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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!

Sunday, January 31st, 2016
1:25 pm
But wait, there's more ...
Well, this is a bit of an unusual case, a LTER – LibraryThing,com “Early Review” program – book that is actually early enough that I've gotten it read and am cranking out the review well in advance of its official release date (mid-March). The book, too, is a bit unusual, being co-authored by an MBA coach and a doctor who's the head of research in “integrative medicine” at a university hospital, writing about spiritual stuff. Actually, by the end of the book it's not as odd a mix (I'll hold off on that commentary until further into this) as it would seem up front, but, still …

Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman's How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation is evidently a follow-up to their How God Changes Your Brain, and it appears that they're both (they collaborated on several titles, but have a number of others separately) big into the “biology of belief” (or various similar spins on that concept). Frankly, I'm very glad I hadn't looked into their publishing history before I read the book, because it probably would have put me off of this from the start (as their titles sound awfully “preachy”). However, it goes a long way to explaining the vague disconnect that I was having with the book (which is notably not “preachy”, although it goes to great lengths to be “inclusive” of various – especially the major monotheisms – traditions). Needless to say, I would have preferred this to been a “non-religious” look at the topic, and felt the authors weren't really trying to “go there” … but I guess that's just me.

That gripe out of the way, I ended up with way more little bookmarks than usual in this … meaning that I found a lot of notable points. The book is somewhat anchored in the authors' personal stories, with bits like “As I reflected on the problem of how my own brain – my own mind – was trying to find truth, I found myself becoming more contemplative.”. They make a distinction between “small e” enlightenment, and “big E” Enlightenment, and these weave back and forth through the book, and everything is structured in a “Spectrum of Human Awareness”, which goes Level 1 – Instinctual, Level 2 – Habitual, Level 3 – Intentional, Level 4 – Creative, Level 5 – Self-Reflective, and Level 6 – Transformational, which moves from “biological awareness” to “everyday consciousness” to “spiritual awareness”, with levels 2-4 being where we find ourselves most of time.

Despite my kvetching above, the authors do have a chapter “Enlightenment Without God”, so they address the issue, but it still seems like a bit of a stretch for the authors. They note:

Since our main purpose in writing this book is to show the neurological evidence that personal transformation is available to everyone, we want to address Enlightenment through the eyes of a disbeliever.
      The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in atheism, and religious affiliation is at its lowest point in American history. In fact, over forty-six million Americans publicly declare themselves nonreligious. That's 20 percent of the adult population, with nearly a 60 percent drop-out rate for those who are younger than 30.
Interestingly, most of what's presented in this chapter are quotes from interviews with an array of “non-religious” interviewees, which then pivots into discussing drugs. I think a pro-religious bias hangs over this chapter particularly, as though the authors can't really connect with a non-religious world view, and imply that atheists need psychedelics to have enlightenment experiences!

The book is split into three sections, “The Roots of Enlightenment”, “The Paths Towards Enlightenment”, and “Moving Toward Enlightenment” with chapters covering various subjects from “What Enlightenment Feels Like” to “Channeling Supernatural Entities” (yeah, I know). As you can tell from that last bit, they poke around in a lot of neighborhoods which many might not consider particularly “enlightenment” oriented. However, they keep the neuroscience end of things up, and generally will happily hook anybody (Pentecostals speaking in tongues, mediums talking to the dead, Buddhist monks adept at meditation, Sufis doing dhikr,etc.) up to a brain scan. Here's their description of the process:

      We devised an experiment using single photo emission computed tomography (SPECT) to measure different regions of the brain. When certain areas become more active, there is increased blood flow, and if that occurs in the frontal lobe, for instance, your decision-making skills make increase. If it occurs in the parietal lobe, your conscious awareness of yourself may increase. If it occurs in the amygdala, you might feel suddenly fearful, and if it occurs in the thalamus, we believe that the event you are experiencing will feel more real and intense.
      To do a SPECT scan we start by placing a small intravenous catheter in your arm. Then when you are performing a particular activity – {such as} entering a trance state – we inject a small amount of a radioactive tracer that quickly travels to the most active areas of your brain. These tracers are generally considered quite harmless since the several nanograms of material are so small. Importantly, once the tracer gets to the active part of the brain, it stays there. So after you've completed the activity (for example, prayer or psychography) we want to measure … we'll take you down the hall to our SPECT camera and literally take a picture of what your brain was doing at that moment.
One of the things I found slightly irritating here is how they sort of dismiss some practices, while getting all enthusiastic about others. While they are very positive about a number of religious forms (discussed in detail – along with commentary on what is happening in the brains of the practitioners), they do note:

      Evidence suggests that no matter what you think Enlightenment might be, the actual experience is usually very different from anything you could imagine. At some level you must be willing to accept whatever the experience brings. In most religions, this is referred to as surrender, or giving your will over to some higher authority or power. This requires faith, perseverance, and devotion.
      But giving up old beliefs involves risk. So religion poses a double bind: traditions demand that you adhere to the specific tenets of the organization, but Enlightenment involves transcending them. This partly explains why new religions typically are established by people who felt enlightened by their spiritual endeavors, and it also explains why the orthodoxy will persecute them. And when your beliefs are transformed, it appears to be neurologically impossible to return to the old ones.
They go into various elements about “belief”, and this bit stood out:

      Our brains do not like ambiguity – a cognitive function called “uncertainty bias” … regulated by the same frontal and parietal regions that are involved in Enlightenment experiences. In other words, when you decrease your frontal lobe activity … your sense of certainty decreases. This makes it easier for the brain to engage in belief-changing activities. But when the brain activity returns to normal after the experience, it reestablishes the sense of certainty of your new, enlightened beliefs in a powerful way.
I don't know why, but I found the last section of the book, which attempts to walk the reader through practices for attaining “enlightenment”, somewhat bizarre … additionally, this is in fairly direct opposition to their statement: “Enlightenment isn't a practice, it's an emergent experience that can be triggered when the brain transitions from one stage of consciousness to the next.” They have set up a framework for the reader to experiment with various approaches (from reciting a particular prayer, or chanting a specific phrase, to staring at a blank piece of paper, and others) which has five steps: Desire, Prepare, Engage, Surrender, and Reflect. The way they frame these, however, sounds awfully “cultish” to me, such as “you must genuinely desire insight and change” and “you must completely surrender and immerse yourself in the ritual experience”. Perhaps it's my “deep agnosticism” and distrust of religions that makes this part as uncomfortable as it was for me, but much of the material in this last part of the book had me asking “what's a neuroscientist doing telling me to intone Arabic phrases while swaying back and forth?”.

This brings me back to a point in the opening paragraph above. As I've noted in other reviews, I really feel used when I get to the end of a book to find it's been, on some level, a long-form promo for a service by the author. And, in what I thought was going to be a “companion website” with additional information, there it was – a pitch for an “information product” on 5 CDs – which claims to be “based on a new model of human consciousness that Consolidates Over 31,000 Studies ...” and “shows you how to tap into progressively higher states of brain activity and awareness where problems are easier to solve and goals are easier to reach”. Talk about an “aha!” moment. At least it's “reasonably priced” compared to a lot of stuff in that market.

As noted, How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain doesn't come out for a while … so if this all sounds like something you want to get into, you're going to have to wait a couple of months. Needless to say, I was deeply ambivalent on this book, with it repeatedly veering into zones where I'm thinking it's campaigning for the Templeton Prize*, to the whole “shill for the program” bit. This, of course, being set against the very interesting science involved. However, I'll freely admit that these sorts of things bug me far more than most people, so you might be all gung-ho for this and end up spending your afternoons happily chanting allah-hu on the way to shifting the relative activity of assorted brain regions.

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Saturday, January 30th, 2016
10:52 pm
Thinking yourself well ...
This is another of those “Early Reviewer” books from LibraryThing.com … and it seems that, after years of reviewing there, I've gotten into a relationship with the LTER “almighty algorithm”, where if I request a science book, the odds are pretty good that I'm going to get that one sent to me. This came out as part of the November batch, so if I had gotten around to reading it right away, I would have actually been “early”, as this just came out a couple a weeks ago (not necessarily a “feature” in the LTER program, which frequently gets books as something of an afterthought from the publishers, sometimes considerably later than their release date).

Anyway, Jo Marchant's Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is a look at how, as exemplified in a wide number of research studies, the mind affects the body – often in ways that are quite counter-intuitive. Part of this is the by-now familiar issue with placebos. It's a major irritation (embarrassment?) for the pharmaceutical industry that absolutely neutral placebo pills in double-blind studies will perform as well as, or in many cases better than the drugs being tested. This is where the book starts off.

It is amazing what's in the literature about this … I'm cherry-picking three examples to describe here .. first, there was one kid with severe autism that, almost inexplicably, got notably better following a procedure involving running a tube down to his stomach. The doctors tried to sort out all the possible factors, and eventually identified a hormone the kid had been given that was designed to increase digestive enzymes. The child's parents were begging the doctors to keep giving the kid the hormone, which they did for a few doses, but then stopped as it was an “off label” use. However, by this time word of the “results” had spread through the whole autism community, and hundreds of families were clamoring for access to the prescription. Eventually a strict double-blind test was set up, with half the patients getting the hormone and half getting a saline shot. What this showed was that there was no difference in improvement between the two … however, both showed a 30% improvement on the autism test scale. Another illustration here was an Italian researcher who has set up a lab high up in the Alps, where he's testing effects of altitude sickness … here subjects are asked to exercise while their blood, etc. is being monitored. The division here is then between a group that's given oxygen, and another that's just breathing air through a mask. The group that only thought they were getting oxygen showed similar changes in prostaglandin levels and vasodilation … although (obviously) the actual oxygen levels in their bloodstream stayed the same. Most remarkable, though, is the material on fake surgeries, where subjects either got an actual procedure or a detailed “play acting” of one. The procedure was “vertebroplasty, which injects medical cement into the fractured bone to strengthen it” (in the spine) and the researchers had 131 patients at 11 medical centers, with the patients aware that they had only a 50/50 chance of getting the actual procedure. What was amazing here is that, even with surgery there was no significant difference between the results of the two groups – both sets of patients reported in follow-ups having their pain reduced by almost half. The story focuses on one lady, who was nearly crippled from a fall, who walked out of the hospital after the sham procedure, reported feeling vastly better, and resumed her previous activities (including golf!) afterwards.

The author then goes into a chapter on Pavlovian-style conditioning, which shows that the mind (& body) can be “tricked” into responding (because of other external cues) as though actual medications were being used. One patient ended up having her dosage effectively halved over the course of a year by utilizing cod liver oil and rose perfume as accompaniments to her actual drugs, which led her immune system to act like it was getting the drugs even when she was just being exposed to the taste/scent cues. As bizarre as this sounds, it's not really all that much different from having one's mouth water at the thought of biting into a lemon, or having one's gut go all acrophobic when seeing a vertiginous video scene.

Another fascinating bit here was in studies of exercise and fatigue … looking for a way to improve the performance of athletes … one set of researchers noted:

Obviously, there is a physical limit to what the body can achieve. But rather than responding directly to tired muscles … the brain acts in advance of this limit, making us feel tired and forcing us to stop exercising well before any peripheral signs of damage occur. In other words, fatigue isn't a physical event, but a sensation or emotion, invented by the brain to prevent catastrophic harm.
One area that Marchant looks into is that of pain management … she paints some really gruesome pictures of the work needed for burn victims (many wounded soldiers), and how toxic the drugs can be. She points out:

... the U.S. … makes up less than 5% of the global population but consumes 80% of the world's supply of opioid prescription drugs. By 2012 15,000 Americans were dying each year from prescription pill overdoses, more than from heroin and cocaine combined.
… with the CDC calling painkiller addiction “the worst drug epidemic in U.S. History”. As an alternative to the painkiller drugs, several centers are using Virtual Reality systems which cut pain scores by 35%, and can reduce pain ratings as much as 40% on top of patients drug doses. Needless to say, I found this interesting as my last full-time job was working with a “metaverse developer”, creating projects in Second Life. The author says “there is relatively little research interest in non-pharmacological methods to help people deal with pain”, and cites a Stanford researcher's view

... that part of the reason for the lack of enthusiasm is economic. Pain relief is a billion-dollar market, and drug companies have no incentive to fund trials that would reduce patient's dependence on their products … And neither have medical insurers, because if medical costs come down, so do their profits … “there's no intervening industry that has the interest in pushing {non-pharmacological methods}
She notes that this might be about to change, with the acquisition by Facebook of Oculus, whose “Rift” provides Virtual Reality immersion for somewhere around $350 rather than the $90,000 that some of the hospital systems run.

There is a lot of stuff in here … mindfulness, biofeedback, even an extensive look at Lourdes … however, at the end she veers into areas that she holds don't have any effect, Reiki, Homeopathy, “aura cleansing”, faith healing, all of which she notes score no better than placebo results (of course, those are enough for many). However, those “touchy-feely” approaches might be appreciated just because they are high-contact:

a health science researcher at the Mayo Clinic … wants to help doctors take account of how patients feel, instead of relying solely on physical tests. That's tough to do in a rushed appointment. “In modern medicine doctors usually only have one-to-three minutes of any given clinical visit with a patient that are unaccounted for ...”
Yet, she further notes that only 0.2% of the $30 billion NIH budget goes to testing mind-body therapies. This is in relation to these rather horrific data points (pardon the large quote):

      But the main threats facing us now are not acute infection, easily cured with a pill, but chronic, stress-related conditions for which drugs are not nearly as effective. We've seen that in many cases, painkillers and antidepressants may not work much better than placebo. The top ten highest grossing drugs in the U.S. help only between 1 in 25 and 1 in 4 of the people who take them; statins may benefit as few as 1 in 50.
      Meanwhile, medical interventions are causing harm that dwarfs any damage done by alternative treatments. In 2015, an analysis of psychiatric drug trials published in the British Medical Journal concluded that these drugs are responsible for more than half a million deaths in the Western world each year, in return for minimal benefits. Meanwhile, medical errors in hospital are estimated to cause more than 400,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone – making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer – with another 4-6 million cases of serious harm.
Again, I've really only been able to skim the surface of the material that's in Cure, and while not all of it is as gripping as the bits highlighted above, it's an real eye-opener.

As noted, at this writing this has been out less than two weeks, so it should certainly be available at your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore) … otherwise, the on-line guys have it at a substantial (40% off of cover) discount. The book has both strengths and weaknesses largely based on the wide array of specific topics addressed … it's a bit of a firehose of info, without much of it really having a resolved state when the author moves on to the next thing, and I don't think she is able to weave the multiple threads into a whole. It is a font of fascinating stuff that's happening out there, and if you're interested in this sort of thing, you may well want to check it out.

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Friday, January 29th, 2016
11:55 pm
Long ago ...
Sometimes books have a very brief trip from store shelf to the to-be-reviewed pile, and this is one of them … my having just run into it at the dollar store a scant ten days ago. I guess what pushed Lawrence Schiller's Marilyn & Me: A Photographer's Memories through my reading pipeline was that it was small, short, and not a particularly taxing subject (compared to some of the other stuff I've been reading of late), so it offered something easy and distracting. What more can you ask for a buck?

Frankly, this is a very brief look into the past … it's scarcely over a hundred pages, it's a small-format book, and has many pages (17?) of photographs, mostly from shoots described in the book. The author, still extant, is turning 80 this year, and he's evidently working on putting out “memories” of points in his career while he can still connect with them. He notes that he doesn't have “notes” from back then (1960-62), so this is from his recall from a half a century on. This leads to a less detailed telling, but one with an almost dream-like arc.

The book starts out in 1960 when the author was a 23-year-old photographer … but hardly a novice, having done considerable work for various of the top magazines at the time. He had been assigned by Look to photograph Marilyn Monroe on the set of a film she was doing, and was being shown around the studio by one of their publicists when he first met Marilyn. At this point, she was already in her mid-30's and seemed amused to be working with a press photographer so much younger than her, being both playful and open with Schiller.

One of the things that he recalls was the “business” side of Marilyn … she, for instance, insisted on being able to approve all shots, and could be very picky about what she thought was OK, too much muscle tone in a leg, the wrong angle on the hair, the eyes not being just right, and it would get a red X on the proof sheet. Oh, yes … and this was back in the real film days – Schiller carried multiple cameras around with him, loaded with both color and B&W film, which he personally took back to his darkroom to process and print. So there were delays involved, ones that he tried to minimize by getting the contact sheets (kids: that's where the strips of film were shot directly onto the photo paper, creating 8x10's with many small images on them) done as soon as possible, and back to Marilyn.

He did notice, however, that Marilyn, even using a pro magnifier, was rejecting shots because she really couldn't see the details … he eventually printed enlarged versions on large sheets, and found that she was rejecting far fewer images.

Another thing about that side of her that he returns to a number of times is her insecurity, if not anger, about being paid as little as she was compared to other actresses. She even insisted, on one set of images, that the magazines could only use them if they had nothing about Elizabeth Taylor in the issue.

One film that he was on set for involved a scene where Marilyn was swimming nude in a pool, and one of the places Schiller was looking to sell the more revealing images was Playboy (with Marilyn's approval). He has a record of his correspondence with Hugh Hefner, some of which is reproduced here – offering a fascinating window into the dynamics of the early days of that magazine (Hef had a great idea for a front and back cover shoot, which never got done).

Much of Marilyn & Me is like that, a look at what seems like a long-ago era, with vignettes of the movie studios (and assorted actors, and ancillary staff), the photographers of the time (he teamed up with some for a couple of projects here – back in the days of film, exclusivity drove up the price of images significantly), and Los Angeles of the era.

Schiller was there right at the end … he had swung by Marilyn's house soon after Fox had re-started Something's Got To Give, and he was going to drop off some prints to her, and see if what her publicist had said on the phone to him (about how the Playboy deal was off) was true (Marilyn said that “she wasn't authorized to make that call”). That was Saturday morning, the next day she was dead.

As noted above, there are a number of photographs in this, as you would expect, but far fewer than one might anticipate. Most, naturally, are of Marilyn, but there's one of the author, a few of Marilyn with co-stars on set, a couple “newsy” ones following her death (including a very poignant one of Joe DiMaggio and his son), and the cover of Life that he scored with a portrait shot for a memorial issue. It's hardly a “photo book”, but it has just enough of those images to give a visual counterpart to the narrative.

Again, I found Marilyn & Me less than two weeks ago at the dollar store, so it might well still be kicking around those channels at this point. It's still in print (in a very nice deckle-edge hardcover and an ebook edition), so might be out there in the brick & mortar stores. The on-line big boys have it, of course, at a bit of a discount, and there are some copies via the new/used vendors as well (but, oddly, not in the penny-plus-shipping range yet). Having been a child of the 60's, a lot of the ambient detail of this book was quite nostalgic (especially the old-style photography stuff) … it certainly is an interesting look into a world that one is familiar with, on the surface, but one that wasn't easy to access. The author had that access, and opens up that world to the reader.

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Saturday, January 9th, 2016
8:52 pm
Now, how did THAT happen?
Well, this was an interesting way to start off the new year. As regular readers know, I have read nearly no fiction over the past couple 12-15 years (I can think of maybe 4 titles out of over 700+ books read in that span), and, generally speaking, don't even look at a book if it says “a novel” on the cover. So, I was totally blind-sided by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds: A tale of the singularity, posthumanity, and awkward social situations, which I recently picked up at the dollar store. There was nothing in the sub-title that made me think this was fiction (although, in reflection, I suppose “awkward social situations” would be a somewhat touchy thing for a non-fiction book), and I had no idea that Doctorow was a scifi author (I was familiar with him as a blogger and tech writer, a voice of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and advocate for “open source” software and Creative Commons licensing). So, I launched into this thinking it was going to be somewhat similar to my recently-reviewed Our Grandchildren Redesigned, with a somewhat different spin (encompassing those “awkward social situations”). But, no. Not that certain aspects of related futurisms aren't thickly woven through the book, but it's a story and very much in the Douglas Adams / Terry Pratchett mold (I have no idea if this is Doctorow's regular mode, but I was frequently reminded of those authors when reading this – even when they weren't being directly referenced).

I must admit, part of me wanted to stop reading with that “ooh, ick - cooties!” reaction (fiction is, after all, something of a Jedi Mind Trick to get you infected with the author's fantasies, and I hate being manipulated like that), but I figured (as it was a pretty quick read – I'm amazed how much the pages fly by in fiction as opposed to the stuff I usually read) that since it was not an uninteresting read (I walked away with at least one “that's a fascinating concept” data point), I'd press on.

Unfortunately, as I've noted before, I have very little experience in reviewing fiction … most of the habits I've built up in non-fiction would no doubt be decried as “spoilers”, so please, if this is an issue for you (and I know from reading the boards over on LibraryThing, there are a LOT of people who get their panties in a wad over the most minimal details being revealed about a novel), just stop reading here and skip down to the end of the review.

Of course, one of those habits is sticking in little slips of paper as bookmarks to get me back to particularly interesting concepts, nice turns of phrase, or significant bits of exposition to flesh out my review. I did manage to stick three of these in here, one early on for a notable rant that I found amusing: “Jesus Buddha humping the corpse of Oliver Cromwell ...” – amusing, if not particularly enlightening in this context. As I noted above, there was at least one blatant nod to Douglas Adams here: “Hyperspace bypasses, Vogon poetry, the heat death of the universe: none of these things feature in the extraordinary situation now pertaining to the end of the world ...”, and I've probably missed numerous other shout-outs (oh, there are Dalek references and Ayn Rand as well). One thing that I'm quite familiar with is the virtual world of Second Life (where I worked in my last full-time job), and there is “Your Second Life” in the book, one quote relating to this that I found hilarious was this snippet: “Architectural hubris is cheap as air in the cloud.” (given that in the waning days of my tenure in SL, I built this Speer-like bit of “architectural hubris”, and I can only imagine what would be possible given near-infinite computing power!

Anyway, to the story outline … the main character is Huw Jones, a Welsh fellow (initially) who is stubbornly clinging on to a “reality-based” lifestyle in an age when significant chunks of the race (including his parents) have “uploaded themselves into the cloud” (something discussed in that book I linked to above) and are living in a virtual reality based on planetary matter reduced to “computronium”, which is formed into Dyson spheres. Here's a chunk of descriptive text:

      The cloud – the diffuse swarm of solar-powered nano-computers hat the singularity built from the bones of the inner solar system (Earth aside) – consists of quadrillions of chunks of raw quantum computing power, each of them powerful enough to run a shard in which thousands of human-scale minds can thrive (or a handful of superhuman ones). Entire small moons and planets were consumed back in the day …
      From the outside, from a terrestrial embodied point of view, the cloud looks like a single entity, a monolithic slab of smartmatter thinking with the the mysterious and esoteric thoughts of an uploaded syncitium of futurist minds, disembodied think-states floating in an abstract neurological void.
      But on the inside, the cloud consists of a myriad of shards separated by light-speed communications links, the homes of hordes of bickering beings who cling to their own individuality as tightly as any mud-grubbing neophobe. ...
Huw is such a “neophobe” that he lives without electricity, and spends much of his time hand-making ceramics. However, he ends up going to a party at an acquaintance's place, and everything goes to heck. He wakes up and finds he's acquired a glowing bio-hazard tattoo (an official warning device), which he has to keep hidden, as he's been called to jury duty in a court in North Africa where extreme technologies are considered – his voice nominally being needed as a neophobe.

Now, while the story unfolds in a reasonably straight line, much of the detail is quite convoluted. Despite Huw's lifestyle, even those who have not “uploaded” have a lot of options, including changing their sexes seemingly on a whim, so a character “Bonnie”, goes from female to male to female to male throughout the book, and Huw spends much of this in a female form. It appears that the whole pretense of the trial is a sham, set up to get Huw in the presence of a particular entity, which manifests as a whistle-like thing that hops down Huw's throat. This is an “ambassador” of some galactic super cloud entity, which has inexplicably chosen him (her?) as the representative of the various manifestations of humanity.

Oh, on the way to the final trial, Huw is captured by some strange Fundy cult in the American south, interfaces with a very odd counter-cult, and gets exposed to a massive ant culture … all on the way to having his/her awareness uploaded against his/her will into the cloud (which he previously described, in the case of his parents, as their “suicide” as the physical brain, etc. gets dematerialized in the process of uploading its encoded information).

Once uploaded he is set into a training phase, and has two years of “subjective time” to learn how to operate in the cloud. Huw – the central one – uses this time to re-create his home in Wales and throw pots. However, there are hundreds of thousands of other “instances”, with the version 639,219 being her main opponent in parts of the book (referred to as the number, as Huw refuses to call her “Huw”) - one who had actually spent those two years learning to be an expert in life in the cloud. Oh, and most of the jurors get a teapot with a genie inside it … Huw's genie is a major factor in helping (sort of) Huw in his/her struggles with 639,219.

Eventually, Huw is set to be tested by the Authority – the galactic entity:

“It calls itself the Authority. It claims it represents a hive-intelligence merged from about 216 intelligent species from the oldest part of the galaxy. It claims that there were once about four orders of magnitude more such species, but the rest were wiped out in vicious, galactic resource wars that only ended with the merger of the remaining combatants into a single entity. Now it patrols the galaxy to ensure that any species that attempt transcendence are fit to join it. If it finds a species wanting, pfft! It takes care of them before they get to be a problem”.
Or, in a later discussion:

It's not about integrating Earth into the cloud, or about some stupid squabble over aesthetics: if the galactic federation finds us Guilty of Being a Potential Nuisance, we don't get a second chance.
Huw's cloud-based Mother is a character who becomes significant once he's uploaded, but his Dad (or a projection of something like his Dad) ends up being the foil (judge?) with whom he has to work a “world building kit”, the results of which will tell the Authority whether or not humanity makes the cut. Huw thinks he's still finishing things up when his Dad says “The objective of the exercise was to procure a representative sample of moves, played by a proficient emissary, and we've now delivered that.”, to which Huw rather desperately responds: “You mean that was it?” … and his Dad explains:

“Son, do you know how long you were in there?” His dad raises an eyebrow. “You spent nearly a million subjective days shoving around sims, and so did the other billion instances of you that came through the door. If a trillion subjective years isn't enough for –”
Leading up to the (rather anti-climactic, given all the chaos preceding it) revelation that Huw/humanity passed the test. Some loose ends get tied up, a lot of others are left hanging, and the book just sort of ends.

OK, safe to come back in if you were waiting for the spoilers to stop.

As I mentioned, I got The Rapture of the Nerds (in the hardcover edition) at the dollar store less than a month ago, so copies might well still be bouncing around that channel. It is still in print in a paperback (and ebook) edition, and at least one web site seems to have the entire book online (thanks to Doctorow's very liberal view of copyright). Used copies of this are available via the on-line new/used vendors for as little a 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “very good” copy.

I must admit that parts of this messed with my mind in a very Philip K. Dick way, so, while I found it an enjoyable read, I also found it somewhat disturbing, but I just don't “do fiction” these days, and I'm pretty sure somebody used to hosting other people's fantasies on their brain systems wouldn't have the same reactions. As it reminded me of the works of a number of authors I quite liked in my fiction-reading past, I guess I'm pretty safe in recommending it, especially as it's quite reasonably available.

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Thursday, December 31st, 2015
7:31 pm
More like "when stuff went wrong" with America ...
This is a really awesome book, one of the best scores from the Dollar Store in quite a while (although, admittedly, I bought it almost two years prior to getting around to reading it). Larry Schweikart's Seven Events That Made America America: And Proved That the Founding Fathers Were Right All Along is a great read, and way more engaging than what I'd assumed when letting it linger in my to-be-read piles for as long as I did.

I suppose I should, perhaps, offer up one caveat here: it you're of the left/liberal persuasion, you'll probably not be happy with this, because the author is working from the other side of the fence, and a lot of stuff that you might think is “progress(ive)”, is what he (and I) consider the destruction of America. This is not, however, a political rant, but an vivid and informative look at various historical “events” (a term that's sort of broadly used here) that changed the course of our country's history to assorted extents (some of this is more about tone or tenor of the culture, or directions on policy, etc.).

The book starts with fairly “old news”, looking back to the time of Martin Van Buren … and a cast of characters that include such currency-enshrined folks as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton … in an era when the entire Federal budget was a mere $10,000,000.00! The initial chapter is nominally about the birth of “big government”, but some of the more fascinating bits are about electoral politics, starting with:

At the time, it wasn't necessary for individual politicians to resist “big government” because the system the Founders had established fought against it in myriad ways on its own. One important restriction came in the requirement that most voters still had to own property, hence they were reluctant to suffer high taxes or accept burdensome regulations. Property requirements also ensured high voter turnout because voters had a stake in the system.
While it's hard to advocate for a return to suffrage being limited to “landed white males” (despite how appealing that might be to those of us who are “landed white males”), one has to admit the system was originally set up to make sure there was a level of “ownership” (and responsibility) amongst the electorate that has not been seen in a long time.

One of the most intriguing parts here is, in the wake of Van Buren's establishment of the “Jacksonian Democrats” party, and the counter-establishment of the Whigs (both, arguably, established to avoid an outright national debate on slavery - “on the assumption that principles were for sale”), the creation of a matrix of political corruption still with us today (helllloooo Chicago):

The structure of the new party … employed a division of national, state, county, district, ward, and precinct division of the electorate, assigning to each level a partisan director charged with getting out the vote. Electoral success was then rewarded with promotion, in which ward captains became district directors, and so on, until all possible job holders in the party organization were appointed to paid government positions … the across-the-board process of handing out positions to custom collectors, sheriffs, county clerks, and hundreds of other plum political jobs. Since the total number of government jobs remained small, however, the bureaucracy grew slowly – a few thousand new jobs per every state and general election – concealing the corrosive dynamic at work.
I was further surprised to find how long-standing the corruption of the news media has been. I thought the current monolithic Leftist slant of the MSM was a poison of recent vintage, however:

... at the time “newspapers” emerged as a driving force in American political life, they had almost nothing to do with objective news. To the contrary, they deliberately slanted every report and openly advertised their partisan purposes through their names. Partisanship was their primary raison d'etre. Editors viewed readers as voters who needed to be guided to appropriate views, then mobilized to vote. {One paper} flatly condemned neutrality as an absence of principles, and overall, editors increasing discarded news in favor of propoganda.
Sounds like they're talking about CNBC! Anyway, the effort to keep slavery out of debate failed, and this moves into the second chapter, dealing with the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which helped to push the new (anti-slavery) Republican party to the forefront (quickly replacing the Whigs), and resulting in the Civil War. This chapter is fascinating in its legal analysis (and “following the money”), but without much to directly quote, aside from the comment “What is clear is that the Founders did not favor a supremely powerful, activist judiciary.”, and goes on to describe numerous instances where the courts have created massively bad results from their decisions.

The next chapter deals with the devastating flood that hit Johnstown, PA in 1899, killing 2,200 people and displacing 27,000 … and focuses on the differences of how local, non-governmental, help is vastly more efficient than when government gets involved. In the case of the Johnstown flood, the chairman of the local NCR – National Cash Register – company almost single-handedly took control of the situation in the initial hours and early days, and threw all the resources at his disposal at helping remediate the situation well in advance of when the government (the local government proved useless) could respond. This goes on to look at how government involvement kept (over-) reaching into more and more areas, from the New Deal programs and on into the nightmares of FEMA inadequacies on up through the response to Hurricane Katrina and the total debacle of New Orleans.

The fourth event is covered in the chapter “Ike Has A Heart Attack, Triggering Dietary Nannyism” which looks at governmental meddling into what we eat, and other health issues … frequently based more on political concerns (like the vile stuff being pushed by the current FLOTUS), and not so much on anywhere near solid science. Eisenhower's supposed heart attack (there seems to be some doubt even about that) launched a spiral of “we must do something” lunacy among the political and media classes … and resulted in the on-going war on meat consumption and cholesterol – which is looking more and more like a misguided crusade.

It is true that coronary cases seemed to increase dramatically between 1940 and 1970 – but this was entirely because other diseases were being conquered and thus were not as rampant. A quarter of all men died of coronary disease in 1910, for example, and another quarter died from infections, parasites, flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, or tuberculosis, virtually all of which were eliminated or greatly suppressed by 1970. Cancer, meanwhile, went from eighth on the list to number two, and the rate of heart disease “doubled”. Simply put, modern medicine had conquered so many diseases over the previous century that people lived long enough to encounter (and die from) new or rare diseases. Cancer and heart disease, which took longer to manifest themselves than, say, smallpox, became the leading killers. … Even the World Health Organization acknowledged that “much of the apparent increase in [heart disease] mortality may simply be due to improvements in the quality of certification and more accurate diagnoses ...
Heart disease was only the first salvo, as nearly every political faction has its own “food fetish” (remember when Chicago banned foie gras?) and year after year more and more idiotic regulations are put in place to salve some social activist's personal pet peeve in the area of food … devolving into the current politics-trumping-reality morass of the climate crusaders (a topic the author gets into a good bit in here as well).

Tom Paine once said, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression.” In the decades after Eisenhower's heart attack, intrusions on economic liberty were common … but perhaps the most insidious threat of all was the erosion of freedom in the name of “a person's own good.” At the very time that some well-meaning, but myopic, Americans sought to limit everyone's freedoms – to choose what to eat, what to drink, even what to drive – under the auspices of “helping” them become “healthier,” Paine would have screamed “Someone guard them from oppression!” Edmund Burke seemed to have the government's diet police and global warming in mind when he wrote in 1784, “The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.”
Chapter 5 is primarily about rock and roll and the fall of Communism in Europe. The author is a former rock drummer (his band Rampage was an opening act for Steppenwolf and numerous other groups back in the day), and his enthusiasm for the subject is evident in this (aided by his access to many rock luminaries for background interviews). However, it is also about how big government has muscled into arenas that the Founders never intended:

Rock and roll's contribution to the collapse of communism provides one more piece of evidence that the human soul longs for freedom in all areas. It was a principle the Founders understood when they limited government's ability to intrude on arts, speech, and business. … Overall, though, the Founders were cautious in their support for government aid to any sort of art or entertainment, aware that with money came strings, and with strings, political agendas. With a few exceptions, they favored keeping government out of human affairs wherever possible.
The sixth chapter deals with an “event” in as much as it pivots on the bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, but it's a much more convoluted look at the descent of the Middle East into a destabilized mess in the wake of WW2 (and the colonial powers ceding control to local factions), how Reagan got coerced into getting the U.S. involved in the region, and how the current wave of radicalized Islam arose, spread, and performed terrorist attacks that the mainstream media for decades insistently white-washed as “criminal acts” and not “acts of war” and/or terrorism. This is dense, though informative, and ends with a question:

What would George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson make of militant Islam ...? It's difficult to say … In the case of the Barbary pirates, however, whose actions did constitute the terrorism of the day, Jefferson's response was quick, substantial, and sharp. He sent the entire U.S. Navy to crush all the Barbary States, not just Tripoli (the only one to declare war on the United States).
Finally, the book looks at the media, with the “event” being the election of the current POTUS (and associated "thrills up the leg"), who benefited from nearly start-to-finish support from the MSM. Here Schweikart returns to his previous looks at the historical context of the American press. This is fascinating, but it largely serves to provide context for a look at how one-sided “news” has become:

When those influencing others' political choices were members of the media, a significant in-breeding started to develop. Contrary to the notion that the elites were always “conservative,” in journalism the predominance of the peer group ensured that primarily liberal views would triumph. … Journalism's homogeneity went beyond a commonly shared view among reporters about gaining, and extending, the authority of the news media. Rather than diversifying, media elites homogenized even further. From 1964 to 1976, the percentage voting for the Democratic candidate in national elections never fell below 81 percent.
The author goes into a lot of research into how the Left/liberal candidate or story regularly received 5x or so “positive” stories.

Increasingly, all “news” credibility disappeared. Major newspapers and especially television “news” programs had become entirely propagandistic … Nor did the news organizations seem concerned about losing their audience and readers, because … “the mainstream media's audience is the mainstream media.” Reporters {write} for each other, to impress each other, to generate prestige points at cocktail parties and social affairs, and, of course, for access to the levers of government when that government was in Democratic hands.
Further …

The protections that the Founders put in the Constitution for freedom of speech were meant to specifically ensure freedom of political dissent by the press – but what happens if the press, for its own purposes, refuses to serve as a check on government? In their well-deserved focus on protecting political speech, the Founders never addressed the possibility that the Fourth Estate would find itself in bed with government itself.
Needless to say, Seven Events That Made America America is wide ranging in its subject matter, but is presented in a very readable style, and is extensively supported by significant end notes. This is definitely one of those books that I wish everybody would read.

As noted, I got this at the dollar store almost two years ago (so it's pretty much certainly off of those shelves by now), but it is still in print (in a paperback edition), so should be easy enough to find or order. You can also get copies from the new/used guys for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “like new” copy of the hardcover or a new copy of the paperback. Again, this is an “all and sundry” recommendation from me … it's a great read and throws a cold hard light on some of horrible things that have been trying to make America less like the America we deserve.

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Wednesday, December 30th, 2015
7:17 pm
They don't make leaders like this anymore ...
Here's one that I missed in my schooling … although it's understandable as I really didn't do much in the Roman stuff (it's not like I went to a Catholic school or a seminary). However, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who lived from 121 - 180 ce and reigned from 161 - 180 ce) was about as ideal a ruler as one might wish for … not only did he have all the requisite military and organizational skills you'd want, he was also a significant Stoic philosopher.

Marcus Aurelius had been hand-picked by Hadrian to be his successor (being adopted by Pius Antonius, who was adopted by Hadrian – as a sort of two generation succession plan), and was made Consul (leader of the Senate) at the young age of 19. He was a student of the Stoic philosophers, very little of whose actual writings have survived … meaning that his Meditations, which are basically notes to himself (in fact, the original title of these was “To Himself” – which he wrote in his 50's while in Germany), is one of the most coherent expressions of that philosophy.

The Meditations are twelve “books” with varying subject matter. The first of these is a listing of people who had an influence on his thought, and parts of this are remarkably modern in their approach … I especially noted section 14:

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice … and from him I received the idea of a polity I which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government that respects most of all the freedom of the governed …
I was a bit frustrated sitting down to write this review, as (except for the preceding) I wasn't able to immediately suss out what specific passages I'd meant to be flagging with my little book marks, several of which were in the various parts of this book. So, I guess I'm going to have to dig a bit to find stuff to give you a feel of this. Again, this is a bunch of “notes”, really, most of the 10-page-or-shorter “books” here have 40-60 numbered sections with individual thoughts, so it's not a “philosophical system” so much that would have a logical arc to it … making it a bit of a challenge to summarize.

Here's one from Book IV, section 40:

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe, too, the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.
Marcus Aurelius was writing these in his 50's, and he spends a lot of text returning to a concept of how fleeting human life is (“All ephemeral, dead long ago.” VIII:25) … there are many sections here which rattle off a list of names (no doubt famous in his time) who are gone, the courts, the kings, etc. This next bit is a more concise example of this, from Book VII, section 21:

In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you.
One of the interesting bits of info from the introductory material here was the source of the term “Stoic”, which has come to mean having the ability to endure pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining, but it actually comes from the Greek “Stoa”, a covered colonnaded walkway around a building, which is where the philosopher Zeno held gatherings … which fits in to the idea that Stoicism “is not so much a single systematic doctrine as a winding intellectual current” – so it got named for where its adherents hung out!

While he writes about various more “mystical” things (how substances move from state to state over time, all a part of keeping “the whole universe ever youthful and in its prime” – XII:23), and how one can best make one's way through society, much of the Meditations are focused on what one has to assume to be his own contemplation of death, which I think is well summed up in this bit from Book XII, section 21:

Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and perish in order tht other things in continuous success may exist.
This is not to say that the entire book is a downer contemplation on dissolution and death, but – given the biographical context in which this was created – it is an over-riding theme which puts in context all the other material about how to conduct oneself, how to manage one's internal states, and the contemplations about how the universe operates (including what could well have been somewhat blasphemous at the time – his occasional questioning about the existence of the Gods).

The version of Meditations that I have is one of those trusty Dover Thrift books, with a $3.00 cover price. Needless to say, these can be thrown in on another order from the on-line guys (I've recently gotten Amazon Prime, so no longer have to navigate orders to the free-shipping promised land, but these were always handy for pushing things over that line), but you should be able to talk your local brick-and-mortar book vendor into ordering in a copy (I doubt they're on the shelves, given the very slim profit margin on a book that inexpensive). This is a classic of Western thought, and I'm glad to have “caught up with it” (especially as I'm currently at the age which the author wrote this, and am dealing with some of the same things my life). It's one of those things that everybody should read, but in our currently degraded society, there are few that would actually make the effort … but for three bucks and a few hours of reading, why not?

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Tuesday, December 29th, 2015
9:18 am
When is enlightenment not enlightenment?
I'm sort of surprised that I didn't get around to reading this back in high school or college … I certainly remember the more “hippie-ish” folks in high school being big fans of the book. Honestly, had I read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha in those days I'd probably have been more enthusiastic about it than I am encountering it now. I ordered the Dover Thrift Edition of this (and a few other titles), in order to have some “quick reads” to counter a couple of big thick things I'm currently reading (and will be for months), and I figured that this was one of the notable gaps in my literature background.

The problem I had with this probably starts with the title … why would Hesse name the protagonist the same name as the historical Buddha – while including the Buddha in the story? It's like naming a character Arjuna and not having Krsna involved! Plus, the general story arc … at least through the first part of the book … sounds quite like a re-telling of the Buddha's story, albeit differing in the particulars. Having had 40 years since high school to study Buddhist material, I found the parallels being confusing rather than enticing, with the noted “WTF?” element of this Siddhartha being a different character than the Buddha.

Of course, I'm the wrong person to ask about fiction or parables, and I take it (from some of the info in the Introduction) that Hesse habitually has his characters “undergo the arduous process of self-discovery to reconcile {their} warring halves and find harmony and peace” via some process which combines “psychoanalysis and Eastern religion”. This is a relatively new translation, by Stanley Applebaum in 1999 (a fairly rare thing for these Dover books), and his commentary and notes raise some interesting issues. It turns out that Hesse, despite his intents to do so, never actually visited India, but was on a steamer trip through other parts of southeast Asia … leading to his using Pali words for things, and making some major misstatements (such as including Chimpanzees and Jaguars in the north Indian fauna, although those are native to Africa and the Americas, respectively).

The cynic in me wants to say this was popular with the “drug culture” because you'd have to be stoned to take it at face value, but that would be unkind. Perhaps the main character's constantly changing his path was the key element in the book's appeal.

Anyway, like the Buddha, this Siddhartha was a child of wealth (son of a prominent Brahman, rather than a king), who rejected that life. In this case, his rejection comes from looking at the results of the priests, scholars, and others in his life … that they have, even into old age, not achieved enlightenment – leading him to assume that their methods are wanting. Like the Buddha he leaves to join a group of wandering ascetics (here called Samanas, a Pali term) and learns the basics of what he later claims as “what he knows” – to think, to wait, and to fast. His childhood friend Govinda (confusingly, a name related to Krsna) comes with him and they travel together.

Govinda has heard of the teachings of the Buddha (here Gotama) and wants to see this teacher … Siddhartha has already bored of the teachings of the Samanas, and agrees that they'll go see Gotama. There is a passage there which shows Siddhartha to be somewhat sarcastic … mocking Govinda and saying that they already have the “finest fruits” of Gotama's teaching – his calling them away from the Samanas. He specifically notes:

But please also recollect that other thing you heard me say, that I have become distrustful and weary of teaching and learning, and that I have little faith in words that come to us from teachers.
… not exactly the best frame of mind to be looking at a whole new philosophy. He also, in taking leave of the ascetic elder, has a major confrontation, and basically tells Govinda “watch this!” and puts an advanced enchantment spell on the old man to give them his blessing.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Siddhartha does not join Govinda in “taking refuge” with Gotama, but tells him that he's leaving. On his way out, he encounters Gotama, and has the audacity to engage him in discussion … which the Buddha brushes off as “quarreling over mere words”, adding:

But the doctrine you have heard from me is not an opinion of mine; its goal is not to explain the world to thirsters after knowledge. Its goal is different; its goal is deliverance from suffering.
This does not suit Siddhartha, and he goes into something of a tantrum, including:

O Sublime One – no one will achieve salvation through teachings! O Venerable One, you will not be able to inform and tell a single person in words and by means of teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment! The doctrine of the enlightened Buddha contains a great deal, it teaches many to live righteously, to shun evil. But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secrets of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands.
… basically saying he's leaving because he isn't being handed enlightenment on a silver platter! He leaves the Buddha and heads back into the world (as it were), and has his own sort of illumination, although this is largely just rejecting everything he's studied.

The book shifts dramatically here, as Siddhartha goes very much back to the world, he falls in love with a courtesan who promises (if he “cleans up” and gets fine clothes and money) to teach him the arts of love, she introduces him to a merchant who can use his skills (in reading, writing, and analytic thought) and apprentices him … over a few years he becomes rich, comfortable, and addicted to gambling. He eventually gets disgusted with himself, and goes off to a pleasure garden he owns, and (like the Buddha story, again), sits under a tree and reviews his life. He eventually “dies to” all those things and simply leaves … wandering to the same river crossing where a kindly ferryman had brought him across years before. Here he contemplates suicide, but falls asleep. He awakes to find a monk sitting with him – which is his old companion Govinda (who does not recognize him). The two chat for a while, and Govinda leaves. Eventually Siddhartha convinces the Ferryman to take him on as an apprentice, and he spends years “learning from the river”.

The courtesan had had a son by him, and they come by … but she's killed by a snake, and the boy stays with Siddhartha and the Ferryman. The kid's a spoiled brat, and eventually steals their money and the boat and heads back to the city. Much psychological processing ensues. Eventually, the Ferryman leaves to be a vanaprastha (forest hermit), and Siddhartha is the new Ferryman-slash-sage at the river crossing. At the end of the story, Govinda shows up again, they discuss their differing views of reality (at this point Siddhartha has developed his own version of enlightenment) and, after a long visionary description, he bows and leaves and the book ends (and, frankly, I thought it really needed a coda to sort of wrap things up somewhat, but it just stops).

Again, this book is a classic, but it really is a jumble of things, not particularly well paced, and leading to an ending all too similar to The Sopranos notorious cut-to-black final scene. Of course, if one was young, impressionable, stoned, and encountering Eastern Mysticism for the first time in reading Siddhartha, none of the caveats I've brought up would likely matter. Heck, the main character's moving away from everything that he gets bored/dissatisfied with would probably be a draw, as would his immersion in the erotic arts in the penultimate phase of his existence. One must wonder what was Hesse's intent here … was he trying to forge some syncretic form of western psychological theory with his understanding of Indian teachings?

While I enjoyed the book, it was hard for me to disengage my “critical” mind that was constantly cross-referencing what was in the book with what I knew about the supposed source material. If you've read less about Buddhism (and other Indian religions) you're likely to have less resistance to the story as it's presented. And while this is nowhere near as abstruse as most of those “teaching stories” that I find so irritating, it's still something of a “parable”, so I'm likely fighting with it in ways that others wouldn't be.

Being a Dover Thrift book, it's cheap … with a cover price of a whopping $3.50 … so even a penny copy used (which there are several available) would be more than that with shipping – so your best bet might be to request your local brick-and-mortar to order in a copy for you (although a free ebook version – in a different translation – is available via Project Gutenberg).

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Monday, December 28th, 2015
4:55 pm
As Seen On TV ...
OK, so this one is obviously a dollar store find (it's not exactly the sort of thing that I'd go looking for, either in a bookstore or online!) … but Dog the Bounty Hunter is one of the things that are typically playing when I'm getting my coffee and breakfast, so I'm familiar with the characters, and, frankly, I had enough curiosity about the “back story” of the show to be willing to read an autobiographical book by The Dog. It turns out that Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given by Duane “Dog” Chapman is a fairly fascinating read … covering lots of stuff that I'd not gotten from my occasional watching of the show. I suspect that co-author Laura Morton has a lot to do with this book being as high-quality as it is … as Dog himself notes that he's lacking in a lot of the stuff that would keep something like this from being embarrassing to both the author and the reader.

One thing that's hard to miss in the show is what a train wreck the Chapman family is (I've frequently thought when hearing of the legal troubles of various folks on the show “these folks are in law enforcement, how do they keep getting in trouble like that???”) … and that is certainly a key theme here. As folks familiar with the show will know, Dog has had at least a couple of families, as he has grown kids working with him, and little kids living with him. He goes into some of his own background, including the events (as a member of the Disciples motorcycle gang) that landed him in prison in his youth. His prison experience has a lot to do with him becoming the sort of bounty hunter one sees on TV, both in terms of relating to pretty much everybody, and the whole “counseling” thing he does with the skips he catches.

I had been vaguely aware (via the internet) that he'd gotten in trouble chasing a guy down to Mexico, but hadn't had much details on that. This was one of the main story lines in the book … his pursuit of “wealthy playboy” (heir to the Max Factor fortune) Andrew Luster – connected to eighty-seven counts of rape – into Mexico, while successful in capturing the suspect, resulted in him and his team being thrown into jail for a charge similar to kidnapping. Due to the corruption of the Mexican legal system, this dragged on and on, with Luster's “people” trying to make things as difficult as possible for him. When he did get out, he wasn't able to get paid because of the legal entanglements, and he was spending tons of money on what turned out to be less-than-efficient legal counsel. Eventually he got new lawyers who got things straightened out, but it was financially devastating.

There's a lot of material about various “family” issues. One of his previous wives (he seems to have had several prior to Beth) was rather vindictive and not exactly an ideal “role model” for his kids, several of which got totally messed up on drugs. He ended up losing one daughter up in Alaska, and having a son turn completely against him … which produced the other on-going issue in the book. This son was hanging out with a “bad crowd”, including a black girlfriend who was controlling the kid – pushing him to “get that TV money” out of Dog … leading to them recording their phone, and eventually catching Dog using the “N-word” (which he was totally comfortable using from his prison time), and selling the tape to one of the tabloids. The media frenzy was predictable, with the “usual suspects” spewing outrage and insisting that A&E cancel the show. Dog seemed to be genuinely blind-sided by this, and really had to scramble to get things back on track. He was fortunate to have some ministers who were in his corner who were able to smooth some of the rougher patches, and eventually the reality of him being “clueless” rather than “racist” eventually won out.

Honestly, given the number of “nightmare” stories in here it makes one wonder how he was able to keep in business. He had problems with insurance companies (which resulted in him having to give up his license in Hawaii for a while), former employees making fraudulent charges against the company, and near-disasters with assorted law enforcement groups.

There are a lot of other behind-the-scenes stories as well, featuring characters from the show, his on-going relationship with the network (one wonders if much of this would have gone quite differently if the show wasn't their top program), plus a couple of "hunt stories" sprinkled in. Needless to say, Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given is going to appeal mainly to fans of the Dog the Bounty Hunter program … while the stories in it play out without necessarily needing to know the show, I'm not sure that it would be as interesting if one didn't have the familiarity with the context and characters that folks who do watch Dog would have going in.

I'm surprised that this doesn't have any 1¢ copies out in the new/used channels, but you can get a “very good” copy of the hardcover for just over buck (before shipping) … it's still in print, and the on-line big boys currently have it at a 60% discount. Of course, if you can find it at Dollar Tree, you'll only be spending a buck … but that's an iffy thing once the books hit those shelves. Did I need to read this? No. Was it an interesting read? Yeah, sure. Would I have read this if I didn't occasionally watch the show? Don't think so. If you're a fan, you'll probably want to check this out … if not, well … it's not a bad book.

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Thursday, December 17th, 2015
10:59 am
Exponential endeavors ...
This is the second of those books that a mentor in the company that I'm currently developing a business with had suggested that folks in his group read. I found it odd that, sitting down to write this review, I could (unaided) recall nothing about this book … which is hardly the usual case. Fortunately, I had quite a few of my little bookmarks tucked into this (and so was able to re-familiarize myself with it a few weeks past the initial read). The Compound Effect: Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success is by Darren Hardy, the publisher of Success magazine, and is, as one might expect, something in that rah-rah self-development niche, but not obnoxiously so.

To cut to the chase (and I appreciate the author being willing to define his terms up front), “The Compound Effect is the principle of reaping huge rewards from a series of small, smart choices.” … where “small, seemingly insignificant steps completed consistently over time” end up producing radical differences in long-term results. A classic example of this is the grain-on-the-chessboard tale that the author updates to a calendar, asking if you'd prefer to get three million dollars or a penny that doubled every day for 31 days (while starting slowly, the penny approach pulls ahead on day 30, and ends up with nearly eleven million dollars at the end of the month).

The book has a fairly straight-forward arc, with chapters on “Choices”, “Habits”, “Momentum”, “Influences”, and “Acceleration”, following the initial introductory chapter. One of the things that I think works well here is that each chapter ends with a “Summary Action Steps” section that plays off of the examples in each chapter to chart out suggestions for moving forward with the ideas. There are also a number of assessment tools, which appear in the book in very compressed form, but have printable (and expanded) versions available free at the book's companion website.

The book is hardly a “textbook”, however, presenting a melange of “self-development” stuff (like the “formula” for luck), stories from the author's life (like discovering, to his shock, early in his real estate career that he owed over a hundred grand in taxes that he'd not put away money for – his accountant insisted that he start to carry around a little notebook and begin to keep track of every cent he spent), and lot of random examples of how things escalate (like a $4/day coffee habit costing $50k over 20 years).

The little notebook concept is something that he especially encourages:

To help you become aware of your choices, I want you to track every action that relates to the area of your life you want to improve. If you've decided you want to get out of debt, you're going to track every penny you pull from your pocket. If you've decided you want to lose weight, you're going to track everything you put into your mouth. If you've decided to train for an athletic event, you're going to track every step you take, every workout you do. Simply carry around a small notebook, something you'll keep in your pocket or purse at all times, and a writing instrument. You're going to write it all down. Every day. Without fail. No excuses, no exceptions. As if Big Brother's watching you.
He further suggests that you do this for a minimum of three weeks … the first week will shock you, the second week will find you modifying your behaviors to either avoid writing stuff in the book or wanting to write stuff in the book, and hopefully by week three keeping track of things will have established itself as a habit.

Oh, that coffee example, he suggests that you look at the cost of something that you're considering buying and multiplying it by five, to give you a ballpark on what the same amount of money invested for 20 years would produce … so he wants you to ask yourself if that $50 item is worth $250 to you … if so, then buy it, if not “chances are you'll put down that fifty-dollar crepe maker”. Most of the changes described here are very slight, yet he illustrates how big a difference they can make with numerous examples, such as the difference between the No.1 ranked golfer and the No.10 ranked golfer is only 1.9 strokes – about 2.7% better – but resulting in a 5x difference in prize money.

A concept that shows up in the Habits chapter is finding your “why-power” as opposed on relying in on your willpower. The illustration he makes is of a 10” wide 30ft long plank … anybody would be happy to walk that for a small reward … but put that plank across the gap between two tall buildings and nobody would try it … unless … if your kid was on top of the other building, which was on fire, almost everybody would venture across to attempt a rescue (although I'd not like to figure the odds on how many make it across both ways). When the “why” is big enough “you will be willing to perform almost any how.

This leads into “core motivation” and “find your fight” … one needs to find something that makes you “fully motivated” – even if that something is “less-than-noble”, even hate … using “a powerfully negative emotion or experience to create an even more powerful and successful end”.

In the section on Goals, Hardy gives the most lucid explanation of the Law of Attraction that I've seen:

You only see, experience, and get what you look for. If you don't know what to look for, you certainly won't get it. By our very nature, we are goal-seeking creatures. Our brain is always trying to align our outer world with what we're seeing and expecting in our inner world. So, when you instruct your brain to look for the things you want, you will begin to see them. In fact, the object of your desire has probably always existed around you, but your mind and eyes weren't open to “seeing” it.
One of the more extensive things on the companion website is an 8-page .pdf file on setting and working with goals. There is also a “Habits” form on the site, which relates directly to the identified Goals. In the book there is a long section which talks about “Five Strategies for Eliminating Bad Habits” and “Six Techniques for Installing Good Habits” which bookend a small, but fascinating, piece called “Run a Vice Check” …

About every three months, I pick one vice and abstain for thirty days … I love proving to myself that I'm still in charge. Try this yourself. Pick a vice – something you do in moderation, but you know doesn't contribute to your higher good – and take yourself on a thirty-day wagon run. If you find it seriously difficult to abstain for those thirty days, you may have found a habit worth cutting out of your life.
He goes into “momentum” which really is about routine and consistency building towards self-driving habits … including setting up rituals for the morning and evening to “bookend” the day:

All hell can break loose throughout the day, but because I control the bookends, I know I'm always going to start and finish strong.
The “Influences” chapter goes into ideas like going on a “media diet” … the media always works on a “if it bleeds, it leads” play on our hard-wired instincts, and it takes shutting that out to keep this negativity at bay. Similarly, there's a look at one's “associations”, and even a worksheet to evaluate the ones you want to keep and the ones you need to avoid.

There is quite a lot of “shilling” in this book for other products from Success (like several pages of ads surrounding the “resource” forms in the back – but since the ones on the website are more comprehensive, it's safe to ignore the back matter), including the Conclusion which devolves into a guilt play to buy at least 5 extra copies to give to friends/family/associates, complete with a place to write down the names. Blech! Nice way to create a “why did I just read this?” final impression.

All in all, The Compound Effect is a pretty decent book … interesting perspectives, fascinating data tidbits, some useful materials … if occasionally a bit heavy-handed on the rah-rah, “you must do what I'm saying or your life will be a horrid pit of despair”, standard self-help vibe. It's reasonably priced, and the on-line guys have it at a discount that drops it under ten bucks. I'm guessing it's also easy to find in the brick-and-mortars (and airport kiosks, etc.) as it has a 4.8 star rating on Amazon and is a NYT bestseller. As usual, my take on this is probably way off on the cranky cynical curmudgeon extreme of the scale, and most folks wouldn't mind the parts that I found irritating. While I wouldn't necessarily say this is an “all and sundry” recommendation, it's one of those that most people would benefit from reading.

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Wednesday, December 16th, 2015
12:26 pm
Once upon a time, in a corporation not so far away ...
One of the less frequent pathways for books to get into my to-be-read piles is via “coaching”, or the “highly recommended” route. As I am coachable, I will often heed these sorts of “suggestions”, and I recently picked up a couple of books that one of the head guys at my recent “financial education” project was singing the praises of.

Of course, one guy's “must read” book can be another guy's “meh” read, and this one was, unfortunately, sort of in that category. As regular readers of this space may recall, I don't synch particularly well with “parable” sorts of things … if you're going to tell me something, tell me it outright, don't make me have to tease it out of some cute story! Needless to say, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box is one of those “teaching stories” that I can never seem to get the point of. What's also irritating about this book (which has sold over a million copies and has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon – so it certainly has its fans, and I'm an obvious “outlier” when it come to this style of writing) is that it's not credited to a person but to something called The Arbinger Institute. One would think a “cute story” book would be coming out from some touchy-feely individual trying to mess with your mind by doing an end-around on your rational faculties, and not an organization, so I was constantly having to filter for what they were trying to sneak into my head!

That said, this was a much less aggravating “parable” than most things I've read in that format. It was flirting with actually being useful in that parts of the book involve stuff written on a whiteboard, which ebbed and flowed over the course of the story (stuff getting erased, replaced, updated, etc.) … which, while never quite getting to an actual bullet list, at least has a certain periodic linearity to it that allows for a less-arcane method of extraction of the main points. I suspect that if one stripped away all the story elements here, you could distill what they were trying to convey in a dozen or so pages … and I really wish they had included an appendix for the “parable-averse” reader along those lines. Again, as regular readers of these reviews know, I've read nearly zero fiction over the past dozen years, so I really am not a “story person” … I suspect that this was set up the way it was because there are LOTS more fiction readers out there than serious non-fiction book readers, and most of those people wouldn't ever think of picking up the sort of psychological study that this book could have been, so it's a way of sugar-coating the material for the masses.

Anyway, this is a tale about an executive who is finally hired by this company that he's been admiring (and competing against) for a long time. Early on in his new job, he is put into a one-on-one training situation with a senior executive to get him up to speed with how the company culture works. They have a theory called “the box” (confusingly, not like the popular concept of “thinking outside the box”), and insist on having all their people on board with this. Of course, as is the endlessly frustrating habit of “parable” books, they never really get out a definition of “the box”, just examples of when one is in or out of it (and in this context, being in the box is bad, and being out of the box is good). About the most direct thing I could find was that it's described at one point as “seeing others as people or seeing them as objects”. Yes, that sounds like “newage sewage”, but at least they point out that everybody is “in the box” to a certain extent, and the difference (at that company) was that they were systematically trying to not be in the box, and attributed their success to the times when they managed to get out of the box.

The second concept here is “self-betrayal”, which, essentially, is when you have a gut feeling about what you should do but don't, and suddenly spin out all sorts of justifications for not doing it. They have this largely set up in interpersonal and home-life examples from the main characters, all of which is just plain unpleasant to read. In a side-bar to one of the “whiteboard” sections they have probably the most straight-forward description of this process (with the added bonus of working in the title concept):

When I betray myself, I enter the box – I become self-deceived

1. Inflate others' faults
2. Inflate own virtue
3. Inflate the value of things that justify my self-betrayal
4. Blame
And, there are different boxes for different situations/relationships, some being momentary, and others being ingrained. Plus, over time certain boxes become characteristic, and one carries them around as regular features of one's personality.

A related concept is “collusion”, where multiple people's “in the box” behavior and attitudes encourage others to be “in the box” as well and “the same pattern of mutual provocation and justification always emerges”. A lot of families (I'd hazard to guess that most) fall into this model, and to a similar extent work relationships. The way they define this is that if one is “out of the box” at work, one's “what-focus” is on achieving results, while when “in the box”, one's “what-focus” is on justification of one's behaviors and attitudes.

While they do discuss how one gets “out of the box”, this is sort of murky and convoluted, with lots of info on what won't work, and only vague stuff about what will … the one thing I was able to identify that directly addressed this was: “You get out of the box as you cease resisting other people.” … but that “resisting” concept was not particularly fleshed out. I guess that was to create something of a cliff-hanger to get you to buy the sequel, of which an 18-page excerpt is included.

As noted, I generally hate having to slog through these sorts of things to try to sift out what the author (or, in this case, organization) is trying to actually say. The concepts here are certainly interesting, and, I think (as much as I was able to dig same out of the damn story) quite important, I just wish it wasn't in a freak'n “parable”. Of course, that's me … you might find this the bestest thing in the whole world.

Since Leadership and Self-Deception is such a popular title, I'm pretty sure that you'd be able to find it in the bigger surviving bookstores, but the on-line big boys currently have the paperback of the 2010 second edition at 40% off of a very reasonable cover price. Despite all my bitching above, I do think this is a very worthwhile read (I just wish it was in a plain presentation – but I guess they wanted to offer up all sorts of “interpersonal” stories and didn't want to be shifting in and out of styles), and would be useful to pretty much anybody.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
11:06 pm
Around and around and around we go ...
I'm not sure where I ran across a mention of Dr. Alex Korb's The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, but as it is a very recent release (and I don't recall contacting the publisher for a review copy), I'm having to guess that it was mentioned in a recent LTER book, possibly The Upside of Stress, and I picked up a copy via Amazon.

Needless to say, I'm open to reading about pretty much anything that promises to “reverse the course of depression”, as my on-going financial difficulties (looking for work for over 6½ years will do horrible things to your life) have had me living on the edge of depression for a very long time, and this book sounded pretty on-target. After all, how “fluffy” could a book based on neuroscience be?

Well …

One would think a book involving both neuroscience and fighting off depression would be a home run for me, but somehow most of the stuff didn't ring true for me … or, at least, seem applicable as he presents it here. While the science stuff is fascinating, achieving most of the suggestions here would at least involve a coach, if not partial hospitalization. How am I supposed to arrange a “long hug” to release oxytocin and lower amygdala reactivity, if I'm lucky to score a random hug (from my daughters) 2-3 times a year? How can one “play Frisbee with friends in the park”, when it's been over a decade since one has had “friends” who weren't exclusively on the other side of a computer screen? Frankly, much of what Dr. Korb recommends as action points in here sound (to me) like he's saying “get your life together, and leverage that, then you can get out of being depressed” … with no suggestion how one can arrange to have people around (and note the economic element above – I'm not in a position to buy these) who want to hug or play with you. Anyway, that's me and the particular existential hell that I live in, I'm assuming that “your mileage may vary” and some of the stuff in here will be more actionable for others.

The book is divided in two parts with various chapters walking the reader through the underlying systems that either cause or are effected by depression … I hadn't wanted to fall back on a chapter listing in this, but it looks like I'm going to be less “summarizing the arc” of the book here, and more “cherry-picking choice bits”, so here's how the book is laid out …

      Part 1 – Stuck in a Downward Spiral
            1 – A Brain Map of Depression
            2 – Trapped with Anxiety and Worry
            3 – Always Noticing the Negative
            4 – Caught in Bad Habits
      Part 2 – Creating an Upward Spiral
            5 – Exercise Your Brain
            6 – Set Goals, Make Decisions
            7 – Give Your Brain a Rest
            8 – Develop Positive Habits
            9 – Take Advantage of Biofeedback
            10 – Activate a Gratitude Circuit
            11 – Rely on the Power of Others
            12 – Your brain in Therapy

One piece that I thought was pretty “defining” on how slippery the whole subject can be was: “Whereas most diseases are defined by their cause … the disorder of depression is currently defined by a collection of symptoms.” for which “There's no lab test, no MRI scan, it's just the symptoms.” and that “... there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It's simply that the particular tuning of the neural circuits creates the tendency towards a pattern of depression.”

Sounds like a pretty raw deal, eh? The brain's functioning fine, it's just mis-tuned without a nice adjustment knob to fiddle with. He does go into the chemistry of neurotransmitter systems, which includes a basic listing/defining of each:
  • Serotonin – improves willpower, motivation, and mood

  • Norepinephrine – enhances thinking, focus, and dealing with stress

  • Dopamine – increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits

  • Oxytocin – promotes feelings of trust, love, and connection, and reduces anxiety

  • GABA – increases feelings of relaxation and reduces anxiety

  • Melatonin – enhances the quality of sleep

  • Endorphins – provide pain relief and feelings of elation

  • Endocannabinoids – improve your appetite and increase feelings of peacefulness and well-being

These keep coming up in various settings and combinations … one example of a “doable” suggestion is “go out in sunlight” which will help boost serotonin production, and the release of melatonin.

The author also goes through the basic parts of the brain, the Prefrontal Cortex, with the various regions: Dorsomedial, Ventromedial, Dorsolateral, Ventrolateral, and Orbitofrontal … and the Limbic System, with the assorted parts: Anterior Cingulate, Hypotalamus, Hippocampus, and Amygdala … along with a couple of other bits, the Striatum, with the Dorsal Striatum and the Nuclear Accumbens, and the Insula. He goes through the known functions of these in relation to depression (but, obviously, it's too much to get into detail on here) an example is:

Dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens whenever you do anything fun and exciting – or at least it's supposed to. In depression, reduced dopamine activity in the nuclear accumbens explains why nothing seems enjoyable.
In advocating for attempting to move into an “upward spiral”, he notes:

... depression comes from problems with frontal-limbic communication, and that it happens because of the specific tuning of your neural circuits … it turns out that just a little change can be enough to push you away from depression … that's because in complex systems like the brain, even a little shift can change the resonance of the whole system.
And, while that last statement sounds a bit woo-woo Korb got his neuroscience undergraduate at Brown and his PhD at UCLA, and is a post-doctoral researcher in the UCLA department of psychiatry, so ought to have a pretty good fix on this (although part of me thinks that the phrase “resonance of the whole system” evokes images of Tibetan Singing Bowl “therapies” more than anything).

Throughout the book he has grey boxes that feature “suggestions” for things to do. Frankly, a lot of these came across (to me) as “nagging” (OK, especially all those having to do with exercise), but some are pretty perceptive, direct, and doable, here's one (fairly lengthy – sorry about that) that I found particularly useful:

Make a good decision, not the best decision. When trying to make a decision, we tend to focus on the relative drawbacks of each option, which often makes every decision seem less appealing. Nor do we usually have enough information to feel confident in the decision – the world's just too complex. But remember, it's better to do something only partly right than do nothing at all. Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control.
As is evident from that “to-do item”, there's a lot of stuff in here that is brain-area specific, targeted to either enhancing or inhibiting levels of the neurotransmitters listed above. He elaborates on the suggestion for making decisions by noting:

Your brain, like your muscles, operates on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Using a particular brain region will strengthen it, while disuse will weaken it. One problem with depression is that it makes you use a lot of the brain circuits that keep you stuck and less of the brain circuits that help you get better.
An interesting chapter (that I also found somewhat “naggy”) is the “Give Your Brain a Rest” one, which deals with what he refers to as “sleep hygiene”. One factoid I found fascinating was the “sleep architecture” piece where Korb walks the reader through a phase-by-phase look at what happens in a “sleep cycle” – which typically takes 90 minutes. I guess I glommed onto this because for years I was pretty much a 3-hour-of-sleep guy, which means that I was making do with 2 sleep cycles (instead of the 5-6 an 8-hour rest would entail) … which has grown to 4 as I've gotten older. One of the more “naggy” things here is when he gets into syncing one's sleep schedule with one's Circadian Rhythms … and some of his suggestions there are just extreme if one lives with a lot of electronics (or, in my case, an environment with a lot of ambient light).

In the “Developing Positive Habits” chapter, he starts off highlighting the underlying problem:

Habits are created by repetition. Interestingly, some habits require less repetition than others, because some actions inherently release more dopamine. Unfortunately, bad habits are the ones that often release lots of dopamine, so you don't need to do them very often to get hooked. Smoking releases a lot of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, so you don't have to smoke very many cigarettes to start a habit. In contrast, flossing doesn't release very much dopamine, so you have to floss every day for a long time to make it a habit. … The good news is that the dorsal striatum responds to repetition. It doesn't matter if you want to do something – every single time you do it, it gets further wired into the dorsal striatum … if you can power through, things will feel easier as the burden of the action shifts from the consciously effortful prefrontal cortex to the unconsciously effortless dorsal striatum.
Bizarrely, he also says that (to me, a bit newagey, touchy-feely) self affirmations help break bad habits … he reports on a study that had participants complete a questionnaire which highlighted their positive qualities before being exposed to negative information about a bad habit (in this case smoking) … “smokers in the self-affirmation group developed a greater intention to quit smoking … {and} the effect of self-affirmation was strongest on the heaviest smokers”. Who knew that Stewart Smalley was that clued in?

The “biofeedback” chapter isn't about getting your head wired up to a machine (or Yoga, which the author starts off discussing), but is more generically about how “the brain changes its activity based on what the body is doing”. One amusing sidebar discusses how a stress sensation in the gut is very likely to be interpreted by the brain as hunger – hence the familiar phenomenon of “nervous eating” – he suggests that “These types of signals are like your car's check-engine light – alerting you that something is happening, but not being very helpful in telling you what.”! He has a number of suggestions to use to make those physical messages work on your brain, from splashing cold water on your face to break a cycle of “feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious”, to using music to “help regulate your emotions”, to even forcing yourself to smile. He further suggests to laugh even if nothing is funny … noting: “The brain doesn't distinguish much between genuine laughter and fake laughter.”, which he further elaborates with:

Facial feedback works because the brain senses the flexing of certain facial muscles (like the zygomatic major muscle at the corners of your mouth), to which the brain thinks, I must be happy about something. Similarly, if that muscle isn't flexed, you brain thinks, Oh, … I must not be happy.
He also suggests (along with your mother and/or drill sergeant) standing up straight. And, to avoid things (like squinting) that would mimic stress patterns in the facial muscles (to the extent of recommending wearing sunglasses to avoid one's corrugator supercilii contracting and messaging the brain that one is upset or worried). There are more tips about breathing and various muscle cues to either avoid or to mimic. Stupid brain … what a sucker!

I was probably most “reactive” against the “Gratitude” chapter, because, hey, those “Laws of Attraction” folks are real irritating. Fortunately, it's only 10 pages and not insufferably newagey. He hits about a dozen key points here, and while he footnotes studies for these he doesn't go into much detail other than glossing the results with statements like “activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine”, or “increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex”. I was similarly fighting against the “other people” chapter, given my general isolation over the past few decades (the author does not at the start of the chapter: “Depression is an isolating disease. It makes you feel separate and alone, even around other people ...” and later follows with “Humans are a social species … that means that when we feel disconnected, the consequences can be devastating.”. None of this is helped by the “downward spiral” effects – noting that depressed people “have even greater anterior cingulate activation, suggesting their brains are more sensitive to social rejection … generating a stronger stress response”), which makes much of the info here, well … depressing. However, there was one fascinating bit here that came out of a study of 8-12-year-old girls who were subjected to a stressful event (having to “solve difficult SAT questions in front of an audience”), there were four groups, differentiated by what they did after the stressful experience – one set got to visit with their mothers, one set got to talk to their mothers on the phone, one set got to “text” with their mothers, and one set got no follow-up contact at all. The first two groups had “improved” cortisol-oxytocin levels, while the no-contact group had a bad mix (high cortisol, low oxytocin) of the neurotransmitters. What was especially notable in this study was that the girls who were just able to text with their mothers had very similar levels to the no-contact group … indicating that something (emotion?) wasn't coming across via the text messages. I found this especially illuminating as I always prefer email to the phone – primarily to avoid any emotional “Jedi mind tricks” that people tend to use in spoken communications! One of the other things he recommends is rooting for sports teams – with others – so I wouldn't be surprised to find him doing promos for sports bars.

The last chapter is about getting therapy, from standard talk therapy to massively invasive things involving brain surgery or ECT, with a discussion of assorted drugs being used (or developed) for various issues. All nice stuff if you can afford it, I suppose.

The key element that he ends with is urging the reader to at least try to do something to break the brain out of its depressive cycles. This might be (for the deeply depressed) as basic as getting out of bed even if one can't come up with a reason to do so … sort of like Nike's “just do it” – it will help break the cycle (somewhat like splashing cold water creates a neural shock and can interrupt a state of mind). He closes by pointing out the act of finishing the book is likely to create a puff of dopamine … which may be why I'm so fond of reading books.

Anyway, The Upward Spiral has only been out since March, so you have a reasonable chance of finding it in the still extant brick-and-mortar book vendors with “self help” sections (and which of those don't?). The on-line big boys have it, of course, presently at about 25% off of cover price. Interestingly, this hasn't gotten deeply into the new/used channels, so you'd not be saving much (with shipping) going there at this point. As is evident in all the preceding, I'm pretty torn on this, I found the science parts quite educational, but had a “dark/sarcastic/reactive” response to most of the touchy-feely stuff, although I'm likely to add several bits and pieces to my on-going activity when nothing else is working. If you're fighting depression (or are close to somebody who is), and aren't as cantankerous as I am, you'll likely get a lot of this and be quite enthusiastic about it. I guess I'm going to have to wait for “Fighting Depression for Cranky Cynics” to come out.

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2015
11:15 pm
Freak Think ...
I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking I was getting into when I ordered Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, sure, I'd read the authors' Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics, but this was supposedly something different, something offering to “retrain” my brain … how fun would that be? I was even thinking this might be in the same territory as Chris Brogan's The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, if, perhaps, not so much focused on the entrepreneurial crowd. However, although it was an entertaining, interesting read, it really didn't significantly engage me … I ended up with a paltry 3 little slips of paper pointing me to “the good parts” in this, and all those in the first half … a good indication that I'd “given up” trying to extract info and just opted to enjoy the book. Not a bad thing, but it sucks as the basis of a useful review.

One thing that did stand out a bit, and that this was a bit self-referential. I don't recall from their earlier books if they wrote as much about themselves, but there are significant stories here based on their own experiences, at least a couple catching my attention. Since I flagged so few things to mention, I'm just going to wing it, and fall back on the crutch of listing the chapter headings to give you a sense of whatever arc the book has:
  1. What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?

  2. The Three Hardest Words in the English Language

  3. What's Your Problem?

  4. Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth is in the Roots

  5. Think Like a Child

  6. Like Giving Candy to a Baby

  7. What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?

  8. How to Persuade People Who Don't Want to Be Persuaded

  9. The Upside of Quitting

The book starts off with a little bit of snark, which I think is one of most telling points they cover … it's a follow-up question to a previous subject (they get a lot of mail, it seems): “Whatever happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic?” – their answer was “Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it” – which is something to keep in mind whenever you see a “talking head” yakking about something … odds are very good that they're trying to score points with their particular “in group” and aren't “reporting” anything close to the “truth”! They point out that they can't possibly answer all the questions they get, so they opted to “write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak” (although, as suggested above, I'm not sure that this achieves that goal).

The first extensive “story” in here deals with soccer … which I know and appreciate slightly less than paint drying. The particular focus of this is something called a “penalty kick” (no, I don't care enough to Google that, really I don't) which I guess is a major factor in soccer. They note that roughly 75% of these are successful in scoring a goal (which I take it needs a few dozen extra “o”s in it to express the excitement of there actually being a score in the match). They also note that the strategy is generally to kick towards one of the upper corners of the goal, causing the “keeper” to have to decide where to make the big leap – left or right – with leaping to the kicker's left 57% of the time, and to the right 41% of the time. Given that 57+41=98, it suggests that soccer “keeper” vacates the center of the goal in all but 2% of penalty kicks. No doubt due to this math, a full 17% of kicks are aimed at the center, but one would expect that more would (at least initially), as it would be increasing a 75% rate of scoring to 98% … however, if your kick ended up as one of the 2%, you'd be in big trouble with the soccer-crazed fans/countries that watch this stuff (the authors suggest that you'd have to “move your family abroad to avoid assassination” … lovely people, these soccer fans). This is where the subject of incentives – the main theme here, and in the other books – comes up. If the kicker does the expected – aiming towards a corner – and is blocked, it's a great play by the keeper, but no shame (assuming the kick isn't wide of the goal) for the kicker. However, if the kicker opts for the higher odds of actually scoring – the “greater good”, he's risking a lot … and in 83% of the cases the kicker will go with the private benefit instead of the interest of team and/or country.

This is followed by a summation of the key concepts of the previous books:
  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.

  • Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so.

  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

  • Correlation does not equal causality.

They point out that the biggest blocks to “thinking like a Freak” is not questioning one's own assorted biases, and “running with the herd” (see my comment about the MSM above). They draw on George Bernard Shaw when suggesting that most people really don't think much at all, so never get around to thinking about their and/or their associates' biases and reality assumptions. He's quoted as saying: “Few people think more than two or three times a year … I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” The implication (given that the authors claim to try to think once or twice a week), is that most of the fascinating stuff in the previous books was simply due to having thought about it .. be it the data showing that children's car seats are a waste of time and money or that violent crime was reduced by making abortion easily available to inner-city women.

One of the personal stories here deals with a meeting of the cabinet of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (following the release of SuperFreakonomics). A cabinet minister made an announcement that he classified as “a matter of the highest moral obligation”:

This made our ears prick up. One thing we've learned is that when people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties.
In a later chapter they expand on this:

When you are consumed with the rightness or wrongness of a given issue … it's easy to lose track of what the issue actually is. A moral compass can convince you that all the answers are obvious (even when they're not); that there is a bright line between right and wrong (when often there isn't); and, worst, that you are certain you already know everything you need to know about a subject so you stop trying to learn more.
There are some “tasty” stories here too … like the advertising one about a company that was certain that they knew that their TV ads produced sales at 4x the rate of print ads – but the only ran the ads on days like “black friday”, so the sales boost could well have been coming from “ambient” sales. This was compared to another story, about a company that buys newspaper ads in Sunday supplements every week in every market for the past 20 years, except for one market over one summer, when an intern screwed up placing the ads. What happened in that market, with no ads over those months? Well, first, nobody had ever bothered to check, and when they ran the numbers, it turned out that there had been no change, that the sales that came through came through equally when there were no ads as when the company was spending large sums on advertising. Did the company change? Nope. The corporate “common knowledge” trumped the actual numbers, and they're still throwing away that money today. This leads into “the three hardest words in the English language”, which are I don't know. If you think you know the answer, you're unlikely to bother to try an experiment … since you're sure you know.

Another “tasty” story here is based on wine snobbery. First a young member of an academic group set up an experiment to see how the expensive wines fared without them being in the context of being the expensive wines. He threw in a ringer, as he put one expensive wine in twice – same wine, just different decanters – and it came in both first and fourth, bracketing another expensive wine and a cheap wine. This, when revealed, created quite a stir. Inspired by this, one wine critic decided to run a series of experiments, culminating on a test with a major wine publication, for which he created a fake restaurant (with a very convincing web site), and a “reserve” wine list which featured bottles specifically chosen from the publication's own ratings – but only wines earning a “not recommended” rating. The result – the magazine presented him (or his fake restaurant) with an Award of Excellence … prompting him to opine: “My hypothesis was that the $250 fee was really the functional part of the application.”

There are lots of interesting tales told here, from looking at “competitive eating” to how a $15 pair of glasses could increase the learning ability of kids by as much as 50%, to how a scientist self-experimented to prove that bacteria cause ulcers, to a comparison of David Lee Roth's notorious “no brown M&Ms” rider to King Solomon's baby-splitting solution.

Speaking of M&Ms, one of the other “personal” stories here hinges on them. The daughter of one of the authors was having potty-training issues, and her father decided to make an offer, that if she went to the toilet, he'd give her a bag of M&Ms (I'm assuming that's one of the Halloween hand-out mini bags and not a full-size bag!). Here's how that ended up playing out, with a summation:

      How powerful are the right incentives? Within four days, a little girl went from potty-challenged to having the most finely tuned bladder in history. She simply figured out what it made sense to do given the incentives she faced. There was no fine print, no two-bag limit, not time-interval caveat. There was just a girl, a bag of candy, and a toilet.
      If there is one mantra a Freak lives by, it is this: people respond to incentives. As utterly obvious as this point may seem, we are amazed at how frequently people forget it, and it often leads to their undoing. Understanding the incentives of all the players in a given scenario is a fundamental step in solving any problem.
The last chapter is about “quitting” (which made me feel less guilty about trying to find stuff in the book as I went along), although they eventually fudge a bit on the definition to frame it as “letting go” … but with it still being “at the very core of thinking like a Freak”:

Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limis that hold us back – and of the fear of admitting that we don't know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.
Think Like A Freak has only been out a year and a half at this point, but has moved into the used channels (I got an ex-library copy of the deckle-edge hardcover). Given the popularity of the authors' “Freak” books, I'd expect that this would be available in the real-world bookstores, and it appears to still be in print in both hardcover and paperback (and e- and audio- editions). The online big boys have these at over a third off of cover, if you want to go with “new” (the used guys have “very good” copies – which I believe is what I got – for just over a buck, before shipping). I enjoyed the read, found the info of interest, but never quite synced with the book … again, I'm not sure what sort of brain retraining I was expecting, but this – as useful as its various points might be – wasn't it. I would, nonetheless recommend it for being a “fun read”.

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Sunday, November 22nd, 2015
10:48 pm
Building wealth, starting from zero ...
I have been “sitting” on this one for quite a while. As those of you out there “stalking” me across my social media platforms no doubt know, I have recently started a new project with a division of Transamerica which is set up to provide “financial education”, and I had gotten into studying the assorted materials related to that just before I ran across this book at the dollar store. Because of that sequence of events, I was thrilled to find that Bernard Kelly's Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions: A Guide to Financial Freedom Whether You Have Your Dream Job, Own Your Own Business, or Just Started Your First Job was focused very much on the same sorts of approaches. As a matter of fact, I was so enthused that I spent a day trekking off to five of the six Dollar Tree locations that I can get to via public transportation in Chicago, hoping to stock up on a bunch of copies of this to give out to folks (frustratingly, the only one which had any copies was my regular one where I'd found this in the first place, and they only had another 5 copies in stock).

I'm somewhat surprised that this book hasn't become an instant classic, as it's a combination of an inspirational personal story, and a step-by-step process for creating wealth – especially in the hands of a young person. The author himself is pretty young … 30 years old at the time of writing in 2011 … but he had built a net worth of around a half a million dollars by working at McDonald's. He didn't (like my girlfriend from college) start as a manager – he came out of high school (where he found himself “failing class after class”, in fact he claimed that he graduated not being able to read) at 17 and got a job at McDonald's making fries … then doing the titular flipping burgers.

Needless to say, this is about a low on the wealth ladder as one can start, but if there was one thing that sets the author apart from others in his position, is that he “became fascinated with all things McDonald's”, and after encountering a group of McDonald's executives who came through on a store tour he decided:

“I could do what they do. I could be good at what they do. This is something I can really succeed at.”
Which he follows up with the observation:

The day you can say to yourself, “This is my thing,” is a great day.
Again, the author stands out by his willingness to apply himself to the opportunities presenting themselves to him (in contrast to the mobs demanding a $15/hr wage for flipping burgers), and taught himself to read (!) and immersed himself in the “people, systems, and processes that make up the McDonald's world”. Further:

It wasn't long before my passion was recognized. Passion stands out in any environment, but the more mundane the environment or job, the more passion stands out. I worked hard and produced measurable results. I was promoted over and over again. By the time I was twenty-five, I was a store manager, and throughout the process the McDonald's Corporation was educating me. I attended every course that was offered. I was hungry to learn everything I could about this business, and to grow as a person.
Obviously, Bernard Kelly, despite having been a massive failure in school (to the extent of coming out unable to read), was able to see something in his situation that the semi-sentient slugs so often in the same positions were either incapable or unwilling to consider. He has a fascinating list of prominent people whose first jobs were at McDonald's, including Amazon's zillionaire founder Jeff Bezos. However, Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions isn't really about McDonald's (although it is an obvious anchor of the author's story), but a look at how anybody (especially somebody just getting started) can build wealth, even if starting from nothing. Kelly notes:

Money and the creation of wealth are not that difficult to understand. You save some money, invest it, and it multiplies. Save a little bit, often enough, for long enough, and it will become an enormous fortune. The problem is that most people cannot think beyond today and what they want to spend their money on right now. They do not have a vision for their life ten years from now, or twenty years from now, and nobody saves money for a future that they have not yet imagined.
Aside from the cultural factors, generally speaking we don't teach kids about money management (the level of “financial illiteracy” is stunning), the author points out (regarding “the unchanging laws of money”):

We don't teach it in high school, we don't teach it in college, and we don't teach it in the business world. … In the corporate world I am amazed at how often we put people in charge of million-dollar budgets who cannot manage their own personal budget.
Again, this book is full of really awesome quotes, here's one that I found particularly notable (comparing regular investment with a dripping faucet eventually wearing a hole in a rock slab):

A little bit of pressure – saving and investing – consistently applied over time can create an incredible fortune. … For example, if a person saved $1 a day for her entire life and invested it with a return of 10 percent, she would retire at sixty-five years of age with $2,404,853. One dollar a day is just like that dripping faucet. … It is difficult, but it is not impossible. What makes it difficult is not that it requires some extraordinary set of skills, but that it requires the discipline of consistency in a world dominated by erratic impulse.
Kelly defines four stages of one's financial life: Right Now – Quality of Life – Retirement – Legacy … and devotes a chapter each to these, walking the reader through strategies to maximize one's wealth building in each, including multiple options (“good, better, and best”) for achieving different levels.

For a relatively slim book (a mere 160 pages) this is remarkably comprehensive in terms of scope. Before it moves into the four stages of life, the author presents a chapter which has a central section of “How To Be A Great Employee”, with seven steps which pretty much anybody would benefit from if enacted in their own lives. He then has a chapter on “the basics of wealth creation”. Unfortunately for most, these basics require things like discipline, the willingness to delay gratification, and the capability to set goals, and maintain the desire to achieve them (with the quote from Henry David Thoreau that “In the long run, men only hit what they aim at.”). For most people, much of this is very uncomfortable, with the realities of what one needs to have by retirement to produce a comfortable income being especially daunting. One of the exercises he offers here is looking at what that purchase you're considering today will have “cost” by retirement age. A fancy big TV system that costs $4,280 today, would represent a value of $68,480 in 30 years (again, the figures in the book to tend towards those starting out their financial lives), and that opting for a $1,500 TV (still a pretty fancy unit!) would “save” you $34,240 over that period of time. Obviously, this is sort of “modified gratification”, where you're making deals with yourself between what you might want vs. what you actually need, in regards to how it would effect your future finances.

One thing he brings up as “almost legendary” is something that I hadn't heard about previously, the “Latte Factor” … this counts up small regular indulgences that build up over time – the author says that instead of Lattes, for him it was cigarettes in his youth – figuring a $5/day habit. If instead of consuming $5/day of fancy coffees or smokes, one were to invest the equivalent $150.00/month, at the end of 40 years that would have built up to just shy of a million dollars! It's amazing how most people don't think they can find $150/mo to invest, yet they'll blithely spend on trivial expenses like high-priced coffees, fast food lunches (as opposed to bringing one's own), and the like.

Another “factoid” which I found disturbing was that “The average American spends 106 percent of his or her annual income annually.” Needless to say, there's no way that one can “build wealth” doing that. He also notes that “Less than 10 percent of Americans have and use a budget.”, and that a budget is essential to, well, budgeting money for investing.

Again, the issue of what one needs vs. what one might want comes into play here. I must admit that the author was rather extreme in his willingness to “go without” … he challenged himself to not buy any clothes for an entire year, and he did not “indulge” in buying a car until he was 30, using public transportation to get around. He goes on an interesting side piece on the self-storage industry in the U.S. – using it as an example of how much “extra stuff” most of us have … to the extent that “In the United States today, the self-storage business is larger than the motion picture business.”(!).

He recommends way to make some of this self-denying fun, with things like “Zero Dollar Days” where one strives to not spend anything for the day. The flip side of this is what he calls “Guilt-Free Money”, an amount that one sets aside to spend on anything one wants once a month.

In the first phase of the 4-stage program, he looks at what one could expect to be making starting out at age 18 working for McDonald's, and how that would likely increase over 8 years. Now, here again I think the author is a bit of an outlier … in his good-better-best figures it goes saving 10% of one's income to saving 30%, the latter being what he did from ages 18 to 25. The total paychecks for those 8 years come to $245,567 and he was able to save $135,326 (with interest) over that period, which invested through age 65 would be over six million dollars. Now, he is aware that the assumptions for returns on investment sound pretty extreme, but he also notes that if one had bought McDonald's shares, the return would have been in excess of 10%.

Now, if one has been diligent in one's early years, it sets one up to be able to spend pretty much what one makes in the next phase, but continued saving/investing would be better, especially in terms of putting money away for one's kids. He has some other eye-opening figures about houses, etc., and how making a choice to live a bit more simply (and invest the difference) can make huge returns down the line.

Obviously, the last two parts, on retirement and “legacy” really depend on the previous phases, as it's mighty hard to start planning once one gets to retirement, let alone considering any sort of (positive) financial legacy. Interestingly, part of what Kelly considers his legacy is the lessons imparted in this book. I know that I was eager to get copies of this into the hands of my daughters (and I really hope they'll read it – but “you can take a horse to water” and all, and one of the hardest things for a parent to do is to force a kid to read something they're not inclined to).

The final chapter in Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions is something of a rah-rah session about McDonald's, which I found somewhat irritating at the time of reading it, but in reflection, it's pretty much all the author knows first-hand, and the points he raises are certainly good illustrations of the principles in the book in practice. There is, however, one glaring fault with the book … in several places the author points the reader to a web site, http://www.MoneyClassroom.com/ ...which, four years after the book's release, is “under construction” with a field to put in one's email to get notified when it goes live. The “whois” listing doesn't seem to have anything to do with the author or his publisher, so I wonder if somehow over the past four years the domain got lost and is being “squatted” by another group. It's a pity, as the references in the book to the site sound like there was supposed to be some interesting material there.

Anyway, this is one of those that I would recommend to “all and sundry”, especially as the recommendation in it hone so closely to my own “financial literacy” project. It appears to not currently be in print (expect via the publisher), except for in the e-book format, however the new/used guys have it with “very good” copies for as little as a penny, and new copies for under a buck (plus shipping). If you can find it in the dollar stores, pick it up … I wish I'd been able to get more copies via that channel myself!

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Saturday, November 21st, 2015
8:54 pm
A really good autobiographical book ...
This was one of those delightful dollar store finds … something I picked up pretty much because it wasn't a novel, and was in an interesting enough subject (a memoir from somebody with whom I was at least vaguely familiar), and was, of course, just a buck. Of course, part of the reason I picked this up is that my younger daughter is in a performing arts program in school, and is also taking classes at Second City, so it was as “paternally focused” as the “women in engineering” books I've read largely because my elder daughter is studying to be an engineer.

Needless to say, the name Alan Arkin rang a bell, so his An Improvised Life: a Memoir came with a certain degree of familiarity, however, I was rather surprised at how few of his roles I remembered from his IMDB profile … admittedly, I'm hardly a movie buff, and I think I've seen only a handful of the dozens of films he's been in (including not seeing stuff like Argo or Gattaca that were pretty big). I guess a lot of that is because my “mental image” of him is his later-years manifestation, such as The Chief in the 2008 Get Smart movie, and not in his younger roles in things like 1970's Catch-22, or (a movie that I very much enjoyed as a 9-year-old) 1966's The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming … an image not much shifted by the pic on the cover, which is him at about age 75.

One of the issues/problems I have with stuff that's not straight non-fiction, is that there tends to be a lot less “essential factoids” that will be screaming out for me to flag for future reference. In fact, it appears that I only stuck one of my little torn-paper bookmarks in this (which I'll quote from later), so I'm probably going to be doing more summarizing and paraphrasing in this review than usual. It was, frankly, a bit frustrating, as in numerous places he'd start with a couple of strong sentences towards a particular “bullet point” of a concept, but then take the text on a somewhat circuitous route (no doubt “the scenic route”, lending a lot more interest to the telling than what would have been convenient for my purposes) to get where he was going with it.

Arkin appears to be one of those rare people that knew what he wanted to do from his earliest years. He notes that, from about age 5, he had decided that he wanted to act, and was obsessed with playing roles from pretty much anything he encountered (spending months dancing to a record of a Stravinsky opera his aunt had taken him to – recreating every part). He focused on Charlie Chaplin for a while, and Danny Kaye after that. By age 8 he was even analyzing film, citing perceptions such as “The scene had instantly turned false, and I had the distinct feeling that the performances of the two people in the scene were no longer directed at each other but toward some anonymous audience.”. His growth in this area is one of the most useful parts of this book … as he walks the reader though his engagement with the acting arts as his skills grew, and I'm looking forward to putting it into my actor daughter's hands as soon as I get done with posting the review of this. What is presented as a memoir might as well have been marketed as a workshop, as the practical advice given here (if in a narrative rather than a presentation) is well worth the price of admission (in this case, the cover price, since, hey, I got it for a buck!).

At the end of World War II, his family packed up and moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles (preceding the Dodgers by a decade), his dad hoping to get work as a scenery painter in the film industry. Arkin was thrilled to be in Hollywood, and ended up in schools that had acting curriculums. Unfortunately, outside of the acting (which seems to have gone very well for him), the rest of his school experience was pretty horrible. In his senior year he began studying with a Benjamin Zemach (who had worked with Stanislavski), whose theories, at least as they were imparted to Arkin, are illustrated here. Again, where, in other contexts, the amount of reflecting on his inner reactions to stimuli and processing of events/instruction might have seemed fairly self-indulgent, here they provide a level of immersion in the art that I suspect would be useful to any aspiring actor.

In 1954 he got a call from a friend who had stumbled over a pretty amazing situation … a total free ride at the Bennington College, a girl's school which brought on a handful of guys to act in theater productions. He put together a bag of salami, cheese, and bread, and started to hitch-hike from L.A. to Vermont, just taking a (rather reasonable) week to get cross-country. His contact had disappeared, but the school still had his appointment on the schedule, and he was soon sent to interview with the head of the English department, future poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress, Howard Nemerov. The two, according to Arkin, hit it off from the start, giving him a fairly secure base at the university. He credits the acting professors there with developing his art, one positively, one via conflict … unfortunately, his other school work was disastrous, and after a couple of years he parted ways with the college … partially due to his having recently married a dance student. At that point, Arkin and his new (pregnant) wife headed to New York, with no particular plan.

Being constitutionally unsuited for “jobs”, he ended up as part of a folk group called The Tarriers, which began to find some success, a recording contract (their albums are remarkably still obtainable ), and a European tour. However, mid-way through the tour he had a “What the hell is this? Who am I?” moment, realized that he really wanted to act and informed the rest of the band that he'd be moving on after the end of the tour. He parlayed his folk guitar chops into a role in an off-Broadway play that needed a lute player (a small part for which he got paid more than anybody else in the production, due to the relative strength of the musicians union contract) … that ran for over a year, but Arkin determined to drop music afterward.

A few months later, a contact from Bennington got a hold of him and offered him a spot that with an improvisational group that was being set up for a summer run in St. Louis. During that summer, Paul Sills came down from Chicago and liked Arkin's work well enough that he told him if he ever wanted a job in Chicago, to look him up. Arkin, however, returned to New York (and unemployment) after the St. Louis run, and had another kid. This (and the uncertainty of their existence) was too much for his wife, who took the kids and left him. He hung on for a year in New York, hoping for some break, but there was nothing, so in desperation (Chicago was a black hole for theater/movies/etc. back then) he called up Sills and got a job with a hole-in-the-wall theater called Second City.

Second City very quickly got national attention, and in the year Arkin worked there he says he “gained ten years worth of experience”. Part of Sills' plan was to open up an extension in New York, and Arkin was one of the main elements of that … they lasted on Broadway for only 3 months, but a restaurateur fan of theirs set up a club for the troop a block away from New York University, which was quite successful. One of the more charming stories in the book is of an evening when Groucho Marx came to the show, pretty much took it over (via audience suggestion elements), and hung out with the cast long into the night. The New York club was successful for a long time, and actors from it started to get offers for other work, and with their leaving (most of the original group were from Chicago) new blood came in, beginning the upward spiral as an “institution”. The one quote that I actually marked in here (largely as it parallels my own educational experience), is from his reflections on this (from a 40th reunion event):

We had started out in Second City, all of us, because there was nowhere else to go. We were mavericks, misfits, almost unemployable. Most of the original members of the group had come out of the University of Chicago, where the dean had said publicly, “Get a general education. Don't specialize. You're all smart people; you'll end up on your feet.” They took him at his word and as a result the University of Chicago produced a generation of brilliant people who wandered and floundered without finding specific work to do, all of them prospective Second City cast members. I fit right in.
In New York, Arkin bounced back and forth between Second City and Broadway productions, then he got his first break in film, and built a fairly substantial career in it. In this same time he discovered both therapy and meditation, and discusses what he learned from these … including a concept of chakras – which his meditation teacher congratulated him on when what he had thought was a heat attack was “actually” “his heart opening”. From this, he discovered the work of Michael Checkhov, an acting teacher who had a theory of psychic vortexes, which Arkin incorporated in his work. He also discusses working with other teachers, such as Uta Hagen, and how their theories influenced him.

At this point (about half-way through the book), the narrative becomes somewhat less “life story” and moves more into “acting philosophy”, as Arkin shifts into directing, more high-profile projects, running workshops, etc. … and in each case looking deeply into his motivations, reactions, and experiments with the craft of acting. While this material is fascinating, it's also not particularly linear, and would be awfully involved to detail here.

Needless to say, there is a lot to link in An Improvised Life for anybody interested in the performing arts … plus it's a quite engaging tale in and of itself. This is a reasonably recent book, having come out in 2011, and it is still in print, available from the on-line big boys for about a third off of retail. However, as I noted at the start, this is kicking around in the dollar stores, so if you stumble across it in that setting, do add it to your cart … as a usual side effect of being in that channel, the new/used guys do have this (in “very good” condition) for as little as a penny (plus shipping, of course). I liked this a lot, felt that I learned quite a bit from reading it, and can't wait to get it to my daughter who's in this world. If you enjoy any of the component parts of this, I'm pretty sure you'll really like this, and recommend the heck out of it!

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Sunday, November 15th, 2015
9:42 pm
What we are becoming ...
I got this book via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, and like most (if not all) of the books featured there, it was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, as the information one is provided to make one's request decisions is typically a scant few sentences about each featured book. Fortunately, Michael Bess' Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future is pretty good … a bit “more than I really wanted to know” on the topic, but certainly interesting and informative. I have some friends who are very into the thought of “posthuman” existence (especially into living forever), and this book would be ideal for them … for everybody else, well, it might be a bit speculative. However, in this case, the speculation is backed up by a metric s-load of research … the book itself is only 216 pages, which is followed with another 70 (one-third more) pages of bibliography and notes (and in this case you have to follow along in the end notes, as there are frequent major chunks of text back there supporting arguments or adding context for things in main part).

The book is structured in four sections, “Humans Redesigned”, “Justice”, “Identity”, and “Choices”. With four to six chapters each, looking at specific topics. Part of me wants to rattle these off, but there are a LOT of them. One of the admirable elements to the book is how it's integrated with a companion web site. Now, I've had bad luck with companion sites in the past (they have a bad habit of being neglected, if not ending up 404'd), but this one looks like it's a very well designed web site (well, with the glaring exception that the “Dialog Page”, featuring what would no doubt be a fascinating forum for the various topics, is empty, and requiring one to be “logged in” - despite what appears to be the fact that one can neither register to log in, nor log in if one were registered – to start a discussion), which notably features 16 appendices of follow-up information for various parts of the book, plus “update” sections, featuring recent articles in the Science/Technology area (the first section of the book, featuring Artificial Intelligence, Bioelectronics, Genetics, Nanotechnology, Pharmaceuticals, Robotics, and Synthetic Biology) as well as the Social/Cultural arena (the three other sections, Choices, Identity, Justice). This is at the unwieldy, albeit unmistakable http://www.ourgrandchildrenredesigned.org/.

One of the interesting format elements here is that most chapters start with a “brief fictional vignette” which, while (naturally enough) somewhat sci-fi, allow the author to paint a rather vibrant picture of how some of these enhancements/developments might play out. There was one snippet of one of these that I found particularly engaging – part of a story about a sort of rescue shelter for bio-engineered “mistakes”, this being an encounter with a orangutan which had been engineered with “twenty percent human cognition-related genes”:

      She led him towards a side door. “There's one more guy I'd like you to meet before lunch. Over in that small red barn over there. His name's Jeremy.
      He followed her into the barn. Same musky smell, only more pungent. A dappled light coming through the skylight. Steel bars, the whole place a cage. A thatched hut over in the far corner of the cage, woven from sheaves of grass and leaves.
      “Jeremy,” she called out, “You have a visitor.”
      David peered into the darkness, his eyes adjusting. A holo screen on the wall lit up. Letters began appearing, forming words.
      GO WAY.
      David looked at her, but she ignored him.
      “Come on, Jeremy. Just a few minutes so you can meet your new friend David.
      He noticed she was speaking more slowly and clearly than usual.
      Silence. Then letters.
      “No, you're not. You're just being unfriendly.”
      THRO POOP.
      “You better not! If you want dinner today.”
      Rustling, the grass parted, and he came out. An orangutan. About one-and-a-half meters tall, a huge round face, round brown eyes. He stood leaning forward, holding a large wireless keyboard in his left hand.

      “So … why's he here? Why wasn't he considered a success?”
      “Because he's miserable, that's why. He's tried three times to commit suicide.”
I have quite a few little bookmarks though this, flagging things that I felt were particularly notable. There is so much stuff covered in Our Grandchildren Redesigned that I won't try to walk you through it all, but will hopefully be able to give you a sense of what's in here by dropping in on the bits I felt were worth a slip of paper …

In the Envisioning The Future chapter, the author lays down some cognitive grids to consider these developments, a chronological division into Long Structural Processes (50 years or more), Short Structural Processes (20-50 years), and Conjunctural Processes (1-20 years), which get further elaborated with:

But here, another aspect of our three-tiered list comes into play. Novel technologies tend to change more quickly, radically, and unpredictably than human social, economic, and cultural institution. The rise of the Internet, for example, became a major historical phenomenon in less than twenty years, but phenomena like racial prejudice, class conflict, gender bias, and similar social and cultural factors tend to evolve much more slowly. The implication is clear: we are likely to do better at predicting general patterns of the coming century, we should not try to foresee too precisely which technologies will exist in different decades. If we insist on doing so, we are likely to end up pulling a Rutherford.
Of course, one has to love that phrase “pulling a Rutherford”, which refers to the great physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford, known as the “father of nuclear physics”, who came up with the concept of radioactive half-life, among many other discoveries, yet totally dismissed the possibility of harnessing atomic energy just a scant dozen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were introduced to it.

In the Pharmaceuticals chapter, in a discussion of the development of memory-enhancing drugs (some of which are in clinical trials), Bess notes:

The notion of boosting memory in humans sounds at first like a terrific development. I would be able to learn foreign languages faster, recall more accurately the names of people and places I have known, find my car keys without a lot of cursing and fuss. But what abut forgetting? When we examine the functioning of memory as a practical component in a person's daily life, we find that it is just as important to be able to selectively lose information as to retain it. Without this ability we would rapidly find ourselves drowning in a sea of trivial details, impressions, emotions, and images.
He takes a look at various pills that are currently on the market (interestingly, most of these were not developed to be brain or mood enhancers), and how new sorts of research are able to push the envelope as researchers learn more about the underlying biology/chemistry of consciousness.

One term that I notably had not previously encountered was “epigenetics”, which is dealt with (duh) in the chapter Genetics and Epigenetics. Here is how the author frames this:

The new scientific field that studies these patterns of genetic activation and transcription is known as epigenetics. Though definitions vary, an epigenetic process can best be describe as any molecular mechanism that changes the expression of genetic information without altering the underlying DNA sequence itself. The DNA code stays the same, but certain portions of it are selectively silenced, while others are spurred to action, resulting in dramatically different phenotypic outcomes. … In recent years, scientists have discovered a variety of epigenetic mechanisms that allow the DNA script to be read differently by the body's cells under distinct circumstances; the two most common of these are known as DNA methylation and histone acetylation. These two molecular mechanisms act like volume knobs on particular segments of DNA: one mechanism (methylation) turns down the potency of expression for a given section of code, all the way down to a whisper; the other (acetylation) cranks it up to a shout.
He notes that this approach is likely to allow temporary changes, as it alters how individual genes are expressed, without messing with the underlying code … an important factor if genetic research speeds up, and you don't want to get stuck with “outmoded” enhancements.

Moving out of the tech section and into the “Justice” section, Bess puts forth what he refers to as a “meta-list” of “Ten Key Factors in Human Flourishing” to provide a moral framework for addressing these extremely disruptive trends. These fall under two categories, the Individual Dimension which includes Security, Dignity, Autonomy, Personal Fulfillment, Authenticity, and Pursuit of Practical Wisdom, and the Societal Dimension which includes Fairness, Interpersonal Connection, Civic Engagement, and Transcendence. He adds:

Here, therefore, lies and excellent framework for evaluating enhancement technologies. For each of the enhancements described in this book, we can hold up an ethical yardstick by asking, “Does this device or modification contribute to human flourishing, or does it not?”
In the chapter “A Fragmenting Species?”, he returns to the concept of epigenetics:

As I described earlier, two kinds of human genetic engineering may become available over the coming decades. One form, germline reengineering, would require making changes to the DNA of individuals soon after the moment of conception. The other method, epigenetic modification, would target the molecular mechanisms that regulate DNA expression (while leaving the underlying DNA unchanged). In principle, both methods could generate powerful modifications to the body and mind of the individuals, but the epigenetic pathway would possess two major advantages. Whereas germline engineering would be a one-shot deal, fixed and irreversible, epigenetic modifications would be flexible, reversible, and upgradeable over time. Furthermore, while alterations to the germline would have to be made by parents on behalf of their just-conceived offspring, epigenetic modifications would be available throughout a person's lifetime and will therefore result (in most cases) from choices that individuals will be making for themselves as the years go by.
He goes on to look at some of the ethical issues of the germline modifications, how a child, although “engineered” to be a tennis or cello prodigy might not have the attitude necessary to excel in the path his or her parents chose. This is one of the places that I felt the author could have “enhanced” the telling by including some popular culture reference, in this case The Boys From Brazil, which featured a number of clones of Adolf Hitler, most of which had no interest in anything like world conquest (although there was that one right at the end...). Obviously, this was a minor quibble, but one that came up in my reading when I'd hit passages where I'd be thinking “wow, that's just like X”, and wondering why he'd missed that (he does refer to the Star Wars clone armies at one point, and uses Vonnegut's “ice nine” as an example of unintended results of technological developments).

In the chapter “Why Extreme Modifications Should Be Postponed”, the author sets out “three levels of possible human enhancement” ...

■   Low-level modifications: Capabilities at the high end of today's human range.
■   Mid-level modifications: Capabilities well beyond today's human range, but still recognizably human.
■   High-level modifications: Capabilities utterly beyond human parameters.
He further notes that “This latter form of high-level metamorphosis appears to be what many transhumanists eagerly envision for themselves.”, and later adds:

... the act of undergoing extreme transmogrification inevitably entails serious risks, not just for the person doing it, but for the rest of humankind as well. Such acts of creation would bring into being new kinds of “posthuman” entities that have the potential of being extremely powerful and uncontrollable. We have no way of knowing how they would behave toward the rest of the biosphere – including all other sentient beings on our planet.
This was another place where I felt a pop-culture reference would help frame the concept – in this case bringing up the character of Doctor Manhattan the “posthuman god” of the Watchmen comics (and movie), which is, I believe, exactly the sort of being that Bess is worried about unleashing here.

In the chapter “What You and I Can Do Today” he outlines “five tangible goals people can work for as they mobilize to influence the development of human biotechnologies”:
  1. Mandate basic education in science, technology, and society (STS).

  2. Build “bioethics coalitions” across the left-right divide.

  3. Create a strong governmental agency for technology assessment.

  4. Adopt the precautionary principle in crafting bioenhancement legislation.

  5. Strengthen international cooperation in governing technology.

Obviously, the assumption here is that without a strong, stable, and wide-reaching “ethic” for channeling these developments along approved lines, the “genie will be out of the bottle” soon enough, with the possibilities of rogue states creating armies of super soldiers, or wealthy individuals trying to get to that “god” level. One of the things I've not touched on here, and which the author spends a lot of time with, is the economic concern … how a “baseline” of enhancements will likely have to be funded globally, to ensure that less-developed parts of the world (or poorer parts of individual countries) don't devolve into a Morlock-like subservient sub-species, while the well-to-do evolve into the Eloi (another pop-culture citation – that of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine that could have well be used here).

In the “Enhancing Humility” chapter Bess posits an interesting cultural generalization:

Reform works better than revolution. Strategies of slow, incremental change have succeeded far better at achieving the aims of historical actors than strategies of sudden, drastic change. ... it leaps out at me from the mass of historical events with such intuitive force that I feel compelled to take it seriously. I bring it up here because it has major implications for how our society chooses to pursue the bioenhancement enterprise over the coming century.
I would love to just stick in the next page or so here, where he contrasts the French revolution ending up in “the iron rule of Napoleon”, the Marxist revolution ending up as “a bizarre Orwellian nightmare under Stalin”, and the Maoist revolution ending up “in the famine of 1958-1962 and vicious factional strife of the Cultural Revolution”, with the slow achievement of Women's rights “over a dozen generations”, the growth of rights and power in Western democracies (with working conditions starkly in contrast to those detailed in the works of Charles Dickens), and the evolving status of Black rights over the past century, but that would be way too long. However, he goes on to say:

... Gradual reform, in short is not just morally superior because of its generally nonviolent character; it is also more effective in the long run, engendering forms of enduring change that penetrate deeply into the fabric of society, altering hearts and minds as well as institutions.
      When it comes to the pursuit of the enhancement enterprise, therefore, our society would do well to take the comparative history of reform and revolution into account. We should choose the long, slow, plodding road rather than the shining superhighway of radical change. Technological innovation may indeed be accelerating, but we should not allow it to transform our lives more rapidly than our social, cultural, and moral frameworks can absorb. If we permit enhancement technologies to advance too quickly, the resultant stresses could end up massively destabilizing our civilization, perhaps even tearing it apart.
Our Grandchildren Redesigned has only been out for a month at this writing, so should be available in bookstores that have futurist stock. The online big boys, of course, have it at a substantial discount (currently 36% off of cover), but oddly, quite reasonable new copies are in the new/used channel, that even with shipping come in at about a 60% discount. Frankly, this book was quite the firehose of information, but if you're into the things under discussion in it, I'm sure it will be quite a gripping read … it's certainly one of those topics that is not going away, and having read this will put you in a place of at least not being categorically surprised when these strange new worlds start manifesting around you!

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Saturday, November 14th, 2015
11:58 pm
Have you ever wondered ...
This is another of those books that I'm pretty sure wouldn't have found its way into my library if not for the dollar store … rah, rah, rah for serendipity, I suppose. However, poking through the books at my most-frequented Dollar Tree (of the five in town that I know how to get on public transportation), I saw Shirley McLaine's What If . . .: A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure, and I just couldn't find a good argument for passing it up for a buck. Not that I'm a fan in particular of Ms. McLaine … although her years of media ubiquity are long past, she's still a bit of a punch-line first and an actress/dancer second when searching through my mental files.

In some sense this is a “gimmick” book, it's a collection of “what it?” musings on a variety of subjects, running from one or two sentences (there are a lot of pages with just that much text – quick read!), such as:

What if our subconscious controls out destiny?
What if evolution itself is speeding up?
What if there really is reincarnation?
... etc., etc., etc. … on to longer biographical pieces (like 24 pages inspired by her getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 2012), with most (well, most might be the 1-2 sentence ones) clocking in at 2-4 pages. One thing I found quite odd was that there were two or three sections that didn't start off with “what if” … but somehow these didn't feel like they were there in some 4th-way “look for what seems out of place” state of significance, but more like they were somehow stuff that she just couldn't figure out how to phrase in a “what if” structure.

The subject matter is all over the place, from reminiscences of “the old days” in Hollywood, to the expected “space aliens” and assorted woo-woo spirituality, to quasi-political ramblings (for having come out in 2013, she still sure has a bug up her butt about Dick Cheney). Interestingly, one of the more “things that make you go hmmmm” entries here starts off with a “what if” about Cheney … it's talking about “cellular memory” and the effects observed in transplant patients:

Medical reports say that heart transplant patients often undergo a change of philosophy, personality, and values once they recover from surgery. The heart is a special organ, not to mention one that has tremendous cultural, symbolic, and psychological meaning. … Transplant transference has occurred in many heart recipients. … {One} transplant recipient, a health-conscious choreographer, found herself inexplicably attracted to all kinds of junk food, … She also began behaving in an aggressive and impetuous manner that was uncharacteristic of her, but was like the personality of her organ donor.
Another interesting section here deals with the “usual suspects” among the Founding Fathers leaving behind writings indicating that they believed in a "plurality of worlds”, and claims that

Franklin … wondered if there was a God for every inhabited planet.
She even uses that ever-convincing “Ancient astronaut theorists claim ...” phrase several times (of course – ALIENS!). On the plus side, she mentions a character I'd not previously heard of … a free black man by the name of Benjamin Banneker, who was a surveyor who participated in laying out the various “mystical patterns” incorporated into Washington D.C.'s design. What is notable here is that he was supposedly from the Dogon tribe, the same group that is purported to have had a great deal of advanced scientific knowledge maintained in their myths, included detailed information on the Pleiades … which she claims the Washington Monument is sited to align with on particular days. Oh, she also lets us know which revolutionary era figure she believes she's a reincarnation of … but you'd be disappointed if she didn't, wouldn't you?

Again, this book is all over the map … but every once in a while it lands squarely in the “preaching to the choir” (in terms of my beliefs), and that's always refreshing. I especially liked the following, from a piece where she's bitching about the TSA (where she notes that, over the years of radiating us, has discovered via the x-ray scans 0 terrorist threats, 1,485 hernias, and 3 natural blondes):

More important than any of the aforementioned, what if the “security” measure have never been predominantly about security, but more about the purposeful dumbing-down of Americans, making us subservient to control and authority? What if the point of amplifying fear is to render the population cooperative with its own individual captivity? Fear breed handing over control, and handing over control breeds cooperative dumbing-down. In the name of protecting freedom and democracy, we've become prisoners of our own induced obedience.
Preach that libertarian philosophy, girl!

Needless to say, the book is “uneven”, with a lot of goofy open-ended “what ifs” (what are we supposed to do with “What if we could experience psychic liberation?”?), but these are ephemeral enough that they don't really effect the over-all tone of the book. There are moments of actual “deep thinking” here about significant topics, and the autobiographical bits are often quite fascinating. I doubt many people would find McClaine's What If ... a life-changing read, but it's light, informative, and entertaining, so is a good “treat” if one's been delving into too many “heavy” books.

This is still in print in both hardcover and paperback (and various other formats), so it must have its audience out there. Like many books that have found their way into the dollar store channel, the hardcover can be had for a penny (four bucks with shipping) in “very good” condition. Obviously, if you stumble across this at a Dollar Tree, do pick it up – for a buck you can't go wrong … but you might even consider it in the retail channels, if the above sounds appealing enough.

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Sunday, November 8th, 2015
3:28 pm
America's traffic, cars, and roads ... and some things both mysterious and not ...
This is the second of the books that got on my radar from the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit (the other being here – with more details on that event). There was a session I attended featuring the authors of two new books on city/transportation issues, and both sounded interesting enough for me to reach out to the publishers for review copies. The one currently being considered is Samuel I. Schwartz's Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.

This is a book which, by all rights, ought to be very dry, and possibly tiresome. It's not. Heck, it's downright entertaining, and I'm tempted to attribute this to Mr. Schwartz's good humor (I seem to recall that he was "owning the stage" at the conference), but I'm wondering if this has something to do with the “with” credit (which is on the title page, but not the dust jacket or spine) of publishing-industry veteran William Rosen. In any case, between them, they have produced a book that's a great read, with (I'm guessing) wide appeal, in a subject area that one would not expect. I know it's unusual for me to praise a book before getting into the particulars, but I felt that this was, perhaps, the most notable element here – it's the text equivalent of hanging out with your favorite uncle who's had a fascinating life and is full of great stories.

I did have one gripe with this, however … I really, really wished at numerous points that the book had been illustrated – preferably with a lot of photographs of the places being discussed. I wanted to see the collapsed section of the West Side Highway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Williamsburg Bridge, and many other things mentioned here, along with maps, plans, etc. There are a few images here (less than a dozen, I believe), but the book would have been greatly improved if there were ten times that many.

The author is a first-wave babyboomer, and grew up in the shadow of Brooklyn's famed Ebbets Field … before his beloved (Trolley) Dodgers up and moved to Los Angeles. His development was in the streets of Brooklyn in at time where you still could play stick ball without getting killed by traffic, and a lot of that sensibility informs this book … especially the sense of how things have evolved over the years with the rise of the automobile. Oh, and he's also widely credited as being the person who came up with the term “gridlock” … in a 1980 New York Transportation Department memo looking for ways to avoid that particular traffic manifestation.

Early on he defines the book's focus: it “tells the story of a transformation in the common travel decisions made daily and weekly in the industrial world generally, and the United States specifically … getting ourselves to work, to shopping, to social encounters, and to entertainment – how we've done so historically, and how we're going to be doing so in the future.”. And, one of the key concepts he frames as: “Vehicles come and go. Buildings go up and come down. Roads last forever.”

Except, of course, when they don't. “On Saturday morning, December15, 1973, the forty-year-old West Side Highway … collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying more than thirty tons of asphalt. … A day later, the road was closed indefinitely ...” – leaving eighty thousand cars a day to find an alternate route. This is the first point when “things get weird” here:

The predicted traffic disaster never appeared. Somehow, those eighty thousand cars went somewhere, but to this day we have no idea where. Or how, two years later, twenty-five thousand more people were getting into Manhattan's Central Business District.
He refers to this as “the counterintuitive phenomenon known as disappearing traffic”, and notes that “lane closures not only cause traffic to decrease on the road's remaining lanes, but only half the decrease reappears anywhere else”.

That sort of reality is a mystery to all involved … but there are “less mysterious” things at work here too … in many cases there were serious prejudices built into the available information – cables whose useful lifespan was being represented at 10% of the actual figure, while beams which were “cracked and perforated” by corrosion not even being considered in projections (this is what failed in the WSH collapse). This came up in the context of the Williamsburg Bridge, an 1909 construction that carried 350,000 people a day. Much like the mysterious disappearing traffic, there was a reality here that was surprising – narrower lanes were safer than wider lanes – and fixing the existing bridge (with narrow lanes) rather than tearing it down and replacing it with a “state of the art” bridge (which would have also required bulldozing “two of the most vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods in the entire country”, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn) is something the author had to fight strongly for.

Another unexpected change he notes is that of the driving habits of the Millennials:

... in 2009, Millennials drove 23 percent fewer miles on average than their same-age predecessors did in 2001. That is, their average mileage – VMT, or vehicle miles traveled – plummeted from 10,300 miles a year to 7.900 … In every five-year period from 1945 to 2004, Americans had driven more miles than they did the half-decade before … but by 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004 … if all eighty million Millennials retain their current driving habits for the next twenty-five years … per capita VMT … will fall off the table.
This was a total surprise … even as these trends started to manifest, federal Transportation Department officials were predicting a doubling of VMT over 20 years … and, like in the case of bridge traffic, there were “experts” who flat-out rejected the possibility of the long-term patterns no longer being valid.

The author also argues that American “car culture” didn't happen by accident, but was created by government programs that encouraged suburban sprawl – “houses whose cost per square foot was so much lower than that of the available housing stock in densely populated urban centers”

Which is exactly what happened with the GI Bill's requirement that government-guaranteed home loans only go to new construction, or the Eisenhower administration's decision to build forty thousand miles of heavily subsidized highways. The relative advantage of car-dependent suburban living didn't come from impersonal forces of the market in action, but from a sequence of decisions made by fallible human beings, decisions that could very easily have gone in an entirely different direction. … Fifty years of sprawl in America then does, in fact, look a lot like a fifty-year mistake – one that didn't need to happen.
Of course, this all followed the conspiracy that was a central plot point in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – buying streetcar lines simply to shut them down in favor of car transport.

For more than a decade beginning in 1936, two shell companies – National City Lines and Pacific City Lines, owned by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and other huge companies with what you might call a strong bias in favor of gasoline-powered transportation – bought more than a hundred electric train and trolley systems in at least forty-five American cities ...
Notably, the same did not happen in Europe and other parts of the world, with trolley and similar transit options being a key part of the cities' transportation mix on through the present. Schwartz looks at both various European examples, and the rather remarkable recent history of public transit in Bogotá, Columbia where the city has narrowed streets (by expanding sidewalks) and has even banned cars on particular days.

Street Smart goes into a lot more stuff than I've been able to touch on here … including looking at various transit systems in U.S. cities, self-driving cars (and other futurist concepts), and more historical details (as well as the author's “war stories” from his days in the NYC DOT) … but I think you get the idea. Again, for a subject that could be expected to be fairly dry, it's coverage here is breezy and engaging – quite a bonus to the information that's presented. This is quite new (just out a couple of months at this writing), so should be easy enough to find at bookstores (when you can find bookstores), and the on-line big boys have it more than a third off of cover price. If you're interested in the whole matrix of cars and cities and transportation (and Brooklyn sport teams), you'll find this quite an agreeable read.

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Saturday, November 7th, 2015
12:10 pm
Evolving the city ...
Back in September I was invited to cover the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit for my blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform - Green Tech Chicago. I wasn't able to attend the full conference, but was able to hit a couple of sessions on two days, and shoot an interview with the sponsoring organization's (the Shared-Use Mobility Center) Executive Director, and sit through a discussion featuring the authors of a couple of new books. I was interested enough in these that I looked up their publishers, and sent out requests for review copies. This is how Gabe Klein's Start-Up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun ended up in my reading pile.

Klein has a Chicago connection, having been Mayor Emanuel's head of the city's Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2013 … although his C.V. is head-spinning for the number of things that are on there for somebody who hasn't quite hit 45 yet … he was in a similar position in Washington, D.C., did a stint with ZipCar, and a car-sharing venture that Virgin was contemplating launching, ran a food truck company in D.C., and started his career in bicycle retailing following a hippie childhood (at age 10 he was in a rural Virginia yoga school/ashram).

When in the Emanuel administration, he was instrumental in the development of the Riverwalk, the BRT Chicago initiative (whose dedicated bus lanes are still being created in the Loop), the DIVVY bike-share program, and the recently-opened Bloomingdale Trail, among numerous other projects variously familiar to my fellow Chicagoans. The book presents itself as “a helpful guide steeped in pragmatic realism”, with chapter sub-titles such as “On managing others, empowering your team, and shamelessly promoting their accomplishments”, and “Oh how to find funding where none seemingly exists, make the most of a slim budget, and get creative with the basics”, etc. However, this is primarily a memoir of Klein's career (thus far), with occasional inserts of entrepreneurial “theory” spun off of his experiences in these assorted positions.

One thing that certainly flags Klein as “not your typical bureaucrat” is the sign he'd (I'm guessing tongue-in-cheek) suggested in place of the locally-well-known “Building A New Chicago” work signs that appear all over the city … his version (which he had at least one done up, which hung in his office) read “Getting Sh*t Done – In Every M*th*r F*ck*ing Ward”. If there is an over-arching theme here, it's that of using mind-sets and tool kits from entrepreneurial start-ups to help revitalize and spur development in cities:

You need to push boundaries and undermine the status quo, or your work reverts to the codes, regulations, and standards that have become the caricature of bureaucracies. What's worse is that these standards often fail us, as they did in this instance {his first attempt to install bike lanes in D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue}, because they fail to encapsulate the dynamism of the city, the potential for engineers to creatively solve new problems, and the capacity of our citizens to see and embrace change.
Another odd thing about Start-up City is its format … it looks more like a travel book than a business book – in a 6x6” square lay-out, with lots of pictures, and strange illustrations that look like screen shots from some cartoon Lego world, and infographic-style graphics detailing assorted points. So, it's somewhat unsettling to flip through this and run into business-school insistences such as “Embrace S.M.A.R.T. management and Six Sigma principles.” (the acronym standing for “Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based”, and Six Sigma being an approach that “says that anything less than 99.9999998 percent error rate, or 3.4 errors per million, is unacceptable”). Needless to say, this isn't all about the “having fun” of the book's subtitle!

As you might have surmised by this point, a lot of this book is about “getting shit done” in the cities in which Klein has worked, but it also has “visionary” aspects, where he looks at concepts of how things will be evolving over time. One section that was particularly in line with the conference where I heard him speak looks at the his view on the future of cars:

Vehicles today are only in use approximately 5 percent of the time. The rest of the day, they take up valuable space that could be put toward other public uses. That's a big sacrifice we've made, and I think that the self-driving cars are part of our opportunity to fix it. As mobility evolves from a private luxury into a subscription service in the “internet of everything” world, vehicles (in urban areas, at least) can be active 95 percent of the time while serving multiple customers rather than sitting around unused 95 percent of the time. As a result, societies will not need anywhere near as many vehicles as we have today.
As a life-long “city boy”, I, naturally enough, found the stories of “fighting city hall” popcorn-worthy, whether it was Klein as an outsider fighting the unfair regulations against food trucks in D.C., or trying to correct programs in Chicago that were “wracked by paranoia, which caused a series of gross inefficiencies” (which, for example, led to using winter-formulated asphalt pot-hole patching material year-round, which would last about 2 days when the temperatures were above freezing!). And, there's a lot of that sort of conflict narrated across the stories here.

While Start-up City is an engaging and informative read, it's ultimately a bit of a blur … succeeding as a memoir, but not so much in its attempts to be a “guide”. There is plenty of room here for the author to have bolstered the “business book” and “urban visionary” elements to be equal partners with the personal history narrative that's at the core of this … it's not that those aren't in it, but they feel like they're less integrated into a three-way whole that they might have been. Klein closes out the book in the “visionary” mode, and here's a bit from the Conclusion:

The future challenges and opportunities we face in cities are not just about the obvious – the advent of high-tech vehicles, apps, or even traditional transportation. How we configure our future neighborhoods and transportation systems will have profound impacts on climate change, on socioeconomic mobility, an on public health. The ground is shifting beneath us, and whether you're talking about energy or healthcare or climate, the landscape is evolving more quickly than we can even begin to anticipate. This is why our North Star cannot be about technology for the sake of technology alone. Instead, we must use the momentum of technological change as as force to help us create places that celebrate public life.
This has only been out a few weeks at this point, so it should certainly be available via the bigger brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it at nearly a third off of cover (and a very reasonable price for the e-book – although I wonder how much of the graphic presentation of this survives into the that format). I liked it – and certainly folks from Chicago and D.C. will be amused to see familiar places and get behind-the-scenes looks at local projects – but I think it falls a bit short from being all it could have been (or, perhaps, was envisioned to be).

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Friday, November 6th, 2015
11:17 pm
I did not need to know ANY of this ...
This was one of those dollar store finds that was in the “just as well it was only a buck” category. Dave Bry's (pronounced like “brie”) Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples With a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time is an odd, and, frankly uncomfortable book. It is exactly what the title/subtitle suggest, a series of events for which he's apologizing … most of which are embarrassing to various degrees.

This is set up chronologically, with sections on Junior High, High School, College, New York, and Adulthood. Each story starts off with “Dear (name):” and then runs with whatever bad behavior he's apologizing for – sometimes for many, many pages. Yes, through the course of this you get a pretty good scope of his history (and the sense that he's a bit of a jerk with substance abuse issues), but it's all one long icky read. Honestly, about a third of the way through this I was thinking “this guy must be doing one of those 12-step programs!” and he's working on step 8-9 where he'd make “a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all” and using this to at least apologize … however, that doesn't get mentioned or even hinted at anywhere in here, so I guess this is just some sort of “airing of dirty laundry” in print. The author has been writing for several magazines and web sites, and he notes in the Acknowledgments that “many of the apologies in this book were first published on The Awl” (web site), so I guess he's decided that the embarrassing personal story is just “his niche”. Ewwww.

Now, I almost never “give up” on a book, but about half way through this I was seriously considering not finishing it. Fortunately, the stories from his later life are less “triggering” than those of his earlier life … and some of them even get into “poignant” territory (such as those around his father's death … like picking up some comedies for the family to watch when they were basically waiting for his dad to finally succumb to brain cancer – one of which ended up being Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, which involves a sub-plot about Allen's character beliving he has a brain tumor).

The subject matter of these stories is quite varied, from apologizing to friends of his parents' about what he wore to their son's bar mitzvah, to apologizing to Bon Jovi for having thrown empty beer cans over the rocker's fence and onto his lawn. There's apologizing for a graduation prank, and apologizing for dramatically spitting out the hamburger he'd been eating in a Paris bistro, when he discovered that it was made with horse meat. There's apologies to garage owners, gals at school dances, neighbors, and even to his son for letting him get lost in the park. Again, the earlier the stuff was, the more horrific the emotional load in the telling … it's easier to let tales of him being an idiot around c-list rock stars (when writing for Vibe magazine) slide out of one's head, than those of him forcing grade school friends to “worship” a poster of Jim Morrison.

I have a hard time imagining how one gets to a place where the idea of writing these vignettes seems like a good idea, except, as noted, as some obsessive part of a 12-step program. Perhaps he should have written a post-script to the main part of the book apologizing to the those folks who actually read it. One would really have to be a particularly odd sort of a voyeur to enjoy this … although I guess there are probably those out there who fit that profile … but it's not me, and I'm guessing it's not you.

Not surprisingly, Public Apology appears to be out of print (except for the ebook edition), and it's available on-line for as little as a penny in the after-market hardcover. As noted, it's in the dollar stores as well, but I don't expect anybody to go out looking for this. I guess we can chalk this up to “I read it so you don't have to” … you're welcome.

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