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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 © 2007-2014 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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    Book Blogger Appreciation Week


    This journal is a member of:
    The BooksANDBlogs webring.
    Power By Ringsurf


    This blog is on the resource listing!


    Sunday, April 6th, 2014
    9:00 pm
    Quite Revealing ...
    thtdutm1Here is another of those wonderful dollar store finds that lend an element of serendipity to my reading. Frankly, this one had sat around for a very long time, waiting for me “to get in the right place” for a medically-themed historic survey … but after quite a number of business books, I needed a break, and this seemed to be variable enough to be “next”.

    I'm somewhat embarrassed that it took me until about half-way through the book to think “you know, this is really just about this one guy!”, where, had I paid closer attention to the subtitle of Thomas Hager's The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug, I'd have possibly noted the “One Doctor's” part. Instead, I launched into this thinking it was a general overview of the development of antibiotics.

    Of course, the book is about the development of antibiotics, and it's pretty amazing to realize just how recent these have come along. I was familiar with the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who in the 1850's introduced the idea of antiseptics to a medical community that really didn't want to hear it (at that time, surgeons wore their bloody smocks, patient to patient, as something as a badge of honor), but he, at one hospital in Vienna, was able to reverse the numbers which had three times the deaths of mothers in obstetric wards staffed by doctors verses those being run by midwives, eventually pushing mortality rates to under 1% of patients. Since there was no “germ theory” at the time, and despite his successes, Semmelweis was decreed to be mad and died in an asylum!

    The Demon Under the Microscope, however, primarily follows the work of Gerhard Domagk, who had been a medical student prior to WWI, volunteered for the German army, was wounded, and served the rest of the war as a medic. The book goes into a great deal of detail about how most deaths in WWI came not from initial damage from gunshots, shrapnel, etc., but from the infections following. While by this time the use of antiseptics had become accepted (although hard to maintain on the battlefield), there still wasn't much that could be done. Diseases, especially the dreaded Streptococcus, would quickly do in those with any but the most minor injuries.

    As most folks reading this will understand, this came as a bit of a shock. In the West, in the past half century, “strep” is a bothersome throat infection that will occasionally run through a school, but be quickly put down with antibiotics … it's something one gets one's kids tested for if they have a throat infection … but it's never been something that I had any idea was so horribly lethal. And yet, in the years before the Second World War, it was pretty much a death sentence, and a strep infection could take a young, otherwise healthy, person in a matter of days. Hager notes:

    Strep might seem an odd choice today when the only strep disease most people ever experience is a bad sore throat. In the 1920s, however, it was one of the most feared killers on earth. No one was safe from strep.
    To illustrate this point he walks the reader through the sad tale of Calvin Coolidge Jr., who was a teen in his father's White House. One day he went out and played tennis in sneakers without socks, and got a blister on his toe … two days later he was weak and feverish, a couple of more days later he was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital, being attended by the finest physicians, and, a week after getting the blister, the boy was dead.

    A dozen years later, another Presidential son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., fell ill with a sinus infection, which turned into a fast-spreading strep infection. Near to death, his family approves the use of a brand new drug out of Europe … Sulfa-based drugs from Bayer … and the patient had a fast, full, and nearly miraculous recovery.

    The sulfa drugs were discovered by Domagk and his predecessors almost by accident. Most of their research followed the discovery that certain dyes had properties that stopped certain diseases (first discovered when using dyes for staining slides) … with an early success being an azo dye that cured “sleeping sickness”, a significant threat to the European colonial powers in Africa. Once this initial drug was on the market, the dye manufactures launched research programs with their chemists creating molecule after molecule that would form the basis of tests on animals that had been infected with a number of diseases. At one point a sulfa compound had been added to a dye and they suddenly saw remarkable survival rates in their strep test animals. As it turned out, the sulfa was the key ingredient (much to Bayer's dismay, as it was cheap, easy to manufacture, and not patentable like their dye-based products).

    Of course, in the 20's and 30's, drugs were hardly controlled, and there was a long history of “patent medicines”:

    Patent medicines in the early part of the twentieth century were as firmly established a part of American culture as jazz or baseball. Americans were accustomed to medicating themselves, deciding on their own treatments, and buying their own drugs. It went against the grain to have some doctor or federal agency telling Americans how to cure themselves.
    Unfortunately, once the idea of sulfa caught on in the US, there were hundreds of companies making products based on this, including one, Massengill, which produced an “elixir” that was sweet, raspberry flavored, and based on the industrial solvent diethyline glycol – a substance sometime used in salves and lotions – one of the few things in which the sulfa compounds would dissolve. Very quickly after its introduction, reports of deaths started to come in, from kids taking it for sore throats to folks trying to treat VD, they were drinking the “elixir” and dropping dead. The government and medical establishment quickly tried to halt distribution, but over a hundred people had died. This was not “good press”, and many people suspected the “new German drug” sulfa, rather than the toxic delivery system.

    The coming of WW2 was, however, the heyday for sufla, and it ended up being in the personal kits of most of the allied soldiers, causing many fewer post-engagement casualties than in any previous war, but it was also quickly eclipsed by the development of penicillin in the late 30's. Domagk had been awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1939, but had been prevented from accepting it by the Nazi regime, yet he survived the war, and was able to receive the honor afterwards.

    The Demon Under the Microscope is an engaging read, and a real eye-opener (as noted) at how recent much of the medical resources we have today were developed. It is part medical history, part military history, and an interesting look at how haphazard much of scientific advances are, frequently coming from something that wasn't being specifically looked for, but arising out of fortuitous accidents. The edition I have is the 2006 hardback, found at the dollar store, and there is a more recent paperback version as well ... which appears to be the only one actually in print at this point. The online big boys have the paperback at a bit off its very reasonable cover price, but the new/used guys have copies of the hardcover for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping). If you have an interest in the various types of history that pull together here, or of medical stuff in general, you'll probably enjoy this, and given how reasonable it would be to score a copy, I'd recommend you take a chance on it.


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    Saturday, April 5th, 2014
    9:20 pm
    This may BE your grandfather's freaky ...
    MHOSI1This is another book from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, and the second time that I've received multiples of a particular author's books (I reviewed Occult America back in 2009). This new one by Mitch Horowitz, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life is just a few degrees off from his previous, but this time looking at the development of the “positive thinking” (/ “The Secret”/ “law of attraction”) stuff that has been such a cultural feature over the past decade.

    Now, given that I have at least two ancestors who came over on the Mayflower (my late Aunt, who was very active in the Mayflower Society, somehow managed to have one more than the rest of us), I can say this … but is it really a surprise that in a country initiated by religious whackjobs there has been a whole chain of “out of the box” thinking in that wookie-wookie zone? If you look at it from that perspective, no … but being the sort who might otherwise out-of-hand dismiss a lot of the “newage” as being rooted in people who damaged their brains in the 1960's, it's amazing how long a lot of this stuff has been around.

    Like in his previous book, Horowitz takes a historical approach to this, backgrounding it with early aspects as far back as Greek-Egyptian Hermeticism, through the Idealists, Kant and Hegel, the Modernists, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and into Swedenborg and Emerson, as counterparts to America's dour Calvinist Protestantism. The story picks up in the 1830's with a fellow by the name of Quimby who encounters traveling students of Mesmer, first Poyen, and then Collyer. Quimby began healing, writing, and building a following, including, in the mid-1860's a young lady who would become Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement.

    Frankly, this is the point where it starts to be difficult to give a running commentary, as the players, publications, and groups start weaving their paths through the culture, and there are (as one can get a sense of in the previous paragraph) a lot of names which may or may not strike the reader with particular significance. Horowitz does an admirable job of keeping this moving forward without too much confusion, blocking out the book into thematic, albeit still reasonably chronological, chapters, looking at how these groups cross-pollinated through the decades.

    Familiar names keep popping up, if in not particularly familiar contexts, and there seems to be always a mystical/occult extreme that many of these groups were informed by, but avoided in an effort to maintain a “Christian” facade. While many drew on Swedenborg, more than a few were at least conversant with Blavatsky and the Theosophists. I was surprised to read that things like “New Thought” and “Prosperity Gospel” were not just hippie-era spins, but dated back to the 1920's. The rise of psychotherapy also has its influence, with Freud, Jung, and others either being inspirations for insights or trends to be countered.

    Each chapter is subdivided in sections dealing with individuals and their circles, showing how they were inter-related (some being outright schismatic, some having paths that crossed, melded, split, etc.) with other figures in the general thematic flow of the chapter. In the course of this, whole constellations of related (if not involved) figures, from Susan B. Anthony to J.B. Rhine and even Carlos Castaneda and Ronald Reagan (some fascinating stuff about him!) appear. Of course, all the “big names” are here, Napoleon Hill, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, etc., etc., etc., with looks at where their concepts arose, and how they influenced others.

    Again, the names just keep coming … somebody better read in this particular niche would no doubt recognize dozens (possibly hundreds), but as the book progresses, they become more and more familiar, with people either still around in the “inspirational” fields or deceased only in the past few decades. Of course, Horowitz works his way up to The Secret but doesn't try to survey the wide expanse of “practitioners” that spawned. The story, however, continues, even up to difficulties that the Tony Robbins organization was having as recently as 2012.

    The final chapter of One Simple Idea is called (tellingly) “Does It Work?” where he pulls together the historical bits and tries to define “the lay of the land”, in which he posits that there are four basic “schools” into which most of these people and movements can be sorted:
    1. The Magical Thinking or Divine Thought School
    2. The Conditioning or Reprogramming School
    3. The Conversion School
    4. The Meaning-Based School
    These are interesting, but not pressed too hard; he discusses these as tendencies of various groups, but avoids being overly specific as to which practitioners are in which “school”. He follows this with a look at the “scientific” side of things, from the no doubt very applicable “placebo effect” to the far less concrete, albeit very popular, attempts to bend quantum physics to mystical ends. In closing, Horowitz notes:

    The pioneers of the positive-thinking movement, acting with deep practical intent, probed the possibilities and capacities of our psyches earlier than any scientists, theologians, or psychologists of the modern industrial age. The founders of New Thought and affirmative thinking created a fresh means of viewing life, one that was rough and incomplete, rife with mistakes and dead ends, but also filled with possibility and practical application.
    While I'm not sure if a hard-core “The Secret” believer would particularly appreciate One Simple Idea (as it's pretty well-grounded in reality), it certainly has a lot to recommend it to those who have encountered that sort of belief and wondered where the heck it came from. Horowitz has succeeded in wrapping a reasonably coherent story arc across a vast lot of individual story lines, which makes this much more than a string of Wikipedia pages on the persons and groups involved. If you have an interest in things in this realm, you will likely find a lot of useful info (if nothing else, a vast number of books to check out!) here. This is brand new, just out in January, so you're likely to be able to find it in your local real-world book vendor, but you could save a few bucks with the on-line guys if you're in one of those “bereft of bookstores” zones.


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    Friday, March 7th, 2014
    3:04 pm
    Absolutely smashing ...
    This was a happy discovery at the dollar store … and just a few weeks ago (it did not languish in the “wall of to-be-read books” like so many do). I know I come off as a cheap bastard, but it makes me so happy to get a nice hardcover book for next to nothing … and especially if it's a book that I actually like (of course, if one of my $1 finds is “meh”, I'm also not kicking myself for having spent $25 for it). Obviously a book about the Large Hadron Collider is likely to be pretty current, and the copy I have is from the 2010 first edition (poking around on Amazon, I've found that there is a revised reprint edition from 2012 which has been updated with the particulars of the Higgs Boson, discovered 7/4/12).

    Of course, this means that Amir D. Aczel's Present at the Creation: the Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (since re-subtitled with “Discovering the Higgs Boson”) is a bit of a tease since it takes the story up to the point when the LHC is working, but results hadn't come through as yet. Frankly, this was not a smooth process, what was to be the official start of the device was on 09/10/2008, with the counter-rotating proton beams circulating for the first time, but soon after a major problem with the superconducting magnets caused a catastrophic breakdown, which took another 14 months to repair. In November of 2009 they fired it up again, and had the first proton collisions, but it wasn't until 03/30/2010 that it went up to half power (two 3.5 TeV proton beams colliding for a 7 TeV power level) and started to pick apart what was being created.

    Aczel has a dozen science books out there, and he obviously knows his stuff. One of the most notable aspects to Present at the Creation is how deftly he handles “setting the stage” for talking about the LHC, as, obviously, there is a LOT of science which needs to get covered to bring the reader up to the point where the project generally makes sense. Needless to say, one could spend thousands of pages to get there, but he manages to present (what to me seemed) a decent overview while discussing the development of the LHC … and he covers a lot: dark matter, anti-matter, superposition, quark theory, black holes, Feynman diagrams, symmetry, fields, etc., etc., etc.

    The numbers associated with the LHC are stunning … it is the largest machine ever constructed, and its detectors (there are a number of separate programs using the same accelerator ring, with the two largest being the CMS, or Compact Muon Solenoid, and the ATLAS) are huge, the size of 5-7 story buildings buried deep under the French/Swiss countryside at CERN. When the LHC is pushed to its maximum of 7 TeV per beam, it will be moving those protons at an amazing 99.9999991 percent of the speed of light. To put that in perspective, if the beam was shot at Alpha Centauri, 4.2 lightyears away from us, it would arrive only 0.3 seconds later than a photon from our Sun (moving, of course, at the speed of light). Given that protons are “massive”, that 99.9999991 figure is pretty good … and not likely to be bested any time soon, as, according to relativity, at 100% of the speed of light those protons would achieve infinite mass, which gets messy.

    One of the concerns that some had voiced about the LHC was that pushing massive particles that close to infinities might create mini black holes. Aczel discusses a lot of the issues around the worries (including the “theory” that the 2008 melt-down on the magnets was the doing of time travelers from the future trying to prevent the LHC from going on-line!), and admits that there are a lot of things that we can't “know” for sure.

    Speaking of the magnets … unless there is an alien civilization running bigger superconducting magnets somewhere out there, the coolant system in the LHC is the coldest place in the universe! Most folks are familiar with the idea of “absolute zero” (0 degrees Kelvin, or -459.67° F), but even the empty expanses between galaxies aren't at absolute zero, there's a “temperature” of the universe, a leftover from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, which runs around 2.73 degrees Kelvin, or -454.7° F … compare that to what the superconducting magnets are cooled to: 1.9 degrees Kelvin, or -456.25° F … to risk alienating you with a terrible pun … How COOL is that???

    Aczel also covers a number of the other experiments (other than the big two) being developed at the LHC, and discusses details about how a lot of this stuff works. But the book's hardly “technical” (yeah, I know, easy for me to say, as I love reading about physics), and deals with a lot of the history of scientific theories and discoveries which led up to the LHC and discusses many of the people involved. I was interested (having a daughter who is about to head off to college to become an engineer) to find that the Coordinator for the ATLAS project (and the 3,000 physicists involved in that part of the LHC!) was a woman, Fabiola Gianotti … and the list of top Nobel laureates playing parts at CERN is truly impressive.

    The scale of the LHC project is mindboggling, if there are thousands of physicists on board, one can imagine how many engineering specialties are also needed to make these massive machines, and the facilities all along the 17-mile ring of the accelerator, and keep everything running. I must admit to having a twinge of “what could have been” thinking about the US staying the course with the Superconducting Super Collider in north Texas, canceled in 1983 (when it was half done) due to cost over-runs. The SSC would have been bigger (its ring had a 54-mile circumference) and more powerful (at 20 TeV) than the LHC … and would have been here.

    As you can tell … I'm very enthusiastic about Present at the Creation, and would highly recommend it to anybody with an interest in physics, or just big amazing projects. As noted, I found this at the dollar store a month or so back, so $1 copies are kicking around out there, but I'd recommend getting the new edition (the 2012 paperback) with the Higgs info in it. It's reasonably priced, and, of course, the on-line big boys have it at a discount, and you can save a bit via the new/used channels (but it seems that the hardcover is the older version, so keep that in mind).


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    Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
    10:11 pm
    Why only half the story?
    I'm afraid that this review is likely to end up being more about me than it is about the source material. As regular readers will recognize, I'm both a conservative-leaning Libertarian politically, and a “deep agnostic” on the religion front … being one of those “wishy-washy” near-atheists that irritate the likes of Penn Jillette. Frankly, I have studied so much religion that one could say I'm Vajrayana one day, a Pantheist the next, a paleo-Pagan Shaman the day after, a Gurdjieff/Ouspensky “Fourth Way” follower another, a Thelemite on occasion, a Sufi-esque mystic at times, and a hard-core scientific materialist every now and again (and I'm probably missing stuff here). This is where the agnostic/atheistic split comes in - it's not that I categorically deny the possibility of there being a deity along the lines of what the big three monotheisms envision, it's just that I consider that particular view only slightly more plausible than Bertram Russell's cosmic teapot. Or, as Christopher Hitchens put it: "Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong."!

    I venture into this bit of autobiographical digression to frame what brought me to the current book. I had not been familiar with S.E. Cupp (not making a habit of watching CNN or MSNBC where her shows are), but ran across a mention of her as being both a conservative and an atheist … and I'm always eager to find “fellow travelers” down the somewhat lonely path (although I find that many Libertarians are sufficiently uninterested in dictating to others what to do and/or believe that they might as well be atheists, even if they don't self-identify, like Mr. Jillette certainly does, as such) of not believing in either the fairy tales of the religious or the fairy tales of the Left. I was fascinated to see an atheist produce a book defending Christianity … as it seems a bit like Freud's sarcastic note: "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

    Cupp's book, Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity was, strangely, a very uncomfortable read. There obviously are different opinions of what is dangerous out there, and Cupp evidently is in the camp that does not see the threat of “Dominionist” Christianity, which is the biggest bogeyman for a lot of my friends. The fact that she had Mike Huckabee pen a foreword to this indicates that she does not consider strident, unyielding, anti-intellectual, organized religion as a danger, or at least not as much a danger as the Left. Of course, I agree that the Left is a threat, and that their shock troops in the MSM have totally perverted what was once a key counter to government over-reach, but painting Christianity as an innocent victim of a militant left-wing press creates WAY too much cognitive dissonance for my tastes.

    A quote on the dust jacket sets up the tone pretty well:

    The press has become a political and ideological tool of oppression – politicized, self-aware, self-motivated, and power-hungry … In short, these people can no longer be trusted.
    Yes, that's true … but atheist Cupp defending Christianity seems as bizarre to me as Libertarian (and atheist) Jillette defending the Obama regime as being “well meaning”! Frankly, I was never quite able to triangulate where Cupp was coming from here, as she even goes so far to besmirch the Enlightenment in her defining a “revolution”

          If this sounds ominous, it is. And it's much worse than you think.

    No matter what you believe, and how fervently you believe it, this particular war on God, just the latest in a string of them since the Enlightenment, is a war against all Americans – religious, atheist, and secular – not because of whom it targets, but because of who's behind it.

          The revolutionaries are in the media.
          The people you trust to be fair, accurate, objective, and insightful, the so-called watchdogs of the state, protectors of the truth, gatekeepers and guardians of freedom, are the very revolutionaries out to shame, mock, subvert, pervert, corrupt, debase and extinguish your beliefs, the beliefs of the vast majority of Americans, and the values upon which this country was founded. They're doing the one thing they're not supposed to do: They're taking sides. … this means {the} guardians of truth are being dishonest, wholly subjective, and, frankly, un-American. Targeting faith is targeting Democracy, and that's something that should make every American deeply concerned for the future.
    I'm certainly not going to argue against the concept that the MSM has been deliberately infiltrated (along with academia and government) with hard-Left “true believers” (with thrills going up their legs), but I can not get how this can be posited to be more of a danger than the Dominionist movement, and related groups who seek to create a Biblical theocracy in America.

    Anyway, the book is set up with ten “thou shalt” chapters, each focusing on some particular topic of deep interest to both the Leftist MSM and Christian fundamentalists … all things gay, the bugaboo of evolution, sexual permissiveness, abortion, stem-cell research, etc., etc. … with Cupp defending the Christian stance in each case. Sure, there is a lot of legitimate finger pointing at the abuses of the media, (things like how blatantly the MSM will blow up a scandal involving a conservative, and totally sweep under the rug equivalent or worse behaviors by liberals) but this feels (from where I'm sitting) like defending the kid who killed his parents because he's now an orphan. Both sides are vile, yet Cupp doesn't seem to be willing to shine an equivalent light on the similarly dangerous situation of having millions of people out there who believe in religious doctrine over and above science ... or the true underpinnings of our Republic.

    Ultimately, the only sense I could make of this was that it was a numbers game … if you have a media elite that's attacking a “vast majority” of America, it's anti-democracy and bad. Except, come on … if the beliefs of that majority are preposterous, destructive, and threatening, they should be mocked. Cupp certainly makes a lot of valid points about how frustratingly one-sided the Leftist media are, and the deep cynical hypocrisy that goes with that, but she's basically defending the indefensible here … which is sad.

    I had really hoped to have liked Losing Our Religion, but – as much as I agreed with her hostility to the MSM – it lacked the balance of highlighting the clear and terrifying hazards of a majority that chooses Bronze Age fairy tales over reason. This is still in print, but the new/used vendors (where I got my copy) at the on-line big boys have it for as little as a penny (plus $3.99 shipping). If this sounds like something you'd want to have a go at … at least you can get it for cheap!


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    Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
    9:34 pm
    And here again ...
    eeeotdtbctn1I very rarely re-read books intentionally, but the Dhammapada seems to be one of those books that ends up, in one form or another, finding its way into my reading pile every 2-3 years. Of course, I'm not really “re-reading” it, as I'm not going back to the same edition, and there is a great deal of difference given the background of the translator/interpreter, as well as when the book was produced. If you're interested, I have reviews of F. Max Müller's translation (which was a Dover reprint of a book that was over a century old, notably featuring the unfortunate replacement of now-familiar terms Dharma and Sangha with the harsher “law” and “church”), and Juan Mascaro's translation and excellent interpretive essay (itself probably influenced by its 1973 vintage).

    Actually, Mascaro's book is a good bridge to the subject of this review, Eknath Easwaran's Essence of the Dhammapada: The Buddha's Call to Nirvana, as the present volume is more of a long “interpretive essay” than a translation. If the author's name rings a bell, it's because I reviewed his Essence of the Bhagavad Gita a couple of years back. Like that book, this one came into my hands via the “Early Reviewers” program at LibraryThing.com … so was not something that I particularly went in search of, but was quite happy to have obtained.

    Eknath Easwaran has quite an interesting bio, having earned degrees in India in English and Law, and served as a Professor of English at his alma mater, the University of Nagpur, one of the top educational institutions there. At age 49 he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and moved to the USA, settling in at UC-Berkeley, where he started Meditation classes in 1960. Over the next several years he started the Blue Mountain Center, and the publishing operation, Nilgiri Press, which is responsible for this volume. He has published dozens of books over the decades, and, prior to his passing in 1999, he organized an on-going effort to get all of his unfinished volumes out to the public, of which these “Essence of” titles are examples.

    It is arguable, that an figure such as Eknath Easwaran is ideal for bringing the Indian classics to a modern audience. Not only did he emerge from the cultural context from which they arose, but he spent most of his years directly working with the English language, and teaching meditation and associated practices.

    I suppose that some might be unhappy that Essence of the Dhammapada is not so much a direct translation of the teachings of the Buddha, but the insight, language, and perspective (very clear about the modern world) he brings to the material is exceptional.
    Over and over again, the Buddha tells us we can all make the journey to nirvana – not by colossal steps, not instantaneously, but little by little, every day, both during meditation and during our daily routine – at work, in the store, in the kitchen, at school, in the home. It's done slowly, gently, by taming the whims and caprices of the mind.
    The concept of “taming the caprices of the mind” is a central theme here. The author speaks a lot about the challenges he experienced in learning to meditate, and, having taught these methods for decades, he knows where people get stuck, and how the mind tries to have its own way (another nice quote on the subject: “Vigilance where the mind is concerned is one of the Buddha's favorite subjects.”).

    Now, I'm not suggesting that this ignores the basic text … bits and pieces of it are woven through the narrative … but the author uses these more as thematic jumping-off points for discussing the underlying meaning than as a item-for-item walk-through. For example, he references this verse:
    Be like a well-trained horse, swift and spirited, and go beyond sorrow through faith, meditation, and energetic practice of the dharma. [144]
    … when he is discussing key challenges in subduing the mind:
    Even if we accept that the mind can be trained, it's not going to be easy … rather than riding on a swift steed to nirvana, to use the Buddha's image, we find we have a monkey mind as a companion on our journey … a famous Sanskrit verse says this is a monkey that is drunk, stung by a scorpion, and possessed by a ghost – all at the same time.
    The Essence of the Dhammapada operates on several different levels. On one hand, it is an exposition of the key elements of the Buddha's teachings, but geared to a modern Western audience. It is also something of a spiritual autobiography, as the author dips into his history and experiences, to help guide, warn, and encourage the reader. And, there is a good deal of “philosophy” as well, using set-ups like: When asked if the world is real, the Buddha says no. When asked if the world is unreal, the Buddha says no. Then what is the world? The Buddha says: “It is in between.” to move into a section discussing the concepts of the 2nd Century Mahayana teacher Nagarjuna.

    I very much enjoyed reading The Essence of the Dhammapada, although it took me a very long time to get through it (this is the sort of book that one is likely need time to “process” as one works though it, instead of plowing through at top reading speed!). As one would expect from this being in the “Early Reviewers” program, it is quite new, having just come out a few months back, so it will likely be obtainable via the brick & mortar book mongers who carry religion/philosophy titles out there … lacking one of those ever-more-rare sources, the on-line big boys have it. An additional thing to recommend this is its very reasonable cover price, which makes it quite painless to pick up. I liked this a lot, and am thankful that Eknath Easwaran arranged for its posthumous publication.


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    Sunday, January 19th, 2014
    11:42 pm
    The CliffsNotes to social?
    Last fall, I'd noticed Neal Schaffer posting a lot out on social media channels about his new book, Maximize Your Social: A One-Stop Guide to Building a Social Media Strategy for Marketing and Business Success, so I hopped on email and requested the good folks at Wiley to send me a review copy. While I got around to reading it fairly quickly, for some reason it's been languishing in the lower levels of my to-be-reviewed pile, until coming up now, a couple of months down the road, when I'm getting caught up on that backlog.

    I really prefer to review books within a week or so of finishing them, so this isn't as “fresh” as it ought to be … fortunately, I do have something like a dozen bookmarks in it, so I've got points to reference.

    The over-view of Maximize Your Social is pretty straight forward … it is, as the subtitle suggests, a “one-stop guide”, which pretty much means it's trying to be “soup-to-nuts” in the Social Media sphere. But this is a relatively thin volume (especially if compared to Lon Safko's massive Social Media Bible), around 200 pages to cover 18 subjects, so it presents more breadth than depth, generally speaking.

    Of course, this is not inherently a bad thing … if one were an “old school” marketer, and managed to “miss” that whole Internet thing and those Social Media sites the kids were messing around with, this would be an easy to digest walk-through of pretty much every element of social media marketing. And it's not just for the clueless, as it has condensed into it a vast lot of tips, tricks, and hidden goodies that even seasoned social users might have missed (I don't believe, for instance, that I'd run into Facebook Insights before reading about it in here). One thing that I've already “borrowed” is his “four buckets” model for blog content – a company decides on four areas or themes that it would like to promote via Social, and comes up with one blog post each per month, thereby (fairly painlessly) keeping up a once-a-week posting frequency, while maintaining some variation in topics.

    The focus is very much on setting up marketing strategies, and there are numerous “how-to” sections that give at least the main points on things like doing a “social media audit” that is certainly from the consulting side of Schaffer's business … and probably not the first thing to come to mind for most people looking at expanding into the niche. He's obviously taken his own “cheat sheets” for things like Facebook engagement, with a list of five easy-to-execute ideas to build response on that platform, and worked them into the individual parts of the book.

    The first quarter of the book does basic “backgrounding” on Social Media and how to use it in a marketing program. This then moves to specifics in the next quarter of the book with chapters that look at ways for “Maximizing” (his current branding concept) presences on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, as well as blogs and “visual” channels such as Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, etc. Now, there is a vast lot of information in these chapters, but it is necessarily briefly dealt with, as all six of those chapters only span 66 pages.

    The last half of the book is really rather heavy into nuts-and-bolts of running social campaigns, which he casts in a PDCA “Deming cycle” of activities. These chapters break down as follows: “Determining Staffing Roles and Responsibilities”, “Onboarding Your Social Media Strategy”, “Managing the Risks”, “Creating Your PDCA Workflow”, “Integrating Your Social Media Strategy”, and “The ROI of Your Social Media Strategy”. In these he digs down pretty far into detail for how to set up teams, and even gets into Altimeter's research on typical distribution of resources (decentralized, centralized, hub and spoke, multiple hub and spoke, and “dandelion”) and expounds further on those he sees as the main three models.

    He also includes materials from other experts … from a 7-page paper on Social Media Guidelines, a 5-page look at Google+ and SEO, on down to half-page pieces on “social media experimentation”, etc. Some of these are expert-level advice and context, and quite valuable … but they take up nearly half the page count of the second half of the book.

    At one point in Maximize Your Social, Schaffer notes that he has a sales background … and I think this explains a lot about the tone of the book. There's an affection for structures like the “PDCA Workflow” and less so for the creatives who would usually be handling social programs, and a “let's cut to the chase” sort of a feel here which reminds me of some network marketing “big dogs” I've known. On a lot of levels, this is an opposite approach to Social than say, Dave Kerpen's “Likeable” model, or Paul M. Rand's focus on becoming “recommendable” … it's about how to get one's business from point A to point B, without necessarily caring about the process.

    As I mentioned, there is LOT of useful material here, even for those who have been in Social for a long time … but it's so condensed that it almost feels like reading the CliffsNotes on the field. The target audience for the book is clearly business managers/owners who want to make use of these new marketing tools, but have no idea how to start. If you're in that category, this would be a great way for you to jump into it. If you've come to Social from another angle, however, this has the potential to irritate. I appreciated the information flow in this, but was ultimately so-so on the book. It's only been out a few months, so the business book vendors no doubt still have it on the shelves, and, as usual, the on-line big boys are offering it at a discount. Again, this is not a bad book, and it would no doubt be a great intro for folks in the MBA ranks, but it occupies a particularly “sales-y”niche compared to most others dealing with social out there.


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    Saturday, January 18th, 2014
    11:56 pm
    And not a candlestick in sight ...
    I suppose that one of the nice things about the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program is that it's like a grab-bag gift exchange, but instead of the shape of the item, and how it's wrapped, the way you end up guessing what you're going to like is the paragraph or so of promo copy that the publishers provide about the book. Yes, you're way ahead of the game vs. a “pig in a poke” pick-a-gift in that you sort of know what you're getting … but I'm finding that I'm only rarely reading the book I thought I was requesting. Today's title is another example of this.

    Now, I guess if I had heard of the author, or of his New York Times column, or previous book, I might have had a better sense of what was coming. But when the description said that Adam Bryant had interviewed “more than two hundred” (a figure that keeps coming up, even though less than 150 seem to have actually made it into the book) CEOs for this, I figured that Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation was going to be a series of interviews (or highlights thereof) extracting from these leaders their “wisdom and guidance to move an organization faster, to be quick and nimble, and to rekindle the whatever-it-takes collective spark of a start-up, all with the goal of innovating and thriving in a relentlessly challenging global economy”. But it's not.

    Frankly, what Bryant has done here is much easier to digest than what would have been the case were it to have been just interview after interview, but it took me a bit longer than half the book to come up with a model of what was going on in it. The material here is fascinating, and I was getting the feeling after each chapter that I'd just attended a really interesting seminar by top-notch experts on a particular subject … and it struck me that this book was somewhat like a series of sixteen heavily-moderated (since everything is woven through Bryant's narration) panel presentations, each with a different mix of CEOs (although a few of them keep showing up across the book), and each chapter pretty much free-standing like that.

    Now, had I had that perception going in, I might have gotten more from the earlier parts, when I was still trying to “figure it out” … I kept finding myself enjoying the book when actually reading it, but having a hard time picking it up in favor of other things I was reading (although I must admit, I did finish this first of the three books I started reading in the first week of January). Given this, it might be useful to walk through Quick and Nimble's chapters (with a brief note on my take on the “theme” of each) to see what these “expert panel seminars” are discussing:
    1. Why Culture Matters (“culture eats strategy for breakfast”)

    2. A Simple Plan (mission statements, measurable goals, etc.)

    3. Rules of the Road (values that steer your company)

    4. A Little Respect (bad bosses and behaviors)

    5. It's About the Team (working together, relying on each other)

    6. Adult Conversations (“tough love” for the greater good)

    7. The Hazards of E-mail (easy to misinterpret, easy to abuse)

    8. Play It Again and Again (constantly communicating)

    9. Building Better Managers (not everybody comes equipped)

    10. Surfacing Problems (researching how things really work in-house)

    11. School Never Ends (not growing = dying)

    12. The Art of Smarter Meetings (optimizing those sometimes-necessary evils)

    13. Knocking Down Silos (how to avoid tribalism)

    14. Sparking Innovation (keeping things fresh, and hungry)

    15. Can We Have Some Fun? (some silliness solidifies solidarity)

    16. Alone at the Top (trust, urgency, and change)
    Again, there are a lot of voices here, perhaps a dozen or more on some of these, so there's more of a “lively give-and-take” than a definitive statement in any … although, obviously, the author is constructing a pathway to a particular point with each. Because of this structure, I found it difficult to pinpoint specific statements to hold out as illustrative of their subjects. I did, however, end up bookmarking a couple of things that somewhat stood out to me.

    One of these is sort of second-hand, coming from AOL's Steve Case, but in this quoting a fellow founder of the online service, Jim Kimsey. Case says that his view in the early part of his career was that “looking like you're working hard mattered”, but he relates Kimsey's insistence that “the art is trying to set the priorities and assemble a team so you wake up in the morning and actually have nothing to do”. He continues with:

    The objective should not be looking busy, but actually creating a process that allows great things to happen in a way that you can be less involved. So it was sort of a process of letting go, which is hard for entrepreneurs. But at some point you've got to let go and you've got to step back. Ultimately that is about trusting the people you've got but also trusting yourself, that you've set the right context in terms of the vision, the priorities, the team.
    I don't think anybody would be surprised that this is the opening part of the “Alone at the Top” chapter, but it's a good sampling of the sort of material that fills Quick and Nimble. Some of it runs close to “common wisdom”, what' you'd expect, but a good deal goes counter to what one would guess to work best.

    One other quote that stood out here was in this category, coming from Marcus Ryu of Guidewire, from the “Play It Again and Again” chapter:

    Even though we talk about how important rationality is in the company, I've come to accept that rationality plays a very limited role in persuasion, and that it's mostly about emotion. It's mostly about empathy and about authenticity and about commitment. … {S}ort of a corollary to that, is about communicating with large groups of people. I've come to realize that no matter how smart the people are that you're communicating to, the more of them there are, the dumber the collective gets. And so you could have a room full of Einsteins, but if there are two hundred or three hundred of them, then you still have to talk to them like they're just average people. As the audience gets bigger and bigger, the bullet-point list has to be shorter and shorter, and the messages have to be simpler and simpler.
    Which is, I guess, a more round-about way to get to the classic “KISS” advice for Keeping It Simple.

    Anyway, as noted, reading Quick and Nimble is very much like sitting through a series of top-talent panel-based seminars, with input from a remarkable selection of CEOs across a very wide assortment of industries, and I almost feel like one should get a certificate for finishing it (not that the book is a difficult read by any measure). This has been out for less than two weeks at this point, so you should be find it in the “new releases” sections of the remaining business-oriented brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line behemoths are currently knocking off a quarter of the cover price on the hardback. Anybody with an interest in business, marketing, and innovation should consider picking this up … it's quite the experience!


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    Friday, January 17th, 2014
    8:07 pm
    Who do you trust?
    I have to predicate this review with a bit more “disclosure” than I usually do ... I've known author Paul M. Rand for a while, and even interviewed with him a couple of years ago for a position at his agency, the Zócalo Group (sadly, I didn't get hired). This past summer, he gave a presentation at Social Media Week Chicago where he previewed the book … and while I wasn't able to make that session, the buzz it created was notable, as I kept running into folks at the various parties who were talking about it. Of course, I hopped onto Gmail and sent off a request to the good folks at McGraw-Hill for a review copy of Highly Recommended: Harnessing the Power of Word of Mouth and Social Media to Build Your Brand and Your Business which they kindly sent along when the book came out.

    Rand's Zócalo was one of the early agencies focusing on “word of mouth” campaigns, and this is, naturally, the focus of the book. The currency of word-of-mouth marketing is the “recommendation”, and the dynamic of this is boiled down to one question on the inner flap of the dust jacket: “What do you trust more – an advertisement or a friend?” ... followed up by a factoid from Nielsen that the top reason reported by 92% of consumers of what influenced them to buy a product or service was a word of mouth recommendation.

    In the Preface, Rand defines what he's intending for the book:
    Social media has supercharged the power and impact of recommendations. Today's businesses can't just use social media; they have to become social businesses, inside and out and from top to bottom. Ultimately, that is the goal of this book: to harness the power of being a social business to become the most highly recommended organization in your industry, category, and/or niche. The ability to easily research online consumer reviews or see which brands your social media friends like is fundamentally shifting how people buy – and sell – nearly everything.
    This, while providing “an easy way for marketers to understand and act upon making their brand eminently “talkable”, shareable, and recommended”. He's divided the book into three roughly even parts, the first on the theory, the second on the how-to, and a third on transforming your business.

    It could be argued that Highly Recommended is an outgrowth of a Convocation Address that Rand gave at Northwestern back in 2012, Living A Recommendable Life, which is presented in its entirety in the Introduction, the key points of which are:
    1. Develop a clear and purposeful story of how you want people to talk about and recommend both you and your brands.

    2. Live your brand.

    3. Be human, be transparent, and live up to mistakes quickly.

    4. Stay engaging and interesting.

    5. Regularly evaluate and evolve – but stay true to your core.
    However, that piece is about as “philosophical” as it gets, and the rest is a combination of personal stories and fire hose info. Rand starts with an example … he's on a business trip, and he's meeting with clients, and at dinner the subject of a supermarket chain called Stew Leonard's comes up and he indicates that he'd never heard of them (they just have 4 locations), and is regaled by these clients for the next 30 minutes with story after story after story of how awesome this company is, and both these businesswomen offered to pick him up early before their morning meetings so they could show him this amazing place. As he notes, “it was a microcourse … about how the recommendation culture worked, the power of recommendations, the passion of advocacy, and the motivation behind helping others through suggestion”.

    He has stories about Angie's List, Yelp, and others to give concrete, relateable examples of how the theory works, and then breaks down the theory into sub-sections such as “Are You Engaging Your Audience – or Interrupting Them?”, while supporting things with sources such as Robert Cialdini's Influence and Bill Lee's assorted pieces positing that “Marketing is Dead”. He warns that “creeping your customers out” with too much “Big Brother” big data is the next danger zone (I know I hate seeing stuff I surfed for on-line showing up as ads elsewhere on the web!) in the “consumer decision journey”, while defining such things as a “loyalty loop”. He dissects the math behind the “Net Promoter Score” and how that relates to Zócalo's own “Recommendation Index”, discusses the differences between Explicit and Implied endoresements, and walks the reader through some case studies and on into the “Influencer Ecosystem”. My head's still spinning from just flipping through that again.

    Next he moves into the nuts-and-bolts part, discussing free and paid tools for monitoring and managing word-of-mouth, and then introduces Zócalo's “Digital Footprint Analysis”, which is based on “Four W's”:
    • Who – Who's talking?

    • What – What are they saying?

    • Where – Where are these conversations taking place?

    • Why – Why does this matter?
    This is followed with how to plan, how best to include SEO, how to develop a “Shareable Story Map” with examples from projects he's done, and how to integrate Paid, Owned, Earned, and Shared media and strategies within the “path to recommendation”, and finally looks at how to defend your brand against hostile/negative word-of-mouth. Amazingly, he cites studies that as many as 67% of consumers won't buy a product if it has as few as three negative reviews, which makes the “Determined Detractors” (in three flavors: “Hear Me's”, “Reputation Terrorists”, and “Competitive Destroyers”) a real hazard. Rand goes into detail on how to deal with these various types of risks, and how to be proactive with one's listening and messaging.

    The final part of the book is interesting as it's sort of a manual for re-making one's business to be more “recommendable”, looking at customer service, HR and staffing issues, product innovation and R&D, and how to bring all those elements into an integrated whole. Obviously, this is more of a “specialized” concern (I could make use of a lot of the previous sections' stuff, but don't have a company I'm currently running to implement these bits), but some of the stories there are amazing, like the user on the “CloroxConnects” service who shared a dozen solid product ideas in less than a year, and how customer engagement has resulted in numerous new product pushes at several major corporations.

    Obviously, Highly Recommended isn't a “general reader” book, but if you have an interest in marketing, social media, and the evolving communication channels, this will be a riveting read. The combination of personal stories and textbook-like detailing of the elements being discussed provides an engaging and highly informative intro to word-of-mouth marketing. This has been out a few months, but I'm guessing it's selling well enough that all the business-oriented brick-and-mortar stores will have this stocked, but the usual suspects online are currently offering it for about 1/3rd off cover price, if you want to go that route. I really got a lot out of reading this one, and it's probably the best “primer” for the WOM niche since Andy Sernovitz's Word of Mouth Marketing which sort of defined the space a couple of years back!


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    Thursday, January 16th, 2014
    8:43 pm
    Got a condo made of stone-a ...
    I suppose that I should stop being surprised when books that I get via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program aren't exactly what I had anticipated them to be when I clicked that “Request it!” link. After all, these are (usually) new books coming out, for which the publishers are looking to get some “early” buzz working. This means that I pretty much only have the paragraph or so of promo copy in the listing to make a decision on whether or not I'd be interested in reading/reviewing a particular title.

    It's not that Bob Brier's Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs had a misleading blurb … but this “inventive and mesmerizing tour of how an ancient civilization endures in ours today” sounded like it was going to be more, well, serious than it ended up. Perhaps my confusion on that point was influenced by the famed Zahi Hawass providing an Introduction here. Hawass is well known for his toeing the “official Egyptological line” in all things (especially in contrast to any new age or alternative timeline views), but maybe his removal as Minister of Antiquities in the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak has left him at loose ends and he's become more amenable to expanding his repertoire.

    What I was expecting was more along the line of cultural survivals of Egyptian elements, from architectural residuals (which there are several noted here), to “secret societies”' appropriation of the images and vocabulary, to perhaps even reflections on just how deeply the Christian mythos is intertwined with the figures of Isis, Horus, Osiris, and Set … but this doesn't delve into those fascinating topics, but concentrates largely on Egyptian stuff … from the acquisition of various monuments to the predictable explosion of Egyptian-themed kitch every time something comes up to thrust the (ancient) Egyptians into the Western cultural groupthink.

    The author, Bob Brier, is noted to have “been amassing one of the largest collections of Egyptian memorabilia” for the past forty years, but his resume seems pretty thin on actual Egyptology, with degrees in Philosophy and Parapsychology (not that I'm the type to diss Psi research, but still), and he's been teaching at Long Island University since the early 70s. He has spent a long time studying mummification, and has even performed this arcane art on a cadaver in 1994 … but he seems to be more in the “enthusiastic amateur” mold (with a good travel budget) who has visited a lot of sites, than somebody who's done seasons with a spade from the archaeological side.

    This goes a long way to explain why the book is full of tchotchkes, antique advertising, and assorted ephemera, and not with more substantial cultural concerns. Now, to be fair, the book does attempt to make a historical survey of the influence of Egypt in Western culture. From the Greeks, with Herodotus tracing “almost all aspects of Greek civilization back to the Egyptians”, and Alexander conquering Egypt and making it the jewel of his empire, and on through the fascination and integration that Rome brought to the subject (from the empire-wide popularizing of the Isis cult to the notorious extinguishing of the Ptolemaic dynasty by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony).

    Nearly half the book is taken up with stories of how the assorted obelisks made their way from Egypt to Rome, Paris, London, and New York. Rome's came early, having been imported by Caligula in 37 c.e., and was a fixture of his (and Nero's) circus – which used to be right about where Vatican City sits. Aside for noting that in 391 c.e., (Christian) Emperor Theodosius I decreed that all Egyptian temples be closed (with the last hieroglyphic inscription being made in 394), the next part of this history comes in 1585 c.e., when the original version of St. Peter's Basilica was being re-built, and moved from its original site. After having that obelisk sitting in its front yard (as it were) for over 1,000 years, the Church decided it had to be moved to the new site, and this was accomplished by one Domenico Fontana in 1586, “considered one of the great engineering feats of the Renaissance”.

    One of the most fascinating parts of Egyptomania is the material regarding Napoleon Bonaparte, very little of it particularly complimentary. In 1798 he opted out of an assignment to directly attack England, and instead convinced the revolutionary Directory to send him to Egypt (like his hero Alexander) to attack British interests there. To his credit, Napoleon brought a large contingent of academics and engineers, from whose researches we have the baseline scholarly knowledge of Egypt. The Egyptian campaign did not go particularly well, and Napoleon abandoned his army, returned to France, and minted medallions celebrating his triumph.

    Situations in Egypt were somewhat chaotic, as the British, after chasing off the remnants of Napoleon's forces, pretty much just packed up and headed home. Egyptian rulers offered obelisks to a whole succession of British monarchs, to no result, and they eventually offered them to France ... since many French savants had been in Egypt, they jumped at the chance, and in 1836 the first of these arrived in Paris.

    The Brits, of course, suddenly realized that they'd been missing out on this obelisk stuff, and a commercial venture was assembled to bring one to London. A submarine-like cylinder of a ship was built in 1877 to carry the obelisk, and it was to be towed through the Mediterranean and up Europe's Atlantic coast and on to England. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and in an October storm, a number of crew died trying to secure the ship, which was lost. Lost, but not sunk, and it was claimed as salvage a short time later, and “ransomed” through the courts. The obelisk finally was raised in London in September 1878 … sparking a massive wave of Victorian “Egyptomania” with nearly endless Egyptian-themed stuff and ads clearly made by the clueless for consumers with no more idea of what the “real” Egypt looked like!

    American interests were already angling for an obelisk, and one was arranged for in 1878, but it took nearly three years to get it set up in Central Park, with the installation coming in February of 1881. At least the New York contingent had learned from the French and British, as the engineering had been well thought-through to not only get the obelisk across the ocean, but into the center of the city. Interestingly, the Masons had a lot to do with this one, and there were supposedly Masonic items found in the base in Egypt, and they were a significant part of the events connected to raising it – although the Grand Master very clearly noted that there were no Freemasons around that far back.

    Of course, the biggest blasts of “Egyptomania” followed the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922, leading to products, music, films, fashion, etc. This was echoed again when, in the 1970's the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit went on tour, with more products, and music like Steve Martin's “King Tut”. The movies started in 1923 and haven't let up, with mummy-themed movie following mummy-themed movie for the past 90 years … these are also looked at here in detail.

    Anyway, while Egyptomania wasn't the book that I'd sort of hoped it might be, there was certainly plenty of very interesting stuff the I'd never encountered previously to keep me engaged. I could have done with less of the “cultural kitsch”, but I guess that's what's in the author's collection, so there are a hundred or so illustrations ... handy, I suppose, if you had an itch to know what the cover art for the “Cleopatra Had A Jazz Band” sheet music looked like in the 20's. This has just been out a couple of months so it's likely findable out in the more pop-culture oriented brick-and-mortars, but the online big boys have it at a significant discount. The read provided lots of “I did not know that!” moments, but even more “Did I need to know that?” stuff in here – yet fans of Antique Road Show may love it.



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    Monday, January 6th, 2014
    9:52 pm
    Three fingers back ...
    I had great hopes for this book when I “won” it in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … it sounded like the sort of cognition/cosmology sort of thing that I've not indulged in for a while, but read a great deal of previously. Steve Hagen's Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense: An Inquiry into Science, Philosophy, and Perception seemed to have all the requisite elements in place (down to an M.C. Escher illustration on the cover), but I never quite got “traction” with it.

    Now, I am perfectly willing to posit that I “just didn't get it” … there are several areas of study where I, despite many sorties against their walls over the years, still find largely impenetrable (music theory being one irritatingly notable example), and, of course, what may be one person's perfectly cogent explanation/discussion of some reasonably esoteric subject will sometimes end up being random blah-blah-blah to another's ears/eyes.

    The author here is a long-time student of Zen, who has been an ordained Zen priest since 1979, the carrier of the Dharma transmission from his teacher, Katagiri Roshi, for the past quarter century, the founder of Dharma Field in Minneapolis, MN, and has written several books on Buddhism. I don't recall there being any biographical information on his having a background in either science or philosophy … which probably points to one thing that I found difficult with his book … he keeps wrestling with fairly obscure Zen technical points, and then extrapolating them into general philosophical positions, and then using that to combat assorted stances of science … which don't (from where I'm sitting) really need being attacked.

    Frankly, much of this book reminds me of a Christian fundamentalist having a reasonably clueless go at some established scientific theory, just because it “doesn't support” his theology/mythology. In this case, most of the time it seems that Hagen is railing against things because they don't conform to, or filter through, some particular Zen/philosophical template. Again, I am willing to cede the concept that I might be simply not able to fully comprehend the finer points of his arguments, but it does remind me of strident types selling other religions who just can't get off their favored doctrine points … which appear, for this author, to be “Paradox and Confusion” as “guardians of Truth”, framed in a context that “Something is tragically wrong with the human world. … we're rushing headlong toward some great calamity ...” and the question: “Why this apparent madness to human life”?.

    It might be useful to take a walk through the chapter headings to see the general arc of his argument. The book is in three parts, “Nobody Knows What's Going On”, featuring Belief, Knowledge, Contradiction, and Certitude, “At Ease With Inconceivability”, with Chaos, Consciousness, and Immediacy, and “What Matters” presenting Inertia, Becoming, and Totality, all of which are further subdivided into topical sections. While this looks to be a reasonably coherent movement, I found it very hard to follow, as he would weave in and out of scientific elements with which I was very familiar, some general Zen material that I knew well enough, and even philosophical whirlpools where I could at least track trajectories, but it would always come back to stuff like this:

          There are two aspects of our existence. One is called “this is it” - the this, the “something”, or r aspect. It's here that we exist as separate entities, in a particular place, at a certain time.
          But we must not forget that there is another aspect called “what is it?” - the what, the “nothing”, or i aspect. The two aspects are interrelated and interpenetrated; they are like a seiche, the back-and-forth movement of liquid in a basin. A seiche constantly spills out of itself and its “other”, only to slosh back. The r and i aspects are also like a graded stream, where as soon as something in the system changes, everything else in the system – which involves stars and galaxies, as Bell's Theorem demonstrates – begins to move to counter the effect of the change.
          So, when we ask, “what is it?” we can only point to “here it is”. “This”, is all we can say. It – whatever “it” happens to be – constantly exchanges its identity with every other thing. This is how we live. We live in a Reality that is like music,like a graded stream, or like the sloshing of liquid within a basin. We “exist” not in being but in becoming – and in fading away.
          Within one aspect of our lives – the common, bounded, this aspect – we each have separate identities. But we must also accept that “other” aspect that reveals no boundary. Given this other aspect, each object and each person is intimately connected (indeed, is interidentical) with everything that ever was and ever will be, no matter how distant it appears in space or time.
          Once we realize this other aspect of Reality, we can see that there's something more to human life than mere phenomenal existence. There's something vast, wonderful, and unbounded. There's a deep relationship, a grand symbiosis, and interidentity of the Whole and the part.
    Yes, this is a grand sweep of verbiage that basically is working its way back to Tat Tvam Asi, through various strange side streets featuring Bell's Theorem, Schrodinger’s Cat, the Mandelbrot Set, and Nagarjuna's “tetralemma” … unfortunately losing me on the way. While I suspect I might have an idea what he means when he gets to “seeing”, but his “proof”, if you will, by which he arrives there largely escapes me.

    Our task is to just see. Our direct experience – i.e., perception itself – is the Undefined that says with unimpeachable authority that all things appear not in being, but in becoming and in fading away.
    So, what to say about Why the World Doesn't Seem to Make Sense? … it's a revision of a book that Hagen put out 17 years previously, which he frames as having been detailing elements “about consciousness that science continues to overlook”, one gets the sense that he “reloaded” with more bits of physics and cosmology, and decided to charge the windmills again with this one. While I was fascinated with parts of this, I found it uneven, and frequently (with its r's and i's) beating something dead that I was only able to assume was a horse. You, however, might not have the same perceptions of this that I had, so you might like it better. This has been out for a year, so might be scarce in the stores, and I'm rather surprised that the online new/used guys don't have it at a significant discount at this point. If you're into philosophical rabbit-holing (with a Zen axe to grind), you will no doubt find this engaging, but, to me, it never quite got around to making sense.


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    Saturday, January 4th, 2014
    11:57 pm
    Memory Lane ...
    As long-time readers of these reviews know, I've been involved in LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program for years. This is a benefit for membership on the LT site, where every month there are a hundred or so books made available by publishers, and one can put in requests for as many as one finds interesting (I typically average around 3-4 requests) and “The Almighty Algorithm” matches the book info the publishers provide with the meta data of one's LT collection, with the idea that this will match up the “best” person to review the book. I've only missed out on getting a book a few times over the past several years, and that happening usually when I only requested one book.

    Needless to say, this is an LTER book, from September's batch (I'm actually backed up on several LTER books, so you'll be seeing a lot of them in here as I get caught up). Given that I used to run my own publishing company, it was no surprise that I ended up getting Midge Raymond's Everyday Book Marketing: Promotion ideas to fit your regularly scheduled life, but it does make one wonder how the Almighty Algorithm knew that, given that I really don't have that many “books about publishing” in my collection.

    Of course, having been a publisher (and responsible for all of our “book marketing”), I came to this with a bit of a different context than many would. In the introductory material Raymond notes that she wrote this book specifically for the individual writer, one who has a book or two out, not the “aspiring” writer so much, and certainly not for the publishers out there (although much of the material here would be quite helpful for the small press looking to boost its authors' sales). The focus in on writers who have “other lives”, jobs and families, and the responsibilities that come with those … and tries to guide them on the path of becoming “marketing experts” in the hours they can dedicate to promoting their books.

    Everyday Book Marketing in in two parts, roughly half-and-half, with the first being a “this is what you should be doing” instructional piece, and the second being interviews with 18 ladies involved in the book business, both authors and publishing/promotion folks. I did find it interesting that there wasn't a guy in there … unless the publishing business has changed greatly since I was involved (it's been about a decade at this point), that's probably an intentional thing making me think that this book is meant for women writers specifically … although I may just being petty in that observation.

    In the first half of the book, the material is presented in a fairly straight-forward time line, broke into three sections, “Think Outside The Book”, which encourages the author to consider her project in terms of the publishing details, the nature of the audience, how best to reach those readers, what resources you will need to promote the book, and what activities will work best with one's individual strengths and time available. The “meat” of the book comes in the next section, “First Things First: Book Marketing Basics”, which is largely a step-by-step list of things to do prior to publication:

    • Align your publishing method with your goals.

    • Take an author photo.

    • Create an author bio.

    • Create a website.

    • Create visuals and giveaways.

    • Start a blog.

    • Develop a mailing list.

    • Set up Google Alerts.

    • Join and be active on social networks.

    • Set up a book tour.

    • A virtual book tour.

    • Book clubs.

    • Consider a book trailer.

    Several of these topics are further divided into elements of the main piece – such as book tours and social media – but they all get pretty “granular” with, for instance, a list of pages to create on a web site, and sources for post cards, stickers, and buttons in “visuals and giveaways”. The third section of the first half is “Book Launch and Beyond”, which goes through activating things that were set up in previous sections, getting the press kit out, setting up an Amazon author page, going out on the book tour, and keeping things going from there.

    The second half of the book features a dozen authors, a publicist, a photographer, a book blogger, and three “events” gals from various contexts. These vary in usefulness (I had a sense that a few were just in here because they were friends of Raymond's), but there was one really remarkable bit by author Kim Wright, responding to a question about the biggest challenge she'd encountered in marketing her books:

          The single biggest challenge facing all writers, whether they write fiction or nonfiction, whether they're conventionally published or self-published, is precisely the same: finding a readership.
          It used to be that the question facing writers was “Can I get published?” People were obsessed with finding an agent, then praying that the agent could sell the book. It was a narrow gate. Not a lot of people got through it, but those who did could expect that once they were on the other side they could get significant help from their editors, agents, and publishers.
                Now that's no longer the question. With the advent of self-publishing and the fact that most readers are shopping online for books and the whole e-book explosion … it's a different world. I always say the good news is that anybody can get published. And the bad news is that anybody can get published. Because there are so many books in the marketplace – more than six times as many now published per year as there were two years ago. And there certainly aren't six times as many readers.
          So the question is not “Can I get published?” but “Once I get published, what do I need to do to help my book succeed?” The challenge is standing out in an oversaturated market, and I think that's a matter of knowing who your target readers are, where and how they shop for books, and tailoring your strategies to make it easy for them to discover your books.
    That certainly is key advice for anybody in the publishing universe! Frankly, the whole of Everyday Book Marketing would be a useful lesson for anybody going into “the book biz”, as there are so many hints to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of unsuspected opportunities (like making yourself available to area organizations related to the subject of your book), all through it – both in the “instructions” and in the “interviews” halves. This just came out a couple of months back, so is likely to be available out in the more comprehensive surviving brick-and-mortar book vendors, and it can be found at a bit of a discount via the on-line big boys. While I had some issues with this, I found the material reasonably solid and actionable, so would not hesitate to recommend it to an author looking to get involved with active book promotion. I know that there are things in here that I wish I could have gotten my authors to do on a regular basis back when I had my press, and there are things (like virtual tours) which are new since those days which would have certainly helped.


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    Saturday, December 28th, 2013
    1:12 pm
    Where work is heading?
    When I requested this book from the good folks at Random House's “Crown Business” imprint, I didn't know just how immediate the subject was going to be for me. As long-term readers of my main blog space (from where these reviews originate before cloning off into other zones on the web) will realize, I've worked from home in various roles for 17 of the past 20 years. However, a couple of months back, I got hired on a contract to do writing for a company out in "the land beyond O'Hare", and was suddenly on the flipside of this dynamic, facing a 2.5 hour commute each way (that full-time contract has since been shifted to about a half-time freelancing gig, which, while bringing in a good deal less money, also doesn't suck 25 hours/week into time spent on various buses and trains). It was largely during those commutes that I ended up reading Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson's (the founders of 37Signals) new book, Remote: Office Not Required ... somewhat ironic timing.

    Remote, like Fried and Hansson's previous ReWork, is a quick read, in that a substantial percentage (a third?) of its 250 pages are pictures … either illustrating points in the text or riffing off on related concepts. The authors are dedicated advocates for remote work, having built their software company up out of a collection of workers in various locations around the world, with only about a half of their staff at their Chicago headquarters. They note in the opening that between 2005 and 2011 the number of U.S. Remote workers increased 73% - although the total number is still a rather slim 3 million. They also cite the “firestorm” on the subject sparked by Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer who earlier this year canceled all remote work arrangements that company was offering.

    Now, it would be easy to point at companies like 37Signals and say that remote work was just for cutting-edge software makers and the like, but one of the leading lights of this movement is staid, no-nonsense, established old IBM. My wife's BFF's husband has been an IBM lifer, and he got sent home with a laptop, a high-speed internet connection, and a budget for setting up a home office nearly 20 years ago … so this isn't just a recent “flash in the pan” approach.

    And, it's not just tech sector companies … Aetna has nearly half of its employees working from home … Deloitte has 86% of its people working remotely at least 20% of the time … in government, 85% of the examiners for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, 57% of NASA's workers, and 67% of the E.P.A.'s employees work remotely to some extent … and, back in tech, Intel lets 82% of their people regularly work remotely. IBM did a white paper on the subject, “Working Outside the Box”, from which a lot of the facts and figures here are drawn.

    Most of the book is directed to business owners, as there is a lot about hiring, collaborating, etc., even though there are sections “coaching” workers on how to best manage working remotely. One of the early pitches they make here, in the section on how unhealthy commuting is, really stood out to me:

          But let's say we ignore the overwhelming evidence that commuting doesn't do a body good. Pretend it isn't bad for the environment either. Let's just do the math. Say you spend thirty minutes driving in rush hour every morning and another fifteen getting to your car and into the office. That's 1.5 hours a day, 7.5 hours per week, or somewhere between 300 and 400 hours per year, give or take holidays and vacation. Four hundred hours is exactly the amount of programmer time we spent building Basecamp, our most popular product. Imagine what you could do with 400 extra hours a year. Commuting isn't just bad for you, your relationships, and the environment – it's bad for business. And it doesn't have to be that way.
    In the introductory material they say that they really wished that Marissa Mayer had held off about six months before releasing her dictate about remote working (as sales of Remote would have greatly benefited!), and point out that nearly all the discussion that happened in the wake of that is reflected in the “Dealing With Excuses” chapter.

    One thing I found fascinating here is that the authors only ask 40 hours a week from their employees … saying “There are no hero awards for putting in more than that.” (as a regular thing). Having myself worked (in my publishing days) 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, I know just how the “hero” thing can get a hold on your key workers. They address this here:

          It starts innocently enough. You wake up by opening your laptop in bed and answering a few emails from last night. … Before you know it, you've stretched the workday from 7am to 9pm.
          That's the great irony of letting passionate people work from home. A manager's natural instinct is to worry about his workers not getting enough work done, but the real threat is that too much will likely get done. And because the manager isn't sitting across from his worker anymore, he can't look into the person's eyes and see burnout.
    At 37Signals, their rule-of-thumb is the idea of “a good day's work” … the employee should be able to ask themselves if they've managed that and come up with an affirmative most days.

    Of course, remote working opens up its own challenges … home workers get far fewer opportunities to get exercise. I know this from personal experience … over the past five years when I'd been trying to piece together some money from freelance and consulting gigs (while looking for full-time work), I'd be spending 12-18 hours a day at the keyboard, and would only rarely come close the recommended 10,000 steps a day (which I track with a Fitbit) since I would go days without even leaving the apartment. To combat this, 37Signals provides its workers with a monthly stipend for a health club membership, plus a program called “37 Vegetables” which provides a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share for each employee.

    Again, one of the most appealing aspects of Remote is that Fried & Hansson have been doing this stuff for years, and so the suggestions, guidance, and coaching in here aren't “ivory tower” pronouncements from theorists, but down-in-the-trenches experiences of what works and what's likely to be a problem with running (or participating in) a remote work force.

    As this came out just last month, it should certainly be out in the brick-and-mortar book vendors that handle business titles … and the online big boys have it for nearly 40% off of cover. Needless to say, I'm hoping that this manifesto will get traction and more companies take a serious look at the remote work option. I don't think this is as groundbreaking as ReWork, but if you have an interest in what might well be “the future of work”, do pick up a copy!


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    Sunday, December 1st, 2013
    3:45 am
    And in this corner ...
    I've been quite a fan of Gary Vaynerchuk's previous books, Crush It! and The Thank You Economy, both of which I felt were “game changing” and major “philosophical” statements about the social media field, and how that has been driving an evolution of business models in general. As I noted in my previous reviews, Gary isn't some academic sitting on the sidelines and pontificating on what's what, he's been building businesses down on the street, first taking his family's liquor store and creating a significant on-line wine distribution organization from it (largely on the back of his web videos), and, more recently, creating his own social/digital agency to put into practice what he's been preaching beyond the wine world.

    So, when I requested a review copy of his new Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World from the good folks at Harper Collins' Harper Business imprint, I was sort of expecting the same sort of rah-rah, get out there and change the world, inspirational vibe that I'd gotten from the previous titles. And I was initially disappointed that this book was not “vol 3” of what Gary had put out previously. This was not the football halftime talk to get the team battle-ready, but something else … more tactical, more specific.

    As one can get from the cover/title, the central analogy at work here is social media as boxing, where one works one opponent (here, slightly uncomfortably, one's audience) with a series of “targeted jabs” before trying to land that big right hook. The tone here is Gary leaning into the ring to talk to his fighter (the company) and telling them to land a few dozen body blows and other “jabs” ... very technical, very nuanced, and very platform-specific. And, frankly, I kept waiting for it to get to the big stadium rock anthem level, and was disappointed when it wasn't “going there”. However, at one point the light went on, and I started to “get” what Gary was doing here … which, again, is very different from his previous books.

    The first sixth of the book discusses the broad strokes of how the messages of the previous books have come across, and setting up the focus of this one … I think this bit puts it into a good framework (although that ellipsis I put in the following represents a gap of about half a page):

          Marketers are constantly asking me for a fixed storytelling blueprint, something that delineates the optimal number of jabs before it's appropriate to throw a right hook. That blueprint doesn't exist. Social media storytelling is as sweet a science as boxing, requiring constant experimentation and hours of observation. …A fighter will concentrate on trying to hit his opponent's body if he learns that the competitor is reluctant to get hit there. But the next guy he fights might not be afraid to get hit in the body, so he'll have to change his approach.
          Similarly, each platform is unique, and requires a unique formula. What works on Facebook won't necessarily work on Twitter. Stories told through pictures on Instagram don't resonate the same way when told in an identical manner on Pinterest. Posting the same content on Tumblr as on Google+ is the equivalent of the tourist deciding that since he can't speak Norwegian he'll just speak Icelandic and it will do. That's stupid. Both languages share similar roots and are spoken by tall, gorgeous blondes, but aside from that, they're totally different. Today, getting people to hear your story on social media, and then act on it, requires using a platform's native language, paying attention to context, understanding the nuances and subtle differences that make each platform unique, and adapting your content to match.
    He goes on to further focus that advice on mobile, given the ever-increasing importance of the small-screen, and then moves into a section which defines “outstanding content” as that which follows six rules:
    1. It's Native

    2. It Doesn't Interrupt

    3. It Doesn't Make Demands - Often

    4. It Leverages Pop Culture

    5. It's Micro

    6. It's Consistent and Self-Aware
    There are some really dramatic side-by-side comparisons in the first section of what is “native” on a platform and what's not. This foreshadows much of the rest of the book, where examples of brands that are doing it right are put up against brands that aren't and the good and the bad picked over with a relatively fine-toothed comb. Oh, and if you want to make Gary happy … put pictures in your posts and put your logo on your picture … you get the feeling that his head was exploding over and over here like a animated .gif from Scanners over this point!

    The bulk of Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook is going platform to platform and looking at things that brands, from small local operations to mega international household names, have posted. There are a few where Gary gives unqualified kudos, but most are picking things apart and giving blow-by-blow “what they should have done” commentary. The chapters go “Storytell on Facebook”, “Listen Well on Twitter”, “Glam It Up on Pinterest”, “Create Art on Instagram”, “Get Animated on Tumblr”, and then one on “emerging networks” which includes LinkedIn, Google+, Vine (on which Gary's quite active), and Snapchat. Each of the main chapters starts with a history of the platform, when founded, how many users each has, some trivia (like the Twitter bird's name being “Larry”), growth, acquisitions, etc., then moving into an over-view essay on how the platform “works” within the social media universe, before going into the specific examples where he pulls apart large numbers of items, discusses what right/wrong with them, and then offers up general statements, with a closing “list” of “Questions To Ask About Your [platform] Content”. Most of the advice here is pretty specific, such as this for Instagram:

    Go crazy with your hashtags: Hashtags matter here, maybe even more than they do on Twitter. In Twitter, the hashtag can sometimes be the sprinkle – a dash of irony, a smattering of humor that you use once,maybe twice per day. On Instagram, hastags are the whole darn cupcake. You can't overuse them. Putting out five, six, or even ten hashtags in a row per post isn't a bad way to communicate.
    The book closes with a few summarizing chapters (and one added at the last minute when Instagram introduced its videos), which tie back into the boxing analogy and the suggestion that

    “Content is King, Context is God, and then there's effort … without effort – intense, consistent, committed, 24-7 effort – the best social media micro-content placed within the most appropriate will go down as gracelessly as {Douglas losing to Holyfield}”.
    Once I “got” the level at which Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook was operating, I quite enjoyed it … it is incredibly detailed, and picks apart existing campaigns so that the reader can avoid making the same mistakes. Picking up this book is like hiring a top-notch coach to be sitting in your corner, in this case Gary Vaynerchuk telling you to punch here and not there, when to go for the jaw and when to duck. This is brand new, just being officially released this week, so it should be coming through your local brick-and-mortar book vendors with business/marketing sections in a big way right about now, but the online big boys have it at a very generous 40% off of cover at the moment. I was surprised to have gotten a hardcover edition of the book, following up on the ARC edition I'd initially been sent, but I think Harper made a good call on it, as the “finished” book is far more impressive, with full color photography and high quality paper throughout, making it evident that the book's quite a good deal, even at full cover price! I can't imagine anybody doing any level of marketing in the social media sphere not getting a solid benefit from this book … it's sort of the “practical workbook” to put in place the “philosophical” calls to action in Vaynerchuk's previous books.


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    Sunday, November 10th, 2013
    9:36 am
    No, really ... there ARE "safe nukes"!
    As regular readers know, pretty much every month I get some book or another from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, and, generally speaking, I'm usually content to deal with whatever the “Almighty Algorithm” doles out to me from the books I've requested. However, a month or so back, there was a book that I didn't win that I'd really been interested in reading, Richard Martin's SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future. I figured “what the heck?”, dug up the contact info for the publishers (the good folks at Macmillan), and shot off an email requesting a review copy, which they kindly provided. So, this represents a slightly new (or something of a “mashup”) way of my coming to read a particular title.

    I'd been interested in Thorium since reading about “4th generation” reactors in Peter Diamandis' Abundance, and was particularly interested in the “green energy” angle for my Green Tech Chicago blog, so I was quite eager to jump into reading this.

    The author is a noted science writer, with credits in a number of high-profile publications, as well as being the “editorial director” of a research firm that provides in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets. While this might have been more involving had it been penned by one of the individuals actually engaged in Thorium development, his research into the subject appears to have been quite expansive (although he didn't seem to have caught wind of the laser/Thorium system that has been recently in the news).

    SuperFuel is structured largely on the threads of particular individuals, and their relationships to the development of Thorium as an energy source. It starts with Kirk Sorensen, who Martin had met in 2009 while working on an article for Wired. In 2002 Sorensen had encountered a book Fluid Fuel Reactors which had totally engaged him in this new area of research … leading him to begin the Energy from Thorium blog. He is used as a springboard for Martin to introduce a lot of technical detail comparing various types of reactors, and in-depth descriptions of several designs that would make use of Thorium, all of which have advantages over current systems. I wish I could grab a particular paragraph in this, but I'd have to pull pages on LTFRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) to put the system into context, so here are just a few highlights regarding the reactors and Thorium:

    It is abundant, In fact, used properly, it's effectively inexhaustible. …
    It requires no special refining or processing beyond purifying it from the monazite ore in which it is most commonly found. …
    It's no good for making weapons. In fact, it's not fissile at all. …
    … reactors based on thorium … consume far more of the latent energy trapped inside the fuel, vastly reducing or even eliminating the problem of nuclear waste. …
    Because the core is composed of a molten salt with an extremely high boiling point, it operates at atmospheric pressure …
    LFTRs … generate fission products {with} half-lives … measured in dozens of years, not thousands.
    LFTRs are impervious to sudden overheating …
    {T}hey can run indefinitely. The reactions in a LFTR produce enough excess neutrons to breed their own fuel. …
    LFTRs are 200 to 300 times more fuel efficient than legacy reactors. They are safer, simpler, smaller, less expensive to build. …
    No rational from-scratch approach to nuclear power would build anything else, yet we are burdened with … unsafe uranium reactors that produce tons of long-lived nuclear waste. … How did this happen? Why were thorium-based molten salt reactors abandoned when they showed such promise at the dawn of the atomic age?
    That question moves the book to the next set of protagonists, Alvin Weinberg and Hyman Rickover, along with Weinberg's mentor, Eugene Wigner.

    Weinberg and Wigner were involved in the Manhattan Project, specifically in the drive to produce Plutonium for the atomic bombs. However, “Weinberg had come to believe that liquid fuel thorium reactors would transform the nation's energy supply” and had managed to develop a proof-of-concept installation. Unfortunately, between the race for the bomb (against what was perceived as Germany's program), and the post-war chess game with the Soviets, a system that did not produce bomb-making materials was unwelcome in the military-controlled nuclear niche:

    National defense requirements imposed three basic limitations on Weinberg and the others who sought to develop a peacetime nuclear power base: All scientific data relating to nuclear technology was classified, severely restricting information flow. Innovation in nuclear power was subservient to the maintenance of superiority in the arms race; of premier importance was ensuring a sufficient supply of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium … Finally, reactor development … was channeled into programs that would directly benefit military operations – meaning, in the first case, submarine propulsion.
    Which brings in Admiral Rickover, and the ascendency of the pressurized water reactor. The issue that the Navy had with the liquid sodium reactors was that sodium reacts explosively with water and “the Navy had the best plumbers in the world” and “they knew how to design and operate pumps, bearings, and valves to transport water, including water at high pressure required for a nuclear reactor inside a submarine.” So, the now-dominant PWR system became established “not as a commercial power plant, and not because it was cheap or inherently safer than other reactors, but rather because it … lent itself to naval propulsion” despite the U.S. having designs for Molten Salt Reactors using plentiful, and far safer, Thorium as fuel as early as 1959.

    How did this get so derailed? Well,

    The original nuclearati almost all trained at Rickover's feet. Single-handedly he had established the foundation for the nation's civilian and military reactor development. … His power unchallenged, Rickover set about building a nuclear power industry in his own image. And that was the problem. Rickover's authoritarian style of leadership, his intolerance of dissent, and his valuing of efficiency over creativity and open discussion all bled into the roots of the nuclear power establishment. … Rickover … undermined and eliminated potential … competing nuclear programs … the field of nuclear engineering is only now recovering from Rickover's single-minded view of the technology.
    While the nuclear power industry in the U.S. is locked into a PWR model, both India and China are rushing ahead to develop Thorium-based nuclear plants. Of course, nuclear power has been a big “scare” item in the Western press, and the fear of all things nuclear has been deeply engrained in the U.S. population … a situation not improved by Fukushima disaster.

    Martin paints a very dire picture (comparing it to the collapse of the Roman Empire) for the U.S. if we don't move forward with Thorium power. In the last part of the book he details what he sees as a necessary action plan for developing fourth-generation reactors based on the LFTR system … spelling out costs and timelines, all of which seem entirely plausible if we can get past the fears and the institutional intransigence of the current nuclear industry. You can sense the author's frustration in looking at a way of generating power that not only is safe, affordable, and can even clean up the stockpiles of waste from previous plants while producing electricity for the planet essentially forever, but which is being ignored, belittled, and demonized in the country that developed it.

    If you have an interest in “green energy”, or future technology in general, you really should pick up a copy of SuperFuel. Even though this was in the “early reviewers” program, the book has been out (in hardcover) for a while, with the paperback edition new this August. I'm guessing that you should be able to find that “wherever books are sold”, but the online big boys have it for a bit under cover (and the new/used guys have new copies for about half off). Obviously, moving to Thorium would make sense for the whole world, but as a species how much sense do we have?


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    Saturday, November 9th, 2013
    10:28 am
    What's not to like?
    I actually “won” won this book … back in February author Dave Kerpen was the featured speaker at the Big Frontier meeting, and there was a contest for the most “live Tweeting” from it. Since I tend to be a clicky-clicky fool at these things, I ended up winning, and getting copies of two of his books. This one, Likeable Business: Why Today's Consumers Demand More and How Leaders Can Deliver is the first one of those I've gotten to so far.

    Kerpen got into the”likeable” business early on … in college he got a job at Boston Garden and Fenway Park, as a snack hawker and on his first night he sold a mere 12 boxes of “Crunch & Munch”, which really wasn't going to do it for him.

          I decided later that night that while it was fun being at games, I wanted to at least make a decent living hawking Crunch 'n Munch. So, my second day, I put some passion into my work – a little singing, a little dancing, a little screaming, and a lot of goofy Dave. I sold 36 boxes, three times as many as the first night. I stepped up my efforts for the rest of the week. The thing is, I'd be the first person to admit that I had no real talent as an entertainer. My only asset was passion, and perhaps fearlessness. I began to scream at the top of my lungs each night in a effort to pull attention away from the game people paid to see and towards the buttery toffee popcorn with peanuts I was selling.
          Passion paid off. Within weeks I had developed a persona as the “Crunch 'n Munch Guy”, and regulars began to take notice. The in-stadium cameramen liked my schtick and began to feature my goofy dancing on the large-screen Jumbotron during time-outs. After the Boston Herald published its first article about me, fans actually started asking me to autograph boxes … At my peak, I was selling between 250 and 300 boxes per game and making, with commission and tips, between $400 and $500 a night – an excellent living for a college kid.
    Aside from Passion, Kerpen proposes “11 Principles of Likeable Business” here, which serve as a structure for the book, which features chapters on each of the following:
    1. Listening

    2. Storytelling

    3. Authenticity

    4. Transparency

    5. Team Playing

    6. Responsiveness

    7. Adaptability

    8. Passion

    9. Surprise and Delight

    10. Simplicity

    11. Gratefulness

    Each of these ends with a section of “Social Tools and Principles” for that list item, plus a handful of suggested “Action Items” to begin to apply the chapter's insights in one's business. He also makes a Maslow-esque “Likeable Pyramid”, but while the list of principles are in there, they don't build in order, with numbers 1, 2, 8, and 5 across the bottom level, 9, 6, and 10 across the second level, 3 & 4 (combined) and 7 on the third level, 11 on the fourth level, and “likeability” (with his cribbed-from-Facebook thumbs-up icon) at the apex … it's interesting, but I'm not sure it actually adds anything aside from a branding graphic.

    Each chapter has numerous suggestions and case studies. One thing I found fascinating in the “Listening” chapter was this exercise:

    ... go to Twitter.com and enter into the search bar the name of your company, product, or category. If you work for a large company, enter the name of your company and the words “I wish”. … You'll find lots of people talking right now about you, your competitors, your products, and your services.
    This is in a section that's bookended by stories of how Build-a-Bear has thrived by listening (including a “Cub Advisory Board” made up of kids), and of how Blockbuster failed because it didn't listen (to customer dissatisfaction over late fees).

    As regular readers of my reviews will recall, I “have issues” with those who advocate a squeaky-clean purged-of-all-controversy on-line presence. It's no surprise, then, that I found Kerpen's approach to “Authenticity” refreshing. In this he suggests:

    As you develop your online persona, be sure to convey your in-real-life self in your digital presence. Learn to embrace the lack of boundaries between personal and professional and online and offline.
    He further personalizes this with a statement about how he would react to the different approaches when hiring a candidate:

    If two equally qualified job applicants were placed in front of me, one with a completely open Facebook profile with drunk photos displayed for the whole world to see and the other with a blocked account, I would choose the open one. Being authentic requires a willingness to share your true self with others.
    He later adds:

    Inauthenticity is cumbersome, ineffective, and, ultimately, a losing proposition. Because of the nature of the web and social media, along with the fact that everything is open and spreads, people need to know that the person they're speaking with is genuine and “for real”.
    I was surprised to see that Kerpen was able to quantify an ROI for “Gratefulness”, but he includes in that chapter a case study about the Donors Choose organization, and a test they did of sending out thank-you notes to donors … the study found that those who received the notes ended up being 38% more likely to give again over those who were not specifically thanked (in actual snail-mail notes, not e-mails).

    Likeable Business concludes with an interesting analogy … when faced with a quick decision, large or small, ask yourself: “Would this be a winning decision at a cocktail party?”

    The person at a cocktail party who listens, who tells great stories, who is responsive, authentic, passionate, and grateful, will be the hit of the party time after time and will derive the most value from the party.
    Now, this has been out for over a year, so might not be as widely stocked in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, but its a testament to its popularity that it hasn't dropped deeply in price in the used channels. The on-line guys have it at a bit more than a quarter off of cover, but you'll still be forking out ten bucks with shipping if you go with a used copy. I enjoyed this quite a bit, finding it informative and entertaining in nearly equal parts.


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    Monday, November 4th, 2013
    10:18 am
    A man of wealth and taste ...
    Needless to say, this is another of those books … something picked up to fill a gap in an on-line order between what I have in the cart and where free shipping kicks in, and simultaneously filling a gap in my otherwise rather expansive liberal arts education. While I'm a bit upset that the on-line guys have raised the bar for free shipping from a $25 order to a $35 order (meaning fewer orders and more contemplation on what needs to be in there), I assume that these Dover Thrift Editions of literary classics will always come into play in getting right to that level.

    I'm guessing that everybody is at least generally familiar with the Faust story in its various permutations. I was surprised to read in the introduction here that Christopher Marlow, whose Dr. Faustus was posthumously published in 1604, had based it on an earlier work that was supposedly about an actual person, a “German astronomer and necromancer who died about 1540”. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Marlow is credited with having expanded the range of expression in English composition in his brief career (he lived only six years past his graduation from Cambridge in 1587). This is the classic tale of the Magus who makes a “deal with the devil” for worldly gain … in this case by obtaining the services of one Mephistophilis.

    I'm always fascinated to see how material like this leaches into popular expressions of religion. Like George Bernard Shaw had his Satan say in Don Juan In Hell (act III of Man and Superman): “The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible.” and one wonders just how much of the Christian “back story”, as believed by its less educated adherents, derives from passage such as:

    FAUSTUS: So Faustus hath
          Already done; and holds this principle,
          There is no chief but only Belzebub,
          To whom Faustus doth dedicate himself.
          This word “damnation” terrifies not him,
          For he confounds hell in Elysium;
          His ghost be with the old philosophers!
          But, Leaving these vain trifles of men's souls,
          Tell me what is that Lucifer thy lord?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
    FAUSTUS: Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: Yes, Faustus, and most dearly lov'd of God.
    FAUSTUS: How comes it then that he is Prince of devils?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
          For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.
    FAUSTUS: And what are you that you live with Lucifer?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,
          Conspir'd against our God with Lucifer,
          And are for ever damn'd with Lucifer.
    FAUSTUS: Where are you damn'd?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: In hell.
    FAUSTUS: How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
          Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God,
          And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
          Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
          In being depriv'd of everlasting bliss?
          O Faustus! Leave these frivolous demands,
          Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.
    FAUSTUS: What, is great Mephistophilis so passionate?
          For being depriv'd of the joys of Heaven?
          Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,
          And scorn those joys thou never shalt prossess.
          Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer:
          Seeing Faustus hath incurr'd eternal death
          By desperate thoughts against Jove's deity,
          Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
          So he will spare him four and twenty years,
          Letting him live in all voluptuousness;
          Having thee ever to attend on me;
          To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
          To tell me whatsoever I demand,
          To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,
          And always be obedient to my will,
          Go and return to mighty Lucifer,
          And meet me in my study at midnight,
          And then resolve me of thy master's mind.
    MEPHISTOPHILIS: I will, Faustus.
    Now, Dr. Faustus is a play, and so there are various scenes with characters coming and going, some played for humor, some for horror (or at least moral discomfort), and some no doubt the “F/X” of their day (as Mephistophilis provides numerous marvels). Things, of course, do not go well for Faustus at the end, and we see him counting down the final minutes before he's taken off to hell, becoming increasingly more panicked at the prospects:

    O, no end is limited to damned souls!
    Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
    Or why is this immortal that thou hast?
    Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis! were that true,
    This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd
    Unto some brutish beast! All beasts are happy,
    For, when they die,
    Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements;
    But mine must live, still to be plagu'd in hell.
    As you can tell from these excerpts, the language has changed somewhat, and in some places it's a bit less than flowing to the modern ear (although nothing like trying to work through Chaucer, writing a couple of centuries earlier), and there are a few footnotes defining words (or Latin phrases), no longer in common use. Interestingly, this Dover edition is explicitly available to use in theatrical presentations – which would be an interesting way of encountering the material.

    While the Dover Thrift Edition of Dr. Faustus is very much in print, the odds of finding it in any brick-and-mortar bookstore is pretty slim as the cover price on this is a mere $2.50 – making it ideal for padding an order to get to free shipping, not so much for convincing a retailer to get it in for the pocket change they'd make on it. Also, while there are “new” copies for as little as 1¢ out there, you'll have to add shipping to that, so if you can't convince you local book monger to have one sent out, adding this to an order with the online guys is no doubt your best bet!


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    Sunday, November 3rd, 2013
    3:51 pm
    Groping towards security ...
    This is another book that I got via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program. If you're not familiar with the LTER, it allows site members to put in requests for review copies from a list of a hundred or so books being offered by publishers that month. Each book has a certain number of copies, and there are typically five to ten times (or more) the number of requests than the number of available books. This is where the “Almighty Algorithm” comes in … a complex mix of factors that connects the offered titles with readers who will, hopefully, be the best match. This has proven to add yet another source of variability in my reading, as I typically win something every month.

    I am very pleased to say that Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security by Kip Hawley and Nathan Means was one of the more interesting, engaging, and well-written books that I've gotten via LTER (which does tend to be a bit of a “pig in a poke”). Needless to say, that is not what one would expect of a book which is, at its most basic level, the story of the development of a government agency. I'm going to be referring to Kip Hawley as “the author” here, as he is the person brought in to the Department of Transportation to help develop the Transportation Security Administration, and so this is his story, but I strongly suspect that the readability and pacing of the book are the work of co-author Nathan Means, which has me considering looking up some of his other titles.

    Permanent Emergency features an interweaving of two narrative threads, one being in Washington, with the development of the TSA, and one internationally, with the evolution of the terrorist threat. The book starts with the chaos of 9/11, with the DOT, FAA, FEMA, and the military trying to find out what was happening and what they had to do. There is a section recapping that prior to Hawley being pulled back to D.C. … he had been a Transportation advisor in the Reagan administration, a Vice President at Union Pacific Railroad, and was an executive with a Silicon Valley transportation supply-chain software venture when Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta's staff convinced him to come on board to help build the new organization.

    Obviously, everything had changed in a moment about flight safety … after decades of the “standard procedure” being to cooperate with hijackers because they were likely to have the plane land some place they could collect a ransom and disappear, it was now evident that new players were in the game, and were looking to rack up maximum body counts … any way they could. Following the 1988 cargo-hold bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, most attention was directed in things being checked on the flight, but following 9/11, everybody going on board a plane was now having to be considered a potential threat.

    Hawley paints a picture of an on-going cat-and-mouse game with the terrorists on new technology. Some of these will be instantly familiar … the attempted “shoe bombing” that has an on-going legacy of having to go through security checks unshod, and the “underwear bomber” whose attempts to set off a chemical mix in his drawers raised an entire different set of concerns. There are a LOT of “odd rules” that have been in place over the past decade or so which get explained here. For instance, the “3-1-1” rule – 3oz bottles, in a 1qt ziplock bag, 1 bag per passenger – is based on the study of the various chemical mixes that the terrorists were using. The 3oz size proved to be too little material to be able to efficiently mix an explosive (even though they had to admit that the answer to the question of “could multiple terrorists mix their individual sets of liquids and make a bomb?” was a somewhat disconcerting “maybe”).

    One of the on-going “technical” threads here is the development of explosives based on hydrogen peroxide – one of the key liquids of concern. Fortunately:

    The hydrogen peroxide formula was extremely sensitive to minute variation, meaning that a spilled drop made a difference in whether or not it would work. Even with a world-class laboratory, the success rate in mixing the formula was around one in three. In addition, the fluid was dangerously corrosive and would cause severe burns if exposed to skin, not to mention that it had a strong pungent odor that would attract attention in airport secure areas …
    … the baggie took al Qaeda's explosive of choice off the table for aviation attacks, obviating years of their research and development and pushing them to consider less effective bomb formulas.
    Further technical advancements (like a device that can “sniff” even microscopic particles seeping out of containers) have led to the easing of these rules over time.

    In 2005, Hawley becomes TSA Administrator and is thrown in to the deep end of the intelligence world … one thing that he implements, while not quite up to the Israeli model, are “BDOs” - Behavior Detection Officers, based on a program independently started by Paul Maccario at Boston's Logan Airport.

    The BDOs were trained to refer to a sheet that scored various behaviors – distress, fear, fidgeting – on how alarming they were. BDOs used a cocktail of targeted emotions that drive the point-based system. By weighing different behaviors on a score sheet and confirming that they observed multiple alarming emotions, BDOs were able to incorporate a more objective approach to what is perceived to be a very subjective technique. Every day in America 2 million people walk onto planes from every possible ethnic, religious, cultural, and racial background. The score sheet was meant to provide some sort of threshold before selecting people for additional screening or questioning, and hopefully protect us and the passengers alike from mistakes driven by preconceptions of what a terrorist looks like.
    There is also a significant amount of material here about Hurricane Katrina, as the agencies involved in the terrorism fight also were pulled in for that. Especially inspirational was how the Air Marshals were able to be mobilized from postings all over the country to act as key “first responders” keeping order at airports in the affected area.

    Frankly, both sides of the story are sufficiently complicated and detailed that I really can't do justice to them in this review, but Permanent Emergency follows both with the tenacity of a good spy novel. There is obviously a lot of stuff we're not being told, but the amount of information here is really remarkable. Very useful, also, are sections at the end listing the names of all they key players (on both sides), and page after page of organizational acronyms, going into what they stand for and what those organizations do … fascinating stuff. There is also a time-line from 9/11/01 through 07/01/10 when a new permanent TSA Administrator was put in to replace the author.

    Permanent Emergency just came out this summer, so is likely still out in the bookstores. It's available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and the on-line big boys have it at about a quarter off of cover price, which might be your best bet for picking it up since it hasn't seemed to have filtered down to the used channels to have a substantial discount (when individual shipping's added). I found this fascinating, and think it would appeal to anybody who likes spy thrillers, and books about politics.


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    Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
    10:47 am
    Celebrity reading ...
    OK, so I have to admit, the main reason that I picked up Craig Ferguson's American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, was to read up about his old band-mate (and new 12th incarnation of the Doctor) Peter Capaldi. Who would have thought, back when they were in the Glasgow punk outfit The Dreamboys, that one would be an American late-night TV fixture, and the other would be in the most iconic of UK television characters?

    As regular readers of this space will sense, while I'm open to reading biographies/autobiographies, they aren't a major segment of my library … although they can be a welcome break from the “same old same old” if I've been in a bit of a rut (and those Social Media/Marketing books just keep on coming), and this was a delight to read. While the book is hardly self-congratulatory (frankly Ferguson beats himself up quite a bit here, with what seems to be reasonably unfiltered looks at his past), judging by it Ferguson has got to be either one of the luckiest guys on the planet, or simply smashing brilliant.

    While I watch him fairly regularly (his talk show is right about in that overly-late hour that I think about getting something to eat for dinner, so am kicking around in the kitchen with the TV on), I've hardly followed his career. I knew him initially from the old Drew Carey show, and am familiar with his on-line @CraigyFerg persona, but I had no idea of all the stuff he's been involved with. He has written and starred in a number of movies (most notably, Saving Grace, but has had roles in vehicles as disparate as the classic English sci-fi romp Red Dwarf to the voice Owl in Winnie the Pooh), he's penned a well-thought-of novel, and has built up a solid stand-up comedy side-line. Very little of this is actually detailed in the book … just the major projects (well, some minor TV things – that I'd never heard of – are in there too for their “narrative advancing” properties), which gives the impression that he sort of “stumbled” into success … when he was actually working quite a bit more than one would get from just this.

    At least half of American on Purpose is Ferguson dealing with his inner demons, from his pudgy “outsider” youth, into his punk band years (there's a pic of him in this which totally channels Sid Vicious at his most drugged out), and into his forays in various aspects of show business. Ferguson was a hard-drinking, hard-drugging knock-about, but evidently with enough talent to keep getting acting, comedy, and related gigs. Much of the first two thirds of the book are the arc of him from birth to sobriety (he quit drinking in February 1992), including his break-through into a certain level of fame following his “Big Hitler” comic success in the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I was able to intimately relate to Ferguson's struggles with chemical dependence, and that is a key element of the story being told here.

    The over-all arc of the story, as one might infer from the title/sub-title combination, is a bit of a love letter to America. In his youth, Ferguson had a chance to visit the U.S. with his father, who he told (while up in the old observation area in the crown of the Statue of Liberty) that he'd live in America one day. While I can be as jingoistic as any Constitutionalist looking out at the insanity of other parts of the world (or even Washington D.C.), it's refreshing to see Ferguson's take on the U.S. and our culture. He gives a very touching illustration of what he sees in America in a baseball analogy … in that you can totally fail seven out of ten times, but if you keep getting back up to bat, and succeed just three out of ten times – you'll be in the Hall of Fame (i.e. with a .300 batting average) … that plus not having the long-festering sectarian divisions that so mess up older cultures.

    One thing I found a bit odd in American on Purpose, and this is, I suspect, a bit of his “telling tales on himself”, is that he goes into a lot of detail about his various personal relationships – including several failed marriages. Now, I have no way of knowing just how representative the ladies he discusses are (they might be just the tip of the iceberg, if they follow like his acting credits here), but he deals with each in detail, and makes a point of having a photo of each in the picture section. I don't know why this struck me as odd, but I was wondering what purpose that served … was it just a way to do a more significant “shout-out” to his exes, or was this some sort of back-hand bragging (all of them are quite attractive)?

    Again, I really didn't know what to expect when I ordered this (I picked up a used copy of the hardcover over on Amazon for 1¢ plus shipping), but it is a nicely balanced, funny, touching, and eye-opening book (some of the stories of his working with Johnny Carson's old producer are fascinating). Its main arc is that love-letter thing, but with clear sub-arcs of his substance problems, his love life, and his career. The book ends with him heading back to Scotland at Christmas 2008, as his mother was dying … and did so soon after he was able to visit her in the hospital. He has a chance to frame the rest of the book with a wander around his old haunts and a coming to grips with his being Scottish and American … a very emotionally satisfying note to end on.

    American on Purpose is still in print in paperback and ebook editions, so is likely available in the humor sections of the larger brick-and-mortar book vendors (as wells as via download), but, as noted, “like new” copies of the hardcover are out there in the new/used channels for as little as penny – so you don't have any excuse for not snagging yourself a copy if this sounds like something you'd like to spend a few hours experiencing. It's hard not to be impressed with Craig Ferguson after reading this, because his story sure can't be all about luck.


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    Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
    9:38 am
    Speaking of which ...
    This is another of those fascinating volumes that found its way into my library due to the serendipity of the dollar store book section. As is often the case with my “dollar store finds”, this was unlikely to have been something that I would have picked up “at retail”, but for a buck, the topic was interesting enough to get it into my shopping cart. As it was, it sat in my to-be-read stacks for nearly four years before I got around to plowing into it.

    If I had one caveat to toss out up front about Anne Karpf's The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are is that it is very British. Karpf is an English journalist and BBC broadcaster (and author and sociologist and university professor), and a lot of this has that very prominently ingrained in terms of descriptions (how many Americans would describe a vocal pattern as “posh”, for instance) and references (lots of TV and radio programs I'd never heard of). To be fair, this is no doubt how the rest of the world feels when hitting a U.S. book that's rife with cultural references, but it stood out enough that it occasionally was “an issue” with how I was absorbing the info.

    Also, for being a book that I quite enjoyed, it ended up with nearly no little slips of paper for places that I felt I needed to return to, either for choice bits for this review, or for “future reference”, which is odd … especially given that this is not a “light read”, for a book with 300 pages of text, The Human Voice carries an additional 80 pages of notes (in a considerably smaller font size than the text) – so you would think that there would be notable factoids that I'd have marked.

    To be honest, there's a certain obsession here … as though this topic was one that has been a long-time preoccupation of the author. There's a breadth to the survey that's almost more than most folks would want to know, but all presented clearly and significantly annotated.

    Because I don't have specific notes to pull from here, I'm going to fall back on a crutch that I feel I use too frequently, but which does give the reader at least the “30,000ft view” of the scope of the work … breaking it down by chapter headings. This is in three (untitled) sections:

    PART ONE
    1. What the Voice Can Tell Us

    2. How the Voice Achieves its Range and Power

    3. How We Colour Our Voices with Pitch, Volume, and Tempo

    4. What Makes the Voice Distinctly Human

    5. The Impact of the Mother's Voice (even in the Womb)

    6. Mothertalk: the Melody of Intimacy

    7. The Emergence of the Baby's Voice

    PART TWO
    1. Do I Really Sound Like That?

    2. How Our Emotions Shape the Sounds We Make (and Other People Hear Them)

    3. Male and Female Voices: Stereotyped or Different?

    4. How Men and Women's Voices Are Changing

    5. Cultural Differences in the Voice

    PART THREE
    1. From Oral to Literate Society

    2. The Public Voice

    3. How Technology Has Transformed the Voice

    4. Voiceprints and Voice Theft

    5. How People and Corporations are Trying to Change the Voice
    Obviously, that's a LOT of info that Karpf has condensed here. Again, I'm guessing most folks have not even read moderately on the subject of the voice, and assorted research that deals with it, so the book is pretty much a non-stop flow of “wow … who knew?” moments. Some examples from early on: Newborns prefer to hear their mother's voice filtered in the way that it would have sounded to them in the womb.{Babies} can pick out their mother's voice from other voices well before they're able to distinguish her face from other faces. … although by age 4 most have switched to visual modes. Also, whereas males will talk “baby talk” to children under 4, by the time they're 5 most males will use “adult speech” in addressing children, while females still maintain the specialized forms.

    There are fascinating elements of how vocalization has changed through global communication. There is a “vocal fashion” called HRT – the “high rising terminal” - “in which the intonation of questions is applied to statements” that “seems to have begun in New Zealand, moved over to Australia, migrated to American teenagers (especially female), and eventually colonized Europe” … however, its spread (particularly to non-teens) is likely to limit its lifespan, as it has lost its “cool” factor. The author also deals with issues raised with Indian call centers … it appears that callers from the UK have even a worse reaction to heavy accents than their US counterparts … but as one call center trainer notes: “It is very challenging to unlearn their natural manner of speech.”.

    There's a good deal about how TV presenters and politicians have had to concentrate on adapting their voice for optimal effect. While some of the cases here (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, etc.) are familiar enough to be useful examples for the US reader, there are a lot of names, evidently well known to the UK audience, that I certainly had no reference point to go on. However, I'm guessing the “cultural differences” here only become an issue in 15% or so of the book, so, given the massive amount of material here, that's not a particular problem over-all. There is a lot of psychological stuff here too, such as: The voice both reflects and mediates our relationship with the outside world, and can be used to express attitudes and feelings that would be derided or dangerous if articulated through words.

    The Human Voice does still seem to be in print, with the hardcover being a “bargain price” and less than a third what they're asking for the paperback (!). One would think, given that this has gone out to the dollar stores, that there'd be cheap copies via the new/used vendors, but not so much that you'd be saving a lot with the added shipping in that channel. If you have any interest in the voice, I'd say this is a good bet … it's a fascinating collection of info on the subject.


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