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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.

- - -

Oh, hey ... would you be interested in hard-copy versions of these reviews? I had so many people suggest to me over the years that I should "do books" of them, that I finally pulled the trigger on the concept. There are currently six volumes available, 2015 on back through 2010, with more to come as I can triage the hours (these take a remarkably long time to get ready for print). Eventually there will be annual collections going back to 2004 ... click here to check them out!

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.
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This blog is on the resource listing!

Sunday, July 24th, 2016
6:27 pm
Why religion?
As I noted in a review a few weeks back, I recently decided to get caught up on several “atheist” books that I'd gotten in a number of years ago, and so Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon got out of the “to be read” limbo and into my active reading mix. This is one that I pretty much ordered “by reputation”, without having a lot of particular info (and, hence, expectations) about it. I guess Dennett was quoted enough in other books that I figured that I should get around to reading this one as well.

Dennett writes with a bit of a wry attitude – and brings (what in context of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is) a fairly gentle counterpoint to religions here. I suspect that this comes from his being, by profession, a philosopher (holding a Chair at Tufts University, and being a director of the Center for Cognitive Studies there), and, while the sciences are more specifically his area of study, religion (as in the sub-title here, “as a natural phenomenon”) seems to be a professional interest, rather than the bête noire that it is for most of his “teammates” on the Atheist side of things. However, I take it that he's a big wheel in The Brights movement, so there's certainly no hesitancy to make fun of the religious.

Now, I just finished reading this, so it's not been sitting around draining out of my head … but I still don't have a good summary about what the book's “about” … while not being “academic” (although chock full of citations), it sort of rolls through what it rolls through and didn't leave a solid impression on me. This may be “my bad”, or it might be something about the book … I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it's a good thing that I bookmarked a bunch of stuff, because if I was going to do this review from unaided recall, neither of us would be happy with the results.

Structurally, it's in 3 “parts” with various thematic chapters, which are broken up into numerous topical sections. The “parts” are: Opening Pandora's Box, The Evolution of Religion, and Religion Today (followed by four Appendixes), which gives you the broad-strokes of what's in here.

Tellingly, this starts out looking at parasites that cause “suicidal” behavior in various animals, from a microscopic fluke that infects ants' brains and causes them to climb high on grass, just so the fluke can get into the digestive tract of a sheep or cow – which is necessary for the fluke's reproduction, to the parasites that get into mice or rats and make them fearless around cats, because the parasite needs to get into the cat's digestive tract to reproduce. One of the recurring questions here is Cui bono?, the Latin phrase that means "to whose profit?" … which certainly gives a starting place for explaining bizarre behaviors in the host creatures for these various parasites – which could well include the entire concept of religion among humans.

Dennett puts forward a rather convincing call for the study of religion:

We have particularly compelling reasons for investigating the biological bases of religion now. Sometimes – rarely – religions go bad, veering into something like group insanity or hysteria, and causing great harm. Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum; a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight. We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire. What is religion composed of? How do the parts fit together? How do they mesh? Which effects depend on which causes? Which features, if any, invariably occur together? Which exclude each other? What constitutes the health and pathology of religious phenomena?
He does suggest caution, however, referring to the knee-jerk move to low-fat dietary guidelines (driven by politics, of course), where “the demands of the public for simple advice – run up against the confusing ambiguity of real science”. He goes on to say:

Good intentions are not enough. This is the sort of misguided campaign that we want to avoid when we try to correct what we take to be the toxic excesses of religion.
Again, much of the book is involved in delving into specific philosophical questions dealing with belief, with historical indications of how modern cultures arose, with brain function, with cultural insularity, etc., etc. etc. This is presented in a very accessible format, with humor and reference to a wide array of cognitive frames. Unfortunately, none of that makes for quick-and-handy quotes or summaries. Here, however, is one section that did sort of stand out:

Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lore about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman. … {he references Dawkin's famous line: “... modern theists might acknowledge that … We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”} The trouble is that, since this advice won't be heeded, discussions of the existence of God tend to take place in a pious fog of indeterminate boundaries. If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone “on their side”, theists typically decline to do this. … This double standard is enabled if not actually licensed by a logical confusion that continues to defy resolution by philosophers who have worked on it: the problem of intentional objects … the things somebody can think about.
The start of that, “belief in belief in God” is featured through this quite a bit, which eventually gets contrasted with various scientific theorems …

Do you believe that E=mc2? I do. We all know that this is Einstein's great equation, and the heart, somehow, of his theory of relativity, and many of us know what the E and m and c stand for, and could even work out the basic algebraic relationships and detect obvious errors in interpreting it. But only a tiny fraction of those who know “E=mc2 is a fundamental truth of physics actually understand it in any substantive way.
He goes on to quote from Richard Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, where in a lecture that great mind said:

It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does … It's a problem that physicists have learned to deal with ...
Lots of other threads are woven through here: anthropological studies of obscure cultures, “teaching stories” from various traditions, atrocities committed in the name of various religions (Kosovo, the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, etc.) – with the comment “This is the great danger of symbols – they can become too sacred”, with a look at how religion has been historically studied in the West.

In the “Morality and Religion” section there is an interesting discussion of a key element that appears to be preventing Islam from evolving into something less medieval:

It is equally unknown how many Muslims truly believe that all infidels and especially kafirs (apostates from Islam) deserve death , which is what the Koran (4:89) undeniably says. … of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam stands alone in its inability to renounce this barbaric doctrine convincingly. The Koran does not explicitly commend killing apostates, but the hadith literature (the narrations of the life of the Prophet) certainly does. Most Muslims, I would guess, are sincere in their insistence that the hadith injunction that apostates are to be killed is to be disregarded, but it's disconcerting, to say the least, that fear of being regarded as an apostate is apparently a major motivation in the Islamic world. … Even Muslims “on the inside” really don't know what Muslims think about apostasy – they mostly aren't prepared to bet their lives on it ...
Reflecting back to the science example, Dennett talks about “division of labor”, where there are “experts” in various areas, and he suggests that this is frequently what drives most bodies into the pews, and despite quoting H.L. Mencken's “For every complex problem, there is a simple answer – and it is wrong.” he notes:

... if you decide, after conscientious consideration, that your moral decision is to delegate further moral decision in your life to a trusted expert, then you have made your own moral decision. Your have decided to take advantage of the division of labor that civilization makes possible and get the help of expert specialists.
Of course, this hinges on the “conscientious consideration” part … people thinking it through (which I suspect is a sucker bet every time) … with the problem coming with those who “have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem”. Dennett defines these (probably the majority of believers) as “taking a personally immoral stand”, which he suspects is the “most shocking implication” of his studies in this area.

The book closes out with a chapter “Now What Do We Do?”, where he summarizes much of the material, while still introducing some new elements. I liked this piece in the early parts of this chapter, where's he sort of setting up his “closing arguments”:

Religion provides some people with a motivated organization for doing great things – working for social justice, education, political action, economic reform, and so forth. For others the memes of religion are more toxic, exploiting less savory aspects of their psychology, playing on guilt, loneliness, the longing for self-esteem and importance. Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future.
Dennett does eventually get around to “politics”, and he gets into some territory sure to irritate the Left (which, needless to say, got my attention), including a discussion comparing dangerous religious believers to dangerous political believers, and here's a bit of that:

There were Marxists working very hard to bring about the revolution, and it was comforting for them to believe that their success was guaranteed in the long run. {according to the doctrine that “the revolution of the proletariat was inevitable”} And some of them, the only ones that were really dangerous, believed so firmly in the rightness of their cause that they believed it was permissible to lie and deceive in order to further it. They even taught this to their children from infancy. These are the “red-diaper babies,” children of hardline members of the Communist Party of America, and some of them can still be found infecting the atmosphere of political action in left-wing circles ...
Heck, one of them regrettably managed to “infect” the White House!

Again, Breaking the Spell is both rather wide-ranging and in-depth in its philosophical consideration of its numerous subjects. Dennett's prose is fortunately “light” in the sense of a college professor adding humor into the lectures, making this less of a slog than it might be. However, my take-away is that this would make a wonderful series of symposia, each taking up discussions on the 50 or so specific sections here … and that it's more of a starting place for consideration of “Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, than a definitive statement on the topic.

This is still in print (in various formats), with the paperback being quite reasonably priced once the on-line big boys have knocked nearly 40% off of cover … nice for a book that could easily be in that stratospheric “textbook” pricing zone. Being as it's been kicking around out there for nearly a decade at this point, used copies are available, with “very good” hardcovers being offered for under a dime (plus shipping). This, of course, will not be for everybody, as it requires a good deal of thinking, which goes against the proclivities of the faithful, and those seeking the “simple answers/advice” mentioned a couple of places above … but it's really a quite enjoyable read for those who like to get their synapses stretched, and I'd recommend it heartily to that demographic.

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Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
8:54 am
You really should read this one ...
I don't think that Wayne Allyn Root is the type of guy who gets embarrassed much, but I suspect he's somewhat so when it comes to this book. Root made his name in sports prognostication, and then turned to being a political commentator. Back in 2008, he was a hopeful for the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidacy, and was in third place with as much as 26.7% of the vote through five rounds of balloting at their national convention. The top two contenders, former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, and LP “true believer” Mary Ruwart, were locked in a virtual tie on each of these, and following the fifth ballot, Root reached out to Barr to offer his support, in exchange for a spot on the ticket. This was enough to give Barr the nomination, and landed Root in the VP slot. That was, of course, when everybody was expecting Hillary to roll to the White House, and the LP was seeing this as a great opportunity to get some exposure with a wider swath of the voting public. Of course, instead of the “abysmal” Hillary winning, it was the “horrific” current POTUS, which changed the game … the threat of the abuses of the current administration (which has been every bit as monstrous as anticipated, with even more anti-Americanism than anybody could have thought possible) made “standing on principle” a sucker bet.

Root wrote The Conscience of a Libertarian: Empowering the Citizen Revolution with God, Guns, Gold and Tax Cuts in 2009, when he was gearing up for a LP Presidential run in 2012. He was elected to the Libertarian National Committee in 2010 (and re-elected in 2012), and this book was very much the vehicle that he was using as a cornerstone of his campaign. However, as the first term of the current POTUS marched on in its disgusting Alinsky debasing of the country, it became obvious to Root that it was more important to try to get a new administration in place than to make a quixotic (if noble) run as a 3rd party candidate, and resigned from the LP in order to help with the Mitt Romney campaign.

Root was roundly savaged by the Libertarian “true believers” (sort of like food fetishists, but neurotically doctrinaire on political stances) for this … they felt he was a “carpet bagger” anyway from his previous run (and deal with “Libertarian of convenience” Barr), and having him jump back to the GOP was seen as a betrayal, at best.

Frankly, I feel that Root has gotten a bad rap in this … as his beliefs (certainly as set out in this book) are solidly Libertarian in the Goldwater sense of the term. Indeed, Conscience of a Libertarian is inspired by Barry Goldwater's 1960 Conscience of a Conservative (although three times as long as the earlier book), and he spends much of the first part of it dipping into the far-sighted wisdom of Mr. Goldwater.

I also have a somewhat unusual problem with this review – I have over two dozen bookmarks stuck in here for “good parts” that I wanted to share. Root and I have a very similar view of government – that it is the enemy most of the time, so there's a “preaching to the choir” aspect here. Things like:

… government entitlement and welfare programs have never been about helping the poor. They've always been about giving more power and control to politicians and government.
are such a relief to see expressed by somebody other than myself (when swearing at my computer monitor).

Again, Root was out-front with this being his call to action for a substantial 3rd party run as a potential LP Presidential candidate, and it's set up very much in that context. The book is in four parts, “A Revolution Is Brewing” which sets out the case that both major parties are leading the country down the drain with bigger and less responsible government, framed with material by Goldwater and the Founders; “Let's Talk Money and Politics” which looks, in horrifying detail, at just how bad things had gotten by 2009 (needless to say, they've gotten worse since); “Solutions for the Mess We Are In” which presents a fairly coherent plan for how to reverse much of the madness of not only the past couple of decades, but on back to the post-WW2 lurch into big government; and “Protecting and Preserving our Inalienable Civil Liberties”, which details all the areas where our Liberties are being ground out of existence by both major parties. It's really a shame that a GOP candidate hadn't won in '08 (aside from the obvious blessing it would have been to have avoided the disastrous Leftist rampage of the current execrable administration!), as it would have been a lot of fun to see Root running at the head of the LP ticket in 2012, trying to make the stuff in Conscience of a Libertarian come to be.

One of the key values of this book – and why I would recommend it to everybody – is that it gets into gory details on HOW BAD THINGS ARE … stuff that you'll never hear a peep about from the progressive-conspirator MSM. Living in Illinois, we're especially at the mercy of a kleptocratic state government that has for generations solidified its power with sweetheart deals for the unions – and especially the government employees unions – deals that are now totally bankrupting the state. Cynical politicians like Mike Madigan have been promising insanely high pension packages to the unions and leaving the taxpayers of the state on the hook for these billions of dollars. Root has a chapter in here, “Government Employee Unions Gone Wild” which outlines exactly how this scheme has played out, and he very kindly game me permission to do a .pdf version of that chapter, which you can download HERE. If you're in Illinois, I urge you to download that, email it to friends, print it out (I formatted it so it will print front-and-back on four sheets of paper), and get the word out on this particularly vile situation.

As is often the case when I find myself with a “forest” of bookmarks in a book I'm reviewing, I can find myself being unsure exactly what it was on those pages that I was wanting to use (although enough of them were in the above-noted chapter that I decided to contact the author to simply bring that whole thing to you). One bit that I found illuminating, however, is in the “God and Government” chapter where Root (who grew up Jewish but converted to some evangelical Christian sect in order to marry his fundy wife, as I noted in my review of his Relentless book) discusses religious matters, he writes:

... my religious views should not allow me to use government as a hammer to smash those views down your throat. I want to explain to Christians who support all my fiscal views of smaller government, less government spending, lower entitlements, lower taxes, and more freedom, that asking for government to enforce our religious and moral values is in fact big government. And it's also a big mistake.
Given that I first came to the Libertarian Party because its “religion neutral” positioning (in the face of having Armageddon-desiring fundy Dan Quayle being “a heartbeat away from the Presidency” in Bush I's administration), I find Root's stance on belief reassuring.

One of Root's most dramatic propositions here comes in the “Eliminating Federal Taxes and the IRS” chapter … which, in the briefest setting is:

      We propose eliminating the income tax and all other sources of federal tax revenues, including payroll taxes (FICA), excise taxes, and import duties, and replacing it with only one tax: a tax on each state in proportion to its population, with each state deciding for itself how to raise its share of the money. … With no other source of revenue to the U.S. government, the balance of power would be forever dramatically reversed back to the states (just as our Founding Fathers envisioned).
He goes on to quote Jefferson in support of a number of points, including the remarkable:

“The true theory of our constitution is that states are independent as to everything within themselves ...” and even went so far as to recognize the right of states to nullify federal laws within their own borders, describing federal intrusion into state matters as “interference by a foreign government”.
In the chapter “Eradicating Capital Gains”, Root, the serial entrepreneur, gets on his soapbox (yeah, I'm cheering him on), about risk and reward, and how “Capital gains are the only ticket out of poverty. Capital gains are the only ticket to success and upward mobility.” He goes on to show what the Left is leading us to:

What do you get when you turn off that {investment} faucet? Cuba. Before Fidel Castro, Cuba was a prosperous country. A huge class of professionals and business owners lived a wonderful life. Then Castro decided that capitalism was bad and socialism was good for the people. Now the country is frozen in time. Homes, cars, roads, government buildings – they are all dilapidated and broken down, frozen in time because without motivation, no one has invested in anything since 1959 (the year of Castro's revolution). … Cuba is the country that time forgot. Liberals whine all day about “fairness”. Life is completely fair in communist and socialist countries. In liberal utopias like that, taxes are so high that everybody lives in poverty and misery.
Since we're on the subject of liberals … here's another great bit (which dovetails back to the damned union deals):

      Why do liberals want to spend ever-higher amounts of your money? So they can buy the votes of people too ignorant to understand that the very policies that they are voting for are keeping them poor, helpless, hopeless, aimless, and clueless.
It's almost like Root was forecasting the whole BLM thuggery that the current administration has encouraged over the past year or two!

Root also has some very interesting suggestions about reforming Congress. It turns out that his home state, Nevada, has a “part time” legislature, which manages to run the state just fine. In the chapter “The Magnificent Seven (Times Two)” he features two 7-item lists. I was hoping to find a source to point you to on these (rather than listing them all out), but one of the highlights of this is to significantly expand the number of representatives by having each Congressperson represent only 100,000 citizens (versus the average of nearly 700,000 each now), making it not only a far more responsive office, but also making campaigns much less expensive. He also suggests, instead of unlimited 2-year terms, making each term for six years, and only allowing two terms. Another feature of this much larger Congress:

Today a lobbyist needs to buy a majority of the 435-member House in order to get the appropriation they desire, or the special favor they are seeking. That's downright cheap. It becomes almost 10 times as expensive for any corporation or lobbyist to accomplish this with a 3,000-member House.
Among the other items Root puts forward here is:

No proposed bill should be enacted into law unless it has been read out loud in its amended form in the presence of a quorum in Congress, and then posted to the Internet at least one week prior to a scheduled vote.
This will not only discourage massive bills with layer upon layer of “hidden” pork, but it would ensure that never again will some cretinous psychopath like Nancy Pelosi be able to pontificate that the public can't see the bill (that's tens of thousands of pages long) until it's passed.

Additionally, there are suggestions for “Presidential line-item veto”, the elimination of “earmarks”, a system to put into effect the First Amendment's “right to petition the government for a redress of grievances”, and a rock-solid constitutional test of any bill … “if a spending bill is not authorized (or enumerated) by our Constitution, the money should not be spent”.

Another section that should get anybody's blood boiling is the “Nanny State” chapter where Root lists case after case of callous elitist politicians destroying “the little people” because they can. He has a great rant in the middle of this that I'm 100% behind:

Never trust government. Never trust politicians or government bureaucrats. Never trust moral crusaders. Never let others define morality for you. Because the people doing the crusading and defining and prosecuting often have an agenda, and out-of-control ego, and an outsized sense of entitlement. They certainly do not have your best interests in mind.
Gotta love that. He follows later with a campaign-like call to action:

It's time to put candidates in office whose goal is to give the power back to the people. Whose goal is limit the size, power, and scope of government. Our wise Founding Fathers wrote about power of the people, by the people, for the people. They did not write about putting power in the hands of morally corrupt, power-hungry, ego-driven, hypocritical politicians and government bureaucrats.
Speaking of the Founding Fathers, he opens one chapter with an awesome quote from George Washington, which should be always remembered: “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force.” … after all, every “give away” from the government is based on money being forcibly taken (or at least under the threat of force – if you're not Al Sharpton and don't pay your taxes, somebody's eventually going to show up at your door with guns to take you to jail) from somebody else.

Root hits a lot of hot buttons here … “third rail” topics like Education, “affirmative action”, and global cooling warming climate change … and he's right pretty much across the board (although I have issues with his particular favorite cause of on-line poker). He certainly strikes the right chord late in the book with this call for economic sanity:

We cannot possibly continue to spend at the same levels as when things were going good, now that things are going bad. There just isn't enough tax revenue coming in to keep spending at the same baseline. We can't keep spending far more than we take in, while at the same time the national debt from decades past keeps piling up unpaid. We are so broke, we can't pay last year's bills, let alone the new bills from this year.
Frankly, I think that Conscience of a Libertarian is a very important book (which everybody should read), and it's unfortunate that the situations around this (Root returning to the GOP to help in the fight against the continued usurpation of the Executive Branch by enemies of America) have scuttled its primary context. As noted above, I would have loved to see a Root run for the Presidency … it would be “popcorn ready” from start to finish!

I was pleased to see that this appears to still be in print, in both the hardcover and paperback editions, so you could likely get this at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor … and, as much as I'd like to throw some coin Wayne's way, you can get “very good” used copies of the hardcover for as little as a penny (plus the $3.99 shipping) from the new/used guys, so you really don't have much of an excuse for not getting a copy (if nothing else, do remember to grab the .pdf of Ch.13)!

Visit the BTRIPP home page!

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
12:16 pm
When the going gets weird ...
This is one of those books that has been lurking in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. I got it as a throw-in on another order about five years ago (it apparently was on some sort of special, as the packing slip, still stuck in the back of the book, lists a price that should be in the “used” category – less than 1/5th of cover price – but as part of a regular order … go figure! … perhaps I ordered it just because it was so cheap) but only got around to reading it now.

I'm pleased to report that William McKeen's Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson is a pretty amazing book … and I'm sort of kicking myself that I didn't get into it previously. To be perfectly honest, I think I enjoyed reading this more than 90% of the books that get processed through my eyeballs in my general run of non-fiction consumption. It is informative, entertaining, poignant at times, and gives the sense of a comprehensive look at its fascinating subject.

Now, I'm assuming that anybody reading this is at least somewhat familiar with the figure of Hunter S. Thompson – a “journalist” who cut a fairly wide swath through the consciousness of the 70's, 80's and 90's. First coming to national attention with his 1966 book Hell's Angels, which detailed his time hanging out with (and occasionally getting beaten up by) that notorious motorcycle gang, which was a book-length expansion of a magazine article he'd done in 1965. He is probably best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and subsequent “fear and loathing” titles (most focusing on political campaigns).

As familiar as I thought I was with Thompson, it turns out that I'd not actually read much of his stuff (except as published in Rolling Stone back in the day – when he was a key player in that magazine's image). Looking into my LibraryThing.com collection, I only appear to have two of his titles, Generation of Swine, and Songs of the Doomed, and not any of his “famous” books (an oversight that I suppose I'll have to correct eventually).

One of the main take-aways from this look at his life is how serious he was about the craft of writing, no matter how insane the details of what he was writing about. That being said, it's also pretty clear that he had issues with deadlines (OK, probably “with authority” in general), and was constantly months, if not years late with various projects promised to various publishers.

Outlaw Journalist starts with Thompson's early years (a fairly rough childhood, leading to one of those classic “military or prison” choices being presented to him), which fortuitously ended up with his landing a writing gig at a large Air Force base. It quickly became apparent, however, that he was not cut out for the discipline of military service, and was soon separated (in 1957) from same. While Thompson seemed to want to have a career of writing novels, none of his projects got much traction until the later years of his career (when publishers figured that they could make money putting out anything with his name on it). The book goes into quite a bit of detail on the assorted jobs (most fairly briefly held) he had in the late 50's and into the early 60's. He saw an opportunity in 1962 to head to South America, and managed to talk his way into a contract with a new publication by the Wall Street Journal for him to file reports from his journeys.

McKeen points to this time as the start of “Gonzo”, which he puts in a very particular context:

In these letters to Ridley, {HST's editor at the short-lived National Observer} Hunter's Gonzo style began it rear its head. One of the characteristics of the style Hunter developed was his preoccupation with getting the story. In fact, getting the story became the story. His writing could be classified as metajournalism, journalism about the process of journalism.
Oddly, this made me reflect on my own writing (especially these reviews), with that “meta” element certainly coming into play.

Thompson parted ways with the Observer in 1965, and one of the subsequent projects he landed was an article for The Nation about the Hell's Angels. As noted above, this led to his break-out book, which opened up other opportunities with a wide array of significant publications. One of these was Sports Illustrated which assigned him to produce a 250-word caption for photos of a motorcycle race in Las Vegas in 1971. Thompson ended up submitting a 2,500-word essay, which was rejected, but later picked up by Rolling Stone, giving him the encouragement to expand it into the notorious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which featured his alter-ego Raoul Duke (initially listed as the author).

Raoul Duke was a repeating character that Thompson employed to be able to, essentially, write about himself … and the character ended up with enough “substance” that he was included for years on the Rolling Stone masthead, being listed as the “sports desk” (having been supposedly a crazed sports writer, going back to “notes” in Thompson's pieces for his sports-writing gig with the Air Force). An interesting side-bar here is that for most of his life, Thompson hated the “Uncle Duke” character in the Doonesbury comic strip. When the character (very plainly based on Thompson's appearance, and Raoul Duke's proclivities) appeared in 1974, it created a type of fame that Thompson was not prepared for … as it mixed up his personality, and that of Raoul Duke, and suddenly everywhere he went, people were expecting him to be that character. While the author notes that Thompson eventually became OK with the whole “Uncle Duke” phenomena, the inability of him to move “invisibly” in the background of events to actually work on stories seems to been one of the key elements to his retreat to near-isolation in Woody Creek, CO.

Another part of the book that I found surprising is that Thompson was pretty much working hand-to-mouth for most of his career. Even after becoming famous, he was still not particularly financially secure. This was an on-going stressor in his personal life. By the early 60's he was married with a young son, but until he got on the speaking circuit (which was still touch-and-go, as he was frequently at odds with the agendas of the schools, etc. which were hiring him to speak), he was constantly in search of just survival money.

His personal relationships are discussed at length here, both with the women in his life (not only the romantic relationships, but also the “support” people that rotated through his world), as well as the wide network of people in the publishing business. Again, this is fascinating reading, but not put in the sort of form that would be useful to quote in this context.

Late in his career, he was having a lot of professional success (with awards and recognitions that seemed to greatly please him), but not producing notable work. Another on-going theme was that when he encountered cocaine, it allowed him to be up and writing, but not of the quality of his earlier material … and he'd have long periods of not being able to write at all. Most of his later books (like the ones I've read) were collections and re-processing of older stuff. The book notes that there were massive amounts of material that he left behind, so there's likely to be more Hunter S. Thompson titles appearing. Of course, the novels and similar pieces that he'd written in the past (and hadn't been able to get published), such as The Rum Diary (made into a Johnny Depp film in 2011) eventually were widely released.

Thompson's physical decline is also given a particular consideration, probably to put his eventual suicide in context. As the years went by, he was less able to get around, and he was well past his “expected” death in his late 20's … one day in 2005 (at age 67) he stuck a gun in his mouth and killed himself.

Again, I was very impressed with the depth of research that William McKeen put into Outlaw Journalist, and the whole thing is quite exceptional. He had previously done another project on Thompson, and reproduces a letter sent to him saying “I warned you about writing the vicious trash about me.”, a sure sign of affection from the Gonzo man himself. This is one of the best biographies I've read, and I really would recommend it to anybody with an interest in any of the wide-ranging topics on which it touches.

Obviously, I'm not the only one who thinks so, as the hardcover (which has been out since 2008) is still in print, as well as a paperback, e-book, and audio edition. The prices are all over the board (I'm still confused as to why the hardcover I got back in 2011 was as cheap as it was), with “very good” used copies of the hardcover being the least expensive option (you can get those for as little as 40¢, plus shipping), with the on-line big boys having this now only a bit off of cover price. You could certainly order this through your local brick-and-mortar, but I'm not sure, this many years past publication, that it will be on the shelf there. In any case, this is a great look at an amazing figure, and I can't imagine anybody not finding this a fascinating read!

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
9:41 am
"Souls of Poets dead and gone ..."
As regular readers of this space will no doubt recall from my previous blitherings, I've been a big fan of the Dover Thrift Editions for a long time. For many years (before I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime and its free shipping), I relied on these as a way to nudge an order up over the free-shipping threshold, which then also gave me an excuse to “fill holes” in my otherwise excellent liberal arts education.

The latter, however, wasn't a specific concern bringing me to this edition of John Keats' Lyric Poems, as I'd been conversant with his poems from back in high school (when I wrote a bit of doggerel which started out “Shelley, Byron and Keats / do not the oiseau to eat / ...”), so I probably picked this up for its inexpense (cover price $3, currently going for a buck) as for anything else. The collection “contains 30 of his finest poems” which appear to have been excerpted from a number of publications, both released during his life and posthumously.

Keats died in Rome in 1821 at the age of 26 from tuberculosis. His writing career barely spanned five years, so his fame and influence (as one of the “Romantic Poets” - albeit not a group with whom he had much actual contact) is remarkable, especially as “He published only fifty-four poems, in three slim volumes and a few magazines.”. So, excepting his longer pieces (not included here), the poems collected for this book are a fairly substantial chunk of what he wrote.

Speaking of “slim” … this is going to be a fairly brief review, as I'm not going to try to dig into an analysis of Keat's poetry … where I rather liked this back in my school days, my tolerance for rhyming poetry has not improved with age, and I found myself being frequently cranky when reading this in regards to the frequency of (what sounds to me as) tortured convolutions to get a rhyming word (or some abused variation on a word) where it needs to be in one of these odes or sonnets (there was a time in my teens when I was hell-bent on writing “sonnet cycles” much like these here, but could not stand to indulge in the necessary word-wringing to get concepts to fit within the rhyme schemes).

So, I'm just going to do some re-typing of bits that stood out to me to give you a bit of the flavor here (although sparing you some of the noted “groaners”) …

from Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil – A story from Boccacio

And many a jealous conference had they,
      And many times they bit their lips alone,
Before they fix'd upon a surest way
      To make the youngster for his crime atone;
And at the last, these men of cruel clay
      Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone;
For they resolved in some forest dim
To kill Lorenzo, and there bury him.
Obviously, there's nothing to fault with they/way/clay, alone/atone/bone, and dim/him in this one … and it does give some sense of the somewhat cinematographical feel of Keats' depictions of his subjects.

from The Eve of St. Agnes:

  ‘St. Agnes! Ah! It is St. Agnes' Eve –
  ‘Yet men will murder upon holy days:
  ‘Thou must hold water in a witch's sieve,
  ‘And be liege-lord of all the Elves and Fays,
  ‘To venture so: it fills me with amaze
  ‘To see thee, Porphyro! - St. Anges' Eve!
  ‘God's help! My lady fair the conjuror plays
  ‘This the very night: good angels her deceive!
‘But let me laugh awhile, I've mickle time to grieve.’
This certainly points towards the classical/literary influences brought out in Keats' writing … themes that are most famously on display on the piece that eventually launched a thousand “drachma jokes” :

from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
  To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
  And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
  Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
    Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
OK, that one comes close to having painful word pairings (there are much worse examples than priest/drest, trust me), but who am I to complain about something that nearly every English major (or well-rounded high school student) has had to deal with in class?

Anyway, Lyric Poems is a great way to get familiar with Keats (even if it doesn't have some of the “most highly regarded works of his maturity”, in the longer Endymion, Lamia, and Hyperion – all of which can be found on-line, if you want to go with free), for a very low price, and, frankly, a minimal time investment.

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Thursday, July 7th, 2016
10:02 am
Managing emotions within negotiations ...
I've had this one sitting around for quite a while. I'd attended parts of the Ayn Rand Institute's conference down at the Hyatt Regency a few years back (it could have been as long ago as 2010, can't remember or dig up an identifiable reference for it), and at one of the receptions I was chatting with a guy who was highly recommending this book. I jotted down a note on it, and ended up ordering a used copy, which sat in my to-be-read piles for years. As is frequently the case in my selections of what I'm going to read next, this sort of suggested itself as being sufficiently different from what I'd been reading (and the other options in those piles) that it got picked.

This goes to point out that I didn't have any particular expectation or agenda going into Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro's Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, which was probably a good thing, as when I took a look at the Amazon reviews (yeah, I know, “bad form!”), a lot of people in the actual target audience for this were sort of dismissing it as too basic, or not presenting anything new. As I wasn't in the audience for this (which I take to be people who are frequently in situations where they're having to do high-stakes negotiations), and so didn't have much background information with which to contrast it, I found it fairly interesting. At the end of the first chapter there's a section which pretty much sets up the book:

This book offers negotiators – and that means everyone – a powerful framework for dealing with emotions. Whether or not you acknowledge emotions, they will have an impact on your negotiation. As the following chapters suggest, you can avoid reacting to scores of constantly changing emotions and turn your attention to five core concerns that are responsible for many, if not most, emotions in a negotiation. These core concerns lie at the heart of many emotional challenges when you negotiate. Rather than feeling powerless in the face of emotions, you will be able to stimulate positive emotions and overcome negative ones.
Do you think they mentioned negotiation enough times in that paragraph? Yeah, me too … which is sort of the downside here, rather that presenting what would have been a somewhat more interesting (OK, to me at least) over-all survey of the “Five Core Concerns” structure (which is the really valuable part of this), they're constantly re-focusing this as a “serious business book” … which, I suppose, is a minor quibble for what is, obviously, intending to be a serious business book, but, still … it's like they're verging on the “doth protest too much” territory with that.

Anyway, let's cut to the chase … the Five Core Concerns (they don't typically capitalize the phrase, but as it's the pith of the book, I'm going with that). Discussion of these in sequence takes up about half the length of the book (which is in five sections, with various chapters or other elements in them, these coming in the second section bearing the somewhat “huh?” title “Take The Initiative”). The Five Core Concerns are:

  • Appreciation

  • Affiliation

  • Autonomy

  • Status

  • Role
These are defined at the outset:

Core concerns are human wants that are important to almost everyone in virtually every negotiation. They are often unspoken but are no less real than our tangible interests. … Core concerns offer you a powerful framework to deal with emotions without getting overwhelmed by them.
I'm going to try to convey the essence of each of these concerns here, but extracting this might be a bit uneven, as the structure of the chapters on each tend to be a bit rambling. The authors are, evidently, experienced negotiators, and dip into their histories quite a bit here … perhaps to the detriment of clarity. Rather than, say, discussing a “negotiation” that one of them had with a wood carver for a souvenir when he “was in Tbilisi, working with South Ossetians and the government of Georgia (a former Soviet republic)”, they could have presented a scenario less rife with cultural baggage that would be more direct in transmitting the dynamics involved (which in the story presented, makes the teller sound awfully smarmy). Frankly, the “situational name-checking” involved in many of the “personal examples” outlined here have that “humble brag” vibe to them … yes, they're personal experiences, but it sounds like they're in there more to highlight the authors expertise than to present the clearest possible framing of the specific negotiation issue … or I may just be cranky.

The first of these is “Appreciation”, which is presented as having three elements: “to understand each other's point of view”, “to find merit in what each of us thinks, feels, or does”, and “to communicate our understanding through words and actions”. Illustrative scenarios here include making arguments in front of the Supreme Court (no doubt useful for the next time you find yourself having to do that), and doing negotiation workshops in Macedonia during the Kosovo conflict … along with other scenarios illustrating various points related to the central concept. Maybe it's my “allergy” to parables or teaching stories, but I kept wanting them to get to the key ideas, and a lot of that is buried in these reminiscences … although, they do eventually set up specific suggestions and guidelines for applying the concepts within one's own negotiation situations.

Next comes “Affiliation”, which is pretty basic on the broad strokes – developing connections which will make working together easier. The stories here are all over the place, from working with Serbian Parliament members to negotiations between the South African government and the ANC, to attempts (unsuccessful) to get corporate and union representatives to sit interspersed at a large round table rather than on opposing sides of a long rectangle. The affiliation dynamics break down into two basic categories, “Structural Connections” – links one has “with someone else based on your common membership in a group” (age, rank, family, background, religion, hobbies, etc.), and “Personal Connections” – “personal ties that bond you with another” (they present a table of “Affiliation-enhancing Subjects That Reduce Emotional Distance” vs. “Safe Conversation Subjects That Maintain Emotional Distance”, such as “personal opinions about politics” vs. “favorite TV programs” … although this one is pretty touchy in my experience, and as likely to cause a total communication break-down as to minimize emotional distance!).

“Autonomy” follows this (and I sort of wished they'd quoted the Buzzcock's song by that title, whose lyric “I, I want you, autonomy” would have fit in quite well here!), and has two primary elements, “expanding your own autonomy” and “avoid impinging upon the other person's autonomy”. This has an interesting story where one of the authors had been contacted by the Carter White House to be a back-channel negotiator with the head of the Iranian Islamic Republican Party during the Tehran embassy crisis in 1979, which included him finding a basis to argue for cessations of sanctions, a key point on the Iranian's side. One of the factors in this is what they call “Joint Brainstorming” for which they have a five-point plan of action that could be implemented in various situations. They also present what is called the “I-C-N Bucket System” for determining the “right” amount of autonomy in a given setting. These are: I for Inform, where one feels it is appropriate to decide on something and simply inform other parties of the decision, then C for Consult, then decide, where it's important to get other parties' feedback before making a decision, and finally, N for Negotiate joint agreement, where the eventual decision needs to have all involved parties on board.

The next Core Concern is “acknowledging Status”, which has a wide range of particular applications, including “be aware of social status”, “be courteous to everyone”, “look for each person's areas of particular status”, “give weight to opinions where deserved”, and “beware of status spillover”. An example given here was of a patient in a hospital almost dying because the doctor wasn't interested in hearing what a nurse had to report – he was unwilling to realize that the nurse had more case information on the patient that he did, and acted on his assumptions, not on the reality she was trying to convey to him. The “spillover” concept is familiar from commercials – an actor who plays a role on TV is often tapped to appear as an expert on the subject to pitch products.

Lastly there is the topic of “Role” … a fulfilling Role has three key qualities: it has a clear purpose, it is personally meaningful, and it is not a pretense. They have a table of “conventional roles” which is primarily job descriptions (“travel agent”) and relationships (“grandparent”). They also offer a four-point approach to “shape your conventional role”, which involve naming the role, analyzing the activities involved in that role, adding activities to make it more fulfilling, and deleting the more unfulfilling activities. There are also “temporary roles” which one “chooses to play” – such as “problem solver”, “competitor”, or even “joker”.

The section following the Core Concerns looks at ways to deal with “strong negative emotions”, including a framework for gauging your and others' “emotional temperature”, and having plans to deal with highly-charged emotional situations. There are some very uncomfortable example scenarios sketched out here, plus a four-part plan for moving to more calmer discussions. Next comes a chapter on preparation, including a table on “using seven elements to prepare”. There is also the suggestion of reviewing every negotiation and classifying things as “WW” – “worked well”, or “DD” – “do differently” … and a recommendation to chart out how things unfolded regarding Core Concerns, with a list of specific questions to consider for each.

The book (almost) ends with an odd, but interesting piece written by the former President of Ecuador, Jamil Mahuad, dealing with his negotiations with Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori over a border dispute that had been simmering (and occasionally flaring into open conflict) for over 50 years. Mahuad had taken negotiation courses with the authors and used the approaches outlined in the book to help work out a mutually acceptable solution. Following this there is a 2-page “section” of a Conclusion, followed by another section called “End Matter”, which includes a re-stating of the “Seven Elements of Negotiation”, a brief “Glossary” (more re-framing of the key elements), and a very interesting “Works Consulted” piece, which, rather than just listing a bibliography, is a walk through various concepts involved in the book, and other resources that relate to them … including this bit (in discussing The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion and the work of Paul Ekman):

… in Beyond Reason, we have chosen to focus on five core concerns. One need not analyze which of the various emotions the other person is feeling, nor their causes, in order to use the core concerns to enlist positive emotions. Rather than focusing on dozens of emotions, a negotiator can take action with five core concerns.
Beyond Reason is still in print in the paperback edition, and so should be obtainable from your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but the on-line big boys predictably have it at a fairly substantial discount, and “very good” copies of the hardcover (which is what I have) can be had for a penny (plus $3.99 shipping), if you want to go that way.

While a lot of the material here is quite interesting, from a psychological perspective, I would have much preferred the book had that been its thrust … having this more set in the boardroom made it consistently “less relevant” to me … and I'm guessing that would be the case for most readers. It's certainly worth the read … but it involves a lot of mental gymnastics to try to filter out the parts that one could use in one's own life from the high-level international or organizational examples which serve as illustrations of these concepts here.

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
1:32 pm
An excellent introduction ...
This was another LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” selection that the “Almighty Algorithm” matched up with my collection over there. At first I was sharing some of the other reviewers' consternation that this book originated out of a children's program at a Hawaiian Zen temple, “based on {the author's} experience as a Zen priest and an elementary school teacher”, a data point not suggested at all in its descriptive paragraph in the LTER listings. However, if one takes a step back from that genesis, one is faced with a really very good “introductory” book about Buddhism (albeit primarily from a Zen perspective).

Richard Gentei Diedrichs' Living in Blue Sky Mind: Basic Buddhist Teachings for a Happy Life covers a lot of ground, with over 80 chapters (each illustrating one particular point from the Buddhist perspective) in its brief 162 pages. Each chapter is 1-2 pages of text, followed by a “Reflecting” section featuring 1-5 questions for the reader to contemplate regarding the material in that chapter (ranging from the very basic like “How does being good help us and everyone around us?”, to the technical as in “What is a mental formation”, to the more obscure such as “What did Chogyam Trungpa mean when he called Sangha 'clean friendship'?”).

Obviously, nothing here is considered in depth, but I was very pleased to find what it lacked there, it made up in breadth, as the book is a quite attractive (and certainly accessible) over-view on Buddhism (although, with its Zen grounding, a Theravada practitioner might not be as enthusiastic about it). I have been reading Buddhist books for decades (part of me wishes I had been practicing all that while, but no), and this is, I think, one of the best introductory pieces that I've seen.

If I had one gripe here, personally, it would be that I would have liked to have seen more structure, even to the point of pedagogical presentation of the material. The sections of this are, however, fairly evidently crafted to appeal to an audience of children, so the text is light-handed in doling out the information, such as this paragraph at the start of the chapter (“How to Solve the Problem”) which introduces the concept of “the Middle Way”:

      If we know that craving causes us so much trouble and sadness, as Buddha indicated, we might also know that we are happy when we stop craving. If we understand how life works, we also are happy.
There are also, notably, eleven indexes and a glossary. I would have liked to have had more of this material interspersed in the book itself, but the component elements of these are the main subjects of most of the “chapters”, so I guess it would have created a situation of the author “getting ahead of himself” repeatedly through the book … but these are as short as six words (and that's including the heading). I suppose listing these out here will give you a good sense of what's in the book (although it doesn't march through these in order): “Eightfold Path”, “The Four Noble Truths”, “The Six Virtues/Perfections/Paramitas”, “The Four Wisdoms / Methods of Guidance”, “The Three Refuges / Three Treasures / Three Jewels / Triple Gem” (quite a heading for a 3-word appendix!), “The Four Sublime Attitudes/Immeasurables or Brahma Viharas”, “The Seven Factors of Enlightenment”, “The Three Poisons”, “The Five Strengths”, “The Four Bodhisattva Vows”, and “The Three Marks of Excellence”. The Glossary, while only covering three dozen terms, included a handful that I wasn't familiar with (such as Piti: joy, rapture, happiness” – go ahead, say it like Mr.T), which either indicates the author was delving into a particularly technical level of Zen in his word choice, or that I had somehow managed to not have encountered (or, possibly, remembered) these from previous reading.

Diedrichs uses his background and childhood for a lot of the illustrative bits here, be it when he stole something, lied about something, failed at something, etc. Here's a paragraph from the chapter discussing the “Right Speech” aspect of The Eightfold Path:

      Besides never lying or trying to never lie, we also do not talk trash. We try to talk kindly to people. I watched a video of my brother and me playing baseball when we were kids. I was probably twelve, and he was nine. I hit the ball and ran towards the base where he was standing. The sun shone in his face, and he laughed. I saw my mouth move as I ran up, and I said something to him. Suddenly, his face darkened, and his expression turned to a mean scowl. He said something angry back at me. My heart broke when I watched that. I was so nasty to him. These hurtful actions sill bring me suffering as Buddha said they would.
I think this illuminates the dual level of the book … while this is certainly targeted to being something that children can relate to, it also has a payload of reflective material for the adults reading it. That's what makes this as useful as it is – not only does it cover nearly all the “main points” of Buddhist teaching, making it informative to nearly everybody (and, as I mentioned, it includes stuff that I'd not recalled seeing in dozens of Buddhist books), but presenting it in a form that anybody can connect with.

In the chapter introducing the “Three Poisons” (greed, anger, and ignorance, although the particular chapter here is mainly about greed), one of the “Reflecting” questions is “Where does your happiness come from?”, which points the reader back to this bit:

      We understand the truth about life, and we realize that our happiness, sense of well-being and worth, and our joy come from inside our own hearts and minds. No one can give them to us. No one can take them away from us. Our own hearts and minds are the most joyful and happy when we are loving, kind, caring, peaceful, and giving.
Again, the message is applicable to anybody, but how great would it be if more kids got those messages when they were kids? Similarly, introducing children to these concepts (in the chapter discussing “impermanence”, or annica, the “Buddha's First Mark of Existence”) early on would be awesome:

      I said that you should not believe anything I or anybody else says until you have explored it for yourself. You must make every truth you own. Take a look at the truth of impermanence. See if anybody or anything in your life stays around forever, without ever changing. Buddhists call this fact the true nature of reality.
A few chapters later he adds:

      Buddha observed that our thoughts, a Fourth Mark of Existence, become words. Our words become actions. Our actions become habits. Our habits harden into character. ...
He then leads into a consideration of attachment to mental formations with:

      A thought appears in a flash. It disappears just as quickly and completely. A thought cleanly completes its cycle unless we attach to it. … Once we grab a thought and hold on, like clutching the mane of a bucking stallion, confusion, contortion, and regret ensue. Caught in a stream of consciousness, we manufacture more thoughts. We form our captured thoughts into ideas, beliefs, opinions, and personal philosophies. We believe these fabricated formations of thought. They become our identity, which we take as our past and our life story. ...
Admittedly, this is pretty “deep stuff” for the kids … which serves as an additional example of how the book speaks to both children and adults. As mentioned above, Living in Blue Sky Mind is only 162 pages (and “really” is considerably shorter than that, as there's a lot of white space involved in those 80 chapter breaks), so it's a quick read … and possibly reasonably appealing to older kids. However, I don't think this is something you'd just hand to a 10-year-old to read, but could well be used to have “weekly Zen sessions” when you read one chapter with your kid and then discuss the “Reflecting” questions. Alternately, this is something that could be a quick, easy, and uniquely informative “first contact” for those unexposed to Buddhist thought … I would certainly contemplate suggesting this to anybody in that state.

As one would expect from an LTER selection, this has just been released (it came out this April), so it is likely to be available via your local bookstore, but the on-line big boys have it at about a third off of cover price, putting it, very affordably, under ten bucks. This, while coming from a “kids book” place, is hardly a book that should be limited to that audience, and I'd have to say this comes in as one of my “all and sundry” recommendations, as I think anybody would benefit from the very direct approach to a wide range of Buddhist thought that's presented here.

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Thursday, June 30th, 2016
9:57 pm
Unless It Comes with a Comfy Chair …
This is another of those LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program books. As I've noted previously, these typically have a only a paragraph or two on the site describing them, so users have to put in their “requests” for the offered books based on fairly sketchy information … so while a book may sound like it would be “interesting”, it's rare that one really knows what one's getting into until it actually shows up. I was sort of expecting that “a world-famous theoretical physicist with hundreds of scientific articles and several books of popular science to his credit” would have been producing a more “sciency” book, but Marcelo Gleiser's The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything is a somewhat muddled combination of science discussions, autobiographical sketch, travelogue, and an enthusiast's paean to fly fishing.

The author hails from Rio de Janerio in Brazil, where he first got hooked on fishing as a boy, hitting the famed Copacabana beach several times a week. As he grew up, he left fishing behind, eventually becoming a physicist (from a country that has only a handful of jobs for physicists), doing his graduate work in the U.K., and eventually moving to the U.S., ending up as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser and his (second) wife were out walking on the Dartmouth campus one day, and encountered a class of novices being introduced to fly fishing. He was evidently smitten by the activity, and his wife decided to get him that class for their anniversary. He took the class, bought all the requisite gear, and made a go of it a few times, but was unable to balance the time required with the frustration involved … he notes: “you have to embrace it full-heartedly in order for it to work”. After a few years had passed, his wife prodded him to try again … and he began to get up before dawn, and head down to a local river to fish. This is the first point where the “metaphysical” aspects of the book come to play, as he's constantly having “encounters” with his young self who encourages him in his efforts.

The book is set up in four sections, each anchored to a particular event (usually an international conference somewhere around which he is able to schedule time with a fishing tour guide), and generally themed with a “scientific philosophy” issue. These are:

                    • Cumbria, Lake District, UK
                    • São José dos Ausentes, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
                    • Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy
                    • Laxá River, Mývatnssveit, Iceland

To be honest, I really did not connect much at all with the fishing parts of this … although some sound to be in amazing locations, and are quite beautifully written about … but that material reads like any enthusiast's enthusing about their particular “thing” (it could be model railroading, cosplay, or wine collecting), no doubt interesting to the extent of exposing one to information not previously encountered, but not having the pull to make the reader really care if they're not already into the particular activity.

Oh, and I think I have an actual spoiler to pass along here (unusual in non-fiction reading) … so if you don't want to see it, quickly skip to the next paragraph. OK. Here it comes … ready? You sure? Last warning … One of the sub-themes here is his epiphany of how his vegetarian diet is poorly reflected in his fishing. Generally speaking, I felt like the tone “devolved” somewhat over the the course of the book, and while I wouldn't necessarily call the direction as being into the “shrill” zone, it certainly gets to feeling “preachy” and “holier-than-thou” at points. While one can congratulate the author for trying to resolve the implicit cognitive dissonance of his vegetarianism and the “violence” being done to the fish, the “journey” to that point (in parallel with flag-waving for some popular leftist “scientific” stances) turns what is, for the first two-thirds or so, a reasonably pleasant read into something that feels like it's subtly brow-beating the reader … leaving this reader, at least, feeling somewhat abused by the time the pontificating (and book) ends.

The U.K trip is anchored by a “workshop on classical field theory”, and that section starts off quite promisingly with Gleiser sort of free-form “riffing” about fields. While this is entertaining to read (going from pre-Socratic philosophers to current research), it's also a bit hard to cherry-pick coherent quotes from. He goes from familiar field concepts and then veers off into discussing “matter fields” and even “communication fields” (he at one point writes: “for physicists like me who deal with the inner structure of matter and the cosmos, everything is a field of some sort”), which then flips over to a discussion of quanta, and waves. This leads into a story of a Scottish engineer in 1834 who encountered a “solitary wave” (“soliton” - “a bundle of particles interacting with each other so as to behave as a single non-changing entity”), which leads to musing on “solitary activities”, such as fly-fishing, as well as intros the topic of his presentation, that of “oscillons” (too complicated to try to define here – click on the link if you want to read up on this).

It turns out that his fishing guide has a PhD in theoretical chemistry, from the same school (King's College in London) that the author attended, and this leads off into more philosophical pondering on the nature of reality, with much name-checking of leading lights of science, from Galileo to Planck, and the question of belief within the scientific community, including the big cosmic divide in theoretical physics between the supersymmetry and multiverse camps – with mention of research currently being done at the Large Hadron Collider which is targeted to shed some light on which of these hypotheses is more likely.

The bulk of the book (about 40%) is in this first section, and the author goes into a lot more side discussions than in the later, shorter, ones. One of these is a story from his teenage years (further illustrating the “faith” angle), when his father fired a cook who (only discovered during a dinner for a very important guest) had been drinking all the whiskeys, etc., in the liquor cabinet and replacing the liquid with tea. Unfortunately, said cook “was a high priestess of the Macumba, a syncretic religious practices widespread in Brazil”, who openly put a curse on the house in response. The author was the witness of what seemed to be the fulfilling of this as he was mysteriously drawn to the dining room, just in time to see the glass shelves of the liquor cabinet and serving cart simultaneously collapse, destroying all the crystal, etc., with no evident (non-occult) cause. This leads to a sub-section on “Reason, Faith and the Incompleteness of Knowledge”, which includes looking at the concepts of our “cosmic horizon” (“the bubble of information defined by the distance that light has traveled since the Big Bang”), “worm holes”, and assorted philosophical backwaters such as the “Ionian Fallacy” (the belief that all genuine questions have one true answer) … which also provides the first point for the book to start slipping into politics. There is a lot of navel-gazing going on here, including another return to the author's youth, and the loss of his mother, which drove him to desperately try to “see” her ghostly form, but whenever he managed to evoke the vision “she would vanish in thin air, like a rainbow made of hope”. The fishing story is almost an afterthought here, wedged in between his mother's ghost and his father's insistence that he be an engineer (saying “who is going to pay you to count stars?”).

The section on Brazil continues with the “belief” theme. He's back in his home country for a promotional tour for a novel he'd published, and was lured to a book fair in the far-southern city of Porto Alegre with the promise of actual Brazilian fly-fishing. His talk centered around “changing views”, scientific, religious, and, at their intersection, cosmological. He spins off of this into a discussion of atheism (which he practices), and how that concept has developed through history. One bit that I marked to illustrate this is:

I find it quite ironic to see {a religious fundamentalist} happily using a GPS, talking on a cell phone, or, when illness comes, taking antibiotics or going for radiation therapy. How is it that the technological offspring of quantum and relativistic physics may be conveniently used as needed but not the revolutionary worldview they brought forth? The same science used to build these gadgets is used to date fossils, Earth's age, and life's evolutionary trajectory from bacteria to people. It's mind-boggling. And yet, this eyes-tightly-shut perspective is the only option for an alarmingly large number of people, not just religious extremists.
And, it's not just the assorted flavors of “fundies” that get his derision, he also notes that “some in the New Age movement … ground their beliefs in a science pulled completely out of context … using concepts like ‘energy’, ‘quantum’, or ‘field’, in ways that have very little to do with their physics counterparts”. The bits on fishing are somewhat more expansive here, veering off into a contemplation of our urge to take the biggest/strongest fish (or any hunted species), which ultimately weakens the gene pool. He also muses on returning to places … he avoids his old neighborhood “to hold on to the little of my past that my memory can preserve” … and our “place” in the world.

The Italy section is centered on a conference of the International Astrobiology Society, taking place in Florence. On this trip, he starts with the fishing, then returns to Florence for the conference. Here his guide introduces him to fishing in the dark … which led to dreams of his younger self and his mother. Most of this section (the shortest of the four) is taken up with discussions of general cosmological theories, from the gas composition of the primordial universe, to the life-cycles of stars, leading up to the formation of our solar system, and the origin of Earth. Gleiser goes on to trace the development of terrestrial life, and what that might imply for life elsewhere. He has an interesting view on what makes humanity stand out:

Humans have an urge to explore the unknown, what lies beyond their immediate reach. This may be our species' most distinguishable trait. Animals want to be safe, living within familiar boundaries that don't expose them to any extra risk. They keep to their tried, well-adapted behavioral patterns, a recipe that allows them to thrive. … Humans, on the other hand, have a need to lunge into the unknown, to expose themselves to what is uncomfortable, even threatening. We take risks as individuals and as a species, continually pushing ourselves beyond established limits. We like our boundaries elastic, safe but expandable.
He finishes this section with a look at the “is anybody out there?” question, and isn't particularly optimistic of there being any, despite the large numbers of likely habitable planets that both should be out there statistically, and are almost daily being identified by our space-based telescopes.

The Iceland section comes from an opportunity made available to him by a Dartmouth alumni group, which invited him to lead a series of lectures on a cruise around the island. However, he brought his very pregnant wife (and their 5-year-old son), and, while her doctors back in the states had OK'd her for the trip, the ship's officials felt it was too hazardous to have her on board due to some of the very isolated areas they'd be in. They had to disembark, and change the schedule from several lectures across the whole of the cruise, to one substantial “seminar”at the end, which caused them to have to improvise their own tour of Iceland. One of the fascinating things about that part of the world is that: “The belief in Huldufólk {in the book it's written hundúfolk, but I was unable to find any references to that on-line} (hidden people) is so pervasive that construction projects often have to deviate from sites and stones where elves are believed to dwell.”. There's a lot about the volcanic nature of Iceland, and some of the issues with recent and historical volcanism, and a discussion of creation myths. Interesting, both the Icelandic narrative, and one from China (around 300ce), describe the creation of the world from the corpse of a slain giant, whose skull becomes the sky, blood becomes rivers and oceans, bones forming rocks and mountains, hair turning into trees, etc., and in both cases, humanity arising from the maggots eating his flesh!

The author spins from this to a look at current views of cosmic origins, from the Big Bang onward, and eventually comes to a point where he points out that “all that exists has a common origin”. This is where the “soapbox” comes out and we're into the vegetarian lecture … which, while raising assorted very valid ethical points, is quite aggressive. But, he's not done with beating the reader up at the end of that … as this leads right into a whole “global warming” (at least he's not using the “climate change” euphemism) tirade, which, admittedly was what he was scheduled to be talking to the Dartmouth alumns about during the cruise. Lecture completed, he sends his wife and son back to the States, and heads off for his Icelandic fishing adventure. However, while in the midst of this: “Something had changed inside, a feeling of complicity with the fish, of humility as a fellow living creature sharing the same planet. … We can be close to Nature without maiming its creations.”. I guess he's presenting this as his big “enlightened human” moment, but in the arc of the book, it's a real downer for the ending.

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is a mixed bag (one might be tempted to say “neither fish nor fowl”), but is interesting on various levels throughout (even in the “soapbox” parts). At this writing, the book has just been out a few weeks, so it's likely to be available via your local still-extant brick-and-mortar book vendors … however, the on-line big boys are offering it at about 1/3rd off of cover price, which is likely your best bet if this sounds like something you'd like to check out.

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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
9:51 am
Memories ... tasty, tasty memories ...
This was another dollar store buy … it seems like a few months ago a lot of food industry related titles started showing up, and (at a buck) I figured “why not?”. As I've noted in previous reviews, I “grew up in the food industry”, or at least in the consumer food products end of things (and the PR/marketing end of that) … heck, there's a picture out there of me at 6 months old, reaching for product up on the shelf of the Swift test kitchens … so the food biz is very much in my blood, and I have a lot of background in it, making books like Gail Simmons' Talking with My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater more interesting to me than one might assume from the past couple of decades of my career.

Oddly, I don't know if I've ever seen Ms. Simmons' show, Top Chef: Just Desserts … in fact, I've not been able to come up with a mental image of the Top Chef show at all, which is strange, as the cooking shows are one of those “fall back” options when nothing else is on, and I've watched a lot of Iron Chef and Chopped, etc. over the years. Maybe we don't get Bravo, or it's off in one of those backwaters not an easy up/down channel from the other stuff I watch (I just discovered that we did still get Fox News a few weeks ago, after assuming our TV provider dropped it a couple of years ago from the cheap/free package we have – yes, I do find the on-screen menu thing totally unworkable, thank you). Anyway, this led me to come to Talking with My Mouth Full with a reasonably blank slate as I didn't know either the author or her show (although I was quite familiar with Food & Wine magazine, but the names I would have known there probably preceded her by a decade or so).

When I picked this up, I wasn't expecting that it was going to be so much of an actual autobiography, and sort of thought it was going to be more generally about the industry, but this is tightly connected to Simmons' life/career, so while there are bits that are generalized out of those experiences, the book closely follows the specifics of where she was and what she was doing. I suspect that it was this that led to there being almost none of my little bookmarks in here for interesting stuff to stick in this review … meaning that you're going to be getting more “broad strokes” in this than I probably would have preferred.

The book starts, as one might expect in an autobiography, with her family and childhood. One of the on-going threads here is her Jewish heritage, with her father being a South African immigrant to Canada, and her mother hailing from Montreal, and how they met in Toronto. Aside from the Jewish milieu she grew up in, the whole Canadian thing is a major part of the story, especially when it came to visas, etc. necessary to stay/work in the U.S.

Her exit from college sounded very familiar to me:

Was I the only person without a clue about the next step? It sure felt that way. My parents and my friends' parents expected great things from their children, and great things usually involved postgraduate degrees. Graduate school is great if you know what you want to do. But I didn't have the foggiest idea. None of the things my friends were doing interested me. … I felt at the time like the only one in my crowd – full of so many bright, strong young women – who really didn't know what she wanted to be. So where did that leave me?
Fortunately for her, a friend of the family came by while she was sulking in her parent's basement following graduation, and told her to “Make a list of what you like to do. Not jobs. Just anything that comes into your mind.” … what she ended up with was the rather non-specific: “Eat. Write. Travel. Cook.” (my list from the same stage in my life might have read quite similarly, likely with “drink” replacing “cook”). Needless to say, those four words eventually came to embody her career path.

She attended McGill University and began to write restaurant reviews for the school paper, which eventually led to an internship with Toronto Life, then to the National Post, where she was a bit at loose ends, and was told “If you want to write about food, you need to speak the language. … Go learn how to cook and how to eat.”, which led her to New York, and Peter Kump's cooking school (I'd had some contact with Mr. Kump, who died in '95, via the Beard Foundation back in the day – nice guy).

Now, the chronological arc in the preceding leaves out a lot of material … a good deal of the book involves places she ate, places she traveled to, what she ate when she was there, the culinary interests of her family (there's a recipe for her father's pickles), etc., but it's all so enmeshed in the matrix of the telling, that it seems pointless to try to extract any of the individual elements here.

She details her experience in cooking school, which she anticipated would lead to working at a top-tier test kitchen, but she was told by the career services head at Kump: “... you still don't know how to cook … the only way to truly solidify your skills is to work in a restaurant and cook on the line” they were able to place her in some amazing restaurants, however:

I would go on to work in two kitchens: Le Cirque for only six weeks and Vong for a few months. In that whole time, I was the only woman in both.”
The stories she tells of life in the kitchen are quite interesting, especially as I've not read a lot (such as Anthony Bourdain's notorious Kitchen Confidential) in that area. What is more amazing is the tale of her time working as fabled Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten's assistant. The author had read his The Man Who Ate Everything, and was fascinated by his descriptions of his assistant – the things that she was doing was exactly what Simmons wanted to do – and went back to the culinary school to see if they knew of any jobs like that … remarkably, the placement guy had just seen Steingarten the week before and he'd said he was looking for a new assistant, and, somewhat implausibly, she got the gig (she notes her timing ended up being perfect, as Steingarten was at the point of getting desperate to have a new person in place). If you're not familiar with some of the “bigger than life” characters in the food industry, you may find the stories of her working with him hard to believe, but they're something to see (read) … for example, while working on a story about espresso machines, they had eighteen ordered in, and, after testing these for weeks “Jeffrey decided that it was basically impossible to make a good espresso unless you had a $10,000 professional upright Italian espresso maker with a brass eagle on top”.

After two years of working for Steingarten, she felt she had to move on. She'd contacted restauranteur Daniel Boulud for advice (Steingarten dined at his place frequently so she'd become a friend) on a new position, and his marketing gal expressed interest, but couldn't afford the hire at the time. Simmons then went on a vacation, where she contracted Epstein-Barr, and had to return to Canada (and back in her parents' basement) to recover … leaving her boyfriend in New York. Towards the end of her convalescence, she heard from him that she'd had a call from the marketing gal, who was asking if she was available … so she returned to New York for that job. Again “the stars were aligned” for her, because their restaurant group had numerous foreign-born staff members, and kept an immigration lawyer on retainer, so her needing a visa (which had been a problem at other job options) was easily taken care of.

The stories of the years she worked at Daniels are also informative, as she breaks down a lot of the “technical workings” of the restaurant biz … including an amazing 2-page diagram of all the positions, and how they fit into the organizational chart. At the restaurant she did most of the special event work, and some other marketing functions, but there was only one marketing director (the gal who had hired her), and she wasn't going anywhere, so Simmons had to consider her next move. This came along via another serendipitous connection, a marketing guy from Food & Wine had become a friend, and when he was getting ready to leave his gig there, he outright asked her “do you want my job?”! She also had good timing because not long after she was on staff, the organizer of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen went on maternity leave, and she got to step in. One of the features of the Classic was a head-to-head competition between two chefs, which set her up for the eventual TV gig at Top Chef.

The rest of Talking with My Mouth Full is stories from the TV show, talking about her wedding, and the development of the Just Desserts spin-off … lots of name dropping here, lots of insider insight into the TV cooking biz, and a lot of food and travel mentioned (like serendipitously getting to go to the tuna auction in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market when on her honeymoon). The last dozen pages are an interesting concept … her taking a look at a day's food, in recipes that track bits of the book – from eggs she learned to make during a summer in Israel to the Welsh Rarebit that was a feature of her proposal “picnic” – and, as noted above, the recipe for her dad's pickles.

This is one of those dollar store finds that's still evidently in print, and selling well enough that the on-line big boys have it at just a normal discount (so should be available in the surviving brick & mortar book vendors). It is, however (as is often the case when they've hit the dollar store), available for cheap via the new/used guys … with “like new” copies of the hardcover going for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping, natch).

If you're interested in these areas of the food biz, but aren't already in it, this would be a very interesting read, given that Ms. Simmons' career takes her through so much of it. It's also very rich with food memories (again, I barely touched on that aspect here), making it one of those literally mouth-watering reads. This isn't a ground-breaking “must read”, but it's well worth the effort if you have a hankering for this stuff.

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Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
9:19 am
Looking for Emmanuel Goldstein?
This wasn't something that I sought out, although I certainly knew the author from his late-night show Red Eye from back when I was up all night, every night, but was only sort of vaguely aware that he'd published books (he has four out in his current role as a punk/conservative gadfly, plus one from a previous manifestation). However, when I saw Greg Gutfeld's mug staring out at me from the dollar store shelf a couple of months back, I was pretty quick to toss The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage into the shopping cart.

Frankly, if I were involved in the editorial/marketing process on this, I'd have fought for a different title … sure, “The Joy of Hate” is semi-cute, playing on iconic books such as The Joy of Cooking and The Joy of Sex, but it's not that cute, and really doesn't reflect the main thrust of the book (unless one takes this – quite possible if one is of the right mind-set – as an invitation for an Orwellian “hate” directed at the objects of the author's derision). A better (or, more descriptive) title could actually be spun out of the subtitle, “How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage”, as that's pretty much what the book is about, although, admittedly, rolling it around in my head, I wasn't coming up with anything particularly catchy to suggest as an alternative.

Gutfeld is a bit of an acquired taste, as his shtick is sarcastic, smarmy at times, and laced with a lot of fairly bizarre bits of self-deprecating humor. He also tends to spew out somewhat rambling rants here, making it challenging to pull out pithy quotes (although, as you can see from the picture over there ==>, I did manage to plant a veritable forest of my little bookmarks in it). As noted, the book deals with the “whiners” (liberal/left types) and the ever-present “Phony Outrage” they (and the MSM) are so fond of promulgating. Gutfeld distributes his 225 pages across 27 areas where different varieties of this “outrage” get expressed – generally orbiting around a concept that he describes as “repressive tolerance”, the Left's eagerness to embrace anything that is destructive to how America has been much of the past century or two, and unwilling to allow for anything that disagrees.

To be honest, this was a very uncomfortable read for me, as the stuff that Gutfeld shines his snarky light on are exactly the type of things that keep me from watching the MSM … or, have me screaming at the TV if I make the mistake of actually exposing myself to the so-called “news” shows … and so walking through this particular mine field was an adventure in spiking blood pressure and intense teeth grinding. It would probably have been “more fun” if there was an organized “hate” for each of these … not only pointing out how monstrously hypocritical the Left is in their intolerant “tolerance”, but also having a good stress-releasing go at them! Of course, that's me, and I'm, if anything, angrier than Gutfeld at those sorts of morons, so consider your placement on the left-right scale before you opt to go venturing into The Joy of Hate, because if you're “on the other side” you may well find some of your most cherished group-think beliefs made fun of, if not gored like the proverbial sacred cow.

It probably wouldn't be overly useful for me to list the topics, and certainly not the chapter headings (which are delightful, but more evocative than descriptive, from “Working at the Death Star” which is about his career at Fox News, on to truly delightful ones like “I'm OK, You Should Die”), but suffice it to say, he covers a lot of territory, pretty much hitting all the possible hot spots of Lefty intolerance for anything that doesn't agree with their world view. So, I guess I'm going to take a little walk through all those bookmarks, and cherry-pick bits and pieces to give you a sense of what's in here.

Let's start with a sample from the Introduction:

The media, for the most part, tends to dismiss the “outrage” perpetrated by the left, often dismissing the slurs and smears as the product of “edgy comedy”, only because they rabidly agree with whatever's being said. … This liberal pass, however, is not afforded to those on the right. If Maher calls somebody a slut, the outcry lasts a few days. When Rush says it, the outrage lasts as long as a case of herpes. It flares up and never really goes away ...
He goes on to note

... because of tolerance, there are no repercussions for bad behavior. And bad behavior won't just continue, but will accelerate, because the tolerati … provide the grease for the wheels.
In the nicely alliterative “The Bigot Spigot” chapter, Gutfeld describes the health care bill's being “rammed through Congress like a torn-up dollar bill in a Coke machine” as making “Caligula's method of government seem positively modest” … which does beg for various lines of comparison being drawn to the current administration and its co-conspirators!

The next bit is a longer grab since I couldn't ellipsis it enough to make it pithy and short, but it has a good message (in the chapter dealing with various ways the Left has attempted to “spin” repeated Islamist attacks into categories that better fit their on-going narrative):

      Now, somehow I just don't think viewing these threats as potential examples of workplace violence is going to be our most effective method of attack. What are we going to see on the walls next to the “no smoking” signs? Posters that exclaim, “No massacres in the name of Allah”?
      Fact is, we are living under a government that's head over heels in love with euphemisms. Whether it's “man-caused disasters” or “workplace violence”, our leaders can't stop creating new lies out of old words. Taxing the rich is now “paying our fair share”. Class warfare is now called “a war on inequity”. As I've said before, calling the Fort Hood massacre workplace violence is like calling Pearl Harbor an air show.
… and you get the idea that had that attack happened under the current POTUS, his vile administration would call it a freaking “air show”!

The above-mentioned “Death Star” chapter has lots and lots of good bits, but you don't want to have me type out pages of quotes, do you? Here, however, are a couple of choice ones:

Freedom of expression and tolerating points of view are {whiny liberals'} expressed desires … unless you, um, disagree with them on something. Then it's sooo over, you Nazi!

All entertainment options came saddled with {liberals'} approved assumptions: Movies, theater, the art world, magazine publishing, newspapers, comedians … – you name it – they all uniformly turn left as if they're performing in an ideological NASCAR event.
… which is one of the best lines in here! He goes on to discuss having Leftists on Red Eye, etc.:

Because I'm confident in my mission, presenting liberal perspectives should only make whatever else that much stronger. Seriously, put a leftist on any show and you see how much more sensible the right is. You have me sitting there sounding reasonable and anyone to my left morphs into one of those LSD experiments from the fifties ...
Fun. One of the useful rules of thumb he comes up with there is this gem: “Whenever you see the word dialogue in a political context, you are in the presence of pure, unadulterated bullshit of the liberal variety.”, which he then points out in any subsequent bit that involves the d-word.

In the “I'm OK, You Should Die” chapter he goes on about the gross double-standard of “wishing ill” on one's ideological opponents. He cites numerous examples where those on the conservative side slipped into this zone and got roundly chastised by their fellows, which leads into:

If you're going to be intolerant of that kind of thing when it's said about people you like, you gotta do the same for those you don't. … The left isn't so consistent. You can wish death or ill will on anyone from George Bush to Sarah Palin, and you'll probably get a grin from every liberal blogger, comic, and talking head. But say anything like that about a precious liberal icon and you will be run out of town.
In the also delightfully-titled chapter “Stalin Grads”, which largely deals with the cretinous Occupy Wall Street “movement”, there is the one point in the book where the author drops the “ironic” filter and goes direct:

But historians know: What begins as a utopian vision always – always – ends in bloodshed. Because you have to force utopia on a free people. Free people want to pursue their own happiness, but a one-size-fits-all approach requires herding the free, against their will, into the state's idea of what's right. Then it's not utopia. It's Uganda. It's 100 million dead. … And it's not like the folks behind the {Occupy} movement have hidden their intentions. …
Finally, here's one bit about how the left gets to be as violent, racist, and misogynistic as they want …

What's truly amazing is how the left seems baffled by the revulsion it causes. … To them it's daring comedy. Why is that? It's because liberals are surrounded by liberals all day, and so they develop a massive blind spot concerning what's acceptable to everyone else … you essentially spend all your time around people who share your assumptions, which makes it exceedingly easy for you to say what's on your mind.
I'd mentioned that there's a lot of self-deprecating humor in this, and a number of the ellipses inserted in the quoted bits above were to present the concepts without the sidebars, but I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't put in at least one example. This is how the “Harmed Forces” chapter starts:

I love a man in uniform. And I'm not talking about my house-boys (sarongs hardly qualify as a uniform). But for the left, tolerance is rarely afforded to the military.
Most of these involve his stature, bad habits, and assorted sexual elements … which I figured I could spare you. Again, The Joy of Hate is not a read without challenges, as Gutfeld is strategically “in the face” of the reader, making it somewhat uncomfortable for all (well, I'm sure whackjobs like Pelosi or Feinstein would really get their panties in a wad over this, while fundies like Huckabee somewhat less). One of the more interesting personal stories here is how the author was a Punk, and has numerous notables from the music biz name-checked … so on one level I guess he's channeling Johnny Rotten's attitude here.

The paperback of this is still on the on-line big boys' sites at very nearly full retail, so I guess I lucked out hitting the hardcover at the dollar store (which gets stuff being rotated off of Walmart's shelves) when I did. The latter has, as is frequently the case, found its way to the new/used vendors' listings, with many “very good” copies to be had for a penny plus shipping … were this sounding like something you'd like to check out.

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Sunday, June 19th, 2016
10:08 am
The tyranny of good intentions?
A few months back, I did a review of Jeremy Rifkin's The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which referred frequently to his previous book (or, perhaps the central concept thereof), The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World … and I was interested enough to order a copy. Now, I probably mentioned that I didn't have a particularly positive initial image of Rifkin, although I rather liked his newer book, probably due to his being connected in my mind with the felonious Clinton regime. Well, this book, while quite interesting and thought-provoking, clarified what I was disliking about him – he's an out-right “anti-Libertarian” (which says to me that he's a wipe-your-butt-with-the-Constitution type, like the current POTUS), and a HUGE fan of Big Government, in fact (judging from this book), pretty much “the bigger, the better”, with shifting as much control as possible from individuals to smarmy bureaucrats and cold, faceless, governmental departments. Do. Not. Like.

In the course of this book, he advocates for tyrannical control over pretty much ANYTHING you can think of under governmental organizations, and preferably global government – based on the model of the E.U., not the U.S.A. It's telling that the (relatively few for 124 copies) 4 reviews of this over on LibraryThing.com are all in languages other than English (3 French, 1 Spanish) … which seems to make sense as most of his actual work has been with foreign governments and institutions.

He also evidently “got deeper into it” as the book went on, as I have a half-dozen bookmarks in the first half of the book, and none in the second half. The book is in three Parts, “The Third Industrial Revolution”, “Lateral Power”, and “The Collaborative Age” all nice catch-phrases with nasty underlying dynamics, from a rejection of the sorts of economics which are the core of American values, to a really frightening re-visioning of education into lowest-common-denominator “webs of shared relationships” where excelling would be seen as degrading for the average, and would (à la Diana Moon Glampers) be driven down to the level of a bland, uninspired, and easily-controlled sheep-like mass.

That being said … let me turn to the parts of this that I didn't hate.

First of all, there's the title concept, that of the “Third Industrial Revolution”, which he shortens to TIR (certainly not to be confused with Týr) though most of the book. I'll admit that there's something to be said for his idea of pairing power sources and communications technologies to define the nature of various “industrial revolutions”. Here's basically how he breaks these out:

          1st Industrial Revolution:
                    19th Century
                    Steam Power
                    Letterpress Printing

          2nd Industrial Revolution:
                    20th Century
                    Combustion Engine
                    Electronic Communications

          3rd Industrial Revolution
                    21st Century
                    Renewable Energies
                    The Internet

He also defines “5 pillars” (religious imagery much?) of the Third Industrial Revolution – these are:

1. shifting to renewable energy;
2. transforming the building stock of every continent into green micro–power plants to collect renewable energies on-site;
3. deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;
4. using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy internet that acts just like the Internet (when millions of buildings are generating a small amount of renewable energy locally, on-site, they can sell surplus green electricity back to the grid and share it with their continental neighbors); and
5. transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell green electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.
Sounds swell, until you realize that this will require the replacement of nearly every building, and having government control over ALL construction EVERYWHERE. Plus, Rifkin isn't particularly visionary on the energy side of the equation … he's convinced various European cities to slap up low-efficiency solar panels over nearly every surface, but he doesn't even mention GenIV nuclear reactors (being actively pursued by both India and China) that can be powered by consuming spent fuel from old-style reactors, and solve two problems at once … but I guess the idea of having a “neighborhood” reactor is too “individualistic” for Rifkin, whose entire focus appears to be on government control of all aspects of society.

In the early chapters, Rifkin describes himself starting out as “a young activist weaned on the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movement of the 1960s” and describes his growing up in the same parts of Chicago that were the home turf of the vile Saul Alinsky (beloved of both Obama and Hillary Clinton). While he claims to have affinity for Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Washington (my favorites among the founding fathers as well), as opposed to his youthful associates' heroes of Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh and the butcher Che Guevara, you'd never guess it in his end-game here. Frankly, much of this book sounds like an echo of the current administration's “you didn't build that” lie.

Now, this book came out in 2011, and it's never really fair to judge projections on “20/20 hindsight”, but he pushes a lot of agendas here which, as far as I know, have completely “fallen off the table” (what happened to the promise by the chairman of auto company Daimler to “mass produce hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, trucks, and buses in 2015” … I must have missed the articles on those). So much of this book deals with meetings of panels, task forces, and mid-level governmental functionaries (OK, plus some heads of state), all churning through a lot of verbiage. But what's getting done? It's like throwing the future of the race on the mercies of the DMV … take a number and they'll get to you when they feel like it. While I've not delved into these topics in any particular depth, it seems to me that businesses are far more efficient in delivering these new technologies.

However, Rifkin doesn't see it that way, he describes entrepreneurs as “predatory and unsavory, consumed with self-interest and unconcerned with the public welfare” … but I'd sure trust an Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, or Jeff Bezos over the Dolores Umbridge-style bureaucrats that seem to populate his vision of the future.

I am probably being too hard on The Third Industrial Revolution, but for every “inspiring” bit in here there are 2-3 “aggravating” things that totally triggered me (and I'm not the only reviewer having issues with it, this is a very telling over-view from a German source). The world that Rifkin seems to want sounds like it's to be run with some global version of the IRS, wielding total control on where you live, how you live, what you can do, what you can think, and how you can relate to others. That sounds like a classic dystopia to me … but you might be more aligned to his views and be more “gee wiz” on the programs that he has put in place in various locations around the globe.

This is still in print, in both hardcover and paperback, but the on-line new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover for a penny (plus shipping), and I'd hope you wouldn't pay more than that for it. Again, there's a lot of interesting stuff in here, but what there is lies buried in a matrix of tyrannical big government wet dreams, with a decided Leftist bent, so it's sort of hard to take from where I'm sitting … but, as usual, “your mileage may vary”.

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Saturday, June 18th, 2016
9:58 am
Another play ...
So, here's another of those always-useful Dover Thrift Editions … ideal to pad book orders up to free shipping levels, or to plug holes in one's education. I suspect I ordered this (before getting Amazon Prime and not having to worry about shipping), for both reasons. I'm actually on the fence here regarding if I've seen this play or not, as it seemed awfully familiar when I read it, and may have been one of the things I saw ages ago when in London.

Anyway, George Bernard Shaw's Arms & The Man has been a popular play for a long time. Having been both an English and Religion major in school, I kept bumping into Shaw from both sides, on the latter especially for the arch “Shavian Satan” (oddly, that term might have been idiosyncratic to my university, as almost all searches for “Shavian” just turn up the phonetic alphabet Shaw had had developed, which appeared posthumously, but attributed to him), who, in Man and Superman is quoted (in reference to Milton's writing) as saying: “The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible.” … as a perfect example of how most people have a vaguely formatted, culturally filtered, view of their own religions!

Shaw is a fascinating figure in his own right (I must find a good bio of him to read at some point), being almost larger than life in the extremities (political, religious, cultural, etc.) he embraced over his long life (he died at 94 in 1950). He was born in Ireland, but moved to London at age 20, seeking to establish himself as a writer – which he did, initially as a theater critic, and “pamphleteer” for a Socialist society. During this time he was also writing plays, and these eventually found an audience.

One of the odd, yet attractive, features of this Dover edition is the inclusion of the rather extensive (it's 8 pages here of fairly small type) Preface to a collection of plays he published in 1898. This is snarky, gossipy, cynical, yet self-disparaging, as in this bit: “I half suspect that those managers who have had most to do with me, if asked to name the main obstacle to the performance of my plays, would unhesitatingly and unanimously reply 'The Author'.”. Frankly, this section is well worth the very small cost of admission (the cover price on the book is all of $2.50), but I'm avoiding the temptation to quote several pieces of it here, as it is, after all, not the point of the book.

I do feel like I need to apologize that I managed to get through this without putting in any of my little bookmarks indicating where I found good things for the review … as this means that I'll be “winging it” here more than I'd like. The play premiered in 1894, and deals with a scenario towards end of the (don't feel bad, I'd never heard of it either) Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 – so it was a relatively current topic for audiences of the day – which appears (after some Googling) to have been as complicated as anything Balkan tends to be. The location of the action is sufficiently near the front lines so that a Swiss mercenary, fighting for the Serbians, is able to seek refuge from his pursuers in the home of a moderately well-to-do Bulgarian family.

The action in the play certainly owes a good deal to the typical Shakespearean comedy, with people and items being shuffled around, just out of the view of those whose attention would be disastrous, and shifts happening in romantic affiliations as the story unwinds.

OK … now here's my warning as a non-fiction reader (who is particularly tone-deaf as to what might or might not be seen as a “spoiler”) … anything from here on in deals with the specifics of the plot, so if you want to be surprised at either reading the book or seeing a production of the play, you should probably stop here.

One thing to note, this is a very brief read … the whole play is slightly more than 50 pages (I have no idea how long it takes to stage) … and it is divided into three Acts, which are (of course) fairly compact. The main character here is Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss professional soldier who is fighting in the Serbian army. Upon his side losing one of the latter battles of the conflict, he takes flight, and attempts to hide in an upper room of a house. The room, however, is occupied, by Raina, daughter of Major Petkoff and his wife, Catherine. She is quite impressed with her family and its (somewhat questionable) achievements – such as having a library (in the description of the stage set for Act III, Shaw describes it as: “It is not much of a library. Its literary equipment consists of a single fixed shelf stocked with old paper covered novels, broken back, coffee stained, torn and thumbed; and a couple of little hanging shelves with a few gift books on them ...”), or the favorite of her father, an “electric bell” – and really thinks that they are the cultural elite (after all, they do “go to Bucharest every year for the opera season”), at least for their small border town. Bluntschli is threatening enough to convince her to not raise an alarm, even with him hidden behind a drape, first when her mother and the insolent servant girl Louka enter, and then when the Russian/Bulgarian troops arrive. Aside from protecting him, she also lets him have the remnants of a box of chocolates, which earns him the nickname “chocolate-cream soldier”. The ruse is discovered by Catherine, who assists by providing one of the Major's coats for him to escape in … although the first Act ends with him falling asleep in Raina's bed.

It turns out that Raina is engaged to Sergius Saranoff, a Bulgarian officer who led a successful, albeit poorly-thought-out charge that ended up scattering Bluntschli's force – a charge which would have been massacred had the Serbian guns not malfunctioned. It appears that between the first and second Acts, a peace treaty has been signed, allowing Bluntschli to show up at Petkoff's house, unannounced, to return the coat given to him for his escape. It also appears that Sergius has encountered Bluntschli in the time since the cease-fire, and has even heard the broad strokes (although not the details) of his escape. Catherine is horrified to see Bluntschli, as she's claimed the coat had gone missing. The head servant, Nicola, unaware of all this, not only brings out Bluntschli's luggage, but later brings the coat to Major Petkoff. Petkoff, introduced to Bluntschli by Sergius, insists he stay for lunch and (recognizing his expertise in the military) asks his help with a problem of troop movements in decommissioning the forces. Later, when Raina appears, she is shocked to see Bluntschli, and lets slip “the chocolate-cream soldier” … and then has to come up with a whole back story about a decoration she'd made for a dessert, that had gotten ruined by Nicola (who gets a lot of things blamed on him).

The third Act begins in the Library after lunch, where Bluntschli is working up orders for troop movements, and Sergius is reduced to just signing them, while Petkoff keeps trying to be “useful”, he eventually asks about his old coat … which is now hanging back in a closet where he'd looked for it previously, and is brought to him by Nicola. Later, Raina and Bluntschli are having a discussion and she asks what he thought of her giving him her portrait – with a note to the “chocolate-cream soldier”, which she had put in the pocket of the coat – and Bluntschli hadn't discovered. In the meanwhile, Louka has rejected Nicola (to whom she had supposedly been engaged), and has been sought after by Sergius (who is less dedicated to Raina than she declares to be to him), who claims to want to marry her. Much confusion ensues, and eventually the truth of the situation of Raina's room being where Bluntschli had hidden comes out. More confusion ensues and Raina finds that Sergius has been pursuing Louka … and the couples come together (Raina with Bluntschli – who has been revealed as being the heir to a substantial hotel chain – and Sergius with Louka). The play rather oddly ends with Bluntschli heading off to take care of other matters, and promising to come back in two weeks.

I'm sure this is quite charming on the stage, and I hope to see it performed at some point. While hardly a “deep” work, it's well written, and reasonably well developed for its fairly brief length. It is an enjoyable read, and something that pretty much anybody could appreciate. As noted above, the Dover Thrift Edition of Arms & The Man is quite inexpensive, with a $2.50 cover price, however, at this writing Amazon has it at only a buck, which is pretty remarkable.

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Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
1:34 pm
Stuff you probably didn't know ...
This was another book that the “Almighty Algorithm” matched to my book collection over on LibraryThing.com for their Early Reviewers program. As is frequently the case, “early” doesn't necessarily mean “pre-release”, although the copy in hand is an ARC (review copy), as this hit the shelves the first week of April. I guess that's “my bad” as this was a February LTER selection that showed up here mid-March.

Anyway, Juan Williams' We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers' Vision of America is an odd concept, as one might gather from the cover graphic, this is sort of setting up “new founders” for the changed America that some love and some loathe.

I'm always somewhat surprised by Williams, as I identify him with Fox News, and so expect a level of conservatism that he only exhibits on occasion. However, it turns out that he had a long career at leftist bastions The Washington Post and National Public Radio, that I'd not been previously aware of, so that explains a lot about how much this book grated my sensibilities.

While this is not blatantly some “progressive” screed, it certain reflects the author's preference for stances, movements, legislation, and cultural shifts that I think are wrong, bad, or just plain evil, so I was grinding my teeth a lot while reading it. However, Williams anticipates this, and starts the book with the (quoted) question “What happened to my America?”, and points out that, during the 2012 election

One poll found 53 percent of white Americans saying the changes in culture, economics, demographics, and politics were coming too quickly and damaging America's “character and values.”
Interestingly, in the same poll, 51 percent of African Americans also felt these changes were too much … so it's not just me as a middle-aged white male! There is a big divide here, though … with the author clearly admiring people, movements, and organizations that I loathe … so take that as a caveat to my impressions of the book.

This is structured in chapters that address one societal issue and the figures Williams identifies as being related to the changes in that. As I have just three or four of my little bookmarks in this (pointing out places that I felt had information good to present here), I'm going to resort to, basically, walking you through the TOC initially to give you the “30,000 ft view” on this. The following are the sub-headers of the chapters, which present the characters and the contexts for each:

JFK, Ted Kennedy, and the Immigration Reform That Changed America

Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight for Civil Rights

Bill Bratton and Modern Policing

General William Westmoreland and the Rebirth of the U.S. Military

Milton Friedman's New Math of Free Markets, Big Business, and Small Taxes

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Fight for Global Human Rights

Robert Moses, William Levitt, and the American City

George Meany, the Labor Unions, and the Rise of the Middle Class

Billy Graham and the Power of the Christian Right

Betty Friedan and American Feminism

Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and the Opening of China

Pat Moynihan and the War on Poverty

Harry Hay, Barry Goldwater, and Gay Rights

Ronald Regan, Ed Meese, and the Remaking of the Judicial System

Social Security, Medicare, and Robert Ball

Rachel Carson and the Environmental Movement

Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and the Fight for Racial Equality

Charlton Heston and the NRA

Now, even in a 400+ page book, that's quite a list of stuff to cover, so nothing is covered particularly in depth, although at an average of 20 pages each, these are not trivial looks at the subjects. Obviously, the majority of the individuals discussed are “household names”, but with a sprinkling of folks I'd never heard of. The time periods covered also shift around quite a bit, from Robert Moses, active in the first decades of the last century, to Bill Bratton, whose influence first manifested in the 1990s.

The book gets off on the wrong foot, as the figure of Ted Kennedy (whom Williams obviously greatly admires) is, to me, more the elite power-abusing monster that bought his way out of the Chappaquiddick incident and regularly championed causes I disliked. The author argues that the Kennedy brothers had a deep connection to immigration via their Irish background … but I wonder how real that is, being raised in power and privilege by their bootlegger Nazi-supporting family patriarch. It appears that the 1964 Civil Rights Act only got passed because Lyndon Johnson and Ted Kennedy used the trauma of JFK's assassination to “guilt” it through congress.

The chapter dealing with Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr. is the first place where Williams tries to envision the thoughts of the original founders about demographic realities of recent decades, and spins off from the founders supposedly not being able to imagine or accept how the Constitution has been construed by modern Courts, and into territory which in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in attempts to push “progressive” (Leftist) goals. Johnson is a key player in this chapter as well, but I guess didn't make the cut for the sub-header.

The next chapter is entitled “Broken Windows, Urban Crime, and Hard Data”, and focuses on the figure of Bill Bratton, the police figure (former Chief of Police in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, and current NYC Police Commissioner) who developed the “data driven” approach to policing, which drove down crime rates by responsively assigning resources where they were needed … but more controversially following the “broken windows” theory of reacting to small crimes before they create perceived permission for more serious crimes. This, with advanced surveillance has raised a lot of civil liberties questions, and Williams indicates that Bratton was instrumental in hooking in local law enforcement with Homeland Security under the Patriot Act.

The chapter on General William Westmoreland is fascinating in its look at the history of America's military, from the early days when many were unwilling to have an army, on up through Vietnam. Of course, Westmoreland had been the commander of the efforts in Vietnam until 1968, and got to see up close how debilitating that conflict, and the systems involved in it, were for our forces. It was he, and his successors, who pioneered the present highly-trained all-volunteer force.

Next comes a look at economic theory, featuring the famed economist Milton Friedman (whose Free To Choose video series and accompanying book in 1980 were huge successes). One gets the sense that Williams doesn't much like Friedman's stances on things (repeatedly contrasting him with Paul Krugman), but he's presented here due to his influence, both in economic theory and the ideas of freedom.

The concepts of American-style “liberty and justice” applying world-wide is the key point in the chapter on Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become the head of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1946. Williams says:

Mrs. Roosevelt offered the Founding Fathers' claim of natural rights as the new baseline for judging how any government, in any place, treats the poor, political dissidents, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and children.
Aside her work in these areas, this chapter has quite a lot of interesting information regarding her life, which was extraordinary by any measure.

The chapter on the rise of cities probably has the least-known names here, Robert Moses and William Levitt, both operating in New York City, although in different eras. Moses was born in 1888 and became a very controversial figure, one one hand, fighting corruption and ingrained political factions, on the other, “bullying” his way toward tearing down whole swaths of housing to build highways, and other personal pet projects. While Moses operated in the governmental sphere, Levitt was to be instrumental in developing the suburbs: “It was Levitt who was the first to build middle-class residential communities off the exits of the parkways and highways.”, his family company initially having contacts to build housing for defense workers in Norfolk, VA, they devised new building techniques for “assembly-line” housing construction that was able to pump out hundreds of times the units of traditional builders.

I suppose the name George Meany is familiar to older readers, as I suspect he's not much on the radar of anybody under 40 at this point. He ran the AFL (American Federation of Labor) which later merged with the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), to form the familiar AFL-CIO union structure. This piece is fascinating to read as a union outsider, as it represents a time when the unions were massive, powerful, yet stridently anti-communist … a world away from Leftist monstrosities like the SEIU or government employee unions these days!

Williams does a great job at backgrounding the chapter on the Christian Right, both in tracing Billy Graham's history but also outlining assorted laws, etc., such as the 1948 Supreme Court case that prevented the teaching of religious doctrine in public schools. Much of this is focused on the 60's and 70's, however, with the rise of evangelical broadcasting, and the all-too-familiar names involved in that (he quotes Jerry Falwell saying that people were fascinated to be able to see him on TV in the morning and then get to see him live at an event that night). Frankly, Graham isn't the “main player” in here, but he seems to be the one who got the ball rolling, and much of the later figures are, essentially, his protégés.

Another name that might have faded with the years is that of Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique (based on research initially begun in 1957), was a ground-breaking look at women in the post-war world, and the “nameless, aching dissatisfaction” they felt. She ended up publishing the book, because she was unable to interest any magazine in taking the article she had originally planned to write … of course, when the book sold over 3 million copies, the magazines, talk shows, and other media were all too happy to cover it … and it has been described as “a good example of a book that permanently shifted the society in which it was published”. She was President of the National Organization for Women (and was instrumental in developing that group's “Bill of Rights for Women”), a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, and a key player in numerous other organizations.

One of the most fascinating (for me) chapters here is the one on the Opening of China, which is largely centered on the still-imposing figure of Henry Kissinger. That noted anti-communist Richard Nixon was the President to begin normalizing relations with Mao's China was a shock at the time, and is still a pretty amazing episode in American history. Kissinger's background is remarkable (and I'd not previously seen anything on this), including hunting down Gestapo agents in post-war Germany. He was largely responsible for much of the Cold War strategy of fighting “little wars” (like Korea and Vietnam) and avoiding full-on conflict with the USSR. The tales of back-channel negotiations (and even cloak-and-dagger operations such as his going on a trip to Pakistan that was a ruse to fly to China to work out Nixon's eventual visit) should be the stuff of movies.

Pat Moynihan is another of those names that I remember, but generally just as a whiny liberal Senator that always seemed to be on the wrong side of issues. It appears that his upbringing in and out of the lower end of the middle class, set him up for being very sensitive to poverty, and became an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy administration, and continued into the Johnson administration where he wrote The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (more commonly known as the Moynihan Report) in 1965. This report was seminal to Johnson's “war on poverty”, and argued that “the problems of poverty and unemployment were rooted in common problems of broken families, poor education and training”. He worked in the Nixon administration (and became an ambassador) before winning a Senate seat in 1976 (to which he was reelected three times, retiring in 2000), and even co-sponsored bills with the Reagan administration. There is quite a lot of detail about his career, and the legislation involved, here … plus some interesting personal details about the author's life.

While I have always been a big fan of Barry Goldwater, I did not recognize the name Harry Hay. It turns out that he was an English immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1917 and was very active with political organization to support the rights of gays. His long career (he died at age 90 in 2002) spanned a lot of cultural territory, which was further complicated by his being a member of the Communist Party. It turns out that Goldwater was one of the strongest supporters of gay rights in the mainstream political world “arguing that conservative reverence of the Constitution and its guarantees of persona liberty include the right to make personal choice about sexual preferences” … a stance that's more associated with the Libertarians these days.

As one might expect, a writer who had been with the Post and NPR probably never had Ronald Reagan or Ed Meese on his Christmas card list, and the “Remaking of the Judicial System” chapter, while remarkably detailed in its look at the courts, has that sort of feel of adversarial attitude about it. Of course, he's pretty even-handed here, saying regarding Meese: “The height of his effort to get back to the Founder's original intent was to select judges on the basis of their fidelity to strictly interpreting the law on the basis of the Constitution.” … which I think is a shame that that is notable rather than required.

One name that I doubt any but hard-core policy wonks will know (I certainly didn't) is that of Robert Ball. The first third of this chapter walks the reader through the history of social programs in the U.S., up through the Truman administration, during which a Senate panel was formed to look at Social Security, the head of this panel was Ball, a former Social Security official noted for his expertise and abilities to do high-level presentations on the intricacies of the system. He was, essentially, the go-to guy for the program on up through the Reagan administration (serving on panels and commissions even after his official retirement in 1973).

Rachel Carson is probably still a recognizable name as her Silent Spring is an environmental classic. After WW2 she had gotten a position with the U.S. Department of Fisheries as an aquatic biologist and began writing materials for the government in the 50's. She published an award-winning book, The Sea Around Us in 1951, and continued publishing through the decade. Her research into the deleterious effects of the insecticide DDT led her to writing Silent Spring in 1962, which is credited (although she died two years later) with being the foundation for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Everybody knows the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and the chapter on “the Fight for Racial Equality” largely looks at how their messages, in very different styles, interacted. This takes detailed look back at social and legal history leading up to King, and how Jackson, essentially, tried to push himself into the leadership of the movement after King's assassination (including wearing his blood-soaked shirt constantly at meetings and rallies for days after). As much as Jackson wanted to be seen as the natural inheritor of King's mantle, he was not much liked by others in those circles, and even MLK at one point told him (in public): “If you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead, but for God's sake, don't bother me”! Williams details Jackson's political ambitions, and frustrations with never getting the power he was seeking (leading, no doubt, to the bitterness he's frequently shown regarding Obama).

Finally, there's Charlton Heston, and the NRA. This is another case where I think Juan Williams had to “stretch” a bit, as Heston, while universally known, and active (at one point President) in the NRA, was hardly a central figure. In fact, his initial involvement was being hired for some commercials. This chapter is very interesting, however, in looking at the NRA, its history (at one point it was a quasi-governmental organization to train kids to be better shots), and the whole “gun issue”. Needless to say, this is a topic very much “of the moment”.

Anyway, that's pretty much what's in We the People … each of these is fleshed out with enough detail to make it worth reading, but not so much as to make it unbearable (I'm pretty sure I'd take a pass at reading an entire book on some of these). While I don't agree with the author's “spin” on a lot of these (and think the whole premise is somewhat off), he's certainly presented something that shines new light on a lot of areas of American life. This just came out in April, so should be generally available, but the on-line big boys have it for nearly half off at the moment (making it nearly a wash with what the new/used guys have it for, with shipping).

To be honest, this is not a book that I think I would have picked up “free range” to read, but I don't think I wasted my time reading it. I suspect that someone of a more Leftist bent might have been more enthusiastic about it than I was … so there's that to consider.

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Monday, June 13th, 2016
11:56 pm
Preaching to the choir ...
Nearly a decade back, I was “in a mood” and decided that I needed to get up to speed with all the current anti-theist thought out there, and ordered in a bunch of books … while I'd gotten to quite a few of them at the time, I eventually hit a “meh” point, and these started to drift down the “to be read” piles. This is one that I got back then (new in hardcover at retail, even), but only got around to reading a month or so ago. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that part of the reason this went so long without my getting to it was that, when I was in the thick of my job hunt, part of me “didn't want to get on Santa's naughty list” just in case there was some bronze-age sheepherder's vision of a vindictive Sky Father up there who'd get mad at me for reading stuff saying he didn't exist. Sort of a Pascal's Wager deal there, but after cranking out nearly 3,000 resumes over a 7 year period, I figured “how much worse could the job search get?” … if there IS a God, were he to “smite” me, it would be a blessed release at this point and provide life insurance funds to my family while I'm still covered!

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the late Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and figured that today was as good as any for getting into the review. One thing I found frustrating here was that Hitchens would get into really engaging territory, and look like he was about to produce some pithy bon mot that I'd be able to quote for you here, but pretty much every time roll into a long digression riffing on the point that I was wanting to highlight. While this didn't mar the flow of the reading, it was frustrating when I was eager to drop in a “gotta use this” bookmark.

While there is no indication that this was a compilation of previously existing pieces, the chapters are sufficiently self-contained that the book does read more like a collection of pamphlets on assorted rants against religion than one coherent narrative arc. So, I'm afraid that I'm going to seem to be “cherry-picking” here through the chapters, in an attempt to find quotes illustrative of where the author's taking his arguments. Oh, and sometimes his prose gets a bit florid, as is somewhat exemplified by the end of this quote from early in the book, which otherwise fairly concisely (following a rambling bit about the certainty of death and the implausibility of any afterlife) frames the book's main thesis:

We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.
Speaking of Pascal, Hitchens compares him with C.S. Lewis, and notes “... the appalling load of strain they have to bear. How much effort it takes to affirm the incredible!” … which he follows (after a brief side trip to the Aztecs' daily human sacrifices), with the rather arch “How much vanity must be concealed – not too effectively at that – in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?”.

I mention the Aztec reference above to suggest how much of the narrative in these chapters is not overly linear, with the author pulling in items seemingly off the top of his head … which, while perhaps engaging in a chat over a pint, makes it tough to extract bits here. This results in one of the most telling chapters, “Religion Kills”, not having any of my little bookmarks in it … despite being gripping, informative (Hitchens had been all over the world as a corespondent, and had a lot of eye-witness material to a wide array of horror stories where he “could sense that religion was beginning to reassert its challenge to civil society”), and truly shocking.

Interestingly, “Religion Kills” is followed with a brief chapter about pork (subtitled “Why Heaven Hates Ham”), and, I suppose, religious dietary restrictions in general. While this visits a range of items, some quaint, some brutal, the most illuminating (for me, at least) tidbit of info here is that the delightful culinary tradition of the charcuterie platter arose from the Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn't expect that either) as a way to ferret out the less-sincere among forced Jewish and Muslim converts, by presenting them with a splendid array of pork products, and gauging their reactions. Or, as he puts it: “In the hands of eager Christian fanatics, even the toothsome jamón Ibérico could be pressed into service as a form of torture.”.

The next chapter deals with issues of health, and how religion rather predictably messes up even the most positive attempts at improving people's lives. He he notes a UNICEF program that was trying to eradicate polio. This was moving along quite well in India until a group of Mullahs decided that the drops (the treatment was a couple of drops of liquid on the tongue – but had be be administered twice) were a “conspiracy by the United States to sterilize true believers”. This rumor (and eventual fatwa) spread to Africa (particularly Nigeria) and then all across the Muslim world. Oh, those crazy Muslims, you say? Well, this comes in close parallel with the Vatican's “President of the Pontifical Council for the Family” who put out warnings that “all condoms are secretly made with many microscopic holes, through which the AIDS virus can pass”, creating massive surges in AIDS infections in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Uganda … with some Catholic Cardinals asserting that women who die of AIDS rather than use condoms are “martyrs”! Needless to say, a good deal of the “health” restrictions pushed by religion deal with sex … and Hitchens lists off a litany of quite disturbing examples. He starts a section here with:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.
… yet he suggests that in the heart-of-hearts of the religious the opposite is true, noting that the “church father” Tertullian promises that “one of the most intense pleasures of the afterlife would be the endless contemplation of the tortures of the damned.”.

Next comes the rather directly titled “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False”, which features at its start a list of assorted quotes, including Ignatius Loyola's “We sacrifice the intellect to God.” and Martin Luther's “Reason is the Devil's harlot.” … and Hitchens does not seem to be in a mood to “play nice” with a whole roster of historical religious notables whose writings bear the marks of the basest credulity on one hand, and vile manipulation on the other. He contrasts these with notable scientific thinkers, and the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, who, despite being deists, “managed to seize a moment of crisis and use it to enshrine Enlightenment values in the founding documents” of the USA. There are several superb runs in this, but aren't quite of the quotable variety (although the line “the pathetic vestiges of this can still be seen in modern societies”, when referring to times and places where “the clergy has the power to dictate its own terms”, is too rich to not pass along here!). One thing he does use to highlight the differences between the religious and scientific sides is: “today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion”.

He spends a good chunk of the book in a chapter dealing with evolution vs. “design”, which is, perhaps, more combative than others as the idiots pushing religious delusions are still very much on the forefront of assorted “culture wars”, thus providing extremely tempting targets for Hitchen's attacks … and he shreds many of the designists by name here.

Next comes the subject of the Bible, divided, naturally, into two chapters: “The Nightmare of the Old Testament” and “The Evil of the New Testament”. This starts off with a dissection of the Ten Commandments (“the monarchical growling about respect and fear, accompanied by a stern reminder of omnipotence and limitless revenge”), and delves into the horrors of that tribal document (although, not to the extent where it is eviscerated elsewhere). Similarly, he does a fairly broad-stroke review of what H.L. Mencken described as “a helter-skelter accumulation of more or less discordant documents”, pointing out the more egregious idiocies believed by so many in the New Testament. Pointedly, Hitchens frames this review:

The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” This feebleness derives from the fact that until recently, Christians could simply burn or silence anybody who asked any inconvenient questions.
While Christian fundamentalists have been largely stripped of their more lethal reactions (institutionally, at least), the Muslim world is still quite enthusiastic about torturing, murdering, and enslaving those who offend its evidently rather delicate sensibilities. These would, no doubt, be much abused by the chapter “The Koran Is Borrowed from Both Jewish and Christian Myths”, which gives you a good sense of the subject matter. Of course, having just detailed what a hot mess those mythic traditions are, you can imagine what the Muhammadan mash-up looks like in Hitchens' view. Of course, one of the main problems here is the murderous nature of the faith:

Not only did Islam begin by condemning all doubters to eternal fire, but it still claims the right to do so in almost all its dominion, and still preaches that these same dominions can and must be extended by war. There has never been an attempt in any age to challenge or even investigate the claims of Islam that has not been met with extremely harsh and swift repression.
Hard to live long enough to become the “Muslim Martin Luther”, I suppose. One of the aspects that Hitchens focuses on here is the inconvenient bit about how nearly all the early figures in Islam were illiterate, and yet cobbled together a book which is supposedly “the final revelation”. The hadiths are even more muddled, with illiterate hearsay reporting illiterate hearsay, going back through various repetitions. The author notes there were some actual scholars involved, such as Bukhari, a compiler living nearly a quarter of a millennium after Muhammad, who sorted through 300,000 “attestations” and determined that 200,000 of those were “entirely valueless and unsupported”, eventually whittling the remaining 100k down to a collection of 10,000 … but, still:

You are free to believe, I you so choose, that out of this formless mass of illiterate and half-remembered witness the pious Bukhari, more than two centuries later, manage to select only the pure and undefiled ones that would bear examination.
… with the result including “great chunks of more or less straight biblical quotations”.

Hitchens then takes a side trip into considering the concept of Hell, and how it's manifested in various relgious traditions, how it was developed, and how useful it has historically proven for those running religions, along with how “tawdry” most miracles are when actually examined. This is followed with a chapter on the beginnings of religions, starting off with a quote from Sigmund Freud: “Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor.” In this the author looks at “Cargo Cults”, the Mormons (which he notes has similarities to Islam in their “miraculously delivered” documents), and the one-time child evangelical star Marjoe Gortner, who famously developed a film in the early 70's exposing the vileness of the “religious revival” scam. This is followed by a brief “coda” chapter on “How Religions End”, primarily looking at a handful of assorted the-world-is-ending cults from various points in history.

The next chapter asks “Does Religion Make People Behave Better”, with a long listing of examples of religion being either the justification or vehicle for the most appalling behavior. From Thomas Jefferson having to negotiate with ambassadors of the Barbary (pirate) states … before sending the Marines to Tripoli … to issues with the British leaving India, and Hitchens' own experience in Bosnia, there are some fascinating historical bits here. Most telling, though, is an exchange between a noted humanist and a prominent Bishop … the former claimed that “he saw no evidence at all for the existence of any god”, to which the latter animatedly responded with the rather telling “Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality!” – clearly implying that the churchman would, if not for his “imaginary friend” constantly looking over his shoulder, be some licentious reprobate! {Penn Jillette has a great take on this as well}

At this point the book turns East, and has a go at “Eastern Religions”, which don't fare much better than the Major Monotheisms. The following chapters look at how almost any religion is going to be fundamentally flawed, ask “Is Religion Child Abuse?”, and religion's “last ditch” arguments against secularism. This has these choice bits:

If I cannot definitively prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that is a man-made imposition, and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsided largely on lies and fears, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny, I can most certainly claim that religion is now fully aware of these criticisms. It is also fully aware of the ever-mounting evidence, concerning the origins of the cosmos and the origins of species, which consign it to marginality if not to irrelevance.

… it is interesting to find that people of faith now defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists. One might hope that religion had retained more sense of its dignity than that.

For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute state was intimately bound up with religion. … The slightest infringement – of a holy day, or a holy object, or an ordinance about sex or food or caste – could bring calamity.
This latter chapter goes on through quite a lot of material, showing how, in nearly every case, most “secular totalitarian states” were working hand-in-hand with the religious institutions of the day. Fascinating, but ugly, stuff here.

The book concludes with two chapters somewhat looking forward, “The Resistance of the Rational”, and “The Need for a New Enlightenment”. The former takes a look at philosophy (“Philosophy begins where religion ends, just as by analogy chemistry begins where alchemy runs out, and astronomy takes the place of astrology”), starting with Socrates and others of the ancient Greeks, and meanders through various traditions up through the centuries. The latter takes a look at the world around us (or at least that of a decade ago), and cries out for more sanity. One key quote here is “Religion has run out of justification.”, and closes with the warning: “it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.”.

Needless to say, despite my caveats regarding the difficulties of extracting elements to illustrate this for the review, I was quite engaged with God Is Not Great, and would recommend it to all and sundry (although the more preachy types might want to have antacids on hand). It appears that the hardcover edition I have is no longer in print, but the 2009 paperback is out there, with the on-line big boys having it a discount bringing it under ten bucks (oddly, there aren't many quality used copies of the hardcover out there, but “good” copies can be had for around a buck plus shipping).

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Friday, June 10th, 2016
11:20 am
War is Hell ...
This is one of those books that has been sitting around for years … I got it it in one of those post- post-holiday sales on BN.com, possibly as long as a decade ago, and it sat in a pile of books from that order since then. However, in a book I recently (well, in the past year, and I'm not sure which one it was) read, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society was highly recommended, and I had a “oh, wait – I have that” light bulb moment, and shifted this from the stack of unread books in an obscure corner and onto one of the “recent acquisition” stacks that are more-or-less at eye-level on my way in or out of my office.

Now, as I've noted before, stuff that I get from those sales are pretty much “pig in a poke” deals, as I scan through book listings looking for “interesting sounding” titles, but without my having much background info on any of them. I was unclear on the nature of this, but recently noted that it's got about a 4.5 star rating on Amazon, and is in the libraries of nearly a thousand users over on LibraryThing.com (which is pretty high – making me suspect that this is being used as a college text). Structurally, it's in eight sections, with two to eight chapters each … giving it an orderly progression through the factors involved in the main points of the book. The thrust is military, psychological, and societal, with some brain science, and zoology thrown in for good measure (like the factoid that when piranha fight among themselves, they primarily use tail-slaps rather than biting).

The piranha info (among others) sets up early on that most in-species conflicts across nature tend to have non-lethal results, which leads up to one of the most startling bits here – up through the Vietnam war, very few regular soldiers ever actually killed anyone (with most casualties coming from artillery fire, etc.). The first options in a conflict situation are between posturing and flight. Posturing can be anything from ridiculously large head gear, making the soldiers look bigger, to intense yelling that could make a smaller force sound like a more formidable foe. With amazing frequency, one side or the other in an exchange of posturing will opt to flee, and avoid the conflict. If both sides stayed engaged, the choices shift to fight, submit, or, again, flee. Bizarrely, firearms in most conflicts have mainly served to be loud sources of posturing … here's a bit about Civil War era battles:

      Muzzle-loading muskets could fire from one to five shots per minute, depending on the skill of the operator and the state of the weapon. With a potential hit rate of well over 50 percent at the average combat ranges of this era, the killing rate should have been hundreds per minute, instead of one or two. The weak link between the killing potential and the killing capability of these units was the soldier. The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy's heads.
I was shocked to see that small kill rate, but the author reports studies that have looked at other conflicts which reported 252 rounds fired per hit, 119 rounds fired per hit, and on up to Vietnam, where there were firefights “when more than fifty thousand bullets were fired for every enemy soldier killed”. The author goes into quite a lot of detail on the ways that soldiers avoided actually killing the enemy … from muskets found with multiple loads crammed down the barrel (where the soldier was going through the process of prepping his weapon, but simply never firing it), to a look at how subtly aiming can be shifted to shoot over the heads of the enemy without looking like one was “trying to miss”. The point here is that this can't be laid at the feet of the arms themselves (even in the smooth-bore musket era, 75% hit rates should have been possible at the average distance of engagement), or marksmanship (a chimpanzee messing with an AK47 is going to do better than 1 kill for 50k rounds!), but it has to be put squarely on the soldier's unwillingness to kill.

While the kill rate didn't “improve” in Vietnam, the firing rate did … in earlier conflicts the firing rate had been as low as 15 percent, was around 55 percent in Korea, and (through “classical or operant conditioning”, the details of which appear to still be classified) got up to 90-95% in Vietnam. This leads the author off to Freud, and discussing Eros and Thanatos, the “life instinct” and “death instinct” and the psychological factors … and a note that the chances of becoming a “psychological casualty” “were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire”. He presents a fascinating chart that tracks “combat effectiveness” against days in combat, rising through the first 10 days, maximized over the next 20 days, being high but declining over the next 15 days, and rapidly crashing over the next 15, to being “vegetative” by 60 days in combat. Some really horrific examples of the mental breakdowns of battle are described, and ways that modern armies try to avoid these. One approach is to rotate out troops exhibiting psychological damage to situations with proximity (as close to the actual battlefield as possible), and expectancy (that they will be returned to their units as soon as possible), this helps to both avoid the worst of the psychological wounds, and “evacuation syndrome”, where “acting crazy” would seem to offer a way out. Grossman notes:

War is an environment that will psychologically debilitate 98 percent of all who participate in it for any length of time. And the 2 percent who are not driven insane by war appear to have already been insane – aggressive psychopaths – before coming to the battlefield.
The author dedicates chapters to Fear, Exhaustion, Guilt & Horror, and Hate, before moving into “Fortitude”. This is used rather than “courage”, as it encompasses a wider range of reactions. Here are some quotes: “heroism … is endurance for one moment more”, “it is willpower that can be spent – and when it is used up – men are finished”, and that 98% figure keeps cropping up, as in “In sustained combat this process of emotional bankruptcy is seen in 98 percent of soldiers who survive physically.”.

The third section of the book looks at “Killing and Physical Distance”, with a chart which maps “resistance to killing” against “physical distance from target”, going from one end at the oddly-named “Sexual Range” to “Max Range”, representing bombers or artillery (or, I suppose, ICBMs). As one might expect, the closer the enemy, the more “difficult” the act of killing. On the far end of the spectrum the author uses the July 1943 fire-bombing of Hamburg, where 70,000 died, but “from twenty thousand feet the killer could feel fascinated and satisfied with his work”, contrasted with the Assyrian destruction of Babylon in 689 BCE, where “someone had to personally hold down tens of thousands of men, women, and children, while someone else stabbed and hacked at these horrified {victims}”, and the hideous stories from the Nazi death camps. The personal nature of the up-close kill seems to be emotionally scarring, while the distance kill is emotionally detached. Interestingly, the survivors of bombing attacks are less traumatized as well, with their considering themselves as “incidental victims of an act of war”, and able to put it behind them, when the survivors of the concentration camps were haunted by the idea of “members of my own species actively seeking my end” – even if the machine guns and gas chambers were not as horrific as the face-to-face butchery in Babylon. Grossman walks the reader through chapters looking at killing at various ranges, from the maximum-range forms:“Artillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews – at sea and on the ground – are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and … physical distance.” ... and on to that “sexual range” where “much of the attraction to the killing process, and much of the resistance to close-in killing, revolves around the vicious side of ourselves ...”.

The fourth section is a deep psychological dive into human behavior, with looks at “demands of authority”, the just mentioned “group absolution”, the physical and emotional (including cultural and similar factors) “distance from victim”, the “target attractiveness of the victim”, and the predisposition of the killer, across several chapters. Not surprisingly, this starts with the work of Stanley Milgram (and Freud to the extent that he perceptively warned: “never underestimate the power of the need to obey”), and his iconic Yale experiment. One thing I found fascinating here (that had obviously not gotten on my radar previously) was that in proposing the experiment, Milgram's colleagues estimated that only a fraction of 1% of the subjects would keep going until the maximum (supposedly lethal) voltage was applied. As it turned out, with no more established authority than a clip board and a lab coat, the orders of the assistants running the experiment were complied with by a shocking sixty five percent of the test subjects. As the author comments, if 65% of test subjects could be convinced (what they thought was) to kill an innocent victim with just some “window dressing” of authority, how much more coercive is the authority of a military chain-of-command? Another interesting discussion in this section is that of the various strategies (either “institutional” by way of propaganda, or internal justification) of “dehumanizing” the enemy, making them emotionally less relevant. Another chapter deals with “disposition”, this can be achieved via training (the Rhodesian security force in the 70's had an over-all kill ratio of 8-1 against rebel guerrillas, with their elite units achieving as high as a 50-1 ratio), or by personal experiences: “the recent loss of friends and beloved leaders in combat can also enable violence on the battlefield”, on to the “natural soldier”. This is the previously-mentioned 2% … the author is careful to note that:

It would be absolutely incorrect to conclude that 2 percent of all veterans are psychopathic killers. Numerous studies indicated that combat veterans are no more inclined to violence than nonvets. A more accurate conclusion would be that there is 2 percent of the male population that, if pushed or if given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.
He goes on to point out that those very low (non-artillery) kill rates from the Napoleonic wars through WW2 could indicate that most of the kills came from these, uh, motivated soldiers. I couldn't help but think both of lyrics by Arlo Guthrie, and a famed H.L. Mencken quote. This leads into a related subject in the fifth section, that of “atrocities”, but I'll spare you the details on that.

Section six is on “killing response stages” and relates to a fairly complex chart that seems to show that “all roads lead to PTSD”, with even more unpleasant results along the way. Again, this I'll skip here. The next section takes a specific psychological look at the Vietnam war, and how “between 400,000 and 1.5 million Vietnam vets suffer from PTSD”. Once the previously mentioned low rates of firing in earlier wars (as low as 20% in WW2!) were discovered, the military set out to fix the problem. This started in Korea, where a 55% firing rate was achieved, and moved towards a “boot-cam deification of killing” which, coupled with (operant) “conditioning techniques to develop a reflexive 'quick shoot' ability” got up to a 95% rate in Vietnam (although, not particular efficient shooting, as detailed above). The author also notes that Vietnam involved very young soldiers:

They were teenagers leading teenagers in a war of endless, small-unit operations, trapped together in a real-world reenactment of The Lord of the Flies with guns, and destined to interalize the horrors of combat during one of the most vulnerable and susceptible stages of life.
This coupled with increasingly high-tech equipment, pharmacological interventions to keep the troops engaged, and the disgraceful way that the media handled the war, created stress levels almost unique to that conflict. And, one of the primary coping factors was missing … instead of returning to a welcoming and thankful nation, the Left had created an atmosphere where soldiers coming home were cursed, spit upon, and exiled … driving an additional aspect to the PTSD equation.

Now, up through here, the book hasn't suffered from its age (written in 1995), but when he gets to the “What Are We Doing to Our Children?” section, it begins to sound very dated. Grossman latches onto some “pop psychology” of the time about movie violence, and “video arcades”. A couple of decades later, the level of violence in entertainment vehicles hasn't gone down, but things haven't gone out of control in the “pathological spiral” he forecasts. Most unsettling, he ends up taking serious anti-Constitutional stances directed (especially) to the 1st and 2nd amendments, which makes my Libertarian blood boil. Given that the rest of the book is fascinating, this last bit could well be lopped off to make its reading (in a whole new technological world) much improved!

Again, On Killing is likely being used as a textbook, as not only is it in a lot of hands on LT, but it's still in print at this point, with no substantial cheap used presence 20 years on. In fact, the on-line big boys have the 2009 paperback edition at a very reasonable price (admittedly, something not typical for a textbook!) that's not much more than the cheapest used copy plus shipping – so if you thought this was something that you'd want to check out, might as well order new.

This is a deeply engaging look at human nature, within the context of killing in war. I suppose, having been a reader of military history, it possibly had more of an interest for me than it would for somebody who was less familiar with the niche, but the level of psychological insight and “looking under the hood” into these mental-emotional factors should make it attractive to a wide range of serious readers.

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Sunday, May 29th, 2016
12:17 pm
From "funnel" to "radar" ...
I'm really embarrassed about this one … I attended an event that was functioning as a local book launch, hosted by a friend from the Social Media Club, featuring this book (which I got free, signed by the author) about two and a half years ago. Now, this, in and of itself, isn't the embarrassing part, but the fact that I told the author that evening that there was a chance that I'd be getting to his book (for reading & review) “in a week or so”, and it took me all this time for that to happen. Oops. Frankly, I think it was the “sale” in the title that kept letting other books slide up the to-be-read queue … despite nearly 40 years in marketing communications, I've always been hostile to anything “sales” oriented – hating to be sold to, and really hating to have to “sell to” others. So this sat there and sat there and sat there, until one day (due to the other stuff I'd been reading) it sounded like a good change of pace.

I was chastened to find that Tom Martin's The Invisible Sale: How to Build a Digitally Powered Marketing and Sales System to Better Prospect, Qualify and Close Leads is a really great book … informative, entertaining (even funny in places), and full of useful information … I swear, if this had “market” instead of “sale” in the title, I'd have been read/reviewed it by the end of 2013. Bad Brendan!

Now, don't get me wrong, this book is very much about selling , with lots of stuff that's way out of my “sweet spot” like taking about sales teams and sales calls and sales emails and sales “closes”, and similar stuff that “makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth”, but it also has a lot of “philosophical” material (which reminded me a bit of some of Gary Vaynerchuck's work), and about 1/3rd of the book which is in-depth on content creation. Structurally, the book is in four sections (well, three sections and a bit of a coda), “Selling the Premise”, “Capturing the Invisible Sale”, “Creating Your Content”, and about a dozen pages on “Closing the Deal” … across these are distributed seventeen chapters, each of which has a half-dozen or so specific subject headers.

So, what is this “Invisible Sale” thing (no, it's not like my poetry collections, which have nonexistent sales – which is, sadly, quite different), anyway? I'm sure Martin has a handy definition in there somewhere, but I wasn't able to dig up a nice compact statement about it to drop in here, instead, here's something from one of his promo web sites that I think comes pretty close:

Today's digital savvy buyers are sophisticated and silent. They’re doing recon work on your brand, product or company -- searching for product reviews and tapping into social networks for recommendations and first-hand experiences. These invisible buyers are slipping past your sales team, stepping out of the shadows only after they’ve decided that your company is in the running for their dollars.
He notes that, in a whole lot of settings, the traditional “sales funnel” of prospects => contacted => qualified => proposed => sold is no longer a working model, being replaced by what he calls the “sales radar” which has six segments, each referencing a different approach, with “sales contact” being at the center – the contact being pretty much at the point of sale, rather than four levels previous.

One of the things I rather liked in the book was the “Power Points” sections that show up at the end of most of the chapters … these are more editorial than simply recapping the info from the chapter, putting it in a bit different frame. You can actually download these as Powerpoint slides (which he notes are “minimally formatted” so you can add your own organization's look-and-feel – clever!). This leads me to a somewhat early mention of the companion web site, which has a bit of stuff related to the content of the book, but really is more of a “sales page” for the author's speaking and training ventures. There are Amazon links to assorted "tools" mentioned (microphones, etc.), and links to videos he references, but those parts seem, unfortunately, like an afterthought, plus the “community” site one has to join to download the Power Points seems to have been abandoned but for those download links, as it has four segments for content, all of which (nearly 3 years down the road) say “coming soon” with links that head off to blank pages … disappointing. However, a lot of the material is available via his corporate site in the form of blog posts … too bad these two elements didn't get linked up.

Good thing that the book is otherwise chock-full of useful stuff. I probably have a dozen of my little bookmarks stuck in here, however, digging into them for this, I'm finding that most are for key points of info that I could use in projects, and not “choice quotes” … although, in context of this particular book, those nuggets might be as useful as anything. Now, again, I'm not a “sales guy” and am a marketing writer and not some MBA, so it's possible, or even likely, that stuff that I find somewhat revelatory might be “old hat” for another reader. So, with that caveat, I guess I'll walk us through some of these.

The first of the bookmarks is on a page in the long look at what camera store Adorama does in their digital marketing, with a goo.gl link to a video/post on “How To Embed Website Links in YouTube Videos”, and, while I've done a decent bit of video in various contexts over the years, this is not something I've even thought to do (well, outside the context of a project I worked on with the WireWax platform). The next deals with a “Behavioral Email Logic Diagram”, which, given that I've done precious little email marketing, is not surprisingly “new to me” … Martin says:

Planning the BEL is the most important and most difficult step of these programs. To create a BEL, you first need to define the core message content of each email you plan to send. You don't have to develop finished creative executions – you just need to know the core content each email will include. Then you hypothesize what a prospect's behavioral pattern is telling you, based on how the person moves through the BEL.
He describes a client program where they had 1,600 email prospects, and managed to filter that down into 249 “warm prospects”, and 12 “whose behaviors indicated they were ready to buy”. Speaking of email campaigns, the next bookmark I had is at the place where he talks about “proper URL naming” and Google Tags … which he shows how to set up and how to get detailed “click reports” from using these.

Of course, the part of the book that I had the most resonance with was the content creation part … and this was where I had the most bits of paper marking pages. He starts out here with the idea of “Right Sized Content”:

The RSC concept is based on matching the quality of your content, in terms of production quality and cost, to the content need you are filling. Simply put, a Facebook video doesn't need to be shot or produced at the same quality level as a television commercial. The digital world has trained the buyer to accept – or, in some instances, desire – lower-quality content. In fact, overproduced content often can be just as ineffective as underproduced content.
Part of this is further framed into what he calls “Cornerstone Content” and “Cobblestones”, the former being “big pieces … such as white papers, major presentations, and eBooks”, with the latter being “easily distributable” bits of these. The chapters here deal with Video, Photography, Audio, Text, and live/recorded Webinars & Tutorials.

In the Video discussion he goes into details on “Desktop Video Editing” … I have, regrettably, never moved beyond Windows Movie Maker (not horrible, but not what I'd hope to be working with), so I found his suggestions here of particular interest (even though he's an Apple “true believer”, and I'm not). He also lays out various levels of set-ups for doing podcasts and webinars, which may be very useful if I ever get around to creating programs using these. One interesting thing he talks about is using Dragon on his phone to write, with his getting in about 1,000 words on his 15-minute commute. I've actually passed along that suggestion to a couple of people who have a hard time sitting down to craft blog posts!

He goes down a bit of a rabbit hole in the photography section, with something called the “Gestalt Principle” which starts with a duck/rabbit graphic as an illustration of how people can see completely different things in a single image … and you will always default to seeing the image as you first saw it …

The Gestalt Principle tells us that the deconstruction of a visual message occurs at the point of reception. The decoding of an image's meaning happens during the buyer's decoding process versus your encoding process – where you decide that the image you're using is a duck versus a rabbit.
Obviously, the duck/rabbit dichotomy is not a particularly applicable case, but he then details how he did research on images of “escape” and how images got sorted to match that concept were vastly different between what one might think were fairly close coteries: married adults with or without children. What you select as images might totally miss one (or both) groups!

I guess I can't do a review of this book without touching on the concept of propinquity that the author is quite enamored of.

marketing propinquity results from increased interactions between a prospective customer and a brand or company … Two types of marketing propinquity exist: physical and psychological. The first, physical, also has two dimensions: time and place. The latter is strictly a subjective measure to the prospective customer. It's harder to formally define, but I think it's more powerful.
In this he contrasts classic “Top-Of-Mind Awareness” (TOMA) with what he posits to be TOMP – top-of-mind preference. There's a whole system he builds on this with a “propinquity map” that defines a “home base” and various external points.

Obviously, there is a lot of material in The Invisible Sale, which is interesting, and assortedly applicable, depending on how close you are to the sales function. I really wish I had gotten around to reading this when I first received it, as it's a very useful book … but there was that “sale” thing that spooked me. This, being a relatively recent release, is still in print, and so could well be sitting at an actual bookstore that carries business books, but the online guys have it at about 20% off of its (fairly steep) cover price. Oddly, copies don't seem to have filtered down into the “used” channels in any great quantity, and there are (as of this writing) no significant deals to be found there. Again, this is one of those “your mileage may vary” recommendations … the book is a fairly fun read, and a bit of a “firehose” of information, with some fascinating new-ish concepts being bandied about … but it is targeted to sales, and depending on how that works for you pretty much equates to what you'll get out of it

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Saturday, May 28th, 2016
11:40 pm
From one tormented moment ... to the next
One of the effects of being out of work for seven years (and the rejection implicit in having applied to 2,000-3,000 jobs in that time with only a mere handful of serious interviews resulting from that herculean effort), is that I struggle with depression … a lot. Of course, another effect of not being in a job is not having a paycheck, so my options for finding help with said depression are somewhat limited. Over the past year or so I've been going to DBSA meetings, which are sort of like group therapy sessions, but (generally speaking) without a therapist (yeah, it's a bit like “the inmates running the asylum”). The subject of this review is a book that was enthusiastically recommended by the folks who referee one of the groups I attended: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison.

Now, Ms. Jamison is a clinical psychologist, a Professor of Psychiatry at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, and co-author of the “standard medical text” Manic-Depressive Illness, so I figured that An Unquiet Mind would be a book discussing depression, etc. But, no. This is an autobiography focusing on the author's OWN struggles with what is currently labeled as “bipolar disorder”. I don't know why, specifically, this confused me … but I guess I was anticipating that somebody might have mentioned (amid all the praise for the book) that it was “one woman's struggle” with the disease, even if from a standpoint of being on the leading expert on the disease, rather than presenting it as some definitive text on the subject.

This review may end up being a good deal less “in depth” that I would like it, largely due to it being an intensely personal tale of Jamison's life, with narrative arcs and illustrative details that are, if not “TMI”, hard to generalize from, as they're intrinsically interwoven with her individual experiences. Early on here she gives the broad strokes:

      For as long as I can remember I was frighteningly, although often wonderfully, beholden to moods. Intensely emotional as a child, mercurial as a young girl, first severely depressed as an adolescent, and then unrelentingly caught up in the cycles of manic-depressive illness by the time I began my professional life, I became, both by necessity and intellectual inclination, a student of moods. It has been the only way I know to understand, indeed to accept, the illness I have; it also has been the only way I know to try to make a difference in the lives of others who also suffer from mood disorders. The disease that has, on several occasions, nearly killed me does kill tens of thousands of people every year …
Although she had, as detailed in the above, been “of the type” for most of her life, it wasn't until her late 20's (“Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles”) that the disease hit her full force.

Again, this is a very personal book, and while the particulars are certainly of interest in context, extracting them here seems awfully random. The author was a “military brat”, her father being a meteorologist with the Air Force, and her childhood was spent in that rather idiosyncratic environment, reinforced by her D.A.R. mother's appreciations of the social aspects involved. One of the factoids that is repeatedly raised here is that manic-depression/bi-polar disorder is frequently, if not predictably, found within families, and (although it was rarely diagnosed in previous generations) her father pretty clearly (from the difficulties of later years) had the disease.

When she was headed to high school, her father left the military, and took a position with the Rand Corporation out in California. This threw Jamison out of the familiar settings of the peripatetic military lifestyle, and into the less structured environment of Los Angeles. She survived high school, and reluctantly (she'd always planned on going to University of Chicago) enrolled in UCLA.

I have no reason to doubt the overall veracity of this book (unlike many others I've reviewed), but I found myself waxing incredulous at several points in the parts discussing her academic career, both as a student, and as she climbed the professorial ladder. If things were as bad as she paints them here, how could she have completed her college work? I assume that she is selecting material to discuss based on how it illustrates her disease, and avoiding the less “remarkable” parts, but reading through this made it hard to believe that she managed to get through college, get advanced degrees, do competent work, get tenure, etc. Sure, there were manic phases when she could move mountains, but the over-all tone of her academic life (and, OK, what do I know about the realities of those “ivory towers”?) sounded like something that would have resulted in a business person having long ugly chats with HR.

One of the pivotal issues in the book is that, for a very long time, Jamison was refusing to medicate. I realize that many of the “popular drugs” for depression, etc. can be quite debilitating (I had a few prescribed for me a decade or so back, and each was worse than the last, and I finally decided that I'd rather be miserable than various degrees of zombified), but she was a professional in the field, and should have known that she should have been on meds.

      I reaped a bitter harvest from my own refusal to take lithium on a consistent basis. A floridly psychotic mania was followed, inevitably, by a long and lacerating, black, suicidal depression; it lasted more than a year and a half. From the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed at night, I was unbearably miserable and seemingly incapable of any kind of joy or enthusiasm. Everything – every thought, word, movement – was an effort. Everything that once was sparkling now was flat. I seemed to myself to be dull, boring, inadequate, thick brained, unlit, unresponsive, chill skinned, bloodless, and sparrow drab. I doubted, completely, my ability to do anything well. It seemed as though my mind had slowed down and burned out to the point of being virtually useless. The wretched, convoluted, and pathetically confused mass of gray worked only well enough to torment me with a dreary litany of my inadequacies and shortcomings in character, and to taunt me with the total, the desperate, hopelessness of it all.
Thankfully, I only suffer from “situational” depression (a form of PTSD, I'm told), but that sounds awfully familiar to me – waking up to that sort of state several times a week. One thing that I found interesting here (and which I've also gotten a sense of from various people at DBSA meetings), is how bad the flip side of depression (“floridly psychotic mania” in the above) can be. For somebody whose college nickname was “manic”, I never had a clue that for some folks “being manic” wasn't just about being up for days at a time cranking out awesome projects … and Jamison details some of these behaviors (which frequently involve massive spending sprees on things that no rational person would think was a good idea) which certainly parallel the horror stories I've heard in group.

Despite the difficulties generated by the manic phases (luckily for the author, her brother was able to “fix” her financial issues from these episodes) and the nightmares of the the depressive times (in which she regularly contemplated, and on occasion attempted, suicide), Jamison ends up having a rather sterling academic career, including co-“writing the book” on her disorder. However, her private life was not so lucky, as her initial (seemingly wonderful) marriage was destroyed by her disease, and she ended up having a series of other relationships which she goes into here … including one really tragic connection which was cut short by the sudden heart-attack death of her (young, athletic) intended (however, at that point she was religiously taking her lithium, and did not have a total crash in the wake of it).

While An Unquiet Mind was not the book that I thought I was getting into, it certainly was an interesting (if somewhat voyeuristic) read, and broadly illuminating on the subject of manic-depression / bi-polar disorder. It is, however, not a particularly comfortable read, and I don't think that's just from the perspective of somebody dealing with depression … but that could also be due to my having expected something more “clinical” here than the personal outpouring that this is.

This has been out for 20 years at this point, and is still in print (in the paperback edition), being a “classic” in its niche, so you should be able to get a copy from your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, although the on-line big boys have it at a substantial (40% off at this writing) discount. You can also find “very good” copies in the used channel for as little as 1¢ (four bucks with shipping), if you want to go for maximum affordability. I found a good deal of what the author presents in here of use, but (as noted) it wasn't the sort of book I was expecting, so my enthusiasm isn't quite up to that of the folks who had suggested my getting it. I guess if you know going in it's an autobiographical look at one (top professional in the field) woman's struggle with this disease, you won't be trying to extract the sort of info I was hoping for here … and probably get more out of it.

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Friday, May 27th, 2016
8:34 am
"All day on channel nine"?
This one's been lingering in my to-be-read piles for quite a while, and I really am not sure when it was that I picked it up. I'm pretty sure it was a dollar store acquisition of the “oh that looks like it might be interesting” sort, and with only a buck invested in it, having no particular urgency to get into it. However, I was in a point in my reading where something along the lines of this seemed an appealing thing to throw into the mix, so I got into it.

As is frequently the case with dollar store books, I didn't have much of an expectation of what this was going to be like, and it wasn't exactly how I was imagining it. Listen To This was written by Alex Ross, who has been the music critic for The New Yorker for the past 20 years, and had come to them from a similar position with the New York Times, which are pretty impressive credentials (albeit ones that hadn't gotten him on my radar previous to reading the book). This is primarily a collection of pieces written for The New Yorker from 1997 through 2008 (the book came out in 2010), but his notes indicate that most of the 19 chapters are “based” on those articles, but are expanded and edited here, so it's not just a “best of” collection of his magazine work.

Aside from being a look at various musical subjects, there doesn't seem to much of a “theme” here, Ross doesn't seem to have a particular axe to grind, nor does he press any specific style. Instead, this reads like a collection of individual explorations into a wide range of topics. Of course, this makes it a bit of a challenge to whip up a review that gives attention to everything in here … but I'll try to give you a good sense of it.

The first chapter starts out with a look at the author's relationship with music. It's a bit of a shocker to hear from somebody born as recently as 1968 that: “I am a white American male who listened to nothing but classical music until the age of twenty.” (especially as I started my own rock record collection at age 6). He continues his self-confession with: “By high school a terrible truth had dawned: I was the only person my age who liked this stuff.”, and adds a cringe-worthy note that following having been dragged off to see Pink Floyd's The Wall movie, his one take-away seemed to be “that one passage sounded Mahlerian”. His baptism into rock came in college when he would hang out at the school's radio station, with a bunch of “cerebral punk rockers”, who introduced him to Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. He uses this personal story line as a basis of taking a historical look at what was popular in music in different times, and uses that to reflect on the place of classical music in today's culture.

From there he moves into a piece called “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues: Bass Lines of Music History” which starts in 16th century Spain with “the chacona, a sexily swirling dance that hypnotized all who heard it”, moves back to the middle ages, and the evolution of musical expressions of melancholy and “laments”. This is the first place where the author starts to lose me, as I'm technically fairly musically illiterate, and he picks apart the music in terms and contexts that I just don't have any way to follow. He does, however track these elements into the blues, and ultimately into modern popular music, from the Mary Poppins soundtrack to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and many others on the way to Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused … yes, really.

He next has a look at music recording, which he argues changed music from its earliest use. The famed John Philip Sousa is quoted as testifying before Congress in 1906 that “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country” (in that nobody will make their own music if they can just play a recording), and the author traces out the changes in how orchestras perform, with various national styles on particular instruments falling away to the one most amenable to the recording technology of the day.

This is followed by an interesting look at Mozart, both personally, and his musical development. The next chapter (somewhat jarringly) moves into a piece about the band Radiohead, and the book then subsequently shifts to a discussion of the Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and other institutions. From here it shifts back to another classic name, this time Schubert, and then again to a modern act in Björk. At this point the author shifts to a wider stage, and considers classical music in China, particularly as seen around the time of the Beijing Olympics, which he appears to have been covering. He stays on the road in the next chapter, and visits Alaska and idiosyncratic composer John Luther Adams who tries to live “outside culture” in that huge state's sparsely-populated interior. Next it's back to a familiar name, with the life, music, and the performance/recording history of Giuseppe Verdi, including reminiscences of where Ross had heard performances of his music (from New York's Central park to Genoa, Italy). Although the book is not broken into one of its sections here, the next piece, about the St. Lawrence Quartet, seems to close out this part of the book, as the next chapters seem to have a bit different tone.

The shift happens (for me, at least) when he gets to the “Edges of Pop”, where he covers a disparate group of acts, from drag-themed Kiki and Herb, to jazz figure Cecil Taylor being compared with Sonic Youth, a brief nod to Frank Sinatra, and then into a look at Kurt Cobain … quite a mix for one chapter. This then shifts to a chapter on the sorry state of musical education in the U.S., and those who are trying to fix what can be fixed given the low priority the Arts have in that sphere in recent decades. Speaking of musical education, I don't believe I'd ever heard of the next subject, described as “The Voice of the Century”, Marian Anderson, whose defining moment seems to have been a 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – a venue arranged by Eleanor Roosevelt after the DAR wouldn't let a black woman perform at Constitution Hall (this episode also plays a significant role in part of another book that I'm currently reading). This is followed by what seemed to be a rather odd look at a summer gathering in Vermont called Marlboro Music (held at the tiny college of the same name – which comes from the local town, not the cigarette brand), and its director Mitsuko Uchida … this is a retreat that is much sought after, with a tiny fraction of those applying getting accepted to attend.

I'm not clear on why the book's three sections are set up the way they are, but the last three chapters are in the third part of the book. The first of these is the author following Bob Dylan to various performances, from big downtown arenas to rural agricultural fairs, and considering the strange journey that Dylan's been on. Next is a brief chapter on the opera singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, which, while interesting in its details sort of missed me in terms of having a point. Finally, the book goes back to a classical composer, in this case Brahms … not exactly a “big finish” for the book.

One useful (and still active) aspect to Listen To This is the companion site with pictures, videos, audio files and other add-ons that I wish I'd have encountered when actually reading through this (I was frequently looking things referenced in the text up via YouTube on my phone), the URL is here if you want to check that out. This is one of the best companion sites I've encountered, and I highly recommend using it in conjunction with the book as you go through it (although it's pretty informative in and of itself – kudos to whoever developed that, if not the author!).

While the hardcover of this appears to be out of print (new copies can be had for under $5 via the new/used guys), the paperback is still available, so should be something you could get from your local brick & mortar book vendor. While it's not exactly “my thing”, the subjects of Ross' pieces were varied enough that it kept being interesting, and there's plenty there to recommend it just on a “learning stuff I didn't know” basis.

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Thursday, May 26th, 2016
8:43 am
One of the greats ...
This was another Dollar Store find … I was down in Urbana (home of the University of Illinois) to pick up my engineering student daughter at the end of her semester, and we swung by to grab a couple of things “for the road”. I, of course, had to check out the book section and found five books of interest (oddly, mostly on a “culinary” theme). I don't know how these all showed up there, and, in particular, the subject of this review – Auguste Escoffier's Memories of My Life – seemed strangely out of place. Not only is this a large-format hardcover, but it's also a 1996 first edition … which means that it had been kicking around for twenty years. Now, I'm used to getting “vintage” books at things like the Newberry Library book fair, or box sales at Open Books, but those are typically there via estate liquidations (i.e. “dead people's books”), and this seems to have been in various retail channels for a long time (including stickers three deep over the dust jacket's original UPC).

As I no doubt have mentioned, I grew up in the orbit of the food biz, and the name Escoffier was familiar in its own right, but was bandied about a good deal at home, as my Mother had been a long-time member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, and a recipient of their “Dames of Distinction” award. Needless to say, seeing Escoffier's autobiography sitting there for a buck was NOT something I was going to take a pass on!

As with most dollar store finds, this was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, with my not having any particular expectations going in, but I sort of anticipated a bit of a dry “book of its time”. While Escoffier had been putting together a memoir intended for the cooking profession, this was assembled from a lot of additional materials that his family had collected following his death (at age 88) in 1935. The book as it stands, however, is based on a far more recent translation of these materials by a great-granddaughter, Laurence Escoffier, and I'm thinking that she imbued the English version with more than a soupçon of modern tone, making this a far easier read than it might have been.

Escoffier was born in 1846 on the Mediterranean coast of France, between Cannes and Nice, and at 13 he was instructed that he was to be a cook at his uncle's restaurant in the latter. He took to this as a discipline, and from his earliest years (barely six months into his training, he came up with a design for serving platters that would eventually be produced by Christofle as “Escoffier Plates”) he was dedicated to the craft. He writes of his focus:

      My natural curiosity also encouraged me to look for anything that could develop and embellish the art of our national cuisine. My aim was twofold: to increase awareness abroad of French products and of ways to use them.
By the age of 19, he had found his way (through various recommendations) to Paris, and worked at Le Petit Moulin Rouge, where he stayed for five years prior to his being called up for the Franco-Prussian war, and some subsequent military cooking. There are fascinating stories of his work at this time, as French military officers were typically nobility, and had their own staffs, including chefs. At one time his part of the army is captured and spent some time as prisoners of war in Germany (this comes back as an uncomfortable point when he later hosts the Kaiser). Upon his return to Paris, he becomes the head chef at Le Petit Moulin Rouge, then at a series of other postings, eventually ending up at the Grand Hôtel in Monte Carlo, where he meets hotelier César Ritz, and becomes his go-to Chef for major projects such as the Savoy Hotel and later the Carlton Hotel in London, where he creates some of his most famous dishes.

A lot of the book focuses on specific events and dinners produced for “big names” over the years, including menus, and the occasional recipe. There are photo pages that include reproductions of some of these (very ornate) menus, and pictures of a few of the “notables” and venues discussed. Two things that are basic in today's restaurant world were introduced back then: one, the prix fixe menu, and the other being service “à la russe”. In discussing his book for chefs, the Guide Culinaire, which he dedicates to his friend Urbain Dubois, he notes:

      One of Dubois' greatest contributions was the important role he played in the growing use of the so-called service à la russe, that is to say the presentation of dishes one after the other, rather than the service à la française that was then popular, with all dishes being presented together at the beginning of the meal.
One of the most shocking (from the modern perspective) aspects of these menus is how extensive they are … there is a section here where Escoffier looks back to a time when things were even more extravagant … no doubt reflecting the excesses of the nobility:

      Current fashion and habits are such that one can only spend one hour, or an hour and a half, at any single meal.
      For the last thirty years, even the most substantial menus have generally been made up of only one or two soups, an hors d'oeuvre (hot or cold), a fish, two entrées, a roast, a cold meat, a salad, one or two accompanying vegetables, two hot or cold sweets, and various desserts.
      In the old days, depending on the importance of the host and the number of his invited guests, the expected menu consisted of an incredible number of dishes that we can hardly imagine today … between thirty and sixty dishes, not to mention the desserts, which were often just as numerous.
Needless to say, I find it amusing that what his menus encompass are things that “we can hardly imagine today”, let alone those of “the old days”! Another subject I found interesting was the extensive use of truffles (the fungus, not the chocolate). Now, I like truffles as well as (or more than) any other gourmand, so I was drawn to this side note (by the translator?) on these:

Truffles reached their apogee in France in the nineteenth century when nearly every grand meal featured at least one dish that was bejeweled with the prized black diamond. Such liberal use of truffles today is impractical, not only because of their price but also because of diminished supplies. In 1892 two thousand tons of truffles were harvested in France; today only 25 to 150 tons are gathered annually.
As a fan of the truffle, it's a sad thing to think that we only have a tiny fraction of them available compared to Escoffier's heyday (and there certainly has been a lot of effort and money dedicated to finding ways to cultivate truffles, beyond planting spore-innoculated saplings and waiting a decade to see if any fungus forms on their roots).

Oh, and while there are recipes here, they are definitely targeted to a professional kitchen's staff, and not to the home cook. There are some that one might successfully produce at home (such as the famous La Pêche Melba, probably minus the carved ice swan it's supposed to be served in, commemorating the opera singer's appearance in Wagner's Lohengrin that enchanted Escoffier), but most involve multiple pre-prepped sauces, etc., and are frequently addressing quantities like “add about 50 frog legs that have previously been washed, drained on a towel, and rolled in flour” that might not be practical for the home cook.

The book continues through Escoffier's extensive career, in France, London, on a number of ocean liners, and at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. His recounting of events of the First World War as “seen from London” is also interesting, and that chapter starts out with another side note which tells of a fascinating, if peripheral, historical confluence:

On the night Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were dining at the Carlton. Ho Chi Minh, the future communist leader of North Vietnam, was working in Escoffier's kitchen preparing vegetables.
The narrative goes up to 1930, five years before his death, and I guess his family decided to just let it go at that. There is an interesting timeline in the back, which tracks the highlights of his life against world and (generally unrelated to anything in the book) American events, plus a very useful glossary, and some other bits and pieces (photos of letters, brief biographies of people important in his life, etc.) as well.

Escoffier's Memories of My Life appears to be long out of print (again, I'm amazed to have found this where I did), but “very good” copies are available for under ten bucks on the new/used channels of the on-line big boys. If you have an interest in fine dining, the restaurant biz, or might be wanting to learn about a notable man who rose from nothing to be lionized by his nation and the world, this is something you might well want to track down.

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Sunday, April 24th, 2016
11:30 pm
Glad THAT'S over with ...
I bought this book used a very long time ago, perhaps a decade, perhaps longer, and it's sat there on various to-be-read shelves, in to-be-read boxes, and amid to-be-read stacks of books, somehow untouchable. Why? It's freak'n 750 pages long, like 3 normal books. Plus, it's math, and as much as I like physics, I'm always hesitant to delve into too much math because my mental processing does not lend itself to the necessary discipline (or even bondage … waka, waka, waka). However, this was a “big deal” among circles I was at least in contact with (although it didn't come out until I was past college). Much as I held Lombard for years as an example of a suburban wasteland (eventually finding myself having to spend 2.5 hours each way on public transit commutes to a writing job out there for a period of time), this was something of a bête noire in terms of a “mountain too high to climb” reading project – a commitment that would no doubt totally screw up my reading patterns.

And it was.

I started reading Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid at the beginning of January, and by mid-April, I wasn't quite half-way done. However, earlier this week I went on a journey that, over a 35-hour period, had me on a bus for 18 hours and hanging out waiting for a bus for another 8 hours, time that I largely devoted to trying to knock this beast down. I did not succeed in finishing it on my trip, but got close enough that I was able triage out enough “in between” times this week to get it read.

I wish I could say it was worth it, but I found this quite frustrating, on a number of levels. First of all, and this is (obviously) “on me”, I have never “gotten” music aside from as a listener, no matter how many attempts I've made, the whole “music theory” stuff just flies by me … and, as one would guess from the title, music (aka the “Bach” parts here) is about a third of the basis of the book. I am also (and, no doubt, relatedly) not particularly good with “pure logic”, something that the mathematician Hofstadter seems to think is a delightful game that all of his readers would love to play with … and invites said readers to “work out” various extremely vague (to me) structures and puzzles in bizarre (again, to me) codings (see pic at right for an example). What's worse is that the author tends to define his system of symbols once and then apparently assumes that “you've got it” and will go back to using it hundreds of pages later without any “catching us up” on it, even as little as “name checking” abbreviations like TNT when they crop up a book length past when they're initially defined (that's Typographic Number Theory, if you were wondering).

The book rotates between three different types of presentation. The most identifying one of these, and no doubt what got the book its fame, is what is referenced in a sub-sub-title added by its publisher: A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll … discussions between various characters, beginning with Achilles and a Tortoise, with added others such as a Crab, a Sloth, and ultimately up to Hofstadter himself. As anybody who reads my reviews regularly will realize, I “have issues” with “teaching stories”, and these aren't even necessary (although being about a third of the book) features, having more the character of trying to present the material in a “cute” way that allowed the author to mess about with framing the logical questions being discussed in the other sections in a “Lewis Carroll” inspired format. Across the course of the book I tended to find these parts irritating rather than illuminating, but I am willing to cede the point that “your mileage may vary” on this, and that it could well be a “it's me” rather than “it's the book” here.

The other two “types” are where the author is going through the various symbolic systems (he has several, most of which are “cutesy” in that they're structured to reflect, as initials, to other elements in the material), which generally made no sense to me at all (and, again, this is likely due to my disconnect with that sort of symbolic thinking). And, finally, the parts where he's actually EXPLAINING what the book's about … like a regular book on a subject. Frankly, were the book just this latter material, I would have probably quite liked the book … which might have been only 350 pages or so of lucid prose. But, noooooo.

That “core conceptual arc” would have been fascinating, as it addresses a lot of intriguing issues on logic, consciousness, and artificial intelligence, but it's so munged up with the other stuff that it's rather difficult to follow. I'll try to pull out some of the more cogent bits here to give a sense of where this goes.

First of all, there's this Gödel guy … Kurt Gödel was a German mathematician whose “discovery involves the translation of an ancient paradox in philosophy into mathematical terms. That paradox is the so-called Epimenides paradox which is at its base the statement “This statement is false.”. This is, perhaps, the least convoluted part of it. Hofstadter goes on to say:

The Epimenides paradox is a one-step Strange Loop … but how {sic} does it have to do with mathematics? That is what Gödel discovered. His idea was to use mathematical reasoning in exploring mathematical reasoning itself. The notion of making mathematics “introspective” proved to be enormously powerful, and perhaps its richest implication was the one Gödel found: Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. What the Theorem states and how it is proved are two different things. We shall discuss both in quite some detail in this book. …

Gödel's Theorem appears as Proposition VI in his 1931 paper “On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I.” …
here is a paraphrase …
All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include undecidable propositions.
The author refers to that last line as “the pearl” and goes on for several hundred pages exploring it, in the various approaches detailed above.

Of course, none of this is particularly straight-forward … the concepts, based on Gödel's mathematics, get dragged through the complex recursive musical structures of Bach's multi-voiced fugues, etc. (sometimes in excruciating detail), as well as being cast in reflections of Escher's convoluted graphics (which the characters in the dialog parts spend a good deal of time popping in and out of – acting out aspects of the mathematics in doing so), and getting the “Lewis Carroll” treatment at every hand, which seemed to more muddy the waters than anything. There are some truly fascinating bits here, like the discussion on translation, looking at approaches taken to convert Dostoevsky to English, or Jabberwocky into French and German … or how viruses use DNA to attack cells … but these tend to stand out because they're self-contained and not bounced around between conceptual frames!

One of the topics examined across the book is consciousness in humans and the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence. Obviously a book that came out in 1979 has a whole different perspective on computers than a reader approaching the information in 2016. At the time of its writing, the first models of the Apple, Atari, Commodore, TRS-80, etc. were out, but most of what is discussed here is far more primitive. On one hand, this is probably a good thing, as it keeps the discussion largely in the theoretical/mathematical side, but it's somewhat painful to read, when you realize that the capabilities of machines back then were so minimal that it's hard to even frame a comparison to current tech.

Needless to say, there's so much stuff going on in here, that it's a challenge to even try to summarize in a couple of thousand words. I was somewhat surprised that this eventually rolled around to something of an existential essay by the end of the book. There was a particularly cogent section called “Strange Loops as the Crux of Consciousness” that I think is worth taking a look at here:

      My belief is that the explanations of “emergent” phenomena in our brains – for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will – are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing “resonance” between different levels … The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.

      In order to deal with the full richness of the brain/mind system we will have to be able to slip between levels comfortably. Moreover, we will have to admit various types of “causality”: ways in which an event at one level of description can “cause” events at other levels to happen. Sometimes event A will be said to “cause” event B simply for the reason that the one is a translation, on another level of description, of the other. Sometimes “cause” will have its usual meaning: physical causality. Both types of causality – and perhaps some more – will have to be admitted in any examination of mind, for we will have to admit causes that propagate both upwards and downwards in the Tangled Hierarchy of mentality, just as in the Central Dogmap.
Oh, that last thing there … it's typical of a lot of stuff happening in the book, Hofstadter takes Crick's “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology”, spins out his own “version”of it as a “Central Dogma of Mathematical Logic”, and “maps” them against each other as the “Central Dogmap” … and, trust me, that's not the “worst” of the groaners that are in here – he weaves puns through the core structures of a lot of the key concepts here that, honestly, don't add anything to the coherence of the presentation (perhaps, as a college professor, the author had gotten into the habit of putting this sort of stuff into class materials to keep his students involved).

Again, I would have both enjoyed and gotten more out Gödel, Escher, Bach had it been cut down to the expository parts, with maybe some sub-sections dealing with the math/logic behind the assorted theoretical concepts involved. However, it's a “classic” in its own way (Amazon has it listed as the #1 best-seller in the “Artificial Intelligence and Semantics” category, for whatever that's worth), and I'm glad to have gotten it moved from the to-be-read limbo into the proverbial rear-view mirror. If you feel like you want to take up the challenge that this book represents, it can be had in various formats … used copies of the 1979 and 1989 editions are available, and the 1999 edition is still in print. Oddly, the used copies of the older editions (this may be a “text book” thing happening) aren't particularly cheap, and you'd only be saving a bit (with shipping) vs. the nearly half-off pricing of the new book.

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