “Holographic Perceptions” at various points.

    Argüelles also puts a lot of faith into “Synchronized Communities”, where “synchronized telepathic meditations based on the 13-moon calendar and the synchronic codes of the Laws of Time” (coordinated, I'm assuming, by the Western 12:60 clock) are supposed to “manifest a true living harmonic rainbow message” and untie “the six astral knots”.

    Now, I'm probably a bit more cynical about this stuff than most would be ... as back in the 80's I was chasing after it, from the aforementioned Harmonic Convergence, to the StarLink event in 1988 (organized by “angel walk-ins”, and held in the Los Angeles Coliseum - which seats over 90k, but drew less than 2,000), and the likewise ill-fated “World Unity Festival” in 1994. The things the author is hitching his wagon to here are in the same vein, based on a few dozen (hundred?) hippie wannabes looking to transform the world with (synchronized) happy thoughts. As noted, it was probably for the best that he died before the (hard-and-fast) timeline for his vision slipped away with nothing of note coming from it.

    Anyway, Manifesto for the Noosphere is still in print, and can be had at the on-line big boys for under ten bucks, but I just noticed that a .pdf version of it is available out there as well (from various sources, the reliability of which I can't vouch for). There is a certain type that will love this book (me 25 years ago, for instance), and other types who would throw it across the room after a few pages as “delusional twaddle” … I'll leave it up to your self-analysis where you fall on that spectrum. At least it's out there for free if you do want to check it out.


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    Sunday, March 22nd, 2015
    1:15 pm
    An “exponential entrepreneur's” manual for “going big” ...
    As long-term readers might recall, I was (am) a great fan of Peter Diamandis' previous book Abundance, which is a remarkable rallying cry for a positive futurism, featuring a lot of “gee wiz!” technologies that are supposedly just around the corner. When I requested a review copy of his new book from the good folks over at Simon & Schuster, I was sort of anticipating (and/or hoping for) an Abundance II, but this is focused in a different direction. Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World is a more “grounded” book, being (as one might get from the subtitle) a bit of a “how to” based both in trends the author has identified and his own experiences.

    Bold is structured in 3 sections, “Bold Technology”, “Bold Mindset”, and “The Bold Crowd”, and much of it is predicated on the concept of exponential growth and becoming an “exponential entrepreneur”. In fact, it starts with one of the sadder stories of recent corporate evolution/devolution, that of Kodak. While Kodak invented the digital camera, in 1976 (with the digital info for the images being saved on cassette – with a capacity of 30 images, deliberately set in the middle of the range of their film products at 24 and 36) there was no place in the corporate culture for it, which asked things like Why would anybody want to look at pictures on an electronic screen?. Diamandis notes that 20 years later, in 1996, Kodak was all but a monopoly, with 90% of the market and worth 28 billion dollars, yet in another decade they were no longer profitable and by 2012 they were in Chapter 11. Interestingly, it was also in 2012 that Instagram released its Android app, went from 30 to 80 million users in little over a month, and were bought by Facebook.

    Welcome to the New Kodak Moment – the moment when an exponential force puts a linear company out of business. As we shall see over and over again, these New Kodak Moments are not aberrations. Rather they are the inevitable result of the six Ds of exponential growth. And for those linear-thinking executives trying to hang on to their jobs, this leads us to the three final Ds: distraught, depressed, and departed. But for exponential entrepreneurs, these New Kodak Moments are rife with possibility.
    OK, so you're wondering what those “six Ds” he mentions are ...
    1. Digitalization

    2. Deception

    3. Disruption

    4. Demonetization

    5. Dematerialization

    6. Democratization
    Now, the first of these is pretty self-explanatory, something that had been only physical, becomes digital … the second, however, is less obvious: this “deception” phase is when exponential growth goes unnoticed because “the doubling of small numbers are so minuscule they are often mistaken for … linear growth”. In the case of Kodak's digital camera with an initial resolution of only 0.01 megapixels, going to 0.02 then to 0.04 and to 0.08 all still look an awful lot like “zero”, but if their growth continues, it's not long before the technology has made a “billionfold improvement”, at which point “disruption” of the industry in question is almost certainly under way. There's an interesting chart in here which plots “all photos” against “analog photos”, and, naturally enough, the curves match from 1826 to about 1990, and there's only a little separation around 2000, with 86 billion photos being taken, however, at that point the “all” curve surges, and the “analog” curve tanks, with 380 billion photos taken in 2011, with only one or two billion of those being analog.

    I well recall the days when, if I was going on vacation, I'd have to pre-plan to get enough film to shoot when I was off climbing Mayan ruins, etc. … what was a major expense back in the day (between buying the film and then having it developed), today would involve picking up a few tiny chips that would hold hundreds, if not thousands, times the images I used to budget for. This is the “demonetization” phase of the exponential model, where things which once had a physical presence and were reasonably expensive, now were nearly, if not actually, free. The entertainment and publishing industries have certainly faced this

    Another chart illustrates the “dematerialization” phase, which suggests that a modern smart phone encompasses a dozen technologies which used to require a separate device … which all would have totaled somewhere around $900,000.00 if bought when introduced. Needless to say, this “when introduced” figure seriously inflates the costs, as a GPS system, when introduced in 1982, cost $119,900.00, which is then interpreted to $279,366.00 in “2011 dollars” (making up nearly a third of the total), when a free-standing GPS system could be had currently for under a hundred bucks … but the general point is that the smart phone “has in it” a digital watch, a video camera, an encyclopedia, etc., none of which one would “need” to physically have anymore.

    The final D, “democratization” addresses the drive to ubiquity of technology such as smart phones … while high-end phones can be pricey, there are also “name” units (like some of Microsoft's new Lumina models) which have list prices as low as seventy bucks … this means that soon everybody can have the technology.

    So much for the first chapter. Diamandis goes on to look at the “hype cycle”, how 3D printing is effecting numerous industries, how communicating sensors are reaching into everything, and how the connectivity of the Internet is exploding in both access (with major players competing to develop global free service) and bandwidth/speed (a replacement for 4G is being phased in that is 6-7x the current standard). He projects that in a few years (2020) a chip that runs your cellphone and can perform a billion calculations per second will cost about a penny – leading to what he calls “infinite computing”. He quotes Rackspace's Graham Weston saying: “Today the computation speed that somebody in the middle of Mumbai has access to outstrips what the entire US government had during the sixties and seventies.”, and entrepreneurs don't even need to have the infrastructure, as the computing resources can be used “as needed” from cloud providers. He covers Artificial Intelligence and the strides being made there, as well as related developments in Robotics, and “Genomics and Synthetic Biology”.

    The second section is a whirlwind of examples of “doing” on a developmental level, from Lockheed's “Skunk Works” – and Kelly Johnson's “fourteen rules for going skunk” – to permutations on that across various other industries and contexts. An interesting example provided is that of Google's “moonshot factory”, GoogleX, which sets audacious goals, and churns through concepts, letting most of them fail. There is also a list of “eight innovation principles”:
    1. Focus on the User.

    2. Share Everything.

    3. Look for Ideas Everywhere.

    4. Think Big but Start Small.

    5. Never Fail to Fail.

    6. Spark with Imagination, Fuel with Data

    7. Be a Platform.

    8. Have a Mission That Matters.
    Diamandis then takes an extensive look at the concept of “flow” (as popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) which is framed as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best ...when we become so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away” here, and goes point-for-point through “flow's 17 triggers” (more than I can summarize).

    Next is “going big”, introducing the concept of “the line of super-credibility”, and many examples from the author's own projects … including a list of his 28 “laws”. The last chapter in the second section is “Billionaire Wisdom”, and looks at the careers of four top-tier innovators: Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page (all of whom the author has worked with in various contexts). One thing I found fascinating here was that Musk had built a multi-billion dollar business, lost it all, and built back into the ranks of billionaires … and he's only just in his 40's!

    This brings us to the third section, and second half, of the book, “The Bold Crowd”. As engaging as the first half was, I suspect that this part is what is going to sell most copies of Bold, as it's an in-depth and reasonably step-by-step look at Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding, and Building Communities, followed with a specific look at Incentive Competitions – a specialty of Diamandis, whose X Prize challenges have become legendary (interestingly, this sort of thing has a long history, Lindberg crossed the Atlantic to win the Orteig Prize, and as early as 1714 innovations were being seeded this way, with the British Parliament establishing the Longitude Prize for the first person to measure longitude at sea). This section is so dense, so full of details and “how to” info, that I can't begin to cherry-pick meaningful bits to put in here. Suffice it to say, it's a concise “course” on how to achieve remarkable goals using a whole brand-new infrastructure of platforms and systems that are currently available, and no doubt well worth the cover price of the book to those who are looking to make moves in those realms (I'm handing my copy of this over in the next couple of days to an associate who's about to launch a crowdfunding effort!).

    Bold is brand-new, just being out a month as I'm writing this, so it should be pretty easy to find in the ever-dwindling brick-and-mortar book world … the on-line guys, of course, have it, and are currently knocking off about a quarter of the cover price. While based on the sort of futurism that was so enticing in Abundance, this is its own critter, with a couple of sections of context, and then the pay-off of the “manual” … if you have interests in any of the stuff noted above, you'll want to get a copy.


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    Sunday, March 8th, 2015
    2:19 pm
    Towards a “Protopia” ...
    I know that I frequently grumble about the quality of books coming out from the LibaryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, but this was another really great one, expansive (it's about 500 pages), strenuously researched (there are over 50 pages of small-type notes at the end), and seemingly effortlessly describing an eventually-inspiring story arc across a dozen main subjects. Author Michael Shermer is a founder of Skeptic magazine, a regular columnist for Scientific American, and has a dozen other science books on his resume. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, while grounded in science, is more a book on history and philosophy, asking the “why” questions on top of a basis of “how” analysis. What's the book about? Well, the subtitle pretty much sketches the intent, but I found this snippet from the Prologue a good window on the whole:

    ... we are living in the most moral period in our species' history

    For tens of millennia moral regress best described our species, and hundreds of millions of people suffered as a result. But then something happened half a millennium ago. The Scientific Revolution led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and that changed everything. As a result, we ought to understand what happened, how and why these changes reversed our species' historical trend downward, and that we can do more to elevate humanity, extend the arc, and bend it ever upward.
    Because there is so much in here, I'm going to fall back on the crutch of replicating the ToC below … as this will give you the general outline of the book, making it easier for me to touch on highpoints without necessarily having to backfill in all the context …

                Part I: The Moral Arc Explained
                        1. Toward a Science of Morality
                        2. The Morality of War, Terror, and Deterrence
                        3. Why Science and Reason Are the Drivers of Moral Progress
                        4. Why Religion Is Not the Source of Moral Progress

                Part II: The Moral Arc Applied
                        5. Slavery and a Moral Science of Freedom Rights
                        6. A Moral Science of Women's Rights
                        7. A Moral Science of Gay Rights
                        8. A Moral Science of Animal Rights

                Part III: The Moral Arc Amended
                        9. Moral Regress and Pathways to Evil
                      10. Moral Freedom and Responsibility
                      11. Moral Justice: Retribution and Restoration
                      12. Protopia: The Future of Moral Progress

    Early on here Shermer establishes some baselines, citing research on other social apes, and young children of various ages … discussing “our multifaceted moral nature that evolved to solve several problems at once in our ancestral environment – be nice to those who help us and our kin and kind, punish those who hurt”, and detailing experiments that suggest:

    ... the moral sense of right (…) and wrong (…) emerges as early as three to ten months of age – far too early to attribute to learning and culture. Young children who are exposed in a laboratory to an adult experiencing pain … typically respond by soothing the injured party. Toddlers who see adults struggling to open a door … or to pick up an out-of-reach object, will spontaneously help without any prompting from the adults in question.
    An interesting point connected to some of this research is how much the child learns in the womb – studies with newborns show pronounced preferences not only for their mothers' voices, but in general for the language spoken by their parents.

    In the chapter dealing with issues of War, etc., there is a 10-point (several page) section called a “Path to Nuclear Zero”, which includes this interesting bit on the concept of taboo:

    The psychology behind the taboo against chemical and biological weapons transfers readily to that of nuclear weapons. Deadly heat and radiation – like poison gas and lethal diseases – are invisible killers that are indiscriminate in the carnage they wreak. … the revulsion people feel towards nuclear weapons may be linked in the brain to the emotion of disgust that psychologists have identified as being associated with invisible disease contagions, toxic poisons, and revolting materials … that carry them – reactions that evolved to direct organisms away from these substances for survival reasons.
    Of course, it is one thing to negotiate with Russia or China, and a completely different thing to be faced with non-rational states or movements who may obtain nuclear weapons. MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – worked for decades (thankfully), but it “does not make nuclear war impossible, but simply renders it irrational”

    But if your religion has convinced you that you're not really going to die, and that the next life is spectacularly better than this life, and that you'll be a hero among those you've left behind – it changes the calculation.”
    Again, the challenge in giving a perspective on the book is that there is SO much stuff in there … I'm skipping over a lot of fundamental material, and trying to point to things that seemed highlights to me. Here's a key bit from the early parts of the Science chapter:

    From an intellectual history perspective, I have described this shift [the move to a “Science of Man”] as the “battle of the books” - the book of authority vs. the book of nature. The book of authority – whether it was the Bible or Aristotle in the Western world – is grounded in the cognitive process called deduction, or making specific claims from generalized principles … by contrast, the book of nature is grounded in induction, or the cognitive process of drawing generalized principles from specific facts ...
    Fast-forward to the American revolution, and you have these scientific approaches applied to matters of state:

    Many of the founding fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formulation to their nation building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a social system in which doubt and dispute were the centerpieces of a functional polity. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science – as a method, not an ideology.
    The benefits of the scientific approach should be obvious, but here's a great quote for our current world situation:

    The hypothesis that reason-based Enlightenment thinking leads to moral progress is one that can be tested through historical comparison and by examining what happens to countries that hold anti-Enlightenment values. Countries that quash free inquiry, distrust reason, and practice pseudoscience, such as Revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and, more recently, fundamentalist Islamic states, stagnate, regress, and often collapse. Theists and postmodernist critics of science and reason often label the disastrous Soviet and Nazi utopias as “scientific”, but their science was a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment, pastoral, paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in ethnicity and geography ...
    Of course, even in modern democracies, there are deep divides, and Shermer details several takes on this:

    The left-right divide also depends heavily on the vision of human nature that you hold – as either constrained (right-wing) or unconstrained (left-wing) … or as utopian (left-wing) or tragic (right-wing) … Left-wingers lean towards believing that human nature is largely unconstrained by biology, and thus utopian-like social engineering schemes to overcome poverty, unemployment, and other social ills are appealing in their logic and feasibility. Right-wingers lean toward believing that human nature is largely constrained by biology and thus social, political, and economic policies must necessarily be limited in their scope and ambition.
    In the “Religion” chapter there's an interesting “Deconstructing the Decalogue” section, where the author picks apart the Ten Commandments, on the basis that “they were written by and for people whose culture and customs were so different from ours as to make them either irrelevant to modern peoples or immoral were they to be obeyed.” … such as #2 inspiring acts of cultural savagery by the Taliban (as noted here), or more recently by the thugs of ISIL. From an Enlightenment perspective, most of the Commandments are pretty monstrous, and Shermer suggests a “Provisional Rational Decalogue”, based on generally-aspired to principles of the civilized world.

    The middle section, on specific rights movements is interesting, full of fascinating research, but not full of particularly quote-worthy bits. The chapter on Animal rights stands out, however, in that it raises the subject to nearly the same plane as dealing with slavery, women, and gays. Much of that chapter is both grim and difficult … as we, as a species, are deeply “speciesist” and have milennia of cultural acclimation to eating, wearing, and working animals. However, the research outlined in this chapter makes one pause about how animals, especially “higher” animals, are treated worldwide. The author cites a striking piece of legislation in India which suggests that dolphins should be considered “nonhuman persons” – a classification change that could make radical shifts in our species' view of others.

    This leads (somewhat unsubtly) to the chapter on “Evil”, which starts out looking at the infamous Milgram experiments (and similar studies on obedience, including ones the author developed for a reality TV show), and then a deep look into the Nazis, from Eichmann on down … delving into very disturbing psychological territory … the process is sketched out as:

    ... these factors are interactive and autocatalytic – that is, they feed on one another: dehumanization produces deindividuation, which then leads to compliance und the influence of obedience to authority, and in time that morphs into conformity to new group norms, and identification with the group, which leads to the actual performance of evil acts. No one of these components inexorably leads to evil acts, but together they form the machinery of evil that arises under certain social conditions.
    The final chapter has an odd theme – “Protopia” – which the author notes “A better descriptor than utopia  for what we ought to strive for is protopia – a place where progress is steadfast and measured … the general principle is relatively simple: try to make the world a slightly better place tomorrow than yesterday.” One of the things that's covered here is the idea of a return to “city-states” as the main level of governmental organization … where Mayors would be the big dogs, and things would be run, not by bureaucracies but by (another odd word – this one from Alvin Toffler) “adhocracies” – organizations “premised on innovation and real-time problem solving in response to dynamic and ever-changing environments that require unique solutions to new problems … decentralized and highly organic, horizontal instead of hierarchical in nature, and … engages in creative effort to find a novel solution ...”. An example given is that NASA in the 1960's was an adhocracy, but by the 1990's, it had become just another bureaucracy.

    In this section there is a lot of name dropping of people on the cutting edge of pretty much everything, and how these innovators' projects may play out. One piece of information that I found amusing was the “data curve” that most people are at least generally familiar with:

    ... from the earliest stirrings of civilization 10,000 years ago to the year 2003, all of humankind created a grand total of about 5 exabytes of digital information [1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes] … from 2003 through 2010 humans created 5 exabytes of digital information every 2 days. By 2013 we were producing 5 exabytes every 10 minutes. … Make all that digital knowledge available to every person on the planet instantly through the Internet, and ideally all citizens of the world can become citizen-scientists capable of reasoning their way to solving personal, social, and moral problems.
    The Moral Arc just came out in January, so it should be available at surviving brick-and-mortar book vendors who carry science books, but the on-line big boys have it for about a quarter off the cover price. This is not an “easy” read, as there's a lot of material here (some of it quite challenging), but it is a fascinating read, and is ultimately hopeful on a lot of levels … worth the time to work your way through it.


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    Saturday, March 7th, 2015
    4:39 am
    What you talking about?
    A number of years ago, I was very pleased to have been queried about writing “a chapter” for a collection of essays that was being pulled together: Age of Conversation 3: It's Time to Get Busy! from the team of Drew McLellan and Gavin Heaton (who served as editors for this). As one might guess, this was the third in a series, but it, unfortunately appears to have been the final edition, as there was one a year from 2008-2010, but nothing since (and the URL for the series having been hijacked, or so Firefox seems to think, throwing up those warning screens when I've tried to go there of late). There is a “Note from the Editors” up front that indicated that they assembled this as a bit of an afterthought (they felt there was still “something missing” from the previous two), but it seems to me that it might have been a concept that could have had a bit more staying power.

    It actually took me a very long time to connect with a copy of this … contributors didn't get anything for participating, and the cost on the book took a long time to drop anywhere significantly lower than its cover price. I had initially figured that this had come out via some print-on-demand press (notorious for not having much leeway for discounts – and no truckloads of cases to dump on the secondary market), but it appears that it came from one of those odd hybrids – a “media communications” firm (PR/Social) that has an integrated publishing arm. Frankly the model isn't a bad one … they're selling “building a market” for the title even before it comes out, which is a very sensible approach. Anyway, I stuck this on my Amazon wishlist and kept checking until somebody in the new/used vendor offered a copy at what I was willing to pay to get the minor ego boost of seeing my sterling verbiage on a single page of a $19.95 sub-200-page book. It not only took a few years for a copy to rattle through that way, it also sat around for quite a while, as my main interest in having it was my piece, and the other 180-or-so writers', not so much.

    It was one of those “almost OOPS” things that got me to read this, as it had somehow not come off my Amazon wishlist when I ordered it, and I'd forgotten I had a copy when I came close to ordering it again. Fortunately, I had a ”wait a minute … didn't I see that over in that stack of books over in that other room?” moment of clarity before pulling the trigger on getting another copy. As an aside ... it's one of the downsides of my LibraryThing.com usage strategy of not logging in books that I've not as yet actually read - as I will, on rare occasion, not recall having bought something that's whiling away in some to-be-read book stack, and get an extraneous copy. Having discovered that I did, indeed, have Age of Conversation 3, I opted to give it a boost to the front of the reading line.

    Now, in this series, the editors sought to get a rather wide range of material, including voices from all over the globe. As you might suspect, this resulted in a somewhat uneven mix. It's been a while, but I seem to recall that they gave us a target word count (I could have probably gone about 30% longer given the way it lays out on the page, but I think I wrote it to right at the suggested length), and asked us to pick a general topic from a list of several. I don't know if these were specifically those of the section headings, but these, under (I suppose) the general rubric of the sub-title of “It's Time to Get Busy!”, are as follows:

                      At the Coalface
                      Identities, Friends and Trusted Strangers
                      Conversational Branding
                      Measurement
                      Corporate Conversations
                      In the Boardroom
                      Innovation and Execution
                      Influence
                      Getting to Work
                      Pitching Social Media

    My piece, entitled “Who Are You?” appears in the second section, and dealt with on-line identities, informed by my long involvement on BBSs, IRC, AOL Chat Rooms, the LiveJournal heyday (where I had a good half-dozen “sock puppet” accounts with their own personalities for saying the nasty stuff), and on into the much more transparent on-line identities demanded by the big dog platforms of social at present.

    While I've not counted, I seem to recall reading somewhere that there are 180 pieces arrayed within those 10 topics … so there's a lot of “stuff” here, and no real “theme” aside from the general thrusts of the sections. I ended up dropping in little book markers as I read this, so I'm going to give you something of a “random sampling” of things that snagged my attention as I was going through the book.

    The first tag that I have in here is also in the “Identities” section, in a piece by Emily Reed entitled “Interesting Is the New Bland” … where she looks at the balance of TMI and blandness, framed in the context of a trip through Europe with a new boyfriend – when she learned that his parents were going to be reading the intended-to-be “tell all” blog she'd envisioned … “I made the mistake that many brands make – I went generic; I went boring.” She further sorts out the approaches of “writing” vs. “dinner party chat”, one being fearless, the other, more restrained.

    But the bloggers and Twitterers and brands that I love do push the comfort zone. They say things that are surprising and controversial and personal. They apply the basics of good writing to the genre.

    So I'm forever bouncing in my mind between asking myself, “is this good, interesting writing?” and “Would I be embarrassed if my clients or in-laws were reading this in front of me right now?” If the answer is “yes” to the first question, I move to the second. If the answer to the second is “yes,” I hit the “save as draft” button and wait a day. Ninety percent of the time, I've gotten over myself enough to remember that, as long as I remember the public-ness, being part of the conversation is also about entertaining my fellow dinner guests.”
    The next bit that caught my attention was “The Dual Life of the Flaneur” by (oddly enough) one of the series' editors, Gavin Heaton. I found it very interesting that he didn't name-check Nassim Nicholas Taleb in this, as it's been in Taleb's writing that I, and many others, first encountered the concept of the Flâneur, although he does quote Baudelaire, so perhaps he's sourcing the concept closer to the root. I found the following notable in Heaton's piece:

    The transition we have seen over the last decade on the web, from static or even database driven content to social, pluralistic, real time conversations is marked not by its wavelength but by its amplitude. The digital flaneur is not interested in the spread of ideas but in their relevance. She seeks not the voices of many but the conversations of the passionate. This journey carries its destination in the heart of its interactions not in its logical end point.
    Another piece (in the “Measurement” section) that I found fascinating was by New Zealander Phil Osborne, whose “The DANGER of Measurement” looks at “metricfication”, “efficiencies”, the turn-offs of the “managed relationships” inherent in CRM systems, etc. He wanders between examples of business procedures and his worries, and I'm going to be cherry-picking a bit in the following to focus on his main point:

    ... the existence of metrics does not change the basis of my concern. If the purpose of measuring is ultimately control, then there is a significant consequence that must be considered before adopting any metric (or measurement program). … [are we] seeking to manage conversations and social interaction? The fate of that has been revealed already (Cluetrain Manifesto anyone?). Be afraid, because I for one worry that metricfication, as currently practiced, has a limited place in a post industrial economy in which the hegemony of production is being supplanted by collaboration, co-creation and customer centricity. … Social media can easily go the same way as CRM. Be careful what you wish for.
    The next is a very short piece, in the “Innovation and Execution” section, by Mark McGuinness, set up almost like a prose poem, called “New Media, Same Difference” … rather than re-type the whole thing here, I'm snagging 3 lines:

    There has never been such a wealth of new creations – and never such a volume of crap.

    As always, the one who succeed will be the ones who resolve this creative tension.
    The ones making the remarkable things, not churning out “content”.
    This certainly echoes the words of Godin, Brogan, and Stratten … where it's not about the tools, but about producing the remarkable.

    Finally, from the “Influence” section, there is “The Influence of Not Being Influenced” by Amy Jussel, where she (from a non-profit's perspective), states:

    With an increasingly exhausted public struggling to sift “what is real” in everything from reality shows to product placement (savvy consumers know buzz can be bought, viral can be “seeded” and vested interests can permeate citizen journalism as well as mainstream media) the open ended question we're all trying to grapple with is, “How do you monetize influence in a trust-based economy?”
    I won't use the hackneyed “a” word (authenticity) or even “b” words (brand-building) even though both are essential in earning trust via reputation. I'm going to hang my hat on the “c” words of creating credibility through content while curating a conversation that adds value to the readers without the perception of asking for something in return.

    Influence is not a commodity to be brokered, but rather an intimacy to be earned.
    Again, there are a lot of voices in Age of Conversation 3, addressing a lot of topics. Some parts are fascinating, some parts are pretty dull, but if the above sounds of interest, you might consider picking up a copy. This is available via the on-line big boys for full retail (making me suspect that its publisher is basically a print-on-demand service), but copies have started to filter down into the used channel … at about a third of cover. And, hey, you never get tired of reading my stuff, and there's some different type of my scribblings in there!


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