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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)

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

Visit the BTRIPP home page! Challenge Participant

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

This blog is on the resource listing!

Friday, October 2nd, 2015
3:34 pm
Falling asleep in the sun ...
This is another book from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, and, unfortunately, after a string of quite good selections from LTER, this one is definitely back in the “meh” category. As you may recall, I also write a blog for the Chicago Tribune's “ChicagoNow” blogging platform, called Green Tech Chicago, so I keep an eye out for a lot of renewable energy stories, and I've come to expect a certain level of … well, interesting … which isn't front-and-center in Philip Warburg's Harness the Sun: America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future. Since finishing reading this, I've been trying to “put my finger on” what specifically I found unappealing with it, and I think I've finally figured that out. In most material on “green energy”, there's a forward-looking aspect which promises great things in the future, often over-blown gee-whiz stuff, but hooks to get you excited about what's being discussed. This is true from GenIV reactors to mustard plants as a oil source, to tidal turbines, to solar satellites, etc. Those stories grip the imagination and pull you in to the tech involved. Not so much here.

For something subtitled “America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future” (there I go again with taking exception with a book's subtitle), there's very little “future” focus here. Frankly, this reads like a series of very serious, diligently researched, but ultimately uninspiring newspaper stories … if not a collection of excerpts from quarterly reports from various industry players. The ten chapters here look at different applications of solar technology – as it's presently implemented – and anchors the stories by featuring individuals involved in those businesses. If this was a series of “investigative journalism” pieces on “the state of solar”, it would sort of make sense, but in this context they're just (to me at least) awfully bland.

Now, I will admit that I've probably read more about this stuff than most folks have, so things that are “new and exciting” to me are pretty thin here. I ended up with just two little bookmarks stuck in the book … albeit one of them highlighting a fascinating system of using molten salt (a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) to store heat:

Heated to more that 1,000 F, the molten salt flows in large steel collector pipes down to the base of the concrete tower. From there it can be channeled to a heat exchanger that uses the captured energy to create steam for a power-generating turbine – if there's an immediate demand for electricity. Alternatively, there super-heated fluid can be pumped into a 3.6 million gallon stainless-steel storage tank just few dozen feet from the tower.
And the tower in question is an indication on how huge that project, Crescent Dunes, is … it's as big as a 50-story building and stands at the center of 17,500 mirrors, each of which is about 140 square yards in size. I only wish there was that much “cool stuff” to note from every site the author visited.

Frankly, this might have been intentionally boring, as in the note sent out by the publisher with it, they say it's a pragmatic report on the current state of affairs, which would explain why there's so much stuff in here on government regulations (and give-aways by the current administration), supply chain and manufacturing issues, conflicts between the “green energy” folks and various environmental organizations (a lot of these installations have had to go to great lengths to make sure a wide array of critters didn't get disrupted), and assorted international political concerns (even going so far to suggest that having cheap Chinese solar panels destroy the American solar industry might be a good thing because it would accelerate the installed base of solar energy).

It could also be the case that the book just didn't appeal to me because its author is very likely the sort that I would dislike in person … he's an attorney, a “community organizer” (like somebody else I can't stand), has worked for various governmental entities, and has been a lawyer for a handful of Environmental NGOs … this is not a resume that speaks of “vision” – a Peter Diamandis he's not. If the phrase “written by a lawyer” has the same icky negative vibe for you as it does for me … you'll get the sense of what I see as wrong with Harness the Sun.

On the other hand, the material here is certainly well-researched, with a couple of dozen of pages of small-type footnotes supporting his arguments and assertions, and he includes a “selected bibliography” with over a hundred documents. If you wanted to have a “snapshot” of the solar industry today (it just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm guessing the info is as current as possible), this will give it to you. But … it's not exactly gripping. Perhaps tellingly, even though this is brand new, the on-line big boys have it at a substantial discount, and the new/used vendors have new copies going for about 10% of the cover price. If you are looking for an overview of the solar industry, this is the book for you … as it is an extensive look at pretty much all the types of operations in place in the US … but if you're looking for something to get excited about, maybe not.

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Thursday, October 1st, 2015
2:37 pm
Let the buyer beware ...
OK, so this may end up being one of those reviews which is more about my reactions to things around the book rather than the book itself. I had run into a mention of Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton's Now, Discover Your Strengths (the odd formation of the title serves to imply that it's a follow-up to their previous First, Break All The Rules) in some other book I was reading (don't recall what that was at this point), and it sounded like a very useful read, as it offers the promise of helping me discover and focus on my strengths. So, as is my wont, I scurried over to Amazon and ordered a used copy … no problem, right? WRONG! It turns out that the on-line assessment associated with the book involves a code (printed inside the dust jacket) that can only be used once, and evidently one of the previous owners of my copy had done the quiz and I was S.O.L.

Now, the core element here is THE ASSESSMENT … “you can't tell the players without the program” and all … and they (in this case “they” appears to be the Gallup organization) are selling these for as much as a new copy of the book about their “StrengthsFinder” … and that will only give you your top five (out of 34 “strengths”) – if you want to see the rest of the rankings, it will cost you five times as much. Needless to say, I'm not going to shell out $90 for that info, and, frankly, just getting the top five (although, admittedly, the cover, in rather small print, only promises “your top 5”) seems like a gyp even if the code was working. I sent in a request to get a usable code (noting that I was going to be reviewing the book) and got ZERO response … which further pissed me off.

I'm hardly the only one in this situation … there's a rather interesting blog out there which both addresses this, and has a long run of comments bitching about it. The blogger has the suggestion that “If you’re honest with yourself, you can achieve accurate results by self-reporting.”, and points folks to a form which lists the 34 strengths and lets you rank them to come up with your own list. Frankly, out of the 34, I probably wasn't saying “yuck!” to only 6 or 7, so I was able to narrow down the field quite a bit … but this lacks the precision that having the actual quiz's dynamics involved.

So, on one hand I was angry for not being able to approach the book as it was intended, and on the other, a bit embarrassed that I'd once again fallen on the landmine of buying used books (with on-line components – more often an issue of stuff being “404” than being invalid, but still) … however, six and a half years without a regular paycheck makes the odds of my paying retail for something like this pretty damn slim.

You might expect that I'd just throw some curses at the authors, their organization, their publisher, and the horse they rode in on, give you the broadstrokes about what the book's about, and wash my hands of it. But …

The research involved here is pretty damn impressive. The Gallup Organization had done a thirty year (as of the time of the book's release in 2001 – I don't know if it's been on-going since) “systematic study of excellence wherever we could find it”, involving over two million interviews consisting of “open-ended questions”. Out of this massive amount of data they started to find “themes”, which eventually became the 34 “strengths” presented in this book – Achiever, Activator, Adaptability, Analytical, Arranger, Belief, Command, Communication, Competition, Connectedness, Context, Deliberative, Developer, Discipline, Empathy, Fairness, Focus, Futuristic, Harmony, Ideation, Inclusiveness, Individualization, Input, Intellection, Learner, Maximizer, Positivity, Relator, Responsibility, Restorative, Self-Assurance, Significance, Strategic, and "Woo" (which they say stands for "Winning Others Over", but could be just as well taken in the sense of "wooing").

One of the interesting things here is that they go against the “business as usual” concept of spending a lot of time, effort, and money on trying to “fix” one's weaknesses … here it's argued that this is, generally speaking, a waste, and we'd be much better served by focusing on honing our strengths. These are based on what they're referring to as “talents”, which are defined in the analysis of the study as “Talent is any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”, with the emphasis on the any, as even some less-than-positive/helpful patterns can be framed as talents if they can be productively applied.

What creates in you these recurring patterns? If you don't much care for your patterns, can you stitch a new design? The answers to these questions are (a) your recurring patterns are created by the connections in your brain; and (b) no, beyond a certain age you are not going to be able to stitch a completely new design – your talents are enduring.

Your talents, your strongest synaptic connections, are the most important raw material for strength building. Identify your most powerful talents, hone them with skills and knowledge, and you will be well on you way to living the strong life.
The authors are pretty adamant that these things are hard-wired in our brains, and that going against what's in there is pretty much like Heinlein's classic line about “teaching a pig to sing”. However, there are inner signals that let you figure out where those talents lie … “Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning, and satisfactions will all help you detect the traces of your talents.”

The middle section of the book is simply a walk-through of the 34 “themes”, each with just a single page, featuring a descriptive paragraph and 2-5 examples (framed as “X sounds like this:”) featuring people from the study who fit that theme, with their relating something key to the concept. As noted above, reading through these does give one a fairly good idea of what are “your strengths”, as they prompted a “eww, that's not me reaction over and over again, except for where they didn't.

Again, without having the actual on-line test to go from, there was an irritating vagueness to this all. The listing of the strengths is followed by a rather interesting section called “The Questions You're Asking” which was pretty informative, if not including my #1 question: why can't I take the damn assessment?!. The next part is another 1-page-per look at “How To Manage A Person Strong In X”, each with a half-dozen or so bullet points with fairly specific suggestions of working with that particular type of person.

The penultimate part of this got the majority of my little bookmarks, “Building A Strengths-Based Organization”, which advances the authors' iconoclastic stance towards balancing strengths and weaknesses. One thing I found fascinating (given my own long job search) was:

Most employment advertisements loudly assert the need for certain skills, knowledge, and years of experience but remain mute on talent. It is ironic tha they itemize qualities they can change in a person while ignoring the ones they can't.
They include a number of additional assessment tools for managers, with lists of questions (“these questions were selected from a list of hundreds because, when worded in exactly this fashion (complete with qualifiers …), they predicted employee {behaviors}) to be used in working with staff. There are quite a few eye-opening data bits here, such as that eight out of ten employees are “miscast”, and that “job status” is more predictive than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure when it comes to heart attacks!

Now, Discover Your Strengths concludes with a technical appendix on the methodology, etc. of the research involved in developing the StrengthsFinder, which also includes some intriguing statistics on how various demographic categories differed (or didn't) in the results.

Obviously, it's hard for me to recommend this book via the used channels, since you can't take the actual test, but I'm not sure I liked it well enough to say “hey, money be damned” and saying it's worth paying retail for. If you're interested in this sort of thing as a philosophical discussion of types, sure, spending 1¢ (plus shipping) will get you a very interesting read about the work Gallup's done in this area … but they're hell-bent on wringing every dollar out of organizations (who are the main target of this book), and aren't going to cut the people who might be trying to better themselves (again, check out some of the comments on that blog post … some angry people out there!) any slack in the pursuit of that lucre. It's fascinating, but feels real sleazy once you've been jilted.

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Sunday, September 20th, 2015
11:37 am
This is why Jefferson wrote of separation* ...
Geez … I sure picked a swell time to have pulled Mike Huckabee's A Simple Government: Twelve Things We Really Need from Washington (and a Trillion That We Don't!) out of the to-be-read piles (where it had been lingering since I grabbed a dollar store copy a year and half ago), didn't I? All the insanity around his support of that “won't do her job because of her beliefs” gal broke weeks after I got into this (honest!), and it really focused the problems I have with this book, and its author in general.

Now, let me apologize now if this ends up being more about my political philosophies and not so much about the book. There's so much more to write about Huckabee himself than what's in the book, frankly.

Huckabee is one of the clearest cases of where I have discomfort with my erstwhile allies on the conservative side of the political spectrum. His basic world-view (at least as expressed in A Simple Government has a certain “Mayberry”vibe to it … common-sense, Constitutionally-based, classic American populism … which does, admittedly have a “church-going” tinge to it in the many real-world examples across the country. What amazes me is that the religion never seems to get “educated out” of guys like Huckabee … it's like the water in his fishbowl, “just there” and never questioned. His arguments are typically of a Constitutional/common-sense (albeit not in the Paine sense of the latter!) vein, which I'm reading and agreeing with, until, suddenly he's justifying something or insisting on something, or whatever, based on some Christian (and not even biblical) basis, and I'm like “WTF, dude?!”.

It shocks me that he, and conservatives like him, don't see the dissonance in that. Of course, in Huckabee's case … he's been a fundamentalist from the get-go, having attended a Baptist college and getting a degree in religion, and then moving on to a Baptist theological seminary (which he dropped out of to go into Christian broadcasting). So, it's not like he was notably secular at any point in his life.

I, of course, am as deeply secular as anybody with as many religious credentials as I have (from Vajrayana Buddhism to tribal shamanic lineages, to assorted “western esoteric tradition” things, to even being a PK) could be, and have ZERO reference for how religion (or, more specifically, his particular brand of Baptism) permeates his life. The only parallel that I can sort of posit would be sports (although this is, admittedly, more “tribal” than “doctrinal”) and my emotional connection with the Bears and the Cubs is about as close as I can get.

So, it seems plainly bizarre to me that he can so fervently support somebody like Kim Davis, unless he truly believes that one's personal take on one's religion (because, in reality, there is precious little “anti-gay” material in the bible, but a lot of cultural anti-gay sentiment in the fundamentalist Christian traditions) over-rides the law of the land. And, from what I see in Googling a bit, Huckabee even feels that one's faith trumps the decisions of the Supreme Court. Yet, I don't suppose that he is in favor of Muslim women wearing burkas in their drivers license photos. And, in the latter case, the individual hasn't taken a job that they're not wanting to perform because of religious beliefs, so is arguably less of an affront to the system (although certainly not something that should be allowed). It's like if I were a bartender and I refused service to a Packers fan, just for being a cheesehead.

Anyway, this sort of thing pops its silly head up over and over again in a book which (were one to purge the religion from it) would be quite a reasonable political read.

One note on the book … it's yet another thing which came out during the last election cycle, looking at the current POTUS' first term and predicting (sadly, rather accurately) the horrors to come were said person given a second term … so, much of it is somewhat dated and forward-looking to things that have (or haven't) already happened.

A Simple Government is set up in 12 chapters, first about “Family Values” (making a point that the “most granular” level of governance is that in the family unit), then looking at a “Return to Local Government” (a very good idea), a look at managing budgets – comparing the state with the family budget, a look at taxation, a look at health care, a look at education, a look at environmental issues (which the author appears to be quite passionate about, but significantly argues that the Federal government is really bad at responding and really good at screwing things up), a look at immigration policy (and this was even before the insane policies of the current administration reached their present nadir), a look at terrorism, a consideration of our military policy, some discussion of America's place in the world, and a hopeful look ahead (again, written before the current POTUS had a chance to drive us further down his path of destruction in a second term).

I flagged a couple of bits that I thought were particularly sane in here, and figure I'll share this one:

... What if some stranger from the next town over came to your house one day and said he would take care of running your family for you if you gave him a certain amount of your income in exchange? You would have a say in the matter, but, oh wait, he'd also be in charge of a few other families – all different from yours – who would also get a vote. Would you trust him?
      My guess is you wouldn't. But this is what it's like at the federal level of government – a bunch of strangers take your tax dollars and figure out how best to put them to use. They don't know you, and they don't understand the needs of your community like you do. As a result, they set up programs and pass laws in an effort to please everyone (often pleasing no one), and you have very little say in what happens. And the bigger we allow our federal government to get, the worse the problem becomes.
      Every time Washington enacts a new law or mandate, you can be sure that the states, the private sector, and the people are left with less control over their destinies than they had the moment before that bill was signed. Politicians get so caught up in arguing the merits of a particular provision that we don't see the overall shift in power, especially when the bills are so large that we can't deal with their totality. Power is a zero-sum game. In other words, whenever the federal government accumulates more power, the state and the people inevitably lose some autonomy they previously had. Eventually, we can lose our way entirely.
There's a lot more “common sense” analysis of the various factors in play within the subjects under consideration in the assorted chapters, but this was at least a fairly contiguous block of material on this – that didn't shift into that (one's individual religious spin's) “faith trumps all” stuff (which, to be fair, is not pervasive through the text, but never far off-stage in the author's world-view).

Again, I might have had a somewhat different approach to reviewing this, had all that Kim Davis lunacy not cropped up in the past few weeks (and especially the author's championing the actions of somebody who is – in a secular view – clearly in the wrong). Will you want to read A Simple Government? If you're a gung-ho Christian (or Southern Baptist, or however further down the fundy rabbit-hole you care to go), with a conservative bent (ya think?), you'll no doubt love this book … but the farther apart from that demographic you are, the more you'll find stuff to be irritated with here. As noted at the top, I found this over at the dollar store about a year and a half ago, so it's been floating around out there for a while … I was rather surprised to see that it's still in print (in a paperback edition), but the hardcover is available from the on-line big boys' new/used channels for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping, of course) for a new copy. This is not one of those that “everybody needs to read”, but it's a solid common-sense look at how screwed up the government is (if you can ignore the preachiness).


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Saturday, September 19th, 2015
1:25 pm
Nice work if you can find it, I guess ...
It's probably a merciful thing that I've forgotten precisely what/who suggested that I check out Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun … I suspect that I read about it in some other book, as most folks who know me realize what an cantankerous, cynical, and generally pissed-off kinda guy I am, and would figure that this book and I were operating in wholly different universes. Frankly, for most of this book, I felt like Wednesday Addams being sent to the “Harmony Hut”, and wondering when it was going to end.

Speaking of divergent “worlds”, I try not to read reviews of books before I review them, but in this case I was trying to decide if I was going to buy a copy, and found a recurrent theme in the more negative reviews. I'm not one to toss around the “privileged” tag a lot (although being now 20 years separated from a six-figure income in my on-going entrepreneurial impoverishment, it's an occasional temptation), but the author lives in a pretty high-end niche, with concerns (or lacks thereof) unfamiliar to probably most readers. She's a former clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor, a former chief adviser to the chairman of the FCC, and a lecturer at Yale, while her husband is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution … so you can imagine what their income level is. At one point she cites a study that “suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for a person's daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise”. I have acquaintances who think making $35k/year is a princely sum and say that were they making (as little as) $50k/year they'd never bother with trying to better their positions! For these folks (and I think they're more common than not), “getting a $60,000 raise” is no more conceivable than having little green men walking out of a UFO to present the check … yet the author throws this out there like it's an everyday possibility in her world. So, understand that the “happiness” being addressed here is not including being relieved to keep the lights, cable, and internet on, make rent, and buy some groceries in any given month.

I found it somewhat ironic that, towards the end of this, Rubin reports reading a review of her project (which had been unfolding on a daily basis on a blog) to her husband, and noting it was being called “stunt journalism”. Given the inapplicability of her example to (what I assume to be) most readers, this is taking that to a “meta” level … all but admitting the “stunt” aspect of this within the actual body of the work. Of course, there is a wide variety of works that fall under that (obviously somewhat snide) label … from the sublime: Julie and Julia – to the somewhat ridiculous: The Guinea Pig Diaries (etc.) … with this falling somewhere in the middle.

So, with those caveats, on to The Happiness Project … this begins with her taking a crosstown bus in Manhattan on a rain-soaked day and seeing a person just like her, “trying simultaneously to balance an umbrella, look at her cell phone, and push a stroller”. She notes:

I wasn't depressed and I wasn't having a midlife crisis, but I was suffering from midlife malaise – a recurrent sense of discontent and almost a feeling of disbelief.
Amusingly, she relates this to the Talking Heads' song “Once In A Lifetime”, specifically citing the line “This is not my beautiful house.”, and then adds:

All these thoughts flooded through my mind, and as I sat on that crowded bus, I grasped two things: I wasn't as happy as I could be, and my life wasn't going to change unless I made it change.
{Yeah, cue the tiny violins.} She jumped into doing research on “happiness”, and started spinning out materials, a “scoring chart” based on that used by Ben Franklin, a list of categories and sub-categories (which became the basic structure of the book), a list of her own “Twelve Commandments”, and what she calls the “Secrets of Adulthood” (among other lists of stuff), drawn from a wide array of sources.

Now, I really didn't sync with much stuff in here, so my little bookmarks of “choice bits” are few and not particularly illustrative, so I'm thinking the most useful way of presenting what's in the book is to fall back on giving you an “outline”. The project was designed from the start as a year's enterprise, so is broken up by months, each month tackling a different area, with its own specifics, and action points. Here goes:

      January – Boost Energy – Vitality
            - Go to sleep earlier.
            - Exercise better.
            - Toss, restore, organize.
            - Tackle a nagging task.
            - Act more energetic.
      February – Remember Love – Marriage
            - Quit nagging.
            - Don't expect praise or appreciation.
            - Fight right.
            - No dumping.
            - Give proofs of love.
      March – Aim Higher – Work
            - Launch a blog.
            - Enjoy the fun of failure.
            - Ask for help.
            - Work smart.
            - Enjoy now.
      April – Lighten Up – Parenthood
            - Sing in the morning.
            - Acknowledge the reality of people's feelings.
            - Be a treasure house of happy memories
            - Take time for projects.
      May – Be Serious About Play – Leisure
            - Find more fun.
            - Take time to be silly.
            - Go off the path.
            - Start a collection.
      June – Make Time for Friends – Friendship
            - Remember birthdays.
            - Be generous.
            - Show up.
            - Don't gossip.
            - Make three new friends.
      July – Buy Some Happiness – Money
            - Indulge in a modest splurge.
            - Buy needful things.
            - Spend out.
            - Give something up.
      August – Contemplate the Heavens – Eternity
            - Read memoirs of catastrophe.
            - Keep a gratitude notebook.
            - Imitate a spiritual master.
      September – Pursue a Passion – Books
            - Write a novel.
            - Make time.
            - Forget about results.
            - Master a new technology.
      October – Pay Attention – Mindfulness
            - Meditate on koans.
            - Examine True Rules.
            - Stimulate the mind in new ways.
            - Keep a food diary.
      November – Keep a Contented Heart – Attitude
            - Laugh out loud.
            - Use good manners.
            - Give positive reviews.
            - Find an area of refuge.
      December – Boot Camp Perfect – Happiness
            - Boot Camp Perfect

One element that I found to be mixed at best was her inclusion of comments from her blog about these various items. These range from the vaguely interesting to the totally pointless … to the extent that I began to wonder if some were selected to simply be a shout-out to her favorite followers (although anonymously). Also, as self-focused as the book is, she indulges in a lot of “before” descriptions … and the over-all take-away is that she was not the most pleasant person to be around … she details a lot of ways she was one of those folks one tries hard to avoid in a social setting (hey, she was a lawyer, I guess it goes with the territory).

To hit some “highlights” … in January's “Toss, restore, organize.” it turns out that she's a maniac for throwing stuff out … she even talks about badgering her friends to let her come over and clean out their closets. In February's “Quit nagging.” it becomes pretty evident that this was a particular item she had to pay attention to. One has to figure when she starts out March with “Launch a blog.”, she's talking about her situation, as blogging is not something that I'd recommend to all and sundry! Admittedly, she does frequently note that this is “her stuff” and that other folks need to figure out what's going to support their happiness, but a lot of this still comes across as “dictates” from on high. April's “Sing in the morning.” really reflects her having two young daughters (ages seven and one) when writing this … I'm not sure that the same strategies would work with a surly 15-year-old. You'd think that somebody who was such an anti-clutter person wouldn't come up with May's “Start a collection.”, but she makes an exception, and recommends that everybody have one “junk drawer” and one empty shelf. In June's “Don't gossip.” Rubin tells more tales on herself, as this appears to have been a favorite activity for her at one point. One of the odder concepts here is July's “Spend out.”, which is both related to giving/spending without expectation of return, and “using the good stuff” (be that napkins or perfume). One of the points that has widest applicability is August's “Keep a gratitude notebook.”, which is pretty self-explanatory, and a very good idea. One that is hardly “for everybody” is September's “Write a novel.” … which starts out with somebody introducing her to NaNoWriMo. October's “Meditate on koans.” isn't quite as doctrinally Zen as one might expect (hope), as she notes having her own file of koan-like phrases from literature that she seems to prefer than the classics. November's “Give positive reviews.” isn't just trying to be a Jedi mind trick on people like me, but is more admission on her part that she always was trying to “look smart” by tearing things down. Her “Boot Camp Perfect.” in December was simply trying to do ALL these things all the time … which I guess worked better than one might think.

Needless to say, The Happiness Project was not the book for me, but I guess it (and the author's web site, and podcast, and articles in various outlets) is wildly popular with other sorts of people. If I was going to be really sarcastic, I'd suggest that the subtitle of this is “how a millionaire managed to minimize her ennui and call that being happy”, but then that wouldn't let her name-check Aristotle and play up her Ivy League education, would it?

Since this does have its audience, it's still in print (in the hardcover, no less), and the on-line big boys have it at about a quarter off of its relatively hefty cover price. Fortunately (and, trust me, this is how I got it), the new/used guys have “like new” copies for a penny (plus shipping, of course). There were parts of this that I liked, but the “Eloise at The Plaza” vibe became frequently irritating. However, since I'm a cranky old guy who hates self-improvement books … “your mileage may vary”.

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Monday, September 7th, 2015
9:58 am
Woke up in a Soho doorway, a policeman knew my name ...
Well, that was enjoyable … this is yet another great read showing up in my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program – not something that's “a given” in LTER, as there have been a lot of clunkers over the years – but this one was both informative and entertaining, and engaging throughout. The only “whuh?” element here was that it's not “new”, really … but the paperback version (officially coming out next week). I'm guessing that the hardcover of this was offered via LTER last year, as there are a whole bunch of reviews up for it already. This is Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity – What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves by Christian Rudder, the co-founder and in-house data wonk for the OkCupid dating site. I'm assuming that this (coming out only a year later) is substantially the same as the hardcover, but this is coming out with a new subtitle [previously: “Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)”], which always makes me wonder if there's been an update between the versions.

On one level, this is a bit of a “morality tale”, sort of in the mode of Ryan Holliday's Trust Me, I'm Lying (although in a much less sleazy milieu), where a master of a “dark art” comes clean about it, and tries to make amends. Unlike Holiday's “gaming” dang near the entire information infrastructure, here Rudder is talking about data … and how it can look into our lives … and eventually he ends up wringing his hands a bit (and noting that he does very little “social media”, won't post pictures of his family, etc., in an effort to minimize how transparent his life is to the algorithms churning through that data) at how even with the slightest digital “trail of breadcrumbs”, the number crunchers can find out remarkably accurate and personal information – typified by the story of how Target, by analyzing the shopping patterns of a teen girl, knew she was pregnant (and started sending out pregnancy-related fliers) before her family did … or, more unsettling, the patent that Amazon has taken out for an “anticipatory shipping” system that will send out products that its analysis of the data indicates that you need/want, before you even order them. However, that's sort of jumping to the end of the story here … the book is NOT a doom-and-gloom “the computers are going to rule us” dystopian tale, but a look from the inside of how all that stuff works … although the cautionary element is certainly hovering over the book in its name – a portmanteau mashing up “data” with “cataclysm” – which echoes one mind-blowing factoid he has in here: as long ago as 2012, Facebook was collecting 500 terabytes of information every day!

Dataclysm is set up in three parts, “What Brings Us Together”, “What Pulls Us Apart”, and “What Makes Us Who We Are”, each with 4-5 chapters looking at specific elements thereof. It starts with the basics, gathering the data. Early on he puts up a caveat, true for most data sets involved (in academic studies), which have a tendency to be based on white American college kids … he adds:

I understand how it happens: in person, getting a real representative data set is often more difficult than the actual experiment you'd like to perform. You're a professor or postdoc who wants to push forward, so you take what's called a “convenience sample” – and that means the students at your university. But it's a big problem, especially when you're researching belief and behavior. It even has a name. It's called WEIRD research: white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. And most published social research papers are WEIRD.
He adds in a footnote, from an article in Slate, that this profile only represents about 12% of the world's population, and differs from the others in “moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception”. While it's not exactly a case of GIGO, it certainly warns that when trying to extrapolate WEIRD data to a global model, you're probably going to be off from the start.

There is a lot of humor in this book … an entertaining review could be whipped up by just repeating the jokes … while this is tempting, I'll try to limit myself to a few choice ones. One that stood out sufficiently that it got its own little bookmark when I was going through this, was an odd footnote which reads: “* Definition of true ignorance: getting your "what the kids are into" intel from the Securities and Exchange Commission” … OK, so standing on its own isn't quite the self-depreciating gut-buster it ought to be, so I'll have to “explain the joke” (trust me, I have a lot of experience in having to do this). This is at the very start of the “Writing on the Wall” chapter, which starts out talking about home-sickness among troops a century or more ago … noting that “in the American Civil War nostalgia was such a problem it put some 5,000 troops out of action, and 74 men died of it”, and then suggesting that the best scientists of 1863, on “either side of the Potomac”, were furiously working “to develop the ultimate war-ending superweapon: high school yearbooks” (assuming that this “cures” nostalgia). He asks if they still have high school yearbooks, what with Facebook around … but then points out that in a recent FB quarterly report (hence the SEC angle) they noted a drop in use among the under-18 crowd, possibly requiring the printed book again. Yeah, it's funnier when you're reading through it.

This, however, sets up the issue of writing … in less than a generation, kids are writing vastly more than any of their predecessor demographics ever imagined. Rudder cuts to the chase in terms of internet writing, and focuses on Twitter … writing 140 characters at a time. Many commentators have bewailed how the web was going to destroy the language, and that we'd lose the use of longer, more sophisticated words. Here the author compares Twitter's list of most commonly used words with that of the Oxford English Corpus (all 2.5 billion words) … in each case, the top 100 words are considered, which makes up half the writing. Counter-intuitively, the Twitter list has an average word length significantly longer than the OEC's … 4.3 characters vs 3.4 (yes, there are a whole bunch of 2-3 letter words on those lists) … and what's even more remarkable is that the average word length of something like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, clocks in at a shorter word length than a similar word-count sample from Twitter (3.99 vs 4.80 – and that's with the @'s and #'s stripped out of the Twitter numbers). Another amazing source of data is Google Books, which has so far digitized over 30 million books, going back as far as 1800. Using that data all sorts of interesting things can be tracked, for instance, there's a fascinating graph in here which looks at mentions of food items … things like “steak” or “sausage” go back to 1800, but the “winner” (currently peaking at over 8 mentions per million words) is “pizza”, despite not noticeably appearing in the data until the 1940s.

Rudder similarly goes into the OkCupid data to see how message length relates to getting responses (which, after all, is the point on a dating site), and then flips into looking at “social graphs” (he uses examples of his own, plus his with his wife's data combined). To get an idea of how these look, check out a post I did when LinkedIn was discontinuing its cool (but no doubt resource draining) “inMaps”, where I included a copy of my (final) LinkedIn map. These can be very predictive, working in part off of Milgram's famous “six degrees” experiments. The author cites studies which show how couples' relationship longevity can be quite accurately predicted by how these combined maps develop.

Obviously, one of the biggest “big dogs” on the data end of the Internet is Google:

Google has become a repository for humanity's collective id. It hears our confessions, our concerns, our secrets. It's doctor, priest, psychiatrist, confidante, and above all, Google doesn't have to ask us a thing, because the question is always implied in the blank space of the interface. … What a person searches for often gives you the person himself.
An amazing example of how this “works” is that researchers using the Google Trends tool have been able to “track epidemics of flu and dengue fever in real time”, which has developed into “Google Flu”, which follows searches for symptoms and remedies, and reports the trends to the CDC.

Going back to the OkCupid data, Rudder describes doing analysis on profile text … and brings up a remarkable mathematical entity called Zipf's Law:

{The} counterintuitive relationship between the popularity of a word (it's rank in a given vocabulary) and the number of times it appears is described by something called Zipf's law, an observed statistical property of language that, like so much of the best math, lies somewhere between miracle and coincidence. It states that in any large body of text, a word's popularity (its place in the lexicon, with 1 being the highest ranking) multiplied by the number of times it shows up, is the same for every word in the text. Or, very elegantly: rank x number = constant … This law holds for the Bible, the collected lyrics of '60s pop songs, and the canonical corpus of English literature … and it certainly holds for profile text.
He then presents a table with words ranked from 10 in various steps down to 29,055 out of James Joyce's Ulysses (to pick an example of “highly idiosyncratic” language) … the “constant” here does vary somewhat, but are pretty close to a common number. One of the things he is able to do with this is to make comparative charts of how frequently words appear in different groups' profiles. The example he starts with is comparing the word rankings of “white men” with “everybody else”, with the first few words being “the”, “pizza”, and (the band) “Phish”. There's a diagonal which is the “common” line, and, not surprisingly, “the” and “pizza” are both on that line, and way up in the top/top corner. However, “Phish” is about 80% up on the “white men” side, and only about 30% over towards the “everybody else” side. He then adds another dozen or so words, with things like “orange” and “rollercoaster” showing up on the diagonal, and “snowmobiling” at about 0% for “everybody else” and around 60% for white men (on the other hand “Kpop” - Korean Pop, ends up at about 0% for white guys). He then starts breaking these down into various racial groups, with both men and women, and finds rather surprising stuff … “{These lists} are our shibboleths. As such they are something no one could generate a priori, by typing things into Google Trends or by searching millions of hashtags. Sometimes, it takes a blind algorithm to really see the data.”

One final amazing thing he holds for last here … it's called “Parsons code” and it's the engine that enables the Shazam app to recognize music from very small samples … “... almost any piece of music can be identified by the up/down pattern in the melody – you can ignore everything else: key, rhythm, lyrics, arrangement … To know the song, you just need a map of the notes' rise and fall. This melodic contour is called the song's Parsons code, named for the musicologist who developed it in the 1970s.” this is a string of letters, U for melody up, D for melody down, and R for repeated note … he charts out “Happy Birthday” and “Yesterday” for examples. His closing paragraph is:

Like an app straining for a song, data science is about finding patterns. Time after time I – and many other people doing work like me – have had to devise methods, structures, even shortcuts to find the signal amidst the noise. We're all looking for our own Parsons code. Something so simple and yet so powerful is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, but luckily there are a lot of lifetimes out there.
Again, Dataclysm was a delight, full of “I did not know that!” moments, entertaining stories, and some sobering realities. The paperback is just coming out in a few days, and right now the big boys have it for pre-order at a 45% discount (and this is evidently popular enough that used copies of the hardcover edition are still more expensive than the discounted rate on the new paperback). If you're a “web denizen” like me, or a math geek, or somebody interested in digging behind the surface of social realities, you will really enjoy this book. Highly recommended!

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Sunday, September 6th, 2015
11:16 am
"How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore ..."
I, frankly, don't recall how J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún got into my to-be-read piles, as it has been floating around there for a very long time. I suspect that this was a dollar store find (although it's missing the marker swipe that most of those feature to signify a cut-out, as well as the register receipt that I'd typically stick in the back pages), but I can't imagine that I ordered it on-line (it's a bit obscure in relation to most of my reading), unless it was in one of those infrequent binges I have with a B&N clearance (which do tend to spark some “oh, heck, that looks interesting” pig-in-a-poke acquisitions). Anyway, this has been trying to insert itself into my reading stream for at least a couple of years, and managed to find both a slot where I was in a Monty Python-esque “and now for something Completely Different ...” mood, and looking for a “quick read” (which this promised to be with over half of it just being short lines of verse).

This is, of course, hardly the first Tolkien in my collection … being of the age where everybody I knew read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in grade school. I wasn't, however, notably aware that the author's “day job” was as a philologist, who had a long career as a professor (in Anglo-Saxon and English Literature) at Oxford University.

I felt, in reading this, that the book should have been co-credited to his son, Christopher Tolkien (who has been executor of his father's literary estate), as an author rather than as simply being tagged as having edited the book, as there is probably a higher word-count of his explanatory copy than the actual translation/retelling of the texts by his father. He gives an on-going commentary both on his father's interaction with the material, and how it was pretty much rescued from obscurity to create the present book. This is a key part of that:

      My father's erudition was by no means confined to “Anglo-Saxon”, but extended to an expert knowledge of the poems of the Elder Edda and the Old Norse language (a term that in general use is largely equivalent to Old Icelandic, since by far the greater part of Norse literature that survives is written in Icelandic). In fact, for many years after he became the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925 he was professor of Old Norse, though no such title existed; he gave lectures and classes on Norse language and literature in every year from 1926 until at least 1939. But despite his accomplishment in this field, which was recognized in Iceland, he never wrote anything specifically on a Norse subject for publication – except perhaps the “New Lays”, and for this, so far as I know, there is no evidence one way or the other, unless the existence of an amanuensis typescript, of unknown date and without other interest, suggests it. But there survive many pages of notes and draftings for his lectures, although these were for the most part written very rapidly and often on the brink of illegibility or beyond.
The specific material in the book are poems “treating of the Völsung and Niflung (or Nibelung) legend, using modern English fitted to the Old Norse meter”, which, until this (2009) publication, had never been released or quoted previously. The titles are Völsungakvida en nyja – “The New Lay of the Völsungs, and Gudrunarkvida en nyja – “The New Lay of Gudrun” (these are approximate here, my lacking an appropriate font for several Icelandic characters). The general theme of the story is vaguely familiar, being closely related to the the narrative that runs across the four long operas of Wagner's “Ring Cycle”, although the younger Tolkien notes that the German composer had taken substantial liberties in crafting his stories, and was working from Germanic versions of the source material, which appears to have varied a good deal from the Norse. The editor further notes:

To a large extent the spirit of these poems which has been regarded as (a branch of) the common “Germanic spirit” – in which there is some truth: Brythwold at Maldon would do well enough in Edda or Saga – is really the spirit of a special time. It might be called Godlessness – reliance upon self and upon indomitable will. Not without significance is the epithet applied to actual characters living at this moment in history – the epithet godlauss, with the explanation that their creed was at trua a matt sin ok megin [“to trust in one's own might and main”].
The younger Tolkien also gets into some discussions of how the various language groups, Old Norse, Old Germanic, Old English, and assorted related forms, had noted similarities, which could be traced especially through cases where essentially the same stories (or elements of common stories) were preserved in varied linguistic contexts. In the case of the Norse materials, preservation is a major issue … as Christian influence was spreading and, by about 1,000 CE, the presence of either writers/orators or hearers with enough knowledge of the myths and the language was nearly at zero, although:

… poetry became a profitable export industry of Iceland for a while; and in Iceland alone was anything ever collected or written down. But the old knowledge swiftly decayed. The fragments, much disjointed, were again collected – but in an antiquarian and philological revival of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Perhaps it would be more true to say, not antiquarian revival, but kindly burial.
Not only did the Norse material suffer from cultural shifts, two substantial fires, one in 1728 in Copenhagen, and another in London in 1731, ended up destroying much of what had been collected, and leaving gaps in what survived. The poems that Tolkien is working from here were a later “compilation” of surviving materials, in a form that it suffers from … the editor again comments:

This author was faced with wholly divergent traditions (seen in the preserved Eddaic lays) concerning Sigurdand Brynhild: stories that cannot be combined, for they are essentially contradictory. Yet he combined them; and in doing so produced a narrative that is certainly mysterious, but (in its central point) unsatisfying: as it were a puzzle that is presented as completed but in which the looked for design is incomprehensible and at odds with itself.
This point is largely why I've gotten over 1,000 words into this review without getting to any “content” per se. There were elements that I found fascinating … such as the character of Atli, or Attila (“the Hun”), and the Niflungs/Nibelung (somehow the same as “Burgundian” in modern English), in conflict with him, plus the Goths (in the pre-Bella Lugosi's Dead sense of the term) in the mix as well – all this happening somewhere around 436 C.E. (although one must wonder how historical the theft of the dragon's fortune – at the core of the story – is). Another very interesting thread here is how hard it is to be a favorite of Odin … Odin's favorites are the baddest-assed of all the bad-assed Norse warriors … and if he likes you, he's going to conspire to make sure you're going to die so you can be collected by the Valkyries to come be one of his warriors at Valhalla … needless to say, being “favored” this way is less than popular among most of the mortal warriors involved.

Anyway, I tagged a few bits in the poem to give a sense of how Tolkien's re-telling (in modern English, but following the Old Norse poetic format) reads. This first one is from “The Lay of Gudrun”:

At the dark doorways
they dinned and hammered;
there was a clang of swords
and crash of axes.
The smiths of battle
smote the anvils;
sparked and splintered
spears and helmets.

In they hacked them,
out they hurled them,
bears assailing,
boars defending.
Stones and stairways
streamed and darkened;
day came dimly –
the doors were held.

Five days they fought
few and dauntless;
the doors were riven,
dashed asunder.
They barred them with bodies,
bulwarks piling
of Huns and Niflungs
hewn and cloven.
One of the things that made reading this somewhat challenging was that the poetic parts were commented on after the end of the whole poem … and without markings in the poem itself to indicate where there were notes … so one had to be “reading in parallel” the notes (which referred back to specific stanzas, or groups of stanzas) and the poem to see what was being given clarification. This set of stanzas is part of a section that is noted to be “totally independent of the Norse sources”, and appears to be related to Old English poetic fragments The Fight at Finnsburg and Finn and Hengst, which goes to illustrate how fragmented the materials had become and how randomly re-assembled those bits and pieces survived.

This next bit is from “The Lay of the Völsungs – part V – Regin”, which gets into he familiar Nibelung tale of the killing of the dragon Fáfnir (here referred to as “Hreidmar's son”) … the notes for this section (which are found nearly 100 pages further on in the book!) indicate that the source material from these verses was also “patched in”, derived “from a prose passage in Fáfnismál, closely similar to that in the Saga”.

Round turned Sigurd,
and Regin saw he
in the hearth crawling
with hate gleaming.
Black spilled the blood
as blade clove him
the head hewing
of Hreidmar's son.

Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
seeking wisdom.
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.

Gold piled on gold
there glittering paley:
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.

Great and grievous
was Grani's burden,
yet lightly leaped he
down the long mountain.
Ride now! ride now
road and woodland,
horse and hero,
hope of Ódin!
While the story is disjointed and somewhat hard to follow, and some of the issues in the commentary are obscure elements of history and linguistics, the over-all sense of reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is of being treated to a culturally significant document which has been (to various degrees of success), wrested from the grip of oblivion. Not only (as touched on above – and more extensively in the book) did the ancient sources nearly disappear, the material by the elder Tolkien seems to have never been organized for publication by him, but was “rescued” by his son from lecture notes, letters to colleagues, and annotations of related survivals. While not being a “pristine” fifth-century literary document, this at least lets us hear the echoes (albeit in modernly readable English) of a long disappeared world.

This is still in print six years on (I'm guessing it might be in use as a text book, although its cover price is not in those inflated zones), so you might be able to find/order a copy through your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it presently at a 37% discount, but there are “new” copies in the new/used sellers' offers that would bring the total (although there are no super-cheap listings – making me again assume it's in the textbook channel) to less than half of that figure, even with the shipping.

Obviously, this is not a “for everybody” book, as it does require a certain level of focus to get the sense of it. However, if you were an English major, or are a fan of Norse/Germanic mythology, you might find this of interest.

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Saturday, September 5th, 2015
3:57 pm
"Change" as an euphemism ...
As a long-time Chicago resident, not much in this book surprises me … I can well remember when groups like ACORN (for which the current POTUS was an “attack lawyer”) were threatening area banks with bringing “redlining” (Community Reinvestment Act) suits against them (which would have frozen their ability to do basic business functions like opening new branches, etc.) unless they agreed to meet quotas of what were, to any sane observer, “suicidal” loans – providing money to borrowers who, by any but the most delusional gauges, were simply NOT going to be paying them back. People (and certainly the Leftist MSM) are all too happy to put the blame of the financial collapse of '07-'09 on the banks, but it was blatantly socialist/communist organizations that forced the “poison” into the system. This book is largely about how similar plans have been enacted by the current POTUS and his allies.

As those of you who have been reading my reviews over the years will no doubt have noticed that I have been reading/reviewing a lot fewer political books than I used to. This is two-fold, on one hand, psychologically, I have been trying to not be the screaming rage beast (a few gamma rays short of the Hulk) that contemplating what has been happening to America leads me to, and, secondly, trying very hard to pretend that if I don't accept that the current disastrous administration exists it will go away and I will awake to a Goldwater-esque happy land. To this later point, unless absolutely necessary (as in typing out this book's subtitle), I refuse to utter or write the name of the current POTUS … even contemplating it makes me want to launch into a major rant!

Anyway, this is yet another of those dollar store finds … albeit one that was hard to pick up (having a picture of That Person on its cover). This is by Stanley Kurtz (who had published a previous book on the current POTUS called Radical-In-Chief, and was one of many voices warning America about re-electing That Person, this time specifically looking at a bunch of organizations and strategies in play in the current administration … Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities. Now, I am a life-long “city boy” and have nothing nice to say about suburbia, so one might think that “robbing the suburbs to pay for the cities” might be something that I'd gladly endorse … but the picture that Kurtz paints here is of a form of Leftism that I'd not heard of previously … that of “regionalism”, which goes back to the current POTUS's political roots. It is amazing just how radical many of the top-level appointments in this administration are … on a par (on the other side) of making somebody like a (KKK icon) David Duke the top figure on a cabinet-level post! Seriously, if this was a “mirror image” administration on the far-right, you'd be hard put to even find names of figures who were as radically right-wing as the circle of hard-Left ideologues around the current POTUS. How could this happen? Well, the movements leading up to this have been studiously working under the radar for generations, and the existing MSM wouldn't say “boo” about a Leftist plot until they themselves were being sent to the wall (and, hell, some of them would no doubt still be making up excuses for the regime as the blindfolds were being tied on). While the book itself is focused on a handful of radical scams that the administration and its allies have been running, the most interesting parts are on how this band of anti-American monsters got into a position where they could enact their far-left schemes.

      The problem with this conservative debate over the political significance of Obama's radical Alinskyite past is that it completely ignores his radical Alinskyite present. The truly important political critique of President Obama is that right now, this very day, he is using his long-standing Alinskyite alliances and convictions to guide administration policy while keeping his radical goals from the public. The president's political history is an invaluable resource for making sense of these poorly known policies and future plans, of course, but the real problem exists today and tomorrow, not in the past.

      Yet it's just here that the radicalism of Obama's hidden regionalist agenda proves itself. It isn't just that Obama keeps his anti-suburban plans below the public radar because they confirm virtually everything his conservative critics have ever claimed about him. The deeper problem is that were the full truth about Obama's regionalist agenda to come out, it would split his electoral coalition. Obama's regionalist plans are nothing less than a direct attack on large sections of his own middle-class supporters. It's true that over the very long term Obama and his Alinskyite allies in Building One America hope to reshape American attitudes, thereby creating a new and dominant redistributionist coalition of the left. In the short term, however, were Obama's plans to be revealed, they would show him to be substantially to the left of even his own party's center of gravity.
      The history of Kruglik's {Building One America's Executive Director Michael Kruglik} long campaign for regionalism, extending back to his years with the Gamaliel Foundation, confirms this. Time after time, even after showing an initial receptiveness to his plans, Kruglik's mainstream liberal allies learned what Gamaliel's real agenda was, then ran screaming the other way. The same would happen to Obama were the full truth about his own radical regionalist goals to emerge too soon.
This book is a gem for how it traces back the influences to their roots. Over the years that the current POTUS has been “in the news”, the name Saul Alinsky has come up frequently, but rarely with much detail … here he and his groups and sub-groups are detailed. It was a shock to read:

Alinsky once bragged that the Communist Party saw his first community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, as the ideal united front. By “united front” or “popular front”, the Communists meant groups that they quietly controlled, even if the membership included many non-Communists.
… as I had worked with the now-called Back of the Yards Community Council in recent years on a project that I was a consultant on! On their web page they do mention Alinksy, but only as “a colorful, professional organizer”.

In a section titled “Without Consent of the Governed”, the book looks at another current figure, David Rusk, whose writings have been the inspiration (or map) for the current administration's HUD “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” program.

      In 2003, a decade after publishing his bold case for doing away with suburbs, Rusk offered a thought about regionalist political strategy: “The policy debate must be framed not as a choice between conservative and liberal philosophies, but as a choice between policies that work and policies that do not work.
      The swallowing up of suburbs by cities or by newly established regional governments (which amounts to the same thing) would signal a profound rejection of America's most cherished traditions of self-government. If there was ever a stark choice between liberal and conservative philosophies – American and European approaches – this is it. Yet adopting the rhetorical strategy favored by Obama himself, Rusk would portray this revolutionary shift of ideals as a merely pragmatic decision. Rusk's claims about what works and what doesn't when it comes to urban policy are questionable, to say the least. His policy answers stem not from pragmatic calculations but from his own redistributionist values.

      Rusk certainly doesn't come off as a fan of freedom and democracy. He thirsts for redistribution by fiat: “Poorer communities have no way of tapping the wealth or richer communities without the intervention of a higher level of government.” Rusk is out to annex your suburb and pick your pocket. If annoying principles like individual liberty, voluntary association, and self-government stand in the way, that's just too bad. The contradiction between hard-left redistributionism and traditional American freedoms could hardly be drawn more sharply.
What is possibly the most shocking about the present administration's plans are that they involve government control over who can move where … with quotas for race and income dictating whether you could buy (or even rent) that dream house across town, across the state, or even across the country … if you did not meet the HUD guidelines, you'd be out of luck. Welcome to Soviet-style government (and better keep that picture of the Glorious Leader clean and prominently displayed).

Again, this book is a gold mine of information on the organizations and individuals in the inner circle of the current POTUS (he studied with many of these vermin, and “apprenticed” as a community organizer with others) … here's a bit that names some more names:

      Of course you don't have to be a socialist to favor the regionalist agenda. On the other hand, it helps. From Dreier's {top ACORN supporter Peter Dreier} perspective, regionalist redistribution would appear to be a pragmatic way to advance socialism in the here and now. Dreier of course is an enthusiastic advocate of Myron Orfield's redistributive regional tax base sharing scheme, which the Obama administration's alliance with Building One America is designed to promote.
Dreier sees stealth as fundamental to enacting the regionalist agenda, chiefly because our majority-suburban country would reject a city-centric redistributionist agenda were it presented openly. Dreier praises regionalist programs that proceed “below the political radar screen.” He also favors deploying regionalist arguments focused not only on “equity” but on “efficiency and the environment” although redistribution would appear to be his overwhelming concern. … Dreier suggests that redistributionist measures ought to be “unobtrusive, and just one part of a larger package”.
Speaking of “larger packages” … the book also takes a deep look into the “Stimulus”, the “Affordable Care Act”, and “Common Core” … each of which is packed with ultra-left initiatives that would never survive being subjected to public scrutiny. Like the ACA (which the execrable Nancy Pelosi famously said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy ”) these are deliberately huge programs, which make it easy for the Alinskyites to hide the reality of what they're looking to inflict on the country – without the light of debate (or consent of the governed).

Also covered in a good bit of detail is the personal history of the current POTUS, with his various stops around the globe in the hands of assorted socialists, communists, and black-power advocates. Special attention is given to his years of being radicalized at the feet of Frank Marshall Davis, who primed him for immersion in Alinsky's home turf of Chicago. The extent that the current POTUS is intimately linked with the most anti-American ultra-left radicals is shocking … and it's a crime that people don't know about this (the MSM, having long ago turned into a cheering section for all things Lefty, wont say a single “discouraging word” about That Person).

Like many of the books that throw a harsh light on the machinations of the Left, I really, really wish that all-and-sundry would read Spreading the Wealth … it names the names, and connects the dots into a damning condemnation of the scam that's been perpetrated on our country. The biggest caveat I can present is that nobody will read this with their blood pressure in control. If you're a fan of freedom and traditional American values, this is like reading a police report about your sister being raped … if you're hoping for a “progressive” over-throw of everything that has defined the USA, you'll be mad that your Glorious Leader is being manhandled with the truth … in either case it's going to upset you. Parts of this are a bit dated, as the initial publication was up front of the last election, and there's a lot of framing the material here as “a warning” about what was to come were the current administration to get a second term – but that's easy enough to overlook (especially as blatant as the POTUS and his cabal have been in ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law since they got another four years in power). As I noted, I got a hardcover copy of this at the dollar store, and there may be more out there … but it's filtered down to the new/used channels for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) for a “very good” copy (it only seems to be “in print” at this point as a Kindle/Nook edition). Get a copy … the more people know about the machinations of the current POTUS the better prepared the country will be to fight back.

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Friday, September 4th, 2015
2:26 pm
So, that's how you get to be all those things ...
I've been following Wayne Allyn Root on social media for quite a while … I'm not sure if he was particularly on my radar prior to his run for the Libertarian Party's candidacy for President (and eventual role as the V.P. Candidate), but I've certainly been paying attention since 2008. While my main point of intersection with Mr. Root has been in the realm of Libertarian political thought, he has a bunch of “irons in” various “fires” … much of which is extensively detailed in his new book The Power of Relentless: 7 Secrets to Achieving Mega-Success, Financial Freedom, and the Life of Your Dreams (a review copy of which I got via a direct request to his publisher, the good folks at Regnery). While the thrust of the book is his “relentless” life approach, this also serves as something of an auto-biography, as he illustrates the various phases (the “7 Secrets” of the subtitle) with examples out of his life – be that surviving his school years as a scrawny kid in a bad neighborhood, or wooing his former Miss Oklahoma wife (who he claims had been a “lead singer” with Emerson, Lake & Palmer – a data point I, frankly, could find zero support for). Oddly, the auto-biographical material reminded me of G. Gordon Liddy's Will, a favorite from my youth.

I doubt that anybody has ever accused Root of being a shrinking violet or overly modest … and some of what he claims here is easily in the “a bit hard to take” file, from claiming that “This book completes Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, and The Secret.” {!}, to his further elaboration: “What you are about to read is like the perfect marriage of Mike Tyson, Mother Teresa and Napoleon Hill!”. If I wasn't a long-time fan (and familiar with his rather boisterous personality), I might have not gotten past that part of the Introduction … so be forewarned that one really needs to approach this with a supply of salt to dole out “pinch” by pinch as one works through this, as one soon comes to assume that there is a level of elaboration in most of his stories equivalent to what appears that he's added to his wife's biography!

The book is pretty much in two parts – the 7 “Principles of Relentless”: Heart, Chutzpah, Ambition and Goal Setting, Preparation, Branding, Storytelling, and Aggressive Action, each getting a chapter, plus a “bonus” add-on of “Energy, Contagious Enthusiasm, and Never-Ending Optimism” – and a list of what Root calls “Positive Addictions”, of which there are 12: Early Mornings, Home and Family, Mindfulness, “Prayer, Gratitude, and Forgiveness”, Affirmation and Visualization, Physical Fitness, Healthy Diet, Vitamins and Nutrition, Charity, Inspiration and Empowerment, Smiling and Saying Yes, and Motion. Needless to say, you can get the general arc of the book in this, with each element being more-or-less fleshed out by biographical stories.

He starts out with “Heart”, which is primarily a story about how his ailing mother, on the east coast, had slipped into an essentially brain-dead state, and the doctors were telling him not to bother flying out, but his sister told him to come immediately … his mom maintained a heart beat long enough for Wayne to get there from the west coast and say his goodbyes, as which point she flatlined. He has a rather worthwhile paragraph about “heart” here, but it's long and I'll leave it for you to check out.

The second “Principle” is the Yiddish term Chutzpah, which Root translates as “audacity” (I believe there is a subtle jab at one of his fellow Columbia poli-sci classmates in that word choice). He says that he's “a blue collar son of a butcher from a dead end street on the Bronx borderline” with no special talents, but with “relentless chutzpah”, which he claims to come by naturally. He raises an interesting point, that I'd not been aware of regarding the Chinese …

      I am very proud of my Jewish heritage. I am also bursting with pride for the people of Israel. But the question for you is: Can anyone learn RELENTLESS CHUTZPAH?
      The answer is a resounding YES. The Chinese are obsessed with learning how to succeed and obtain wealth. Over one third of the books sold in China are about financial success. And a large portion of those books are about Jewish success.
He then list several bestsellers in China that deal with “the traits that have made the Jews so remarkably successful”. I find it ironic that Root is “proud” about his Jewish heritage (and spends a couple of pages highlighting “remarkable facts” about Israel), but evidently converted to being a born-again Christian (no doubt for his wife's benefit, as he mentions that about her when describing their first encounter), although to his credit, he's not “preachy” about that stuff here. He goes on to present “The Nine Rules of Relentless Chutzpah”, unfortunately, these are more discursive than bullet-points, so I'll just note that they range from “stop complaining” to “be fearless” and “take risks”. Root holds that getting told “NO” is “merely the start of a negotiation”!

The third principle is “Ambition”, and he's certainly a font of that. Early on in his career he wanted to be the next “Jimmy the Greek”, and held onto that for a couple of decades, until there he was, co-hosting a show with his idol. However, the main illustrative story here is about his daughter Dakota, who was home-schooled but made it into Harvard (after turning down an early-admission offer from Yale) and Oxford. He introduces a 12-step process for goal setting, here, which has a lot of “standard” stuff on it (a “vision board”, “write your own obituary”, etc.), but has some rather unique elements as well, such as #6 – Keep a “Black Box” … this is basically a journal that he puts in his “mistakes, frustrations, rejections, failures, defeats” on a weekly basis … allowing him to review what didn't work and learn from it. Another good one is something of an extended “to-do” list, #7 – Make a Daily “Hit List” … a charting of specific actions that you need to take, crossing off the ones you complete, rolling into the next day (ala the line from a recent movie: “I always close my contracts!”) the ones you don't.

In the fourth principle, “Preparation”, Root details what he calls “The Relentless Triad”, which is a scheduling regimen that he uses to start his day. This involves getting up early, and devoting a half-hour each to mental, physical, and financial tasks … a half hour of reading, a half hour of exercise, and a half hour of career-centric activity (such as adding names to contact to the aforementioned “hit list”) - but he only uses that time “for creating new ideas, opportunities, clients or careers”, rather than dealing with any current work. He notes that if you are able to average 4 new actions/contacts per day (six days a week), that's 24 per week, 96 per month, 1,152 per year … and probably represents activities that are not being done by your competition. Root says that working from home allows him to devote an hour to each of those functions (from 6:00am to 9:00am) … plus he recommends to schedule a 15-minute time for review of the day every evening. Yes, it sounds awfully driven, but that's where the “Relentless” thing comes in.

The fifth principle is “Branding”, and the main story he goes into here was taking his wife's 92 year-old grandfather up on a request – he wanted Wayne to “make him famous” before he died. Root pulled out all his media savvy and “branded” a sky-diving adventure he was taking “Grandpa Norm” on as Throw Grandpa from the Plane … the press ate it up, they got on a bunch of shows, and Norm got to meet a number of his favorite actresses in a whirlwind media junket. This chapter also talks about sports stars such as Floyd Mayweather, Joe Namath, and others examples such as Ralph Lifshitz (better known as Ralph Lauren), Matt Drudge (who runs his billion-dollar web site with just two employees), and even counter-examples such as the guy who was later lionized as “the father of legalized casino gambling” in Las Vegas, who shunned the limelight, and ended up dying penniless as a simple ranch hand. Root frames branding this way: “"Hooks" are how you stand out in a crowded field. The reality is that you are either a "talented hooker" or you're just screwing yourself! … Your name, "hook", or brand is what people remember and pay for.”

“Storytelling” is Root's sixth principle, and by storytelling, he means “video”. Personally, I hate that message, because I can “get the sense of” an on-line text article in 5-10 seconds of scanning, but when you hit a video (or audio, for that matter) posting, you're stuck with it until it either gets to the point or wastes a chunk of your day/life. However, I'm reminded of the famed Hunter S. Thompson quote: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me.” because, as much a I can't stand video, Root makes a pretty good case for using it in an extensive bit on “Ten Miracles Brought to You by Relentless Video”, where he shows how he used video at various points in his life, from getting into Columbia, to getting his grandfather on national TV shows. He also swings into the political realm for a few pages, discussing how the current POTUS has used video to push his disastrous agenda on the country.

The final, numbered, Principle here is “Aggressive Action”, which starts off with a rather choice bit:

      The greatest lie ever told is “Opportunity only knocks once.” The truth is, opportunity doesn't knock at all. You have to search for it like a heat-seeking missile, attack it, knock it over the head with a club, seize it, and drag it home like a caveman!
      The real world is brutal. Opportunity is not sitting around waiting for you. It's not knocking. You have to create and seize opportunity by taking aggressive action. Nothing good comes from sitting still, waiting, or procrastinating. Good things only come from action and motivation.
Here Root discusses several individuals who took relentless action – from a family friend who was looking for a husband, to a New York realtor who was able to not only maintain her business, but build it, when deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan as a Navy specialist. His “personal story” here is how he met his wife at a Grammy party at a nightclub in L.A. - she had a hard-and-fast rule to not date anybody she met in a nightclub, but Root was “relentless”, and kept pushing, eventually the gal called up her best friend in New York, asking if she should break this rule … her friend asked the name, and miraculously it turns out that she was Wayne's cousin (making him “like family”) … but his now-wife would never have made that phone call if he'd not been in “aggressive action” (which he notes is like advertisers having to consistently make impressions to keep their products in people's awareness) mode.

In the “bonus principle” chapter, the most notable thing is the “Always Say "Yes"” section:

... I try to say “YES” to everyone, not just the media. If you say “NO”, nothing good can happen. Good comes from the word “YES.” Opportunity, wealth, or fame can never come from a deal you didn't do. “YES” doesn't guarantee success, but it does make it possible that magic can happen. There is always hope this time will be the home run. With “YES” there is possibility. With “NO” there is zero possibility.
      You just never know which deal you turn down was fated to be “the one” that would have changed your life, that would have made your dreams come true. So, I try to say “YES” to everyone.
Obviously, this goes against a recent trend (especially of those of us who spend most of our lives on the web) of trying to say “no” more … because it's impossible to sit through every webinar, read every blog, check out every video … but it's part of Root's philosophy. How accurate a part, I have some personal questions about … having tried to get answers from him on a couple of questions I had about an early part of the book, which not only went unanswered, but totally unacknowledged … hardly a “YES” move there.

Anyway, The Power of Relentless was just released a couple of weeks back, so it should be out prominently in the bigger brick-and-mortar book vendors in your area. However, at the moment, the on-line big boys have the hardcover at a whopping 45% off of cover price, which is quite a deal. While I had “issues” with parts of this, I really enjoyed reading it, and while I am (just being who I am) highly unlikely to implement the whole program Root presents, there are certainly bits and pieces that I'm going to be grabbing for my own purposes. While this is very much Wayne “tooting his own horn”, with some parts of it being “bigger than real”, it's a fascinating look at how a wildly successful guy sees as the path involved to getting him to that level of achievement – which he's set out in a system that you might very well be able to follow.

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Thursday, September 3rd, 2015
12:42 pm
No, that's not a Harry Potter character ...
This is yet another book that came my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. I was hardly surprised that I got matched to this having a bunch of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc., in my library, but I was quite surprised when I got into it.

It is generally considered “bad form” to use the ARC (advance review copy) as a measure of the book as far as basic editing goes … but this was a bit of a doozy on that level – to the extent that I wrote to the contact on the promotional materials that came out with the ARC to ask if she could please reassure me that this was going to have a substantial editorial work-over done to it before the actual book hit the shelves. She noted that the not inconsequential delay in publication was due, in large part, to the publisher (Humanist Press) wanting to address those issues. So, I am not going to be detailing any of the typographical, editorial, or lay-out issues that were screaming off of the pages in the ARC (especially since she told me that the editorial team was seriously considering implementing one major lay-out change that I'd suggested – see, that decade of running my own publishing house is good for something).

However, this book has been an “outlier” on a lot of levels … when I first got it from LTER there was virtually NO trace of it online … not only was it not on Amazon, it wasn't even on the publisher's site (the latter has at least been rectified) … with the only thing I could dig up at the time being a Google Books entry. This blew my mind, as getting books out to the Amazon (etc.) pipeline is pretty much a “first task” these days … and with its nominal release date being under two months away, it's still not out there! Amazing.

Anyway, Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers Are Making the World Safer, Richer and Kinder by David Orenstein, Ph.D. & Linda Ford Blaikie, LC.S.W. Is also an odd duck for the atheist reader … one of my main “take aways” with this was the question “Who is this book for?”, as it is hardly in the realm of the above name-checked authors, nor is it a particularly “evangelical” voice for the movement. Frankly, the main subjects of this book reminded me nothing so much as what Michael Ironside's character in the original “V” series (back in the mid-80s – dating myself) called Marc Singer's character – “Gooder”, as in “do-gooder” – a telling jab by a black-ops specialist (whose one quote on the character's IMDB page is the rather awesome “Faith is for nuns and amateurs.”!) to a TV producer of bleeding-heart features (the two of them just happening to find themselves on the same side of an alien invasion). If Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are Ironside's character, the people profiled here are in the model of Singer's character … and if you find social crusaders as irritating as I do, this is going to be a bit of an aggravating read – especially as most of those profiled here aren't just activists on Atheist issues, but are also agitators for a whole melange of popular leftist causes, from LGBTQ (yeah, try that under Sharia Law), to vegan diets.

Unfortunately, this means that the over-all thrust of the book appears to be to show that there are as many “do-gooders” among the Atheist ranks as there are in the “imaginary friend” ranks. One can only hope that the day will come when there are more folks out there like Dale McGowan (whose Parenting Beyond Belief I reviewed a number of years ago) representing the Atheist cause. His Foundation Beyond Belief is exactly the sort of organization that can be held up against the faith-based institutions (albeit funded at a tiny fraction of these larger groups), and serve as a model for more rational action.

About 1/3rd of Godless Grace consists of profiles of “activists” around the world, from deeply Moslem Bangladesh to largely secular Holland, with stops on every continent except Antarctica. Another 20% or so of the book is based on the results of a series of interviews done with “Former Clergy and Nonbelieving Student Activists”, which walks though a number of topics and projects. Here again, the book has an unfortunate enthusiasm for ex-Clergy, as though these were particularly valuable acquisitions for the cause … I suspect toasting the “de-frocked” smacks (for most folks) of being something off on the LaVey side of the “religious” mix – a neighborhood that most “rational humanists” would likely not want to find themselves sorted into.

There certainly is a good deal of interesting material here … once one dis-engages from the “gooder” elements … but it's somewhat randomly distributed, and requires a bit of cherry-picking. Lucky for you, I was sticking little bookmarks in this while going through it. Here's one thing that I found worth considering (which had a big blatant editorial “fail” smack in the middle of it, which I have corrected, although perhaps not in the form present in the eventually published version):

      In terms of potential atheist characteristics related to personality, 2013 saw new published research by sociologist Christopher F. Silver of The University of Tennessee. His research suggests that there is a spectrum of six fundamental personality groupings of those who claim to be nonbelievers.
  • Intellectual/Agnostics – who enjoy discussing their atheism;

  • Activist Atheists – the category of people profiled in this book;

  • Seeker-Agnostics – those who do not believe and do not challenge the faithful;

  • Anti-Theists – do not believe and do seek out and challenge the faithful;

  • Non-Theists – have no belief and do not think about believers much; and

  • Ritual Atheists – who do not believe but still participate in religious ritual on occasion and may even belong to a house of worship.
Of course, to me that hardly seems like a “spectrum”, or the Anti-Theists would be at the top of the list. Tellingly, there's another list in here, in a fascinating section titled “Non-God Belief in History – Some of the Major Players and Ideas”, which presents what the authors consider some of the leading lights in Atheism today … and I'm flabbergasted that they include Sarah Silverman, but don't have the always amazing Pat Condell there. Again, the bias for “gooders” and/or mainstream leftist activism is showing itself here.

This is not to say that the book is without hard-line “Anti-Theist” verbiage altogether, it just doesn't seem to come from the actual authors. Here's a choice bit from Sociology professor Dr. Phil Zuckerman's Foreword:

… Religious people project onto and see in secular people what is actually occurring in themselves: a lack of moral rectitude, a dearth or moral surety, an absence of a solid moral foundation. The fact is, religious morality is an extremely shaky thing: it all boils down to nothing more than obedience to an invisible, magic deity. That's it. Whatever this invisible, magic deity says concerning right or wrong or good or bad, one obeys, or suffers the consequences.
      An extremely shaky thing, indeed. And thus, I suspect that religious people, feeling insecure about their own frail construction of morality, turn around and – in order to alleviate their own insecurity – accuse nonbelievers of having no morals or no moral foundation. …
Another piece I found of interest was on the other end of the book, in the Afterword by the President of American Atheists, David Silverman (which I've selectively trimmed a bit for use here):

      Business, like politics and entertainment, is reflexive, not active. Business (unlike businesspeople) has no bigotry – it seeks money. In 1977, nobody though atheism had any money, because nobody thought atheists existed. Now, after the explosive growth of the movement … and the incredible increase in exposure we've received over the past few years, all that has changed, and we are being recognized as the influential and sizeable movement we are. For anyone wondering about the efficacy of our movement, you need only look at the change in the number of people who solicit our {he's largely referring to conventions here} business over the past few years …
… Nationwide, poll after poll shows that not only is atheism rising, it is rising faster than all religions, in all 50 states. Moreover, atheism as it is correlated to youth in most polls, shows that the younger you are, the more likely it is that you're an atheist. … And this means that the growth of atheism is being helped by both the increase of information, and time itself. …
Oh, and speaking of polls, there's a chapter in here on demographics, with some tables that indicate how Atheism ranks around the world … some of this is just what you'd expect (not much of it in Pakistan, for example), but some of it does come across as counter-intuitive. Also, there's an appendix which has nine pages of tables featuring info on organizations around the world, from things as mainstream as the ACLU to obscurities like the Trinidad-Tobago Humanist Association (sure, you were just looking for their contact info).

Assuming that Godless Grace is going to be getting the editorial attention it so desperately needs between now and its release date, it's not a horrible book … but it's not one that, say, big fans of Dawkins & Co. will find particularly engaging. If your tastes go towards “social activism” in general, you might find the slant of the material to your liking … if you're not in that camp, you will likely find this (or at least its main parts of profiles and interviews) a bit irritating.

As noted up top, this is currently ONLY available as a pre-order from the publisher … and I'll be back in here once it gets “released into the wild” to update those links so you can pick it up on Amazon.

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Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015
12:46 pm
The why behind those rose colored glasses ...
OK, so those of you who read my on-line blitherings with any regularity will realize that “optimism” is not one of my top mental states, so you can sort of imagine the scene at the dollar store when I found Tali Sharot's The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain provocatively staring at me from the always-enticing shelves of $1 books … did I want it? Would it be nauseatingly optimistic? What was it about? Fortunately, a flip through its pages reassured me that this was a study of psychological and brain states, and not some Pollyannaish polemic about positivism, so into the cart it went. And, oddly enough, rather that “aging” in my towering to-be-read piles for an extended period, the prospect of reading a “neuroscience” piece seemed particularly attractive soon after, so here we are.

One of the things that, perhaps, created a connection here was that the author did not set out to do research on positivity, in fact, this book began in about as negative place as one could imagine, looking at how traumatic events – in specific the 9/11 attacks – served to shape memories. She notes: “I was interested in how the brain tricks us into believing that our recollections of exceptionally emotional events … are as accurate as video-tape, even when we are utterly mistaken.”, with particular emphasis on what she describes as “flashbulb memories” (“because of their sharp-edged, picturelike qualities”), which are “unusually vivid” and “reluctant to fade away”.

Sharot points to research which suggests that “Optimism is prevalent in every age group, race, and socioeconomic status.”, which she then expands on:

      Many of us are not aware of our optimistic tendencies. In fact, the optimism bias is so powerful precisely because, like many other illusions, it is not fully accessible to conscious deliberation. Yet data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects for professional achievements; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; miscalculate their likely life span (sometimes by twenty years or more); expect to be healthier than the average person and more successful than their peers; hugely underestimate their likelihood of divorce, cancer, and unemployment; and are confident overall that their future lives will be better than those their parents put up with. This is known as the optimism bias – the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.
She starts off by looking at other “illusions of the human brain” … first describing another horrific air disaster, where an Egyptian crew was flying out of Sharm el-Sheik, headed to Cairo and on to Paris. In this crash, it appears that the pilot experienced “spacial disorientation”, or a type of vertigo where one is unable to detect the position of the aircraft in relation to the ground, resulting in trying to “correct” things which are not wrong, this then resulting in a “graveyard spin” (she notes this is also the likely cause of the private plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr.). Our sense of positioning is largely due to liquid-filled tubes in the inner ear, which “works extremely well when we are on the ground” but can be easily confused in powered flight. She moves from this to some visual illusions, both fairly familiar and not so much, and shows how the brain is frequently easily fooled. From here she moves to “introspective illusions”, where rather than truthfully reflecting inner mental processes, one inaccurately infers and constructs intentions of past mental states (in experiments where the subject chose one option, but was presented with a rejected option as being what they had chosen … 84% of subjects defended their “choice” even when it wasn't what they had actually picked). “The researchers dubbed the phenomenon choice blindness and the participants' disbelief that they could be fooled in this way was described as choice blindness blindness.” Optimism bias is a similar cognitive illusion, and not only are we blind to the illusory nature of it, we're blind to being blind to it.

A fascinating side-issue that is covered here is how the brain can re-arrange itself for knowledge … with examples given both of birds learning to hide food, and London cabbies learning “The Knowledge” (the vastly complicated mental map of the streets and locations that makes that profession as exclusive as it is). This is in support of the concept of “mental time travel”, which refers to “revisiting the past and imagining the future”. This leads up to the following:

      While the capacity for both awareness and prospection has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight also came at an enormous price – an understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits us. This knowledge – that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are around the corner – is less than optimistic. It causes a great amount of anguish and fear. … {it has been argued} that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with daily function, bringing the activities and cognitive functions needed for survival to a stop. Humans possess this awareness and yet we survive. How?
      The only way conscious mental time travel could have been selected for over the course of evolution is if it had emerged at the same time as false beliefs. In other words, an ability to imagine the future had to develop side by side with positive biases. The knowledge of death had to emerge at the same time as its irrational denial. A brain that could consciously voyage through time would be an evolutionary barrier unless it had an optimism bias.
She takes a chapter to look at “self-fulfilling prophecies”, from the way that famed horse “Clever Hans” read clues in his handlers to come up with correct answers, to how stereotypes can reinforce themselves by framing expectations that can, in specific situations, can be totally reversed by making shifts in context, to even how different people can have totally different results from negative experiences depending on the way they process those events. She also compares some rather odd things: “Like Barack Obama's speeches, Shirley Temple's films mirrored a difficult era while at the same time promising a better future.”, while asking if these sorts of things trigger oxytocin release in their audiences.

Sharot also goes into material on comparative crime rates and the (usually wildly incorrect) perceptions of these, and lifestyle elements which are generally assumed to be positive (such as being married and having children), which actually, when studied, aren't, to even how more money has a limit, and actual dollar amount is less important than relative income compared with one's neighbors and peers. One thing that was particularly interesting was the idea of “depressive realism”:

In depressed patients, the rACC {rostal anterior cingulate cortex} fails in regulating amygdala function adequately. As a result, while healthy people are biased towards a positive future, depressed individuals perceive possibilities a bit too clearly. While severely depressed patients are pessimistic, mildly depressed people are actually pretty good at predicting what may happen to them in the near future – a phenomenon known as depressive realism. If you ask mildly depressed individuals what they expect in the upcoming month, they will give you a pretty accurate account. If you ask them about their longevity or the likelihood of having a certain illness, they will give you correct estimations. Could it be that without an optimism bias, we would all be mildly depressed?
I suppose, having been “mildly depressed” for decades, this probably explains why I (and folks like me) think that most folks are idiots because they think things which are plainly headed for disaster have a chance to turn out OK! This sets up a base for a consideration of financial issues … the optimism bias could well be at the heart of American's dire savings rates … people see upward trends where there are none, and spend in anticipation of those trends … pair this with an unwillingness to consider age and illness, and even the super-wealthy (she uses Michael Jackson as an example of this) end up in trouble.

A familiar concept is looked at from some different angles here, cognitive dissonance, and how decisions can be influenced … I marked the following as a particularly to-the-point example:

If you would like to increase your employees' commitment to your company, your students' commitment to their studies, your clients' appreciation of the service you are providing, remind them every so often of their freedom of choice. Remind them of their decision to work at this company, to study at their selected college, and to use the provided services. An airline I often fly with does just that.
She then insists that the “we know you have many options” announcement instantly convinces her that “since I chose this airline it must be better than the rest” (I guess some folks have less sensitivity to manipulation than I do!). The function here is that being presented with equally valid choices tends to make us uncomfortable, and anything that enables us to frame one choice as superior (or inferior) to the other enables a decrease in the doubt that we're making the right decision. Needless to say, there is a great deal of interest in the marketing world of how to manipulate these sorts of issues, and Sharot goes into a lot of the brain chemistry that plays assorted roles in these functions.

After making a choice, the decision ultimately changes our estimated pleasure, enhancing the expected pleasure from the selected option and decreasing the expected pleasure from the rejected option. If we were not inclined to update the value of our options rapidly so that they concur with our choices, we would likely second-guess ourselves to the point of insanity.
She then returns to issues around 9/11 for a while, looking at how memories formed – with both her own experiences on that day, and laboratory work on others' recollections. There's another section on how preferences form – in this case Lance Armstrong saying it was more important to be a cancer survivor than a Tour de France champion (disregarding, I assume, the realities of the doping penalties). Health issues come up here:

… If we underestimate health risks, our likelihood of seeking preventative health care and medical screening is reduced, and the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior is increased. … Underestimating risk can lead to an infinite number of medical issues that otherwise could have been prevented, costing our health system millions of dollars a year.
      Why would our brains be wired in a way that biases the process by which we learn about the world around us? Why would we develop a system that causes us to predict the future inaccurately? Could being irrationally optimistic have survival value?
Well, as anybody who has been exposed to new age materials over the past decade or so will tell you, it turns out that optimism can increase positive results, as the irrational expectations can still be “self-fulfilling”, so optimists heal faster than pessimists, live longer, etc. These benefits, interestingly, are primarily found with “moderate optimists”, leading the author to suggest “A certain underestimation of the hurdles in front of us allows us to jump forward with force.” … while “extreme optimism” just leads to bad results.

The Optimism Bias is a fascinating read, and hardly what I expected getting into it. The questions it raises in relation to human psychology are certainly of interest to anybody interested in how we function – be that in a marketing sense or a “Darwin Award” “hold my beer – watch this!” view of hominid behavior. This has been out for a number of years, and the hardcover (which I found at the dollar store) appears to be out of print, but there are e-book and paperback editions available. The on-line new/used guys have “good” copies of the hardcover for under a buck (plus shipping), which looks to be the best bet price-wise.

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Tuesday, September 1st, 2015
2:03 pm
How to freelance ... starting TODAY!
OK, so I'm a member of IWOC (Independent Writers of Chicago – kind of like Ewoks, but somewhat bigger and less furry), and have been pretty diligent in attending meetings. A month or so back, the presenter was one of our members talking about “Maximizing Your Freelance Income” … a subject dear to my heart wallet. Her presentation was fairly useful, and she (of course) was eventually pitching her book on the subject. Now, after my years of penning the looking-for-work blog over on Chicago Now, The Job Stalker, (and reviewing numerous books for that) I have a certain cynicism about “how to” books, having found that the vast majority of these (especially in the job search niche – which this comes close to as a “finding work” book) are typically useless, unless one is in a particularly small slice out of the Venn Diagram of the author's experience (with some examples being sufficiently idiosyncratic to be of use to an audience of one). So, to a large extent, I ordered Diana Schneidman's Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less “just to be polite”, without any great expectations that it would be a help.

Fortunately, I found this to be one of those rare and wondrous books written by somebody who “has been in the trenches” and is not interested in blowing smoke up one's nether regions. Not that I'm going to be a big cheerleader for this either, as Ms. Schneidman is advocating a lot of processes that I have a great deal of resistance to (which is why I have never aspired to being a freelancer, but have only ended up needing to be one due to the notable paucity of full-time gigs for somebody in my demographic niche) … but I can recognize solid advice when I read it, and this book is chock full of it (no doubt why it has a 4.8/5.0 star rating on Amazon).

And, while the book is structured on a very step-by-step arc (including stuff you want to do now and stuff that sounds like it might be important to do that can be basically put off until never), it's comfortably nestled into a continuing series of reminiscences from the author's own life … starting with one of her (three that she was raising on her own) kids asking her, when she was coming home with tear-reddened eyes and a boxful of desk items, “You've been fired again, right?” … a context that makes even the most resistance-producing instructions ring as true, and, perhaps, necessary. She notes right up front: “You don't need passion right now. You don't need the answer to every question and comfort for every self-doubt to get paying work. … Intelligent effort, applied consistently over time, will bring you success!” … and, as she further notes: “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

One of the things I liked most about how the book is set up is that there are these “to the point” sections at the end of each chapter which feature bullet points extracting the essence of the main action elements of each. They're not exactly the “Cliff's Notes” version that one could read through and pick up the basics of the book, but they function to “anchor” the main things you need to recall as you read through it.

Following the Introduction, she has a section called “Why Go Solopro?” (her term for the freelancer role here), with thirteen reasons … ranging from the basic: 1. Earn Money, to the somewhat esoteric: 11. Repair You Soul (which, frankly, spoke directly to me – in having been beaten down so much by job search frustration “that you exude, and therefore attract, negativity” and that the “small victories”, or, as she puts them “quick pats on the back” [noting “most people don't care enough to reject you!”] can build back up confidence and positivity). Also, as a “solopro”, you're not just a job seeker, you're a provider of services, and that's more positive as well.

In the first chapter she presents “three guiding ideas” for going solopro:
      – First, offer a service as similar as possible to what you did in your last good full-time job.
      – Second, contact the best prospects individually. And …
      – Third, get real! Let's define quickly as thirty days and not thirty minutes.
To this she adds what could be taken as “auto-suggestions” and their implementation:

      Your most important personal belief is that your work and your service are exceptional. You care deeply about your clients and do the best you can for them. You deserve top rates.
      Are these your beliefs? If not, make them true or get out of the business. Are you exceptional? Then believe you will succeed. And if you don't believe you are exceptional? Why not?
      If this is something you can fix, fix it immediately. Need more training? Sign up for it. Spend money on it if necessary. … Need more experience? Get it. It may be worth your while to work for free or at a low rate for a volunteer organization or smaller company. ...
The second step is “Determine Your Service and Your Niche” … with a hint to “Select a niche in which you can make a living.” … she gives the example that she at one point was writing résumés – this didn't conform to her further advice to “select one in which you feel comfortable charging an attractive fee for your work”, as she found herself constantly trimming her bills trying to be a “Girl Scout” (“if you don't have the guts to require payment for all the hours you work, you're a Girl Scout”) – and eventually had to focus on doing writing for the insurance and asset management industries.

The third step is “Take a Grown-Up Approach to Marketing” … this chapter runs through quite a lot of material and situations, but one key element is under the heading “Embrace what does not come naturally.”

      If phoning is the most effective means of finding buyers for your service, and I'm here to tell you it often is, then you pick up the phone.
      If you dread telephoning or any other direct interaction with prospects and clients, consider it is more efficient to push beyond your comfort zone than to constrict your marketing effort around your fears.
That last bit could just as well have been directly addressed to me … she even suggests the possibility of hiring a coach to help one start phoning. This takes us right into Step 4 - “Say "Hi" to Our Friend the Phone” … a chapter that is very dense with details, from sample scripts to pre-call checklists, to “philosophical” bits like:

      The authorities preach that knowing and liking mus precede trusting, but that hasn't been my experience as a freelancer. I've found it easy to skip directly to trust. And to me, establishing trust is the essence of what I'm doing when I call prospects.
One of the essential things here is “the list” … which she discusses various ways of developing. If you're going to make her recommended call volume you'll need a serious list, as she says “the secret” of getting solid, dependable, freelance work is to call large numbers of people … and, yeah, I was horrified when I saw the number she was thinking of … 1,000 … yep, a thousand names … did I mention “resistance”?

      You only need to make fifty calls a day. Then do that five work days a week for four weeks. At the end of four weeks you will have made 1,000 calls.

      What's it like in practice to make 1,000 calls in a single month? Well, I still don't know. Every time work has slowed down … I've resumed marketing and have filled my plate with assignments way before I have completed 1,000. …

… The 1,000 number is for those who are highly motivated to earn money quickly. Alternatively, it is for those who are desperate . (The two situations can be pretty similar in real life.) Either way, it is a course of intense action to obtain paying results soon. … But the more calls you make, the faster you get work.
Now, how can you tell how you're doing? (I really hate this part too.) In terms of people who are interested (not necessarily giving you assignments at this time), “5% is tremendous, 2% is excellent, and 1% is acceptable”. Schneidman makes the point that those 99-95% of essential “no” (or “null”, as most of the time you'll simply be ignored) responses are NOT rejections … of course, being the type of guy who wants to curl up in a ball under his desk after “no” number 3 (out of 1k???), that's hard for me to process.

Oh, and she recommends keeping a spreadsheet of your calls … this not only appeals to my OCD tendencies, but it removes that “am I being a nuisance?” thinking … if somebody tells you to not call again, you can make sure they're on your own personal “do not call” list.

Step 5 is “Price, Bill, and Collect for Success” … in which the author delves into how much to charge (by the hour, by the project, or by the “value”), how to determine hourly rates (this is one thing I've fallen down on before), gauging competition and market rates, etc. … and goes into pages and pages and pages on how to present, negotiate and stay firm on your fees. She also provides a sample invoice, and goes into detail on how to collect when the client isn't being financially forthcoming. She also insists that the first thing you do every morning is determine if you should be invoicing a client, and then getting that out to them (“Never postpone invoicing more than twenty-four hours from the event that triggers it.” – I've been bad on this one as well).

Step 6 is “Manage Yourself: Do the Work and Manage Your Time” … interestingly, this starts out in the “philosophy” sphere – with defining what you're doing – come up with an “I am” statement, “I am a writer”, or “I design”, or whatever your particular thing is. This is again one of those auto-suggestion kinds of approaches … it solidifies the reality as opposed to a a vague or future-looking phrase. The solopro has a challenge in time management, as there is doing the work and there is getting the work and only one of those is billable. She suggests that the second task (following getting the invoices out) is doing a top-priority task that one has determined (and written down) the previous evening.

Step 7 is quite a firehose of information … it is “Start Fast! Get Up and Running in One Day” and is just what it sounds like – a step-by-step walk through of getting your solopro business up and running NOW. This is structured as a 15-item checklist that gives you the broad strokes of each element, the time estimation she figures for that, and a list of “next steps” for these (obviously, not in the one-day estimate). She has a section up front on this called “Let me make many of your decisions.” which she does rather bluntly all through this (your logo will be blue, your font will be Verdana, she gives you a specific template for an email sig, etc.) … which no doubt aids in being able to get all 15 elements of starting your business done in a day! This chapter also has a plan for Day Two … which should include phone calls … but also sets up a few things that might take a bit more time (a portfolio, a website, etc.). Which then brings us to Step 8 (which I sort of alluded to up top), which is “Stand Still! Postpone These Marketing Techniques Until Later … or Until Never” and includes a list of 17 activities that she argues against. Some of these are practical (like don't email to info@ addresses – get the actual target email), some of them are … well, a bit odd (like “Don't attend networking meetings.” – when I've been attending at least two a week for years – but given my success rate for finding a job, she might have something there).

The book ends up with a couple of Appendixes, first a very brief one with sample prospecting email copy, and then one that's written by somebody else on the subject of becoming a Virtual Assistant. I found this latter inclusion, frankly bizarre, as it kind of veered off into a whole different area (I suppose it could be argued that being a V.A. Is sort of like being a type of freelancer, but still), and left me wondering what the author of that piece “had on” Ms. Schneidman to get it inserted in the book!

Anyway, as noted above, Real Skills, Real Income is quite a system for getting somebody up and running as a freelancer FAST … and nothing in it (except for the second Appendix) seemed off-kilter – even if frequently running counter to my own comfort zones. The cover price on this is pretty reasonable, and the on-line big boys have it at a bit of a discount. If you are considering going into the “solopro” channel, I'd definitely recommend you picking up a copy … great “been there, done that” words of wisdom here!

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Thursday, August 20th, 2015
6:57 pm
Some things are older than you may suspect ...
I have been aware of Robert M. Schoch for quite a while … he has been one of those “alternative timeline” researchers dealing with the extreme antiquities of Egypt, and the one with the most impeccable credentials of that group of theorists. Not that others in that niche don't have impressive C.V.s of their own, but it seems that only Schoch got into it via what he has an advanced degree in (Geology and Geophysics, which he also teaches as a tenured professor at a major university). If you're not familiar with this area, Schoch's main “claim to fame” arose from being invited to consult on a project studying the Sphinx at Giza … to give his opinion on what he felt the rock facings within the Sphinx enclosure indicated for the age of the sculpture, and, by extension, the whole Giza site. In his opinion, the type of weathering that is exhibited in these very old constructions could only have happened in a period when Egypt was subject to a great deal more rainfall than has been the case in the “canonical” timeline (which holds that the Sphinx was created in 2,500 BCE) and since … his estimates are that the enclosure could not have been carved out any more recently than 5,000 BCE, and might date to as early a time as 9,000 BCE.

As I sat down to review this, I was having a hard time recalling what specifically spurred me to order it … I still don't have a clear answer for that question, but I suspect this might have been referenced/plugged in Graham Hancock's Facebook feed (which I follow with great anticipation for the stuff he features). Anyway … something must have gotten the idea in my head that I needed to get a copy of Schoch's Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, although I'm not sure exactly why … as it's sort of in a “side issue” zone as far as my reading in the category has gone. It is fascinating, however, how this dovetails with other bits and pieces that I've read over the years.

The connecting theme in Forgotten Civilization is the concept (as noted in its sub-title) of “Solar Outbursts”, and how these may have deeply influenced civilization. Now, like Schoch's research on the Sphinx, there are several other threads of “heretical” material that points to there having been a global advanced civilization sometime about 12,000 years ago. From John Anthony West's theories of some of the older Egyptian ruins (such as the Osirion at Abydos) dating from that age, to various anachronistic sites in South America, India, and elsewhere, the “orthodoxy” simply scoffed and implied that all such theories were delusional at best. However, the recent discovery of the Göbekli Tepe site in Anatolia has changed the playing field, as Schoch notes: “Based on radiocarbon analyses, the site goes back to the period of 10,000 BCE to 9000 BCE and was intentionally buried circa 8000 BCE.” … meaning that we have solid evidence of an advanced culture (certainly in its sculpting) dating to the same 12,000 years ago time period that was supposedly what the priests of Sais had told Solon (according to Plato) was the fall of “Atlantis”. Suddenly, all these “Nah, couldn't be!” advanced cultural artifacts dating from c. 10,000 BCE are harder to just summarily reject (although the vast majority of “doctrinal” archeologists – Zahi Haiwass certainly among them – still do). Schoch takes one chapter here to dig into the “accepted” timeline – which posits mankind being barely out of the cave in 10,000 BCE – and shows how much of this derives from the work of Gordon Childe, who in 1950 published a list of “ten basic criteria” that he held to be indicative of civilization. Childe's model has been the accepted paradigm for the past half-century, but has (when presented with examples like the Natufian culture in the Levant c. 13,000 BCE or Göbekli Tepe, etc.) some serious holes in it.

The book is in three main parts (although not specifically divided that way), first a look at three archaeological contexts, that of the Sphinx, Göbekli Tepe, and Easter Island, then a middle section looking at various scientific pursuits, ice ages (specifically the “Younger Dryas”, a cooling period that happened about 11,000 BCE), sunspots and the lifecycle of the Sun, the Earth's magnetosphere, “cosmoclimatology”, and off into such cosmic obscurities as “galactic superwaves”, “gravity waves” (possibly triggering earthquakes), and even the possible effects of interstellar dust clouds … and then a third part where he's trying to link the theories he's worked up in the first parts to historical events and other “science stuff”, followed by a handful of appendixes which seem to address particular issues that he's had brought up related to things in the book.

I've already touched on elements of the Sphinx and Göbekli Tepe … both apparently date from ≅ 10,000 BCE, with the latter being intentionally buried (much like the Pyramid of Kulkulkan at Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City) a couple of thousand years after its construction. The Easter Island material, however, is somewhat central to the book. It seems that the “moai” (the large statues) were quarried from pits that are presently well under water off the coasts of the island, this, with the fact the many of the maoi are deeply sunk into the ground, would indicate a possible very early date for their sculpting. The answer to the “so what?” question on the Easter Island material is that there are engraved tablets in an undeciphered script called “rongorongo” that Schoch (or, I guess, his wife Katie came up with the idea) feels is very similar to petroglyphs that a Los Alamos plasma physicist, Anthony L. Peratt, felt were similar (or a recording of) certain plasma phenomena that would likely happen in a major solar storm.

Powerful plasma discharges, much more powerful than the auroras observed in the present day, form structures known as plasma columns that can expand in some places and constrict or narrow in other places (due to “pinch instabilities”). In profile these plasma columns can form donut shapes and may look like intertwining snakes, a stack of circles, or even resemble human stick figures (the so-called “stickman” or “squatting/squatter man” figures … ). In the modern day, powerful large-scale electrical discharges known as sprites occasionally occur in the upper atmosphere (about 80 to 140 kilometers above the surface of the Earth). Some sprites take on stick figure forms and other shapes comparable to those of the plasma columns. Based on Peratt's models and experiments, in some cases the stick figure will have an upper cup shape (head) that has the appearance of a bird in profile. Peratt and his colleague W.F. Yao record that observers of the Carrington Event reported seeing “figures in the sky as if drawn with fire on a black background”.
There are photo inserts in the book comparing the rongorongo script with various rock carvings, and plasma experiments. While there are certainly similarities between the script and the carvings, how many ways are there that a “stick figure” will appear? Unfortunately, I feel they were really stretching to attribute significant connections between the plasma patterns and the figures (making me wonder if this whole book is just a gesture to make Schoch's wife feel good). Anyway, those figures, and (in terms of chronology) that “script” (there was noted some question as to how old that actually was), are the main things linking extreme solar events with the archaeology of 10,000 BCE, with the rest of the book pretty much being “oh, and this!” add-ons.

One interesting thing in the above quote is the “Carrington Event”, which was a major solar storm in 1859. This happened over a week, from August 28 through September 5:

In late August of 1859 a major sunspot group appeared. On or around August 26 and 27 a solar flare (although unobserved) may have occurred, as well as a solar proton event (SPE) and a CME {coronal mass ejection}. The CME may have taken on the order of forty to sixty hours to cross the distance from the Sun to Earth, arriving on August 28 and creating the first wave of outstanding auroras and the accompanying geomagnetic storm. …
On September 1, Carrington and Hodgson observed the solar flare. Given how bright it was modern estimates suggest the surface temperature of the sun at the point of the emission was close to 50 million degrees Celsius. An enormous amount of energy was released, not only as visible light but also as intense X rays and gamma rays that, traveling at the speed of light, hit Earth eight and one-half minutes later. A CME was also released from the Sun …
Protons were accelerated by the solar flare and the CME to incredibly high energy levels and penetrated into our atmosphere, creating a major solar proton event (SPE). According to one estimate, this reduced the stratospheric ozone layer by 5 percent, and it took years to fully recover. Furthermore, energetic protons hitting the nuclei of nitrogen and oxygen atoms created a shower of neutrons that rained down onto the surface of the earth. ...
Schoch notes that this event, while major compared to “the usual” output of the Sun, was not as powerful as the Sun is capable of throwing at us (there have been CMEs that we've seen that have been huge, but fortunately pointed in another direction), and the suggestion is that something significant happened at the end of the Younger Dryas that threw the planet into a warming phase that created havoc for the civilizations that existed at the time.

One thing I found very interesting here is that Schoch is largely (in the current progressive terminology) a climate change “denier” … for many of the same reasons that I have doubts about the current dogmatic theory. He rather archly outlines:

The accepted paradigm, the scientific dogma, is not to be fundamentally questioned. Small additions and tweaking, elaborations and expansions, and building on the accepted paradigm are acceptable and even encouraged, but questioning the fundamental basis of the paradigm is not allowable. Radically dissenting views and any data that challenge the accepted paradigm must be suppressed. Heretics are persecuted or ignored. (In past centuries, this might mean torture or death. In modern times it might mean exclusion from the scientific community by being locked out of jobs, publication outlets, and grant funding.) Ultimately such tactics constitute “cheating by concealment” and “discreet fraud” ...
I've been aware of counter theories to the dominant paradigm for well over a decade … going back to Richard Hoagland's “Hyperdimensional” physics material, which he's called on to explain why there has been similar “global warming” phenomena on Mars and other planets happening simultaneously to the activity on Earth … with a Solar cause being far more plausible than SUVs. Schoch cites:

In recent years there has been increasing evidence for, and acknowledgment of, connections between climate, Earth's magnetic field, solar activity, and related extraterrestrial and other “subtle” factors. Much of this work goes against the reigning paradigm, the common consensus that has solidified around the topic of global climate change (more commonly refereed to as global warming). The general consensus view, for instance, has been that increases in global temperatures seen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been due primarily or totally to the actions of humans, most notably the increase of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Natural factors and cycles have been downplayed or ignored, despite the fact that changes in greenhouse gases have been correlated with global temperature changes for hundreds of thousands – even millions – of years, long before humans could conceivably have been causing such changes. Indeed, increases in carbon dioxide may in part be a consequence of global warming rather than a cause. Increases in temperature due to other factors (such as increases in solar activity) may warm the oceans, for instance, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide and an inability to absorb more carbon dioxide …
Obviously, I'm in agreement with him here, and, to be fair, he makes the “cosmic catastrophe” case very well, citing a lot of geological science (of course), from micro-diamonds in geological strata to odd cases of vitrification (where rock has been turned to a glass-like substance by extremely high heat) indicative of the possibility of ground-level (i.e. massive) plasma events. The down side of this is two-fold … first, it's quite grim, and the sort of thing that you really can't do anything about, except to dig deep underground spaces to escape to in the brief warning period that one would have before something like this would hit (interestingly, there are “bunker-like” structures on Easter Island which he posits were created for shelters against the solar storms of 12,000 years ago), and secondly, we're WAY over-due (looking at ice cores, geographic strata, and deposits of assorted isotopes) for a big civilization-erasing event.

However, towards the end of the book he gets into some very strange spaces … from instabilities in the galactic core that can result in periodic bursts of cosmic rays, which would not only effect Earth directly, but “throw gasoline on the fire” on the Sun, causing a whole alphabet of bad stuff, SPEs, CMEs, and even technology-destroying EMPs, to the possibility of our moving into an interstellar dust cloud that would be like throwing dry fuel into the Sun, with many of the same effects. He also pokes into some odd science, from the theories that water “can form nanostructures with the ability to encode, store, and transmit information”, to work that suggests that isotopes' decay rates are not constant but fluctuate in correlation with external factors: magnesium-54 fluctuating in correlation with solar flares, and silicon-32 and radium-226 exhibiting variations in decay rates that correlate with the changing distance between the Earth and the Sun.

While I found Forgotten Civilization fascinating in the material it has at the granular level, it's a very odd book in the broad strokes, starting from an “alternative archaeology” tour of key sites that push civilization back many thousands of years before the dominant paradigm, to a look at how cosmic influences could be the driving force for both “climate change” and historical disasters, to pulling in a wide net of other materials which are only “sort of” to the point (as I see it, at least) … and I doubt that was what I was anticipating when I ordered this! I'm also sort of surprised that this is only the first of his half-dozen or so books that I've picked up.

So, will you like this? I don't know. There is a ton of stuff in this that I was glad to have encountered (including theories I'd never even heard of previously, which is not a usual thing for me), but I've read a lot in the genre, and the over-all arc of the book put me off, and I suspect that it is likely to be a firehose of weirdness for readers coming to it without a substantial background in this material. Countering that perception, while it's been out for three years at this point, it hasn't gotten cheap in the new/used channels … with the cheapest of those books still coming in higher than the discounted price (assuming you're getting free shipping) from the on-line big boys. I don't regret buying this, but I can only recommend it with that whole heap of caveats above.

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Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
3:43 pm
When everything becomes nearly free ...
This book took one of the more unusual paths to get into my hands … it turns out that the author, somehow, ended up reading my Green Tech Chicago blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform, and asked his office to send me a copy of his new book. The fact that the author is the global figure Jeremy Rifkin, just blows me away … and I'm thrilled that he thought enough of one of my posts to send out his latest book: The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.

Now, I am pretty sure that, lacking this particular trajectory into my to-be-read piles, I would have been very unlikely to have obtained this title in my “free range” book shopping, as “economic theory” is not one of my favored genres … although this has the clear connection to much of my reading in that it concentrates a great deal on how the Internet has changed the world. This is a follow-up to his The Third Industrial Revolution, the broad strokes of which are presented here as the concept linking energy and communications to the various jumps in industrial/societal change … the first revolution coming via the development of steam power, paired with the printing press, the second being the development of the internal combustion engine (and the oil economy), combined with electronic communications (radio, TV, etc.), and the third, being the evolution of “renewable” energy (I'd prefer to think of neighborhood Thorium reactors, but the focus here is more in the wind/solar zone) combined with the global connectivity of the Internet (and the sub-titular "Internet of Things”).

The “story” here starts in the feudal times in Europe, where most people had a totally subsistence lifestyle, which, through the effects of the water-driven mill, eventually evolved to a market economy, which moved people off the land and into the cities, eventually developing into Capitalism and vertically-integrated models:

The solution {to new demands} was to bring production and distribution all together, in house, under centralized management. The vertically integrated business enterprise took off in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and became the dominant business model during the whole of the twentieth century.
To his credit, the author does note at one point that Soviet-style communism was no less vertical, just with different job descriptions at the various levels of management.

I don't think it's accidental that the printing press and broadcast media are used as the symbols of the first two Industrial Revolutions, as in the Third these are some of the first victims of the "zero marginal cost” reality. This has been a personal bête noire of mine, having been in the publishing biz at the dawn of the e-book phenomena. It was just back around 1999 (OK, for me that sounds like yesterday – no doubt “your mileage may vary” on that perception) when large colleges were spending the money to provide (relatively) high-speed internet services to their students ... once this was available, it was not long before “sharing” music (or “stealing” intellectual property, depending on which side of that chasm you resided) was a very common thing, with platforms such as Napster emerging to simplify the distribution. Whether or not it was “robbing the blind paperboy” or not, that distribution was an illustration of “zero marginal cost” ... if one person had a CD and could copy a song into an .mp3 file, potentially everybody who had an adequate connection (and back then “fast” was around 200kbps, and your cell phone now is about 25x as fast), could have that song for no cost. Needless to say, this created a generation which believed that all intellectual property should be “free” ... and it took quite a lot of legal ugliness to arrive at the current model of paid downloads!

Rifkin focuses a good deal on both 3D printing and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The latter of these is fascinating, as it grew out of a standard university setting ... but has developed to the point where it is threatening to "burst the bubble" of traditional college education. He notes:

      The revolution began when a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, offered a “free” course on artificial intelligence (AI) online in 2011, one similar to the course he taught at the university. Around 200 students normally enrolled in Thurn's course, so he anticipated that only a few thousand would register. But by the time it commenced, 160,000 students from every country in the world – with the exception of North Korea – were sitting at their computers in the biggest classroom ever convened for a single course in all of history. “It absolutely blew my mind,” said Thrun. Twenty-three thousand of those students completed the course and graduated.
      Although thrilled that he was able to teach more students in one virtual course setting that he could reach in several lifetimes of teaching, Thrum was struck by the irony. While Stanford students were paying $50,000 or more per year to attend world-class courses like the ones he taught, the cost of making the course available to every other potential student in the world was nearly nothing.
An earlier book by the author is The End Of Work where he argued that as technolgy makes for more efficient production, the number of workers plummets. An example he gives here is:

In the United States, between 1982 and 2002, steel production rose from 75 million tons to 120 million tons, while the number of steel workers declined from 289,000 to 74,000.
Those are sobering numbers (unless one owns a steel mill, I suppose), with production nearly doubling, while the work force is at a quarter of its previous numbers. And, that is an example over a decade old, nearly predating the Web.

He goes on to paint a very dire picture for standard employment. Whole categories of jobs have disappeared, and the combination of “automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence” are threatening even classic white-collar gigs. Speaking personally, I've been out of (regular) work for SIX YEARS, and every year it gets closer to a world where even writers can be replaced ... there's even a program that will take the basic data of a sports event and write the news copy from that in a way that you'd never be able to tell there wasn't a human involved. And it goes almost everywhere ... one thing described here is a program for analyzing legal documents ahead of trials ... and “one lawyer can do the work of 500 lawyers, and with greater accuracy”. Scary stuff.

      We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector.
What Rifkin foresees is a “Collaborative Commons” populated with “prosumers” (producer/consumers) ...

In a Collaborative Commons, sellers and buyers give way to prosumers, property rights make room for open-source sharing, ownership is less important than access, markets are superseded by networks, and the marginal cost of producing information, generating energy, manufacturing products, and teaching students is nearly zero. A central question arises: How is the new Internet of Things infrastructure that makes all of this possible going to be financed?
I have a more practical question: if there are no professional jobs, how do I pay my condo's assessment fees and put groceries in the fridge? I have to admit at about halfway through here I sort of got lost ... lots of stuff about traditional theories of “the commons” mixed up with material about environmental issues, and various energy issues (I take it that the author isn't a fan of reactors – even of the GenIV variety – as these don't end up even being mentioned that I could tell). The “solution” in the short term that he proposes is that there will be TONS of jobs in the building-out of “the Internet of Things”, but that's hardly a happy prospect if a “wordsmith” has to retrain to be a “wire twister”.

The last parts of the book seemed to me to be quite pie-in-the-sky (pretty much projecting from the vectors involved in a wide spectrum of new technologies and business models), and somewhat hard to “take seriously” as there's a GIGO factor here ... making a guess at something 20 years down the road based on the “trendy” thing of the past month is hardly a reliable course to take. He does project a “philosophical” evolution, however, which has a certain plausibility ... how “forager/hunter” societies exhibited “mythological consciousness”, the “great hydrolic civilizations” of 4,000-6,000 years ago developed into “theological consciousness”, in the nineteenth century, the convergence of coal-powered steam printing and the new coal-powered factory and rail-transport system gave rise to “ideological consciousness”, and in the twentieth century, the coming together of centralized electrification, oil, and automobile transport, and the rise of mass consumer society evolved “psychological consciousness” (living simultaneously in both an inner and outer world that continuously mediates the way we interact and carry on life), leading (possibly) in the new model to an “empathic consciousness”, or, in a massively connected world, a “biosphere consciousness” (unless, of course, the machines reach “the singularity” first - another concept I don't believe the author touches on).

He does, however, get into a lot of number shuffling over things like “carrying capacity” and various other similar grim scenarios, with warnings about climate issues and terror threats, but his closing points primarily deal with saying that we need to move past materialism and ownership of things. Having been in Marketing Communications (although only peripherally in the ad biz) my whole life in one form or another, I found the following “red flag” of particular interest:

      For the materialist, advertising becomes the powerful drug that feeds the addiction. Advertising preys on one's sense of inadequacy and loneliness. It promises that products and services will enhance a person's personality and identity and make him or her more appealing, attractive, and acceptable to others. The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel defined the new materialist man and woman coming of age at the dawn of the capitalist ethos. He argued that beyond its utilitarian and material value, property is an expression of one's persona. It's by forcing one's will into objects that one projects his unique persona on the world and creates a presence among his fellow human beings. One's very personality, then, is present in all the objects one claims as one's own. Our property becomes indistinguishable from our personality. Everything that is mine enlarges my unique presence and sphere of influence and becomes the means by which others know me.
      Advertising plays off the idea that property is the measure of a human being and pushes products and services as essential to the creation of an individual's identity in the world. For much of the twentieth century, advertising pitched the idea that property is an extension of one's personality and made deep inroads in reorienting each successive generation to a materialist culture.
Needless to say, the author “is against it” when it comes to “materialist culture” and is, by extension, advocating for the sub-title's “eclipse of capitalism”. As much as I can't stand the current state of advertising (I am incapable of listening to broadcast radio as every ad out there is blatantly anchored onto one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins, which I find extremely irritating), this does wander into a zone which is more about espousing far-Left rallying points that charting out actual solutions.

Anyway, The Zero Marginal Cost Society is a very interesting read with a lot of fascinating takes on the economic evolution of the culture. As noted above, I was hardly in close alignment to many of Rifkin's projections, but the material he brings to bear supporting the over-all thesis is well worth reading. This only came out last year, so should still be on a shelf at larger brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line big boys have both the hardcover and paperback at very generous discounts at the moment (close to 40% off), and copies are available in the new/used channels. This is hardly a book for everybody, but if you have interest in technology, history, or economics, you should find something to your liking in this (and if your politics are towards the Left you'll probably have less “aggravation points” that I found when reading it).

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Sunday, August 16th, 2015
6:20 pm
From an impressive leader ...
As I pointed out in the previous review, I have been having a run of good luck in finding interesting books over at the dollar store, at, of course, the amazing sum of a dollar … having been (as I know I've bemoaned way too much in here) “out of [paying] work” for the past six years, the ability to walk out of the store having paid a buck plus tax for a nice hardcover with a $27.95 cover price is pretty sweet!

Needless to say, the current title is one of these that I found on those shelves. As is frequently the case, this is not something that I might have picked up at a regular bookstore, or on-line, the dollar availability creating a serendipity that stirs up my reading habits (a good thing, yes?) a bit. Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril is a book by King Abdullah II of Jordan which stands out firstly by simply being a book by a sitting monarch … something that I, at least, am not particularly aware of being “a thing”. It is also, obviously, a window into the politics and cultural forces in the Middle East that has almost no equal in terms of access to the “back stories” of pretty much everything happening in that arena.

It must be noted that, within his own family, this was not a unique entity, as the author's father, the famed King Hussein of Jordan, had penned an autobiography in the early 60's, and this is referenced as something of a touchstone for this. As far as niches go, this is not just an autobiography, albeit it is formatted on the arc of the author's life (and he is still a young man at age 53), but endeavors to provide an analysis of many factors gripping his country's region. This starts off on a bitter-sweet note, with the Preface starting with:

... when I started writing this book, I hoped it would reveal the inner workings of how, against great odds, the United States, Israel, and the Arab and Muslim world had brokered peace in the Middle East. As I write these words, however, I can only say that this is a story about how peace has continued to elude our grasp.
Of course, King Abdullah II's family, the Hashemite lineage (the current King being a 43rd generation descendent of the Prophet Mohammad), is notable in the region for both its Western sensibilities (with British and American educations featuring in their development), and its willingness, even eagerness, to make peace with its neighbor Israel. This stands clearly apart from other entities in the region, such as Hamas, whose raison d'être is the “elimination” of the Jewish state.

This is not to say that he isn't critical of Israel. It is often too easy for those of us in the USA to see the region in very black & white terms, with Israel being the “good guys” and everybody else being threats to their existence. The author's view is, understandably, rather different, and while he appreciates certain aspects of Israel, his view is that there are factions within Israeli politics who are every bit as dead-set against a negotiated peace as Hamas is from the other side. One thing that was quite the eye-opener his was his experience with the Bush administration. He had seen a good deal of progress in the days of the Clinton administration, but the neo-cons in the Bush White House seemed to have little interest in hearing Jordan's side of things – despite the author's frequent overtures. It appears that the die had been cast early on in the Zeitgeist of the American government leading up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein ... and making even middling efforts to “play nice” with the Palestinians was not part of that, being that they were clearly an “enemy force” in that world view.

Speaking of world views … it's a frequent jab at Americans that we don't have particularly much awareness of what happens in other parts of the globe, and one thing that King Abdullah II refers to here is “Benelux”, which is an economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg within the E.U. that I don't believe I'd ever previously heard of … he holds this out as a model:

My dream is that we will link the economies of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in a common market – patterned on Benelux in western Europe. We could combine the technical know-how and entrepreneurial drive of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to create an economic and business hub in the Levant. The potential for joint tourism is massive, as it that for foreign investment. The possibility for cooperation is immense. The Israelis are world leaders I agriculture, but lack land and workers. We could work together to make the desert bloom.
Personally, this is the most rational, and logical suggestion that I've seen for peace in that region. Unfortunately, politics (and religion) keep getting in the way. Another thing that I don't believe I'd read of was the “Arab Peace Initiative” that Jordan was instrumental on reaching an agreement on (endorsed by 22 members of the Arab League) … unfortunately, it came at a time (in 2002), when things on both sides were spiralling into chaos and conflict. I certainly hope, however, that the author has not abandoned the vision of a “Benelux in the Levant”.

Again, this is also an autobiography, and so there is a lot of personal information in here. I am skipping over all the details about his schooling in the UK and the US (which is interesting), but do want to highlight a couple of bits from that aspect of the book. On one hand, you get a real sense of how dangerous running a country “in that neighborhood” can be … among many leaders who were assassinated over the past century there was the author's great-grandfather, with his father standing next to him. One of the precautions that his father, King Hussein, had made was to name the author's uncle next in line for the succession. While this created some “issues” later, it shifted the target from the author's back, and allowed him to grow (in the relative obscurity of the military) into the leader he would become. On the other hand, there are the stories such as:

My father used to tell me how when he wanted to take the pulse of the country, he would wrap a traditional checkered head scarf around his face and drive around Amman at night in a battered old taxi, picking people up. He would ask every new passenger, “How's the economy going? What do you think of the Palestinian-Israeli situation? What do you think of the King's new policy?”
It is hard to imagine even the Mayor of a major American city successfully doing this, but this shows how manageable a country such as Jordan can be. Taking a cue from his father, the current King has made a habit of visiting various government offices in disguise, and making sure things changed when the people were being mistreated by officials. Sure, it's his own story about himself, but it's hard not to like the author as depicted in these stories!

Another interesting “window” here is on the various wars in the region, and the interactions he (and his father) had with the main players in these conflicts (such as very uncomfortable visits with Saddam's notorious sons, Uday and Qusay). While the Jordanians have been strong allies of the USA, the author is certainly no “yes man” for American interests, and his perspective on the whole convoluted morass of political, military, religious, and regional elements is quite educational.

I would definitely recommend Our Last Best Chance to all and sundry, as not only is it a fascinating look at a really remarkable life, but a view of a globally important region that we certainly don't get from the press here – on the Left or the Right. As noted, I found the hardcover of this in the dollar store, but the paperback (which, oddly, has a different sub-title although just coming out a year after the initial release) is still available, and there are various other editions (international, large print, and, of course, ebook) also out there. I usually point readers to the “cheapest available” route to getting a copy of a book I'm reviewing, but books bought through retail channels have their proceeds going to support scholarships a the King's Academy – a top notch school that King Abdullah II established in Jordan (also discussed in the book), which is certainly something to consider.

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Tuesday, August 11th, 2015
11:48 pm
A love letter to an abiding urbs ...
I've been having a string of fairly good luck with volumes from the dollar store of late … while not being “pig in a poke” buys exactly (I am able to look them over and get a sense if I want to read them or not), they typically come unanticipated, not recommended by anybody or any citation, and pretty much “by accident” of the book being on the shelf on a day that not only had I made it out to one of the dollar stores I have access to (all requiring at least a significant subway ride to get to), but additionally on a visit where I had time to dig into the book display. Needless to say, however, walking out with even one nice “like new” hardcover for a buck (instead of $26.95 in this case) feels like a substantial “win”!

Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay is a bit of an odd duck, however ... it's not really a travel book (I never quite got enough geographical bearings to make any sense of its sub-titular “walk around the Bay”, other than to note that the city is, indeed, on a bay), nor is it centrally a history of Naples, and it's only peripherally an autobiographical telling of the author's on-going relationship with the city, its people, its background, and its other visitors. While I'm not much given to quoting from the accessory sections of books, a bit from the “Acknowledgments” at the end of the text would put this in its creative context:

This is a book of memory and reflection, not reportage. Over the course of sixteen years, during eleven stays in Naples, I talked to hundreds of people; nobody, however, was “interviewed” for these pages. I took only sketchy notes, and none in line with good journalistic practice. What I did instead, year after year, was to let the interesting, sometime funny or poignant thing learned from near-strangers settle down in me, and only now have I made the inventory.
Frankly, the book has an “evergreen” feel to it, not being notably of a particular time, so it could have been written any time in those sixteen years. However, it just came out in 2012 in hardcover, with a paperback edition following a year later (which has its own web page). But the author's approach, being hardly linear, presents me with challenges on how to convey the general sense of the book to those reading my review here. Taylor throws history, art, food & wine, architecture, religion, crime, politics, autobiographical snippets, war, and even a smattering of sex into a basket and gives it a whirl, grabbing random handfuls of the mix to apply to the word picture he's painting for the subject at hand in each part. Also, while the book is illustrated, it is not extensively so, with 30-some-odd ≅ 2x2” b&w pictures throughout the text, and an 8-page insert of color photos, starting with a skeleton from Herculaneum, and a swastika-banner-festooned Piazza de Plebiscito, awaiting a visit from Adolf Hitler, to some snaps of buildings, etc. mentioned in the text, and a number of large renditions paintings discussed in a long-ish look at some art trends (which, personally, I didn't think needed to be included, as a link to an on-line version of these images would have easily sufficed were somebody really interested enough to see what he was referencing).

Naples, it would appear, is a very old place, with the author citing burials of pre-Greek neolithic indigenous peoples dating to 5,000 BCE … and its historical lineage goes back as far as 1,800 BCE when Mycenaean traders established an island outpost in the outskirts of the Bay, followed by other Greeks from various areas, with the city itself being founded around 600 BCE. The book starts with a long “highlights of history” Chronology taking a dozen pages to go from those early dates on up to political happenings as late as 2011. In these listings an amazing roster of conquerors, combatants, and ruling cultures appears … from Etruscans, to Samnites, to Lombards, to the Angevin empire and their competitors from Aragon. Of course, in the midst of that, Rome conquered the Italian peninsula, and absorbed a lot of the Greek culture via Naples. Oh, and there's the matter of Vesuvius … sitting square on the Bay, this volcano is notorious for wiping out its human neighbors every now and again, most recently erupting in 1944, and badly damaging the region with earthquakes in 1980.

I really do wish I could more successfully grab bits and pieces here to quote .. but, Taylor, in a matter of a scant few pages, riffs off of some historical factoid about some Roman ruin, and will suddenly be talking about opera, and then veering off to something from his youth, where a neighbor took the very young author under his wing and introduced him to a touring opera production in Dallas, of all places, only to have that move back to ancient history, and the art still visible in certain ruins in and around the city.

Much of the history of the city is quite bloody, from the well-known cruelties of assorted Roman emperors (some of which favored Naples as a vacation home, if not second capitol), to the back-and-forth of various dynasties from other places in Europe over the centuries, which frequently resulted in public beheadings and less-public poisonings. Plus there was plenty of famine, disease, and war sweeping over the region, including having much of the city leveled by Allied bombers during the Second World War. He also discusses the notorious sway that organized crime has had in the region … an issue that appears to be on-going.

There are additionally tales here of modern artists, musicians, and writers … many of them in the past century seeking a haven for their homosexuality when the cultural setting of the USA was less than welcoming. He discusses meeting with some over the years, and having been influenced by others.

Naples Declared is still in print (in the paperback edition, as well as a Kindle version), but used copies of the Hardcover (and paperback) are available in “very good” condition for as little as a penny (plus shipping) from the on-line big boys' new/used vendors … which if you can't get yourself to a Dollar Tree (I saw a couple of copies of this still at the one I usually go to this past week), is probably your best bet. I enjoyed reading this … it is chock-full of fascinating detail from a wide scope of disciplines … and the writing (while, as noted, somewhat chaotic in its focus), is quite engaging. I'd pretty much recommend this to all and sundry … being one of those books that one doesn't have to read in any particular genre, but is so broad-based that you will be glad to have gone through it, pretty much what your particular interests are.

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Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
11:27 pm
Introducing "Quantum Biology" ...
Here's another of those books that have come my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … and it's another good science book, of which there have, fortunately, been quite a few of over the past couple of years. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili is a fascinating look at an evolving field.

Now, I have to admit, this is one of those books that I have had a certain amount of “oh, really?” response to, as, frankly, the consistent uncovering of quantum operations involved in “everyday” events seems a bit … well, like when fundamentalists attribute everything to God … and I'd feel better if I'd seen more on this topic in my other reading, rather than having it all show up in one book like this (hey, I've read lots of books that were based on just the author's lunatic take on the universe!). This is not to say that the concept of quantum activity being key to various biological processes is totally new to me … I recall having read some things about how photosynthesis is achieved, at its most microscopic levels, by an energy transfer described as a “quantum walk”, where an exciton (according to Wikipedia: “a bound state of an electron and an electron hole which are attracted to each other by the electrostatic Coulomb force”, or, elsewhere: “an excited electronic state delocalized over several spatially separated molecules “) is mobilized, via quantum coherence, across the pigment-protein elements to where its energy potential is eventually utilized. This is covered in Life On The Edge, but in a particularly idiosyncratic way (the section of photosynthesis is framed in a Fantastic Voyage scenario of shrinking the observer down, through various dimensional frames in the plant, until they're looking at molecular/atomic levels).

Like this, it appears that there are MANY biological functions that we've known about for ages, but have had substantial lacunae in the how these worked … and these go to as basic things as how we smell scents, or how we move our muscles (really, it would appear that we just either didn't ask how these things happened, or simply skipped over the details) … and this book picks apart these at the finest levels and looks at how quantum mechanical events play a key role in the “how”.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't put in my usual couple of handfulls of little bookmarks in this (I found one), as it makes it a lot harder to condense the sense of the book for you here … but the Fantastic Voyage factor is at play all through the text … lots of “story telling” flowing in and out of specifically scientific bits (which very quickly get quite complicated), and not a lot of “Topic One … Topic Two … Topic Three”, etc. … which I, oddly, found bothersome. The book starts, in the introduction, with a rambling piece about a robin, “getting ready” to migrate from Sweden to North Africa … which at times brings to mind the cocoanut-carrying swallows of Monty Python fame. One thing that I sort of took offense to in here is how the authors disparage the work of Rupert Sheldrake … dissing him on several occasions … which (obviously) comes up when looking at how birds get around (something that Sheldrake has published work on). I think there's an old adage about living in glass houses that the authors might have kept in mind when presenting material as “out of the mainstream” (or at least “established”) as this is.

Anyway, as to that European robin wanting to get out of the cold … how does she navigate as accurately as she does, going from Scandinavia to the other side of the Mediterranean (and back again) on her migration? Well, nothing is straight forward here (I think I'm getting to the “why” of there not being my usual mass of bookmarks in this), and something will start off with a colorful story about a robins migration, then veer off into historic theories, alternate modern research, the work of various scientists that have worked on parts of what comes together in the bird's navigation, assorted similar elements, the underlying physics (both classical and quantum), vectors off into biological topics, and sometimes dropping threads, only to pick them up several chapters later. It turns out that the bird has a magnetic “sense” built into its eye that uses a particular quantum process within a chemical reaction dealing with a pigment, which allows it to “see” the angle of the lines of magnetism around the planet … and by reading that angle, the bird can tell where it is. No, really, it's a LOT more complicated than that, and the details are half the book apart.

I wish I'd be able to easily walk you though this, but it's a jungle in there. To give you a taste of how this plays out, here's a bit from another “Fantastic Voyage” look into something – in this case, how a tadpole changes into a frog:

... These nanomachines of nature are performing, at a molecular level, a carefully choreographed dance whose actions have been precision engineered by millions of years of natural selection to manipulate the fundamental particles of matter.
      To get a closer look at the cutting action, we descend into the enzyme's jaw-like cleft that holds the substrates in place: the collagen protein chain and a single water molecule. This is the active site of the enzyme – its business end that is speeding up the breaking of peptide bonds by bending the neck of the energy hourglass*. …
      … the enzyme is restraining the peptide bond in an unstable transition state that has to be reached before the bond can be broken. The substrates are tethered by weak chemical bonds, … which are essentially electrons that are shared between the substrate and the enzyme. This tethering holds the substrates in a precise configuration ready for the chopping action of the enzyme's molecular jaws.
      As the jaws of the enzyme close, they do something far subtler than simply “biting down” on the bond: they provide the means through which catalysis can take place. We notice a big positively charged atom hanging directly beneath the target peptide bond being swung into position. This is a positively charged zinc atom. If we consider the active state of the enzyme to be its jaws, then the zinc atom is one of its two incisors. The positively charged atom plucks an electron out of the oxygen atom from the substrates to stabilize the transition state and thereby deform the energy landscape …
      The rest of the job is carried out by the enzyme's second molecular incisor. This is one of the enzyme's own amino acids called glutamate, which has swung into position to hang its negatively charged oxygen atom over the target peptide bond. Its role is first to pluck a positively charged proton out of the tethered water molecule. It then spits this proton into the nitrogen atom at one end of the peptide bone, giving it a positive charge which draws electrons out of the peptide bonds. … drawing the electron out is like pulling the glue out of a bonded joint, causing it to weaken and break
* this is a conceptualization of how “quantum tunneling” is enabled.

And, that (obviously) doesn't even get into the quantum elements involved in the process … these stories swirl in and out of the description and through the background science … citing all the big names, and lots more whose research is either more obscure or sufficiently recent to not be as recognizable. I must admit, there was material in here by the likes of Shröedinger, Planck, Feynman, and others that I'd not encountered previously … but that's probably due to this “quantum biology” stuff running off into less-explored corners of the physics involved.

I'm hoping that this book isn't finding its way into the textbook channel, as it is so convoluted that it confuses as much as it explains … I almost never re-read books, but this one tempts me to triage the time just to make sure I got everything straight. Needless to say, it's chock-full of fascinating material, but much of it is fairly challenging, requiring at least a familiarity with several disciplines to really understand what's happening there (and a lot of this really pushes the envelope vs. “standard knowledge” or general experience).

As one would expect for an “early reviewer” book, Life On The Edge is brand new (only officially coming out just this past week!), so is likely being featured in the brick-and-mortar stores delving in to physics. The on-line big boys have it at about 1/3rd off of cover, which is probably your best bet at the present for picking up a copy.

While I had a number of “gripes” with the book, both in how it was presented and in some of the details, it was more of a “wow, that's amazing” reaction most of the time. While I would have preferred something more linear (although, with all the material coming in from various disciplines, that might not have been practical), and less “cutesy” (really, I didn't need the “now you're shrinking down” stuff), it's quite an eye-opening look into a brand new area of science.

Oh, and you can thank me for not titling this review "... and a few swabs from Bono too".

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Saturday, August 1st, 2015
10:19 pm
Claiming Your Personal Power ...
I have a very mixed impression of Brendon Burchard … I first encountered him in the context of building up an “information business” (his Millionaire Messenger book), and have found him on one hand very informative, with material that is, generally speaking, actionable in a fairly esoteric niche, but on the other hand way too into the “inspirational” - “believe it and it will happen” - zone for my tastes (see his Life's Golden Ticket). Among the “info biz” guys, he's pretty open and giving (this book was “free with shipping”), with a lot of material not requiring one's credit card, but there's always seemed to be that “yeah, but ...” thing in play, that, like in MLM, a lot of people will aspire to making a living at it, but most never have a realistic shot.

His new book, The Motivation Manifesto: 9 Declarations to Claim Your Personal Power, is a bit different, as it is “a manifesto”, and so is very “opinionated”. I was extremely enthused with this when I started reading it, having been frustrated by a number of people in my daily life who are advocates (some impassioned advocates) for mundane, average, non-achieving, and common results, lifestyles, and goals (yes, I've been berated for reading/reviewing as much as I do as it “by implication” makes others feel bad because they can't/don't make the effort … the reality of Diana Moon Glampers is just another Alinskyite administration or two away). This is a call to excellence, to striving, to reaching beyond what we think we can achieve (let alone what the TV-numbed slugs settle for) … or at least it is in the first section.

The book is in two sections (well, an introduction and two sections), the first being “On Human Nature”, which looks at Freedom, Fear, and Motivation. Reading this (and the intro) had me wanting to stand on street corners and “spread the word” … it's that powerful. The second part, however, the “9 Declarations”, suffers somewhat from trying to “systematize” the call-to-arms of the first part into something more … well, marketable? Not that it's not full of great stuff, but I felt it bogged down in places, and there were bits that I was mentally going “blah, blah, blah” about, and other parts that were generating a significant amount of resistance. The only bookmark I found I'd put in while reading this was in that part of the book, however, in Declaration VIII - “We Shall Inspire Greatness” where some of the specific types of things I noted above are addressed.

I'm a bit frustrated working on this review, because I usually have a dozen or so little bookmarks tucked in where I've found particularly juicy bits to bring to you here … but in the case of The Motivation Manifesto, the “good bits” tend to run on for pages, not sentences. I'm going to dig through this and see if I can pull out some particularly representative paragraphs, but it's not going to be easy to do.

First of all, though … let's get to what the “9 Declarations” are:
            I.      We Shall Meet Life with Full Presence and Power
            II.     We Shall Reclaim Our Agenda
            III.    We Shall Defeat Our Demons
            IV.     We Shall Advance with Abandon
            V.      We Shall Practice Joy and Gratitude
            VI.    We Shall Not Break Integrity
            VII.   We Shall Amplify Love
            VIII.  We Shall Inspire Greatness
            IX.     We Shall Slow Time

Obviously, this isn't your basic to-do list … “reclaiming agendas”? … “slowing time”??? … “advancing with abandon”? Burchard is writing in an abstract mode in much of this, with, for instance, in the “time” one, the phrase “We are not supposed to miss this moment.” repeats itself several times, yet there are accompanying (meditative/breath) exercises to practically adjust the perception of time.

Here's a bit from the “Motivation” section of the first part of the book … it will give you a bit of the flavor of the writing's tone (which is rather “styled”), and show why I'm having a hard time here, as key points tend to unfold over several paragraphs, and are difficult (if not impossible) to condense out into bullet points.

The long evolutions of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience share a common thread of unlocking human potential by leveraging reason and the full power of the mind. Reason is the secret to developing a motivated and independent identity. I think therefore I am and I do. Motivated people seize this truth. The great artists, leaders, and innovators use the entire force of their reasoning faculties to become their highest selves and do their highest good. They express who they truly are and pursue goals they find meaningful. They strategically contemplate their direction and values; they weigh what will give them the greatest sense of vibrancy and fulfillment in every major decision. They select from life's abundant array only the courses that suit their nature and their intention to be free and to serve. They are resolute in calling forth their greatest character traits and wrestling their lowest impulses into submission. They appear, in the eyes of the mindless masses, to be the lucky ones, the chosen. In fact, they decided to choose.
Each of the “declarations” has similar looks at the thematic elements, and layers of information, where the “time” one has exercises, the first one splits out various “roles” that motivated individuals play in their lives, and within the “demons” one, it takes “internal enemies” and defines them as a demon “Defiance”, which has three heads, “Doubt”, “Delay”, and “Division”, and details how these hinder our efforts, and how we can overcome them.

Again, this is hard to condense down to a few nuggets … most of the material comes packaged in runs of several paragraphs like the above … it is, however, worth the effort of working through.

Physically, The Motivation Manifesto is “deluxe” with a black leatherette cover with gold-stamped text, rounded cut corners, and a red ribbon book mark. It's available via the on-line big boys, but apparently is still being offered on Burchard's site for “free” (a $7 shipping fee), which also includes a 12-week on-line course (I've not taken advantage of the “extras” like the course as yet). Needless to say, this is quite a deal, and is considerably less than the other options out there (even the used channels at this writing).

While “inspirational” books like this are hardly “my thing”, it's hard to not value something with statements like this:

Nor can we allow apathetic, small-thinking men and women to lay waste to our future. We mustn't let social pressures to poison our potential. Surely, we have warned other from time to time that we do not care what they think or that their judgments of us are unwarranted. We have often complained, made kind requests of others, or reminded people of the circumstances that made us want to improve our lives. We have appealed to their magnanimity to be gentler or more supportive, and we have asked them as kindred spirits to stand with us against those who interrupt our charge. Yet too often others have been deaf to our true voices. They didn't believe in us or support us or cheer us on when it mattered most. We must, therefore, not await their assistance or approval any longer. We must hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in battle should they stand in the way or our dreams, but in peace and assistance, friends.

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Friday, July 31st, 2015
11:32 pm
An interesting journey ...
If I were a judge, and this was a case, I'd probably have to recuse myself, as I have long-time familiarity with the author, who was among the early crew over on LiveJournal … and so has been one of my “pixel people” for well over a decade. Unlike many of those on-line contacts, I have actually met the author on one occasion, last fall, and almost killed him with my bare hands then (he'd asked me to take part in a film somebody was doing about his “Concrete Shamanism”, and at one point – standing out on the beach with the cameras rolling – he insisted that I choke him “for real” … I grabbed a hold of his wind pipe and waited for him to look real panicked to let him go). Needless to say (no doubt to the relief of other authors), that's the only time THAT's happened!

Anyway, aside from the Shamanism, the author and I also had the writing/publishing overlap, especially when I was still runnng Eschaton Books full time. This brings up another point where I should probably take a step back … I am a terror when it comes to formatting issues (and typos, and lacunae, and assorted related errata), and this book is full of them … to the extent that I asked the author over on Facebook about what lay-out program he'd used for it, thinking that the one consistent, highly irritating, “issue” in the book was an accidental artifact of some quirk in that system. He identified this, but assured me that the formatting “issue” was an intentional design element (all through the book, where a paragraph breaks across pages, the resuming text block has an indent like new paragraphs have, albeit coming mid-sentence). Unfortunately, this was hardly the only “odd element” in the book, and only one really stood out as being an intentional design element (the header/footer stylings on page 82).

So, the book in question is ALL THINGS GO: How I Became A Shaman by Eric Durchholz / Patrick John Coleman … the latest in the author's varied output of nearly a dozen titles. As one can guess from the sub-title, this is a book about transformation, but it's more “how Eric Durchholz became Patrick John Coleman” than about him “becoming a shaman”. Frankly, despite his “branding” what he's doing as “shamanism”, it seems to me that his path has much more to do with the Lakota figure of the Heyoka than a “medicine man”, “curandero/brujo”, or other Shamanic manifestations (an example of this is his use of a partial pack of children's alphabet flash cards for divination, and other toys as shamanic "tools").

If I posit that the author is a Heyoka, it frees him of any of the linearity, structure, consistency, and logical progression that I would otherwise be looking for in a narrative like this. So I hope that he “owns” that as an alternative handle to “shaman”. One would not be surprised if a Heyoka stopped a chapter mid-topic (heck, mid-sentence) and launched into the next thing on the facing page … one would not be surprised if there were “missing” bits that were none-the-less identified in the text (in terms of graphics, etc.) … one would not be surprised if the use of QR codes was irregular, with many of them leading off to inaccessible material (such as “private” YouTube videos) … and one would almost expect there to be odd formatting like that noted above. A Shaman, even a “Concrete Shaman”, would “have some 'shplainin to do” about why things were the way they were in the printed piece … a Heyoka, not so much (and, given that his books are self-published through Lulu.com, he doesn't have an Editor to answer to).

The book is an auto-biography of sorts … although not particularly linear. Eric (I've known the “Eric” persona a lot longer than the “Patrick” entity) has had a rough life on a lot of levels, and the backstory of much of that appears in various points in this. For the broad strokes: he was born “Patrick John Coleman” in Chicago, but was adopted by a family from Kentucky and re-named “Eric Durchholz”, his adopted family are “narcissists” (in his terms) and found it very hard to deal with him being both artistic/creative and gay. Living in a small town in the bible belt, his upbringing was fraught with traumas, and he attempted to run away on multiple occasions. By 1999 (the year his best-known novel, The Promise of Eden came out) he was living in Nashville, TN, and having a reasonably integrated life with his particular social scene there. However, in 2010 he lost nearly everything he owned in area flooding, and “freed” from the encumbrances of material things (which he cites at one point as “having way too much stuff to be able to move to Chicago”), he re-located to Chicago, and began working in Comedy, at Second City and other clubs. Then …

In April of 2013 I was dragged into the spirit world and told I would be a “psychic, medium, healer and helper” and I was terrified by the experience. I was told by unseen spirits that I had died of a brain aneurysm in my new apartment that was situated between two huge graveyards. … When I returned to life after an intense and horrifying period, I found I was very different. I knew things I should not have known. … And my mind was a jumbled mess so I decided to figure out just what had happened to me. … In my case, I did not choose to be shown the inner workings of the Universe and what humanity is and what we truly are and the one thing that keeps coming is that my perspective is not valid. … We are all human beings viewing life through our own prism. Everyone's perspective is valid. This is a true thing. … Another true thing is that I can access alternate and parallel realities to gain knowledge, get lessons and find ways to heal myself in this one.
And …

I did not choose to be a shaman but my perspective as a shaman is just as valid as your perspective. … Just listen to what I have to say and draw your own conclusion. Or you can do what I do. I prefer to have no beliefs or opinions and just accept things as they are. Because when aliens show up in your apartment to give you energy-field upgrades, what are you going to do? Tell them to leave?
As I mentioned, the book jumps around quite a bit … at one point being a scenario from 2042 … parts of it written as Eric, parts of it written as Patrick … parts of it written as plain expository material. There are also sections on Jane Roberts / “Seth”, Esther Hicks / “Abraham”, and Edgar Cayce (the author sees a lot of meaning on his being raised close to Cayce's home), as well as back-and-forth between the “Eric” and “Patrick” personas.

As I noted, there really isn't that much stuff about how the author becomes “a shaman”, aside from the mental/spiritual turmoil involved with having the one persona leave and the other come in … he pretty much encapsulates the “becoming a shaman” part as:

I did not choose to be a shaman. I was pretty much bopped on the head, pulled into the spirit world and told I was a shaman. One day I was working on comedy and the next I was figuring out the mystery of my own existence.
He notes that he “began practicing” in August of 2013 … so most of the “transition” is happening in the months from April to August of that year.

While I've followed Eric's on-line presence for well over a decade, he also delves into auto-biographical material here that I somehow hadn't noticed … specifically that dealing with his becoming HIV positive. He copies a lengthy post (9 pages here) that he made to Facebook back in August of 2012 which details his discovering this and beginning to come to grips with it. I'm, frankly, amazed that I'd missed (or somehow forgotten) this on-line data point (it certainly is a substantial sub-theme of the book), but I guess my radar in this case was set more for the books/shamanism axis of the author's life, and not really registering the gay/HIV aspects (although at one point in his on-line “career” it was certainly hard to avoid that).

So, basically what you get in ALL THINGS GO is a bunch of stories of Eric's life, a bunch of looks at things that have influenced him, a bunch of information about Patrick and how he came to be “in” Eric, and assorted material on things like “formlessness” and “walk-ins”, all tossed into a cement mixer, bounced around, and poured out (see what I did there) as the author's coming to practice “concrete shamanism”. I enjoyed parts of this very much, was made quite uncomfortable by others, driven nuts by some of the formatting, and fascinated by little sparkling bits of otherworldly wisdom that show up randomly through it.

Would I have been reading this if the author wasn't one of my “pixel people”? I don't know. And, in this lies the crux of my wondering if I really would recommend it to somebody who didn't have over a decade's familiarity with the author. It's a strange book, for sure. It's a reasonably “easy read” (the “uncomfortable” bits notwithstanding), but it's ultimately a look at one man's odd journey. If the uncommon melange of stuff that I've described above sounds of interest to you, by all means pick up a copy. As noted, it's published via LuLu (so might be a challenge to find a copy in a retail outlet), but Amazon has it as well … and throwing this in on a larger order will avoid shipping costs (which I recall are pretty hefty through LuLu).

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Sunday, July 19th, 2015
11:32 pm
Walking out of the jungle ...
I have known Alberto Villoldo for a very long time, having first journeyed with him down to Peru before he founded his Four Winds Society, and having done many of his programs/trips back in the 80's and 90's. Unfortunately, while his organization was getting bigger, and more formal, my finances were dwindling (yeah, starting my own publishing house was awesome, but we never managed to break even over the years of my running Eschaton), so we sort of drifted apart over the past decade or so.

Of course, those of you keeping way too close tabs on these reviews will know that I've at least been keeping up with Alberto via his writings, having read/reviewed most of his stuff. I got early word about this coming out (following favorite authors on Facebook does have its advantages), and contacted the publisher for a review copy. I apparently had never reached out to Hay House before for one of their books, as I was quite blown away by the media kit they sent out … pretty much the most deluxe thing that I've gotten from a publisher yet (well, at least since the fun “KaChing” button that came out with Joel Comm's book of the same name)!

Anyway, I didn't really know what to expect from Alberto's new One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness … I initially thought it was going to be something of an amalgam of various culture's “ancient ways” for Medicine/Wellness, but was fairly surprised by what it ended up as. The key point here is explained in the introduction:

Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa, and South America I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of parasites, a host of toxic bacteria, and assorted nasty worms. My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites.
Now, I can't say that I'm surprised by that news … I had frequently lobbied for doing Shamanic work in nice climate-controlled hotel function rooms (which is possible - I've “mentally generated” a roaring bonfire for a fire ceremony in a suburban banquet hall) rather than out in nasty hot, humid, bug-infested, muddy, if picturesque locales … and it gave me pause as to what I might be carrying around from my trips with Alberto.

He further notes: All my test results indicated I was dying; the doctors had even said, “You should already be dead.” … which is a pretty sobering thought. He got this news while at a conference he was keynoting down in Mexico … and his wife was heading off to run a expedition to the Amazon immediately after. He says:

I stood in the departure wing at the Cancún airport, staring at my options: Gate 15, the flight to Miami where I would be admitted to a top medical center for treatment, or Gate 14, the flight to Lima and the Amazon, where I would be with Marcela in the land of my spiritual roots. … Miami was the logical choice. But in that moment I summoned up the courage to put my future where my mouth was – to live what I had taught so many.
Of course, Alberto is no fool, and he basically felt that he was quite likely heading off to his death. He quotes from his journal:

There are no guarantees here, Alberto. There is a difference between curing and healing. You may not be cured; you may die. But regardless of what happens, you will be healed. You will not walk out of the jungle into your old way of being.
There was no “magic wand” in the Amazon, he continued on to a few other locations for scheduled events, but eventually ended up back in the U.S. for medical treatment. The worst part was what was happening with his brain, the meds killed the worms, but the dying worms released their parasites into his system, flooding it with all sorts of toxins. He found that he couldn't play Scrabble, as he could no longer find the words … leading him to begin to wonder what was going to happen to him in terms of consciousness and self. His return to health took over a year, and involved Shamanic treatments, standard medical approaches, spiritual disciplines, cutting-edge techniques in brain science, and a drastic regimen of dietary adjustments.

Now, I need to insert a significant caveat here … one of the things that surprised me the MOST in the book was this latter element … I have never held “food fetishists” in particularly high regard, and there are so many “unusual diets” out there which are hawked/championed by a wide assortment of very devout believers, each contradicting the next, that I've always felt, in a similar mode to the late Christopher Hitchens' adage for religions “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all {food fetish diets} can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.” Needless to say, this preconception/prejudice on my part made the section of the book dealing with dietary issues very hard to deal with … I was even getting snarky reading it, with mental commentary like “I didn't expect Alberto to turn into Martha Stewart!” when he's suggesting menus, ingredients, spices, and cooking methods.

Fortunately, that was just one section of the book, and the others I was in considerable better simpatico with. The structure here is four sections, which Villoldo recommends working through in order:

          Part I: Discovering Your Inner Healer
          Part II: Shedding the Old Ways
          Part III: Overcoming the Death that Stalks You
          Part IV: From Stillness Comes Rebirth

The first of these, generally deals with Shamanic realities, both historically, and theoretically, from how native peoples Alberto encountered in the Amazon didn't have the sorts of diseases that the West deals with, to ideas like the Mayan concept of “acquiring the jaguar body”, and new-age (albeit utilized by the shamans) things like the “Luminous Energy Field” (“the LEF”, though most of this), and even off into the Jungian “collective unconscious”. Here also is the concept that “the mind is mad”, and suggesting that the shift from hunter-gatherer diets to grain-based agricultural diets were essentially “sugar-based” … thus appealing to the “limbic brain”, but not conducive to working with spirit … “The neocortex thrives on One Spirit Medicine; the limbic system, driven by sensation, pleasure seeking, and emotion, does not.” … and countering this with “good fats”. The rather trendy concept of “neuroplasticity” (yeah, you've heard the commercials) comes in here to set up the idea that OSM (I suppose I can use an abbreviation too) works by “Upgrading the information in your luminous energy field, eventually allowing new neural networks to form.”

Oh, one other caveat on the book … in parts of this Alberto uses “One Spirit Medicine” in nearly every paragraph … almost like he's trying to “brand” a wide spectrum of shamanic, spiritual, and scientific material with the label. It becomes irritating because he's simultaneously trying build a case that all these disparate elements pull together to MAKE “One Spirit Medicine”, while labeling everything with the name … it's like one were talking about developing an alternator, but constantly referring to it by the model of car it's eventually going to be a part of.

The second section is the one that I had the “food fetishist” issues with, although it starts out well enough, discussing the “second brain in your gut” – the 100 million neurons involved in the alimentary canal – and how Serotonin is chemically linked to DMT (synthesized by the pineal gland, and a component in ayahuasca and other psycho-active plants used by shamen). Where this takes the turn into the “iffy” area is when Alberto asserts: “Research now shows that most of the diseases of modern living begin in the gut and are related to our diet.” … in no way have I researched this, but my … uhhh … “questionable assertion” meter was certainly going off when I read that. He does a good job backgrounding environmental microorganisms and how we've evolved over millennia to interact with these, and a reasonable bit on “environmental toxins” … but this leads into the popular manias on genetically modified foods, and the “toxic effects” of grains and sugars. Suddenly we're being told “if you want to upgrade your brain to support One Spirit Medicine, you'll need to avoid all processed grains” and insisting on “cutting out fruits like watermelon and raisins, which have a higher glycemic index than a Popsicle” … which then turns into strict regimens of fasting and micro-managed meal schedules, menus, and supplementation. Something tells me that the Amazon shamans are not waking up and taking 250mg of Pterostilbene, 1g of S-acetyl glutathione, 500mg of Trans-resveratrol, and 1g of Curcumin (in its liposomal form), among a long list of other enrich-the-health-food-store supplements. The rest of this section gets into “super foods” and what to eat and not eat when (for instance, he recommend not eating fruit except in its growing season). Among the many issues I have with this section is my perception that one could probably not afford these regimens unless one was bringing home a solid six-figure income … needless to say, you may find this section just brilliant, and maybe it might have the benefits that Villoldo is suggesting it does, but I found it “out of character” for the author, and it rings like his having “found religion” in the “food fetishist” world – perhaps being the main element of coming out of the jungle into something other than his “old way of being” – although, as I frequently have to say, “your mileage may vary” from my reactions here.

Moving on, the third section deals with health issues on a more basic level … the “death clock” on a cellular level, and how things in the system start breaking down around age 35. He spends a number of pages discussing the mitochondria in our cells, and how the mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother's genes so “represents the feminine life force recognized by the ancients”, then gets into recommendations for “aerobic exercise”, “healthy fats”, and “fasting” for ways to support the internal recycling of cellular waste … and to lessen “oxidative stress”. He outlines a number of enzymes that he supplements with, BDFN (“brain-derived neurotrophic factor”), Glutathione, and SOD (“superoxide dismutase”), which are supposed to help with various of these “stressors”. This then shifts to looking at psychological stresses and “limiting beliefs”. One bit I found particularly interesting is:

From television and the Internet alone, we're exposed to more stimuli in a week than our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime. And we're continually running to keep up with new information, to the point that we're chronically exhausted. I can't count how many times I have heard someone say, “If it weren't for caffeine, I wouldn't get anything done!” Nature designed the brain to deal with one lion roaring at us at a time, not the entire jungle turning against us.
This is in the context of the “HPA axis” (Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenal glands), and the hippocampus, which he suggests is “the thermostat of the HPA axis”. He cites research that, among teenagers, the incidence of anxiety and depression is five to eight times what it was just 50 years ago, and then goes into the body chemistry, including adrenaline and cortisol, “stress” steroid hormones released by the HPA axis, and recommending omega-3 fatty acids to re-set the balance in this (which dovetails with the info on fish oil that I wrote about being very helpful with my own struggles with depression in my recent review of one of Dr. Weil's books). The chapter shifts from how one can avoid the fight-or-flight trap, and into some more psychological spaces … making free time (the hunter-gatherer societies tend to have only 3 hours a day of “work”, something that exploded into long hard days when agriculture took over), “pondering” and/or daydreaming, etc. This also leads to less fear of death and unseen things. “The invisible world is unified, nonlocal, and beyond space-time. Though omnipresent, it is invisible to ordinary perception: we know it only through its manifestations.”, yet, the limbic brain perceives separation rather than unity, creating fear, perception of threats, etc. and a significant part of OSM seems to be shifting experience away from that.

The fourth section takes up as much space as the first three, which is a good thing, as I was on much more “agreeable” ground here, as it deals largely with the concepts of “mythologies”.

The values and beliefs contained in myths are so stong that once you find your personal guiding myth, you feel compelled to change your life to conform to it. Change the myth and your values and beliefs change – and the facts of your life change acordingly.
Villoldo notes that the Judeo-Christian tradition has engrained myths that “operate in the psyche like computer programs running continually in the background” but that “at this point in our history, it's pretty clear that the human species needs to be more collaborative, creative, and cooperative – qualities that are aspects of the archetypical mother figure” … which suggests that a “Mother Earth”/Gaian mythology would be more beneficial today. At this point, the classic shamanic tool of the Medicine Wheel gets put in play:

Though the practices associated with the medicine wheel vary among the different indigenous groups of North and South America, the way I was taught by my teachers in the Amazon, we begin in the South, with the journey of the healer and healing our past wounds. We then move to the West and the journey of the Divine Feminine, facing the fear of death. From there we move to the North, the journey of the sage, where we learn to be still, like the surface of the lake that reflects everything and disturbs nothing. Finally, we reach the East and the journey of the visionary, where we practice dreaming the world into being and participating in creation.
The South is represented by the serpent, with the implied parallels of “shedding skin” with growth and change. In an odd twist to the typical narration of this, Alberto brings in the myth of Parsifal and the Grail, with the over-tones of the feminine force. The West is represented by the Jaguar … and here the author asserts that this, in its indigenous American context, represents healing power much the same way that the caduceus does in European traditions. In the West, we meet the Goddess and face the fear of death. Greek myths are referenced here, Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche (the latter in substantial detail). Alberto notes:

All initiation involves a journey to the ream of death and a meeting with the Divine Feminine from which you return renewed. … There is no rushing the journey of initiation. Mastering the fear of death is a lifelong process. You may be challenged and tested many times, although with each time the way becomes easier.
In the North is the realm of the Sages (this relates to certain “topographies” of the “otherworld”) and is represented here by the hummingbird (although in other traditions, such as the Lakota, this is represented by the buffalo), with the sense that the hummingbird can hold still mid-air, and exhibits a calm within frantic action (hovering while its wings are rapidly beating). “In the North we learn that what we call reality is an illusion, albeit one we are jointly re-creating every instant.” To provide a second perspective on this, Alberto brings in the story of Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita … where it's revealed that “everything we do can become an offering to the divine and that we shouldn't be fixated on achieving specific results” … and with the suggestion that in stillness we can be guided by Spirit.

The East is represented by the Eagle, and the theme is that here “you come to see that the consciousness that observes your experience is an inextricable part of a larger consciousness”. Appropriate to that, the myth that is presented from another culture is that of Siddhartha, becoming the Buddha.

The last part of this section is an extensive piece on the “Vision Quest” … in this Villodo discusses the turning points for a handful of his previous patients, whose difficult life situations were overcome, largely through doing a vision quest. He presents a plan for a 3-day vision quest in which one finds a “power animal”:

In shamanic cultures, when you do a vision quest, traditionally a power animal will appear to you in a dream or waking vision. The word animal comes from the same root as anima, Latin for soul, breath, the life force. Carl Jung used anima to refer to the feminine principle. An animal, then, is an expression of the feminine aspect of the soul of the world. … When you connect with a power animal you are in effect connecting with the psyche or soul of nature.
This is followed by the “conclusion”, in which Alberto ties up the various parts of his OSM “system”, putting them in context of a number of settings, from healing to inner harmony, and evolution and brain development. Again, One Spirit Medicine is a shift into new areas for Villoldo's teaching, while certainly grounded in what he's been working with over the past 30 years, it's moving into a whole new space – evidently based on his experiences with nearly dying from the various ailments that he'd picked up on his journeys.

Obviously, I have some issues with the new stuff, but this is, I think, the most “organized” form that he's generated yet. I may be misremembering, but it seems to me that up till now, he'd been good with people interfacing with his teachings to the extent that they were called to … and this has changed to something more structured and linear (although he does preface his “I recommend reading the chapters in the order in which they're presented and trying the practices and exercises.” statement with a “to get the most out of the process” caveat). Needless to say, I have significant disconnects with the new material he's inserting in the middle of that process, and I wonder how many people would be willing (or able) to go to the extremes of diet modification (and extensive supplementation) that he outlines therein. This has only been out a couple of months, and so should be available in the local brick-and-mortar stores carrying metaphysical titles, but the on-line big boys have it at the moment at a whopping 45% off of cover price, which is probably your best bet for picking up a copy.

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