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

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

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

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

- - -

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 seven volumes available, 2015 on back through 2009, 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.
Power By Ringsurf

This blog is on the resource listing!

Sunday, October 16th, 2016
9:15 am
The right side of the airwaves ...
I don't “do radio”, so Rush Limbaugh isn't on my radar the way he could be. I found his TV show back in the Klinton years amusing, but since he's been “audio only”, I've not heard him in ages. I did, however, find Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One on the dollar store shelves a couple of years back, and it's been sitting in my “to be read” piles since. A few weeks ago I was looking for the next book to slot into my active reading rotation, and noticed that the author of this was the same Zev Chafets that wrote that Roger Ailes bio that I reviewed last month, which I'd enjoyed, so figured I'd have a go at this.

I have to admit, going in, that the little bookmarks that I put into what I'm reading (and are generally a good indicator of my engagement with a book) are few and far between here. As quotable as Rush may be on his show, the story of his life is considerably less so (or at least from my take on it). This volume is more a straight biography of the man than a celebration of his material, so focuses more on his trials and tribulations (and, to some extent “feet of clay”), than being a rah-rah session for “dittoheads”.

There was, however, quite a lot of stuff in here that I didn't know about the man, that I might very well have were I a “regular listener”, first and foremost of which is the factoid that he has been, for quite a long time, for all intents and purposes deaf. I'm guessing that this is something that his on-going audience knows, but it was somewhat of a shock to read, as it hadn't filtered down to me, despite being a regular consumer of on-line conservative punditry. Go figure.

The other piece of this that I found somewhat odd was that, until late in his career, Limbaugh was not particularly political. The book describes how his father (and other relatives) were, but not Rush. His goal, from a quite early age, was to succeed in radio, and he didn't become the conservative icon that he is until that had become the key element to “his shtick” on-air … which does lead one to wonder just how dedicated to the doctrine he is (a question that at least gets danced around a bit here).

It's not that he didn't have any interest in conservative political thought, there is a touching bit here regarding (one of my childhood heroes) William F. Buckley and National Review:

… Limbaugh had once read a book by Buckley that he had found in his father's library, and he sometimes watched Firing Line. Rush even did a very funny imitation of Buckley's mellifluous, multisyllabic English. But it wasn't until Limbaugh began doing political satire full-time that he actually began reading National Review on a regular basis.
      “I thought you had to be invited to read it,” he said in an emotional broadcast on the day Buckley died. “I thought there was a select group of people that were entitled to be a part of that. I'd never seen it on a newsstand. I had never seen it anywhere at anybody's house.
That's a clear view of how far from the political bubble he had lived (as I'd been a subscriber to N.R. all my teen years!), and he thought the only way to get the magazine was to contact it and ask to be allowed to subscribe. His moving to the nationally syndicated show changed that, and he was soon invited into WFB's inner circle – Buckley was evidently a fan, and eventually he became something of a father figure to Rush.

Having at one point aspired to a career in radio myself, much of Rush's early employment arc was rather painful to read. He went from being a high-school DJ to a brief stint in college, to assorted small stations in secondary markets, and a predictable string of firings … that just being the nature of the business. For a while he'd stepped away from radio and went to work for the marketing department of the Kansas City Royals, where he ended up forging a somewhat improbable lifetime friendship with Royals star George Brett. While with the Royals, Rush went through two marriages, and by the time he was fired, “shock radio” was starting to fill the airwaves. Larry Lujack (of WLS in Chicago), Don Imus, and Howard Stern were pioneering this niche, as well as (on the West Coast), Morton Downey Jr. … who was caustic enough to get fired just at the right time. Rush was hired by a guy who'd worked at a station he'd previously been at to replace Downey on the Sacramento station where he'd been based … on the theory that Rush would be edgy, but not as inflammatory. Of course, Limbaugh's new-found conservative voice made the California liberals nuts, and that drove his ratings. This got the attention of Ed McLaughlin, former head of ABC radio, who worked a deal to get Rush out of his Sacramento contract and on the air in New York in 1988, and two months later his syndicated national program debuted with fifty-six stations. Chafets notes what drove his success: “His innovation was to bring top-40 radio's energy to political issues …” and “A lot of what makes Limbaugh's show fun is his irreverence toward subjects that conservatives discuss, in public, with extreme reverence or not at all.”, and almost immediately Rush was making serious money. However, he remained an outsider. What he wanted most in life was to be accepted into the “media world”, to be “one of them”, but because of the ultra-leftist orientation of the New York media environment, he was – despite his extreme success – mocked and exiled by the foot-soldiers of the Progressive culture wars … and on some level the acceptance he had from the likes of Bill Buckley and other conservative icons (including Ronald Regan) still wasn't enough to salve that hurt.

Like in the Ailes book, Chafets weaves his experiences in working on the book throughout. He notes that many of Rush's family and friends were quite hesitant to talk with him – with at least one being convinced that if he talked to this guy from the New York Times, he was sure to be depicted as some Neanderthal and/or idiot … and at one point he mentions a question he'd put to Rush about his (massive) contract: “… it sounded to him like a hostile question, a Democrat question …”, so the distrust of everything on the Left was pretty ingrained. This makes his exultation at the demise of the laughable Leftist “Air America” more understandable:

Less than two years after {Air America's} grand launch it filed for bankruptcy protection. Limbaugh celebrated the fall, calling Air America, “an embarrassing, blithering, total bomb-out of a failure.” Liberals, he said, can't compete in the open marketplace of ideas, because they don't really want to spell out what they actually believe. “There's no hiding on talk radio,” he said, “When your ideas sound stupid, it's out there to be exposed for one and all …”
Chafets has a very insightful look at the matrix in which Rush operates, in terms of the media establishments, and although it's a couple of paragraphs, I figured it was to-the-point enough to include here:

      If Limbaugh had been all bombast, his act wouldn't have lasted long. But he proved to be not just a great broadcaster but a very astute media critic. He realized that the mainstream media's greatest vulnerability was high-handed obtuseness. News organizations acted as though their biases and interests – financial, political, and personal – were invisible to the public. Limbaugh pointed out, in the clearest possible way, that the Emperor's clothes were all tailored in the same shop, according to the same specifications, and he let his listeners in on why and how.
      This was embarrassing, of course. Journalists like to think of themselves as independent thinkers and speakers of “truth to power.” In fact, they work for big organizations and, like organization people everywhere, they toe the company line. To soften this reality, editors and reporters are almost uniformly recruited from a pool of like-minded people. They don't need to be explicitly told what to cover or how, any more than the Pope needs to send out memos to his cardinals about abortion. Here and there you can find editors and reporters with a certain degree of independence, but they are rare. As for editorial writers, they have all the latitude of West Point cadets.
While the lock-step march of the Leftist MSM, and their political allies, presents an often insurmountable challenge to non-“Progressive” politicians (cf. the hugely skewed moderation of the Trump-Clinton debates), it did nothing but make Rush money. In fact, the Obama regime opted to “run against Rush”, all but coronating him as head of the Republican Party … which was not happy news for the actual head of the RNC at the time. While Rush took to this with a gusto, the Leftist media was in full assault mode, trying to belittle and dismiss Rush (while still insisting that he was “the Boss” of the party). This eventually got quite ugly with attacks on Limbaugh for his addiction to pain pills (that he eventually beat), as only the Left can “do ugly”.

This book came out in 2010, so it only got into the ramp-up of the last election cycle, but there is quite a bit about how Rush was playing in that (he “won” a Gallup poll of who was the most trustworthy conservative voice). There are also parts on his family life, a good deal on the above-mentioned challenges with his hearing (he has a call-taker that's a former court reporter, so she can transcribe what's being said by callers in real-time onto his monitor), and other assorted issues (his dalliance with the NFL – that got sabotaged by the usual suspects making the predictable and unjustified claims of “racism”).

Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One is still in print in the paperback edition, so you might be able to find it in brick-and-mortar book stores that don't discriminate against conservative voices (there are a lot of liberals who will throw a hissy fit at the very sight of Rush's visage on the cover, their panties suddenly twisting into sanity-reducing knots), but otherwise the on-line big boys have it … and the used guys have “like new” copies of the hardcover going for as little as a penny (plus shipping). If you're interested in Rush, the conservative movement, or in broadcasting in general, you'll likely find something worthwhile in this.

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Saturday, October 15th, 2016
12:10 pm
"You can't handle the truth!", or something ...
I'm a big fan of CreateSpace, and use it for putting out annual collections of print versions of these reviews, among other projects, but (as a former “real” publisher), I realize that there's a bit of a stigma about books coming out from that channel, as they're not “vetted”, and pretty much anybody with a PC can put out their scribblings there. I have, generally speaking, pooh-poohed much of this, but having Brien Foerster's Lost Ancient Technology Of Peru And Bolivia in hand, I can see where much of that criticism is coming from.

Now, some would take issue with the subject here, but I specifically bought the book (at full retail, no less) because I was interested in that … but I'm shocked at the lack of editing and design exhibited here. Frankly, I wish that people like the author of this would hire people like me to do editing and lay-out for their books. At various points in reading this I was wondering if he was using one of those voice-to-Kindle programs (as there were a couple of places where sound-alike words appeared, such as “services” appearing instead of the clearly-intended “surfaces” - something that would not have resulted from keyboard input, even with an over-eager spellcheck program running), and at other points wondering if this had been cobbled together via cut-and-paste from a web site (as the text occasionally refers to images that weren't there, or weren't in the “location” indicated). I also suspect that this had been generated for Kindle first and then converted to print – something that would explain the otherwise mystifying (and extremely irritating) lack of page numbers. Aside from these issues, there were also at least a dozen egregious typos that should have been caught by a spellcheck (such as stray extra letters in the middle of common words), as well as “editorial/style” issues of apparently randomly using assorted variations of the spelling on culture or site names. Again, the vast majority of these issues would have been solved by a once-over by an actual editor.

While the subject matter here is fascinating, this is largely a “picture book”, with nearly every page having some image from either the author's explorations at the sites in South America, or pictures obtained from the web (which the author – obviously acclimated to the habitually more “grey area” IP conventions of the Internet – assumes were copyright free because he got them from “free file sharing sites”). I will give Foerster this, however … he's certainly not soaking the readers, as this 200+ page 8.5x11” book is priced at only $9.95, which means he's barely making a profit (a whopping 30¢) on “expanded distribution” bookstore sales, and only clearing two bucks and change via Amazon … I guess if you want professional editing and lay-out you gotta pay more.

Anyway … that bit of kvetching over … to the book itself.

I have been fascinated by the theories of the many authors in the “vanished ancient culture” niche, John Anthony West, Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval, Robert Schoch, Charles Hapgood, Rand Flem-Ath, and others, and this is certainly in that stream – if not theoretically so, at least in presenting a lot of architectural artifacts as being best explained by it. As devoted readers of this space (there are some, aren't there?) know, I've been down to Peru a couple of times, and have been to a few of the sites covered here, so I've seen first-hand some of the amazing stonework that's down there, but nowhere near the extraordinary things that Foerster shows throughout this volume. A prime example is that cover picture, which is looking down a perfectly drilled-out tube cut through extremely hard rock. Today, we'd probably have to use a specially lubricated diamond-tipped corer to replicate this … when the “official timeline” advocates claim these were made (i.e. by the Inca), there was nothing available that would have been able to make that, or any of the assorted inverted corners carved into andesite, basalt, and granite stones in the more megalithic construction phases.

One of the things I don't believe I'd encountered previously that the author injects several places through the book is the “Mohs scale”, which is a ranking of hardness of materials (based on what can scratch what), and most of these megalithic stones are in the 6-7 range on that scale … which is telling when you notice that steel is only a 4-4.5 on that scale, with materials like copper, brass, and bronze (that were typical of Incan tools) being only around a 3 … not likely to be able to be able to make much of an impression at all on these building materials, let alone carve the very complex formations clearly evident at these sites.

And, this, of course, doesn't even begin to address how some of these massive megalithic sites, such as Sachsayhuaman (which I have visited), had blocks, nearly the size of a house and weighing hundreds of tons, that were transported from quarries some 35 miles away to the site – at a time when there were no suitable trees in the region that could be used for rollers (if that was even possible with stones that size). One of the most fascinating things here (that I'd likewise not previously encountered) was the concept of “previous ages” of the Hanan Pacha and the Uran Pacha (leading to our current Ukan Pacha, which is when the Inca were building), which, respectively, did the carving of living rock, and the building with megalithic forms. Using these three modes, Foerster is able to analyze the building phases of most of the ruins he visits, identifying the fairly evident different construction elements that are frequently seen one on top of the other.

Of course, one has to be willing to accept the possibility that there was an advanced global culture that existed more that twelve thousand years ago, which left its mark in very ancient, highly precise and/or massive constructions that can still be found in places like Peru and Bolivia, as well as examples such as the Osireion at Abydos in Egypt, or the thousand-ton megaliths found at the Baalbek complex in Lebanon. This culture would have thrived before the end of the last ice age, and was destroyed in a world-wide catastrophe likely caused by a major “solar proton event” with accompanying coronal mass ejection.

The author doesn't get too deep into that particular line of thought (the originators of the Hanan-Uran-Ukan Pacha model have some serious woo-woo in there – claiming that gravity was less in the distant past, etc.), but it is, in its broad strokes, quite a plausible frame for noting the different construction styles encountered. As impressive a culture that the Inca were (much of the terracing, etc. seen all over the region were indisputably Incan engineering projects), they had nothing that could produce the sort of stone work that is seen all over the place (and identified as Uran Pacha construction). There is also the theory that these ancient cultures had a technology for making stone “soft” so that it could be easily carved, and then re-solidified – which, as bizarre as it may sound, would go a long way to explaining the “how” of some of the amazing walls in Cuzco and elsewhere.

Once setting up a basis (to varying extents) of these theories, Foerster walks the reader through a couple of dozen sites across Peru and Bolivia, most of which he has visited, some he's just reporting via others' accounts. In a number of the pictures (and, again, this is very much a “picture book”, as most pages are at least a third dedicated to an image, and there are lots of pages with just a picture and caption) an engineer by the name of Chris Dunn is shown measuring surfaces, checking angles, and determining geophysical alignments … he has a couple of books out based on his research in Egypt, as this has only been out a couple of years, I wonder if he's working on a volume dealing with the “Incan” ruins.

They eventually end up at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku (familiar to all who watch the History Channel on cable), and, to their credit, don't launch into the whole “ancient alien” thing about it being a spaceport or something ... but they do note that it, like many of the other sites discussed, does appear to have been violently destroyed at some point in the distant past – in a way that would be hard to explain by the technology of the past couple of thousand years being involved.

Is Lost Ancient Technology Of Peru And Bolivia good book? That depends. I really love this “ancient advanced culture” genre, and do appreciate that the author only dips his toe into “the deep end” of that niche. His photos (and those he appropriates), although all B&W, are mostly quite illuminating, and he generally does a good job of putting them in context … however, the “editing” thing comes up here as well, there's one point (I'd mention the page numbers, but there aren't any) where he repeats the same image on facing pages, as well as sticking in a 2/3rds-page-large image of the cover of his Machu Picchu book twice when discussing that site (I'm hardly one to talk about pimping out one's books, but, really, an “other books by the author” page in the back would have sufficed), which, needless to say, does not add anything to the information content.

Of course, as noted above, he has this very reasonably priced, so the deficiencies in the editing and design of the book (which would be a weekend project for somebody who “does books” to fix) are easier to let slide than if it came at a heftier cost. It's a shame, however, as most of what is wrong with this could easily be rectified. Of course, as a “book guy” and editor, the stuff that I found irritating here might fly totally under the radar for most readers. I suspect that (the egregious typos aside) the Kindle version reads a lot better, as I'm guessing that this project started on that side of the digital/deadtree divide. Because of the way this was published, I'm not sure you'd have much luck finding it in bookstores (although he mentions that it's available in the gift stores near a number of the sites), so the $9.95 cover price through the on-line big boys looks like your best bet (there are copies kicking around the used channels, but with shipping they'd be more than free shipping “retail”). Aside from the numerous editorial caveats expressed above, I quite enjoyed reading/viewing this, but, then again, in general I've “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”, so my enthusiasm for it might be on the high side due to familiarity/interest. As Dennis Miller would have it, “your mileage may vary”, but it's something that's likely worth looking into if you share my appreciation of the subject.

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Saturday, October 8th, 2016
1:23 pm
... if I sang out of tune
The publishing biz can be pretty brutal. I got this book at the dollar store … which is, of course, not in and of itself unusual … but it's quite a decent read, and is out-of-print (in the hardcover, at least) a mere 3 years after its release. Sure, I'm happy that this means that I got it for a buck, but this is one of those that I would have thought might well have a better run (it is still available in a paperback edition, however).

Anyway, I didn't expect that I was going to much like Carlin Flora's Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, but the way the info here is presented won me over. I'm somewhat surprised that I didn't end up with a whole lot of little bookmark slips in this (and the ones that are here are at the beginning and end of the book), so I'm going to be probably doing “broad strokes” over most of this.

As I noted in the above, I found the structure of the book one of the most appealing things here … the author (a former Features Editor for Psychology Today) starts out with a section trying to define friendship, then moves into “Finding and Making Friends”, and then to a series of chapters looking at friendship dynamics at various ages, from kindergarten on up, before switching to a consideration of “bad company”, and the evolving domain of digital friendship. What could have been an overly touchy-feely presentation flows logically through these chapters, and builds on each stage.

Now, looking through this, one of the challenges I have is that there's lots of rapid-fire examples in most of the chapters, which make it a bit difficult to grab some “summary” sense … however, an on-going theme here is, not surprisingly, how friendship differs from family relationships, which expresses itself on many levels, from the legal (a patient may have only a friend for support, but hospital rules might only allow relatives to visit in certain situations), to organizational (taking time off to grieve the loss of a friend is likely to be more difficult to arrange that that of a relative), to dynamic (especially among siblings).

The author includes some autobiographical information here as well, such as how she encountered her BFF – a Peruvian gal, who showed up at her dorm room looking for her roommate, and they totally clicked. This sets up a look at theories of friend connection, starting with the “proximity theory” where those you come into contact with frequently have a better chance of becoming friends. I found this spin on that of interest:

But also familiarity breeds positivity. Called the “mere-exposure effect,” it's a phenomenon that is widely documented: Just seeing someone over and over can make you like him or her more. It's probably because familiarity feels good to brains that would rather process stimuli using worn-in neural pathways than forging new ones.”
She injects an interesting factoid from some research here, that “You'll give off a better first impression … if your name is easy to pronounce.” – which is likely due to similar “brain preferences”. She rattles through a number of other settings which lead to friend formation … shared activities, major life events (the new mom finding other new moms to hang with), etc., before turning to Dale Carnegie and his (still applicable) tactics, which are then contrasted with people who have diseases which make things, such as reading facial expressions, difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Flora checks in with the well-known work of Robin Dunbar, and extracts a very good brief over-view of his work:

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., discovered that the size of a primate's brain is correlated with the size of the social group within which its species typically lives. The magic number for humans – extrapolated from our average brain size – is 150.
      More specifically, Dunbar conceives of the number 150 as embedded with a number of layers. “In effect we have five intimate friends. Fifteen close friends, 50 good friends, 150 friends,” Dunbar says. “The 15 layer has long been know in social psychology as the 'sympathy group' (those whose death tomorrow would seriously upset you). Beyond 150, we have acquaintances, and here they are more often asymmetric (I know who you are, but you don't necessarily know who I am). The 1,500 layer seems to equate to the number of faces we can put names to.”
She adds an interesting bit to this:

Another team more recently found a correlation between the size of the amygdala, a brain region that processes emotional stimuli, and both the size and complexity of a person's social network.
I found this fascinating, as the amygdala is usually described as the part of the brain that creates reactions like jumping back from a rope because it might be (i.e. looks like) a snake.

This takes us to the “childhood friends” chapter … with has several thematic sub-sections (again making it tough to summarize). I guess what I'll do is drop in some quotes that catch my eye flipping through these parts (where I didn't drop in bookmarks). Here's one:

Many childhood friendships dissolve, leaving behind just a few fuzzy memories; others … lend a steady beat of continuity to life. Whether or not you're still in touch with your old pals – or even can recall them clearly – they surely helped shape you, for better or for worse.
She then runs through some examples, and media expressions of childhood friendships, from Charlie Brown to Harry Potter. I also found this bit of interest:

Friendships sprout much earlier than you might think. A one-year-old who has the chance to interact regularly with other little ones will indeed choose favorite playmates – first friends. Toddler buddies frolic in more complex ways than do non-friends. They might engage in pretend play … which requires more cognitive skills than tag or other literal pursuits.
It's also notable that gender is a major differentiating element in patterns of friendship – although the author doesn't particularly wander into the minefield of “nature vs. nurture” in that – and it seems that the gender differences are largely permanent (albeit expressing differently at various ages and in divergent contexts), and later parts of the book take a look at ways that individuals might try to improve, and/or enrich, these dynamics. Flora presents a wide array of sample situations here, from kids who were together for ethnic support (i.e. being the only Iranians in their school), to ones who gravitated around common interests (gamers, jocks, fashion fanatics, etc.). A data point that comes in here is “A Harris Interactive survey of Americans ages eight to twenty-four revealed that 94 percent had a close friend.”, so this does seem to be something fairly hard-wired.

I rather liked her chapter title for the look at the teen years: Friendship in Adolescence: Confidants and Partners in Crime … again, there are a lot of stories fleshing this out, but there are little gems of data (or near-data) such as:

As an adult, you still need to feel that your friends reflect your identity (or your desired identity), but that drive was probably more urgent when you were an adolescent. … In fact, to the average thirteen-year-old, friends are just as emotionally supportive as parents, and to seventeen-year-olds, they are more so.
As this suggests, the influence of parents, while not non-existent, is, by the mid-teens sort of a “background noise” for the kids whose emotional context is far more set by their friend group. Unfortunately, this means if you've not steered your children towards a positive set of kids, you may have blown it … as peer pressure is likely to trump anything you're going to be able to bring to the table, and this can easily (at the prodding of the worse kids) spiral into dangerous behaviors.

The author breaks down a lot of dynamics in various settings, and I found this bit of interest:

A key difference between middle school and high school emerges as late adolescents form romantic attachments, which sometimes take precedence over friendships. Still, it's all a continuum: The skills kids use to keep up their same-sex friendships are further developed through their romantic ties.
And, of course, as the years build up, the patterns shift from assorted types of groups, into pairs, and networks of pairs.

The “perks of friendship” chapter goes into a lot of psychological/sociological (many researchers are name-checked, but most get dealt with “in passing” rather than in any particular detail) dynamics on how friendships work among adults … including some very interesting material about the friendship of Matisse and Picasso (and later Renoir & Monet, and Gauguin & van Gogh). She examines a fairly wide array of situations (with stories which illustrate same), and breaks down the functions of friendship in these, but there isn't much that I found that would be useful to add here.

Flora is back to the “dark side of friendship” next, and she sort of frames this chapter with:

Since friends are powerful influences in your life, they can just as easily have negative effects as positive ones, especially if they are not right for you, or if the dynamic between the two of you is unhealthy.
She notes some recent investigative work which suggests that van Gogh did not cut off his own ear (as is the usual story), but lost it in a sword fight with his long-time associate Gauguin, as an extreme illustration of this. Much of what she discusses in this section is gender-based, with significantly different patterns of behavior being prevalent on either side of that divide … although there's quite a bit that's displayed universally (or, at least among the negative friend relationships) … and brings in examples of numerous studies on the details.

This is followed by her consideration of on-line friendships … which leads off with a heart-breaking story of a couple of gals who were both dealing with serious health issues (one with cancer, one with an immune system defect), who became best friends on line, although they lived on other sides of the planet (California and Australia). Somehow they never moved out of the on-line modality, and when one of them stopped responding (assumed dead), the remaining friend had no way of contacting anybody to get any information. It's a sad tale, but also somewhat cautionary (I must admit that I have “pixel people” who I'd be hard pressed to find “IRL” since I only know them by their on-line personas) for those who “live on-line”. The author does point out some research that indicates that, despite the ability to have thousands and thousands of web “friends”, most folks start to get overwhelmed if they try to keep up regular, on-going, active virtual relationships with more that the “Dunbar number” of 150 contacts. I guess biology beats out technology when it comes to our interpersonal relationships. She also looks at the generational gap, from those of us who remember pre-web communications, to those younger folks who have always been digital … and the attitudes that these differing realities engender. She has some quotes from literary critic William Deresiewicz on the subject of on-line relations, of which I found this particularly arch (speaking of his Facebook “friends”): “They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.” She later quotes some other researchers who note the somewhat disturbing factoid that: “the eating, drinking, and smoking of our friends who live hundreds of miles away appear to have as much influence as the habits of our friends who live next door”.

There are some interesting things in the final chapter, such as a study from Gallup that identifies eight “vital roles” that are likely to be in one's friend group. These are “Builders”, Champions”, “Collaborators”, “Companions”, “Connectors”, “Energizers”, “Mind Openers”, and “Navigators” … a model intriguing enough that I may have to pick up that book at some point. Here the author also looks at studies and stories on loneliness, and how being friendless causes a whole raft of physical and psychological ills. At the end of this chapter she does a very nice wrap-up, with advice for nearly each stage and situation … but it's a couple of paragraphs, and I guess I'm just going to leave it to you to find it instead of throwing in an overly big blockquote at the end of this review.

If you are interested in checking Friendfluence out, as noted up top, it's still available in the paperback edition (so might be at your local bookstore), but the on-line new/used guys have “like new” copies of the hardcover (which is what I found at the dollar store) for a penny (plus shipping), which means that it is an easy option. I quite enjoyed this, and found it (despite being heavier on the “stories” than on the “research”) full of educational items.

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Saturday, October 1st, 2016
10:26 am
No cure for meaninglessness ...
This book came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. As I've noted previously, it is a somewhat rare occasion that books from LTER are actually early, but this is one of those cases – as this is not due to be released until January 2017, four months hence. I must admit that it always makes me feel like “one of the cool kids” (often quite a stretch for a “bookish” person!) to get an ARC (advance review copy) of a yet-to-be-released title, but there are some challenges. First of all, it's “standard procedure” that one should not kvetch too much about internal issues with the book, since things are frequently still in flux and not quite how they're going to be when the book gets released into the wild (I've seen some that were missing all graphics, for instance), but I thought I'd mention one thing here – there are fairly extensive endnotes, but they're not connected to the location in the text as yet … which created a bit of a disjointed experience (I was reading them en masse after finishing each chapter) … the reader of the finished version is likely to have a much richer experience, as they'll be able to catch the background info as they work through the book (yeah, I'm bitching, but it's sort of to compliment the author for the level of citation).

I must admit, I had been very excited about Emily Esfahani Smith's The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters when I started into it, as she sets up the book with material on her family's Sufi ties. As long-time readers of this space know, I've read quite a lot of Sufi material over the years (probably over 50 titles by Idries Shah and related authors), so was enthused that this might have been in that tradition. While I'm sure that, to some extent, this is informed by the author's roots in that area, it's not emerging from it to any significant extent. Smith has a degree in psychology, and “writes about culture, relationships, and psychology” for such notable publications as the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, and the tone (and to some extent, the focus) here is what you'd expect for something targeting those sorts of audiences.

The book's main chapters are “The Meaning Crisis”, “Belonging”, “Purpose”, “Storytelling”, “Transcendence”, “Growth”, and “Cultures of Meaning”, with the middle group of those being “the four pillars” of meaning (plus “Growth” tacked on, I suppose). The author's investigation of Meaning seems to have begun in the realms of psychology (and philosophy), but quickly branches out to look at how these elements operate in the lives of what she describes as remarkable individuals:

Some of their stories are ordinary. Others are extraordinary. But as I followed these seekers on their journeys, I found that their lives all had some important qualities in common, offering an insight that the research is now confirming: there are sources of meaning all around us, and by tapping into them, we can all lead richer and more satisfying lives – and help others do the same.
Much of the book is anchored by stories of these folks, and, frankly, while some are quite iconic for the points being made, most were just sort of “meh”, for me. Of course, I'm not much of a “story” aficionado, so I'm always trying to figure out what the point is when approached from those angles, and in a lot of cases here I was “getting” less than a “people person” (or fiction fan) might have.

In the areas where she's not talking about people, she's name-checking like crazy, and mashing together philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines to get to some destination. She uses an appearance of comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O'Brien show to tie together threads of Tolstoy, Camus, and Sartre … I don't know if she started there (it was unclear if the comic cited these writers) but she says he “described coming into contact with something like Sartre's nausea, Camus's absurd, and Tolstoy's horror” … which gives her a pivot to bounce around between the three, only to flip into The Little Prince. In the opening chapter, she is often introducing a different “character” (be that a famous writer or “a twelve-year-old boy with cancer”) every paragraph or so. Again, I'm a cynical curmudgeon, so I may be an outlier here, but I very quickly got to the “don't care!” zone through this.

In discussing some previous studies of meaning (a philosophers' book in the 30's, and Life magazine's research in the 60's) she gets to what frames her thesis:

… Yet there were some themes that emerged again and again. When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they describe connecting to and bonding with other people in positive ways. They discuss finding something worthwhile to do with their time. They mention creating narratives that bring order to life and help them understand themselves and the world. They talk about mystical experiences and self-loss.
      As I conducted my research for this book these four themes came up again and again in my conversations with people living meaningful lives and those still searching for meaning. These categories were also present in the definitions of a meaningful life … that meaning arises from our relationships to others, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self. …
The “Belonging” chapter starts with the story about a small island off the Virginia coast, where the locals have pretty much their own culture – certainly their own accent – and looks at one fellow who left there, but still visits frequently. This then shifts into a look at the changing theories of infant and child care, and how one researcher, René Spitz, shifted things from a non-contact model to one that emphasized a lot of physical interaction (much of the casework being done in orphanages). From here she moves to looking at loneliness, and there's some interesting figures here:

… About 20 percent of people consider loneliness a “major source of unhappiness in their lives” and one third of Americans 45 and older say they are lonely. In 1985, when the General Social Survey asked Americans how many people they'd discussed important matters with over the last six months, the most common response was three. When the survey was given again in 2004, the most common response was zero.
It's not a big jump to examining suicide from there, and she quotes numerous studies that indicated “people are more likely to kill themselves when they were alienated from their communities”, and the odd factoid that “wealthy countries have higher suicide rates than poor ones, and that their inhabitants are less likely to consider their lives meaningful”. This eventually meanders into a longish tale about the Society for Creative Anachronism (think “ren faire” if you're not familiar with the SCA), and various dynamics in it, including dealing with a suicidally depressed member. Of all the stories in the book, the one that struck me the most was that of a guy who buys a newspaper from the same vendor every morning in New York, and they always had a bit of a conversation, which eventually builds into a connection. One day, the guy only had big bills, but the vendor didn't have change – and he said to pay for it the next day – but the guy insisted he should pay, went into a store, bought something just to get change, and paid the vendor. This chilled their relationship, as the guy rejected the kindness, and pulled the exchange down to a simple transaction. This leads into the author discussing other studies of rejection, and how some people devalue others' work (doctors and hospital cleaners).

The second “pillar” is Purpose. This starts out with a story about a zookeeper in Detroit, moves to a story of a drug dealer in New York (who turns his life around in prison, and now runs a fitness company based on his jailhouse workouts), and into the story of an Indian photographer doing a series of major works based on the Hindu deities, which then veers into a look at the movie Good Will Hunting, which is part of a riff on Kant:

      Though living with purpose may make us happier and more determined, a purpose-driven person is ultimately concerned not with these personal benefits but with making the world a better place. … That idea was expressed forcefully by the eighteenth-century German thinker Immanuel Kant. … To Kant, the question is not what makes you happy. The question is how to do your duty, how to best contribute ...
This leads into a look at current research at places like the Yale School of Management and Wharton: “Adam Grant, a Wharton School of Business professor … points out that those who consistently rate their jobs as meaningful have something in common: they see their jobs as a way to help others.”

Next comes “Storytelling”. This starts with a horrific tale of a teenage girl getting hit by a car, and having severe neurological damage … the payoff on the story is the whole trauma center staff coming in to introduce themselves to the girl … for their benefit because only about 1 in 10 with these sorts of injuries survive, and having the example “keeps them coming back to work”. One thing I actually dropped a bookmark on here was part of a story-telling event/site called The Moth, and this comment from their Artistic Director is pretty sharp:

The most moving stories … are rooted in vulnerability, but they are not too emotionally raw. The stories should come … “from scars and not wounds.” They should have settled into the storyteller's mind so that he or she can reflect back on the experience and pull out its meaning.
Smith goes on to define this “pillar” a bit more coherently than the others with:

      Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn't function otherwise. Stories help us make sense of the world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do.
She goes on to talk about a semi-pro football player who breaks his spine, how college fund-raisers who used personal stories raised more money, the life of a Cuban refugee, and ends up discussing the book/movie Life of Pi (which should have come with a “spoiler warning”).

The final “pillar” is “Transcendence” and, interestingly, she starts this off with a story of a visit to the McDonald Observatory in Texas, which moves into a lot of scientific space info, and then into ancient beliefs about the cosmos. This was pretty good at describing where she was going here:

You might expect the insignificance we feel in the face of this knowledge to highlight the absurdity and meaninglessness of our lives. But it in fact does the opposite. The abject humility we experience when we realize that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. A brush with mystery – whether underneath the stars, before a gorgeous work of art, during a religious ritual, or in a hospital delivery room – can transform us.
She goes off into the work of William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) who was a great fan of nitrous oxide to “stimulate the mystical consciousness” (maaaaan ...), and offers up his four qualities of this, being passive, transient, ineffable, and noetic (imparting knowledge or wisdom). She digs up an “expert on transcendence” from the University of Pennsylvania (I assume there have to be some out there … although I doubt he's on the Wharton faculty), and tracks down some researchers doing actual empirical studies into stuff like “awe”. This leads into story of some guy who decided that he really wasn't interested in finance, and ran off to a monastery in Burma, where the author details, over several pages, the predictable whining of the Western seeker who is disappointed to find that traditional spiritual training centers don't sport the comforts of a Four Seasons hotel. He nevertheless sticks to it and eventually gets to a point where he claims he's “seen so clearly what an illusion the self is”. She bounces off this story into an interesting (but brief) look at some researchers investigating what's happening in the brains of meditators via SPECT (single photon emission compound tomography), which I've seen covered in other books previously.

This next goes into a story of Jeff Ashby, who was inspired at age 6 by one of the early NASA manned flights, and who eventually made it into space at age 45. The thrust here (heh) is on how, once his life-long dream had been achieved, he looked for “bigger issues” … which then flips back into a look at John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, and how he got into Transcendentalism via the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This then leads off to a review of assorted “transcendent” experiences, including those generated by hallucinogens (with mention of some research studies), and a story about a cancer patient using these to smooth the transition out of this life.

The “Growth” chapter isn't one of the “pillars” that Smith lists, but gets about as many pages devoted to it. This starts with a rambling story of some of the people involved in a group called “The Dinner Party”, which is set up for young adults who have lost close loved ones. This is all pretty predictable but for the quote from one of them: “That's what nihilism is for”, which, of course, appealed to my sensibilities. This then rolls into a story of a Vet suffering from PTSD who ended up killing somebody in a drunk-driving episode, and, in dealing with this, forms a group called Dryhooch to provide places where vets can hang out together without booze. This leads to tales of other folks who have survived traumatic experiences and “grown” from them … including some research on how there's quite a range of how resilient individuals can be, which may have a substantial genetic component.

The penultimate chapter is “Culture of Meaning”, which starts with the story of a church in Seattle that does a late-night service involving chanting a 4th-century ritual, which has been a counter-culture fave for decades. The author quotes dozens of attendees' passionate comments about the program, but doesn't offer much concrete about it (no researchers had wires stuck in the audience, evidently). Smith uses this chapter to try to support her “four pillars” model, and runs through a bunch of different groups, organizations, companies, etc. that are “cultures of meaning” and tries to map them onto her framework. Frankly, I thought the connection was pretty weak across the board here, but if you're the type that gets entranced by the sort of stories that make up much of the book, you may be sufficiently enthused at this point that you'll be totally on board with whatever Smith's pitching. Me, not so much.

However, the book somewhat redeems itself in the “Conclusion”, which – while brief – takes a fascinating look at death and suicide. It starts with a rather arch quote: “Death … poses a grave challenge to the ability lead a meaningful life.”, and the search for “a meaning that cannot be annulled by death.” The core story here focuses on researcher William Brietbart (with Sloan Kettering) … who discusses working with the AIDS community, considers the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, and the movement for legalization of assisted suicide. He found that:

those who desired a hastened death reported feelings of meaninglessness, depression, and hopelessness. They were living in an “existential vacuum”.
… Brietbart knew he could treat depression … but he was stumped when it came to treating meaninglessness.
Unfortunately, what he ended up developing (a multi-session group therapy approach) was specifically targeted to the terminal cancer patients with whom he worked, and not a generally applicable approach for the rest of us. The book (somewhat predictably) ends with a meander through the story of Viktor Frankl, before coming up with the “big reveal”:

Love, of course, is at the center of the meaningful life. Love cuts through each of the pillars of meaning and comes up again and again in the stories of those I have written about.
I wonder if the author has an appreciation of how empty and pointless that sounds to somebody struggling with suicidal depression. Needless to say, that's a throw-the-book-across-the-room mic drop ending (especially following the rest of that chapter).

Obviously, The Power of Meaning was not “my sort of book” … I don't care for “teaching stories” in general, and all these tales of people in various situations were frequently just blah-blah-blah to me. But, that's me, and I realize that a lot of people live for this stuff. If you like to read about “remarkable individuals” (and not in the 4th Way sense), you'll no doubt like this far more than I did. Again, I had high hopes for this when it started, and if it had concentrated more on the research, psychology, and philosophy (& Sufi thought), and not on these folks that the reader is supposed to have an empathetic reaction to (I always feel like I'm being “played” when authors try to get me to feel instead of think), I would have likely been raving about it by this point. But no.

As noted up top, this is not coming out until January, so you've got a few months to wait if you're wanting to pick up a copy. You can, of course, pre-order from the on-line big boys (who have it at a bit over a third off of cover price), so you'll have it as soon as it ships. I just wish I could have been more enthusiastic about this.

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Friday, September 30th, 2016
10:48 am
Must be crazy ...
This is another book that got suggested to me at a DBSA meeting, much like the Kay Jamison book I reviewed a few months back. I certainly liked Ruby Wax's Sane New World: A User's Guide to the Normal-Crazy Mind a lot more … but that is likely because the tone of this is much less oppressive – reflecting, no doubt Wax's background in acting/comedy (primarily in the UK, although hailing from Evanston, IL), as opposed to the other author's psychology roots. Wax, who had suffered from depression and related conditions for most of her life, responded to the dwindling of her performance career by going back to school, and ending up with a Masters from Oxford in “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy”, so she has the chops to really get into the subject here.

While the book does spend a lot of (entertaining) verbiage dealing with specifics of Wax's life, it's not specifically autobiographical, and is in five parts, each (confusingly) containing a differently-named chapter from the name of the “part” (so what's on the Contents page isn't what's up top on the individual pages – go figure – must be the “crazy” manifesting), each containing assorted thematic sub-sections … including her various “my story” bits. Since these are ambiguously titled, I'm just going to give a description: the first part covers the sorts of neuroses that pretty much impact everybody to some extent, the second part's chapter is called “Depression – Broken Brains”, so deals with the more damaged among us, the next part looks at “neuroscience”, which is followed by an overview of mindfulness, and finished with “the manual”, which has (as one might expect) suggested exercises, homework assignments, handy forms, and other useful information.

Rather than trying to summarize all this, I'm going to mainly go with the parts I dropped in bookmarks for – some of which are more for their humor or out-of-the-box approach than being specifically “pithy” as to the actual arc of the book. This starts with the following from the sub-section “The Fix of Happiness”:

… There are some lucky people who feel they experience happiness when they gaze at a cloud or walk on the beach, but the rest of us get that special tingly buzz only when we've bought, won, achieved, hooked, or booked something. Then our own brains give us a bit of dopamine, which makes us feel good. We don't need substances; we are our own drug dealer.
      The problem is, the hit of happiness usually lasts as long as a cigarette, so we have to continually search for the next fix. It's as though as a species we had no brakes, just breakdowns. …
She goes from this to defining her version of Maslow's hierarchy which takes fourteen steps to go from food/water to “Meeting Oprah” (with five steps of increasingly posh air travel in the mix). Did I mention that there's an awful lot of great stuff in here (and much of it's a hoot)? Because I feel guilty flipping through to get to my next little paper slip … but we don't want this review being 20,000 words, do we? Some of these are informative (in the Johnny Carson-esque “I did not know that.” mode), such as:

If you watch a face it will tell you everything. For instance, you cannot fake a smile. There is a muscle under the eye called the periocular that will not become active if you aren't genuinely smiling. The mouth is easy to upturn but if you don't find something funny, that periocular muscle just doesn't move; your eyes are dead as a trout's.
Again, this is a complex mix of what Wax knows from grad school, and what she knows from being saddled with psychological issues … here's a very telling one coming from the latter type of expertise (moving from a discussion of sadness/unhappiness pinned to a particular quote from Hamlet):

      Depression is a whole other beast; it is not situation appropriate. Here's something you get absolutely free with this illness: a real sense of shame; it comes with the package. And you feel such extreme shame because you think, “I'm not being carpet-bombed, I don't have anything to complain about.” Your thoughts become so punishing for your selfishness – like bombs, incoming over Dresden – so loud, so relentless you get not one voice but about a hundred thousand abusive voices; like if the devil had Tourette's. Depression doesn't care if you're famous, if you live in a mud hut, or what culture you come from, it just loves everyone.
(While I really like that bit, it is slightly incoherent – but I'm considering that it's coming from something of a “performance art” place rather that “outtakes from my thesis” on the author's part. A tidbit which does sound like it's from the latter category is: “The World Economic Forum estimates that the global cost of mental illness will be about $16 trillion by 2030.”, and that as many as 1 in 4 people suffer from some degree of clinical depression.) In this section she comes up with what I thought was a great suggestion (actually DBSA is quite a bit like this) following a rant about finding a “buddy” who understands that “you are not making it up and you are not a self-indulgent, self-obsessed narcissist who's looking for pity or an excuse not to show up at work or school”:

Alcoholics Anonymous has a system where you call your buddy when you feel you want a drink and they will talk you down. Why can't we have meeting places like in AA, where they all get together for their twelve-step thing and have cigarettes and cookies? How did they organize these get-togethers so well? They have meeting places on every corner of every block; more places than there are Starbucks. How did they figure all this out? Why can't we do that?
Oddly (given my interest in the subject), I didn't drop a single bookmark in the central “neuroscience” chapter. This is not due to it being lacking … in fact, Wax does a remarkable job of presenting a quite detailed look at brain biology, function, and the like in fifty-some-odd pages. It's more that this has such a “fire hose” of information that it would be hard to sufficiently cherry-pick factoids to give you and adequate sense of what's in there. I did note one thing right at the end of the section, which I thought was important:

… I just want to bring your attention to how misguided we are in insisting the external world is exactly as we see it. Much of what you see out there is manufactured by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie; only a very small part of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world. The rest comes from internal memory stores and other processes. …
The next part of the book is about “mindfulness”, which is where this all is heading. She backgrounds this initially with her own experiences, and then discusses the history of the discipline. This approach started in 1979 with Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, who created a method to use with patients whose pain was too chronic to remedy, those who were given the diagnosis of “You're going to have to live with this.” Obviously, there's a disconnect between physical and emotion pain, and it was a group of researchers (John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and the professor Wax studied with, Mark Williams) who took Kabat-Zinn's work and applied it to psychology, developing MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy). I am currently undergoing a course of therapy related to this, and found it amusing that something we were working on this very morning (for managing depression/panic related emotions) is essentially covered in this section as a coping structure with the acronym RAIN – Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, Nonidentification … along with some suggested exercises.

When she gets around to addressing stress, there's this which stood out to me:

… Thanks to our ever-speedier culture, most of our lives are now lived in a state of hyperarousal, and almost everything out there seems scary. We're in a constant downpour of adrenaline and cortisol, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and lack of oxygen to the brain – all of which can make us very, very ill. Notice when you feel the beginning of stress; closely explore where it is in your body, the size, the edges, the sensations. Notice how your breathing and your posture change. Notice if your mind starts to kick in with suggestions to get coffee, cigarettes, or tranquilizers. You don't have to suppress the thoughts or the feelings of fear, anger, or hurt but recognize that they are the dandruff of a flaky mind.
The “mindfulness” chapter closes with a fairly lengthy section on “Facts About Mindfulness”, which, while interesting in terms of all the multitudinous conditions and studies she cites, almost approaches “snake oil” territory with the feeling that it “cures what ails ya” no matter what the issue. Or that might just be me being a cynical old coot. The last part of the book is “The Manual” if you're going by the chapter/page headings, or “Alternative Suggestions for Peace of Mind” if you're looking at the Contents, which is more the second of these than what you might expect from the shorter one. A significant portion of this is taken up with looking at Cognitive Behavior Therapy (which she then contrasts with MBCT – claiming the latter is twice as effective), with some other stuff thrown in. I rather liked her framing this part, which I've shortened somewhat:

      If mindfulness isn't for you, I'm going to suggest some alternative practices to help you deal with everything from life's little hiccups to the gale force ten, brain-shattering breakdowns.
      The important thing is that you find something to anchor you when the winds of “shit happens” get rough. So many people I know don't have an antidote for life's turbulent weather and suffer because of it. … Dissatisfaction is part of the deal of living because simple existence is full of contradictions; we want individuality, to stand out from the crowd, yet we want to be part of a tribe. We're driven and busy and yet we want peace. And, worst of all, we want things to stay the same despite the fact that everything changes (that's the ultimate bummer). … Impermanence is the law of the universe – no can do. Even if you rage through the night, before you finish reading this sentence, billions of your cells have died and been reborn. Because we have consciousness, we suffer about the fact we suffer, and this second arrow of suffering is constructed in our brains. But if our brain can create this pain, it can also create happiness.
OK, so I'm not so convinced about that last point, but the rest is pretty much on-target. Sane New World is relatively new (the hardcover came out in 2013, this paperback edition a year later), and (as a “#1 UK Bestseller”) is very likely to be available from brick & mortar book vendors who carry self-help and/or psychology titles. The on-line big boys, of course, have it … and the new/used vendors have “good” copies for as little as a penny, and “like new” for a couple of bucks (plus shipping). I quite enjoyed this, and found it both entertaining and informative, and figure it should be a “must read” for most folks (that's 1 in 4, remember) struggling with depression, and a worthwhile thing to get into for everybody else.

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Monday, September 19th, 2016
12:42 pm
Fair & Balanced ...
Here's another score from the Dollar Store … I was on the way back up from dropping my daughter at college, and stopped at an exit on the south end of Kankakee (where they had the trifecta of a Dollar Tree, a Walmart, and a Speedway with gas a buck a gallon cheaper than it would be in Chicago), and found this, and another interesting title, on the shelf down there. As I've noted elsewhere, the way that these get into that channel always makes it worthwhile to check every place, because there's no way of predicting which stores get which books.

Regular readers of this space will appreciate that I'm certainly in the “Ailes camp” as far as anti-Left sentiment is concerned, so I was really hoping that Zev Chafets' Roger Ailes: Off Camera would be a sympathetic look at the phenom who invented Fox News. I had a concern, as right up front in the author's info is the flagship of Leftist misinformation, the New York Times, but fortunately, this book is about as straight-forward without spin as one might hope.

If one were looking for the broadest of the broad strokes for what this book is about, one could do worse than this snippet from the Preface:

… Ailes is not another working-class stiff who got ahead through hard work and the power of positive thinking. For fifty years, he has navigated the waters of show business, national politics, and big-time media. He taught Dick Nixon new tricks, stepped in as Reagan's emergency debate coach when the Great Communicator needed help communicating, and held George H.W. Bush's hand all the way to the White House. He more or less invented modern political consulting and made a small fortune along the way. When he left politics, he talked his way into the number one job at CNBC and then convinced Rupert Murdoch to gamble a billion dollars give or take, on an idea and a handshake. The gamble become Fox News, one of the most lucrative and influential news organizations on the planet. …

Roger Ailes has his admirers, some of them surprising, and his detractors – entire organizations dedicated to discrediting him and all his works. I talked to a great many people on both sides.
While this is a biography (and so starts with a lot of family stories, school stories, etc.), it's also framed a bit with Chafets' search for the story. Key of the factors from Ailes' childhood is his hemophilia, a recurring issue in his youth, but something of a non-factor in the story here. More lingering was the damage done to his legs when hit by a car in second grade, and perhaps more developmentally important, was his father “throwing him out” once he graduated high school … he ended up going to Ohio University (“it was cheap, it had a reputation as a party school, and he could get in with less than stellar grades”), but found himself “homeless” soon after (“when he came home for Christmas break, he found his house sold and his belongings discarded” – his mother having run off with a guy she'd met at a convention).

At several points in the book Chafets “gets involved with the story”, and when Ailes talks about missing an old friend who'd he'd lost track of decades previously, the author looks him up, finds him living in New York (teaching acting), and connects the two. This ends up providing him with a lot of “good material” from Ailes' early years, and lets him stick in info about Ailes' time in the early 70's when when he was producing theater (including winning three Obies for The Hot l Baltimore).

The book really picks up at the end of Ailes' college years – he managed to take a run of shows on the campus radio station (he'd majored in TV) and make a pitch to a Cleveland TV station to be a segment producer on a new “daytime variety show” they were developing, featuring soon-to-be the famed Mike Douglas. The main producer (who would later be tapped at Fox) asked Ailes to come in with a hundred show ideas, which he did and he was hired on the spot. That was 1961. In 1967 his producer left to do Dick Cavett's show, and Ailes got the executive producer slot on The Mike Douglas Show. I don't know if the author was trying to “humanize” Ailes in the eyes of his more rabid detractors, but he spends a lot of time featuring stories of Ailes bringing Black icons to the airwaves at the time … Muhammad Ali, MLK Jr., Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and even Malcolm X … the latter connection coming in handy many years later in proving to hostile elements in the Congressional Black Caucus that he didn't just have a “sudden interest” in civil rights.

One of the guests on the show was Richard Nixon, who was traveling around the country trying to build support for his 1968 run. He and Ailes (who was only in his 20's at the time), had a chance to talk, and Ailes convinced Nixon that TV had to be a key part in a campaign. He was called into New York to meet with Nixon's media team, which grilled him for four hours … before offering him the job of producing Nixon's TV presence – which he took, infuriating Mike Douglas. Once Nixon was elected, Ailes was being frozen out by the White House staff, and in 1969 he left D.C. to move to New York and start his own company. This period he spent producing plays, documentaries, TV shows, and even tried to get a conservative news service (funded by Joseph Coors) off the ground.

In 1980 he was approached by Al D'Amato to help him oust Jacob Javitz from his Senate seat … he succeeded, and became something of a GOP power-broker, working on numerous campaigns, and winning most. One of the interesting things that comes up here is that he really had very little interest in the substance of the politics, just getting the candidates elected … “it was always a matter of sizing up the opponent, finding his weaknesses, or turning his strengths against him”. In 1984 he was called in by the Reagan campaign to help with preparation for the second debate with Mondale. Under his coaching Reagan came up with the classic line reversing the “age issue” where he stated “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”. In 1988 he handled Bush's media, including the classic spots with Dukakis looking silly in a tank … but by the end of that, he was getting sick of the political work. He did some minor consulting on the 1992 campaign, but was pretty much out of the game at that point.

He was, however, producing a lot more TV, including the Tom Snyder show which was the precursor to the Letterman show on NBC. In 1991, he connected with Rush Limbaugh, and developed a TV version of Rush's phenomenally popular radio program – which ran for four years. Rush was quoted as describing some key coaching he got from Ailes:

“Roger told me that he had detected in me a common fault that newcomers to TV make when being interviewed by mainstream journalists. He said, 'Rush, they don't care what you think. Don't try to persuade them of anything. Don't try to change their mind. They are not asking you questions to learn anything. So don't look at this as an opportunity to enlighten them. Whatever they ask, just say whatever you want to say.'”
(Which is, if I recall correctly from setting up media tours in my PR agency days, pretty good advice for most interview situations!) Limbaugh eventually wanted out (he disliked all the extra stuff needed to get a TV show done), but it had gotten the attention of the management (and ownership – Jack Welch of G.E.) of CNBC, and they reached out to Ailes to run the channel. This was good for all involved, as Ailes doubled the asset value in two years. Many familiar Fox News faces (Neil Cavuto among them) were on board there. There was a management change above CNBC, and Ailes was faced with reporting to somebody he didn't care to work with, so he left. Rupert Murdoch was waiting … he had an idea for a more conservative cable news voice, and presented the idea to Ailes, asking if it was doable … Ailes assured him that it was, but could cost a billion dollars to launch. And, so Fox News was born … and more than eighty CNBC people followed Ailes into the new venture.

There's a middle section here with a lot of details about personnel development at Fox News, with some familiar names, some less so, some building up individuals (Bill O'Reilly, Shep Smith), some getting rid of others (Jim Cramer, Paula Zahn). Lots of names, lots of scenarios … too much to try to cherry-pick examples here. This is followed by a bit about Ailes' personal life in upstate New York, and the (very liberal) community he lives in there. The narrative then switches back to Fox, and how hated it is by the Left – and regularly smeared by them. One quote I thought was worth bringing in was this bit by Ailes in response to some of the vitriol being hurled at Fox:

“The first rule of media bias is selection,” Ailes says. “Most of the media bullshit you about who they are. We don't. We're not programming to conservatives, we're just not eliminating their point of view.”
This is prefaced by a story that Ailes tells about meeting a Liberal at a cocktail party who complains about Fox News coverage:

Ailes asks him if he is satisfied with what he sees on CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and PBS. The man says he is very satisfied. “Well,” says Ailes, “if they all have the same take and we have a different take, why does that bother you? The last two guys who succeeded in lining up the media on one side were Hitler and Stalin.”
In support of these points Chafets brings in a very interesting mix of quotes … from Chris Matthews admitting to the Liberal stance of Walter Cronkite (who openly mocked Barry Goldwater during his 1964 campaign), to the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane admitting that there's a “culture of like minds” that “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that taints nearly every word hitting their pages. The bias in most of the media creates what amounts to hostile work environments for anybody not part of the leftist hive-mind, which the author notes enables Ailes to “scoop up most of the really good conservative talent”. Chafets notes that Fox also hires a lot of overt liberals to provide counter-point to these conservatives … probably having more of these than all the leftist media outlets together have non-lefty voices.

An interesting thing that's pulled in here is UCLA Poly-sci professor Tim Groseclose's PQ (political quotient), which measures how political viewpoints range on a scale from 0-100. The data is based on the rankings of Lefty group “Americans for Democratic Action”, so the higher the number, the more leftist the stance (the vile Nancy Pelosi is close to 100, the current execrable POTUS is around 88). The “average voter” is right about 50 on the scale. The MSM network shows were all up around 65, while Fox was at 40 … however, most damningly: “Professor Groseclose puts the PQ of the average political reporter for a mainstream organization at 95 … and that's the “echo chamber” that drives political news – everybody (but Fox) being on the extreme Left end of the spectrum, leading the liberals to think something like an 80 would be “middle of the road” and Fox is way off to the right!

There's a chapter that largely deals with how Ailes manages the day-to-day news cycle at Fox, then a chapter about his hiring, firing, and people management (including some of the odd connections that he has with people not in Fox's camp), followed by a chapter looking at race and religion, noting Ailes' efforts to boost Black and Latino involvement in the organization. I found this illustrative, however, of his basic philosophy (especially vs. the pandering on the Left):

Racial identity politics are not Ailes's “thing.” He belongs to a generation that was raised in a time and place where forward-thinking people accepted MLK's famous exhortation to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, as the gold standard for racial aspiration. In Ailes's America, everyone would share Middle American, middle-class values and blend into a single national culture. He sees the celebration of racial differences as balkanizing. “Every month is something else,” he said, “I'm waiting for Lithuanian Midget Month. ...”
Chafets then takes a look at how Ailes gets along with his famous boss, Rupert Murdoch, and starts this off with a story about how when he called Murdoch's office to try to schedule an interview for the book, he was surprised to get a call back from Murdoch within 15 minutes (Chafets, assuming he'd get a time penciled in some weeks later, had nothing prepared, so just had Murdoch chat about Ailes – he's obviously a big fan of his hire). In this chapter he also looks at how Ailes runs the show from a financial basis, noting that he's totally self-taught in business. One quote I found amusing was how Ailes is very leery of getting the “next big thing”, especially with technology, and he's quoted as saying:

Let CNN buy the new stuff and test it out, and when the technology is right I'll come in like a ton of bricks. … When I see that the Framistan is working, we'll get one. Hell, we'll get two. But in the meantime, let CNN waste their money.
The last few chapters are largely adding perspective on different fronts, including how the current POTUS has called Ailes “the most powerful man in America”, and how his administration tried very hard to keep Fox out of the White House press pool (to their credit, all the other major news organizations stood up for Fox). There's talk of how ultra-Left organization Media Matters considers Ailes one of it's two “Great Satans” (Rush Limbaugh being the other), and how they are constantly trying to cause trouble for Fox. There's a bit about his young son (Ailes started a family very late in life), and how he's handling being a dad in his 70's, with other family reminiscences. The book closes with a look at election night 2012, which reinforces some of the previous bits about how Ailes, for all his success as a political consultant and political broadcaster, really isn't a “political junkie”, caring a whole lot about getting the message out and not so much about the actual “stuff” involved.

Roger Ailes: Off Camera is a fascinating read, and is something that I think anybody with an interest in politics (especially if you're not a Leftist), or broadcasting, would find quite interesting. I can't tell if this is currently in print or not … Amazon lists the hardcover at full retail, but notes that it won't ship for a couple of months. The copy I got at the dollar store was the paperback, but the new/used guys have the hardcover available for 1¢ in “like new” condition, so that's probably your best bet if you want to snag a copy.

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Saturday, September 17th, 2016
3:37 pm
Useful and Transcendent ...
This was yet another Dollar Store find. I noticed that it had an unusually large number of reviews over on LibraryThing.com, and took a look and discovered that it had been an “Early Reviewers” selection back when it came out. I'm not sure if I requested it then, but it's interesting to get an LTER book via the dollar store channel six years later.

Kevin Starr's Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Bridge is an interesting little book. Its author is a history professor at USC, and is a former “state librarian of California”, who has a dozen or so books out, mostly about California, and the majority of those in a 7-part series Americans and the California Dream. So, he's no “carpetbagger” when it comes to things iconic about California,

The book could be seen as a series of inter-linked essays, as each chapter is focused on one aspect, and could almost be free-standing. These are “Bridge” (introductory material), “Icon”, “Site”, “Vision”, “Politics”, “Money”, “Design”, “Construction”, “City”, “Suicide” and “Art” … each (obviously) taking a look at these varied aspects of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As regular readers of my reviews know, I typically will put in little slips of paper to note places where I feel good “example passages” are to give some flavor of the original in these scribblings. While I quite enjoyed the read, and found the material very interesting, I only ended up with three of these bookmarks stuck in here, and all of those in the first 10% of the book … not sure why at this juncture, but I do find it somewhat surprising. I guess I'm going to be winging it for most of this.

The first of these was right at the start … and I was wondering if the whole book was going to be as “florid” as this part of the introductory paragraph:

… Like the Parthenon, the Golden Gate Bridge seems Platonic in its perfection, as if the harmonies and resolutions of creation as understood by mathematics and abstract thought have been effortlessly materialized through engineering design. Although the result of engineering and art, the Golden Gate Bridge seems to be a natural, even inevitable, entity as well, like the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth. In its American context, taken historically, the Bridge aligns itself with the thoughts of Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other transcendentalists in presenting an icon of transcendence: a defiance of time pointing to more elusive realities. Were Edwards, Emerson, or the Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic thinker of great importance to the formation of American thought, alive today, they would no doubt see in the Golden Gate Bridge a fusion of material and trans-material forces, held in delicate equipoise.
Needless to say, the book does not continue in this mode (how could it?), but it sets things out in a modality that is hardly the standard “let's take a look at this piece of engineering” or “ain't that a cool landmark?” tones that might be expected in a book about a bridge. However, Starr isn't quite done with the “highfalutin” verbiage, as later in the “Bridge” chapter he adds:

From an iconic perspective, the Golden Gate Bridge offers a West Coast counterpart to the Statue of Liberty, announcing, in terms of American Art Deco, American achievement and the higher purposes of American culture. And it does this with its own element of historical narrative, subtly contained in the Art Deco stylization of its towers played off against repetitive cables descending into a reversed arch against an interplay of city, sea, and sky. …
Again, the book starts out in a philosophical mode, and in the “Icon” chapter, these issues are tied to historical antecedents (both conceptually and bridge-wise), and assorted poetry (including one that gets the rather “purple” description of being “elliptical and elusive, modeled on the vatic Ur-Poem of the twentieth century, fully cognizant of the perils and terrors of modern life”!). He notes here that:

The American Society of Civil Engineers ranks the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, along with such other choices as the Channel Tunnel, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal.
Which is followed by an interesting name-check of the authors of the original “seven wonders” (in the ancient world), which were “Greek historian Herodotus and the poet-scholar Callimachus of the Library of Alexandria” (I don't believe the latter had ever made it onto my radar). The last thing that I flagged was the introductory paragraph for the “Site” chapter … which, if memory serves, is pretty much when Starr buckled in and started to actually write about the bridge, in its various aspects … but I figured I'd throw it in here for you:

The Golden Gate Bridge serves as the focal point and organizing principle of a fusion of nature and history that is at once a matter of geography and public art. In the perceptions of those encountering it, the Bridge and its site reflect eons of geological time and a shorter period of human association. As drama, then, the Bridge celebrates that interaction of nature, technology, and social purpose that created Native American, Spanish, Mexican, American, and ultimately global California across centuries of human development.
While the preceding might seem a bit over-blown, it does introduce a number of themes brought up in the “Site” chapter, including the geological development of the San Francisco Bay through the exploration of the region my mariners going back to the 16th century. However, it was not until the mid-18th century that the Bay was discovered. This was due to the narrowness of the Golden Gate itself, which “acted as a funnel and stabilizer for fog”, which meant that unless a ship was running right up the coast (a hazardous venture), the passage would be virtually impossible to see. In fact, it wasn't “discovered” until a group of Spanish soldiers in 1769, exploring the coastline to the south, crested a ridge and “beheld a great inland sea stretching north, south,and east as far as the eye could see”, and it wasn't until the fall of 1775 that a ship ended up sailing into the Bay, and only in 1776 was the first permanent settlement established. When gold was discovered in the region 70 years later, everything changed, and the urban San Francisco swarmed up and over the hills.

In the “Vision” chapter, Starr traces the ultimate concept of the bridge to “El Camino Real – the Royal Highway, the King's Highway” of the Spanish, which “linked the twenty-one missions founded between 1769 and 1823 at intervals of a day's march”, which ended up having a bit of a hiccup at the Golden Gate, requiring either a very long circumnavigating of the Bay, or ferrying across the strait. He suggests that, after 1937: “the Golden Gate Bridge completed the vision of Spanish Franciscan missionaries of an Alta California unified by one Royal Highway”. In the 19th century, there was a lot of interest in getting something built there, especially from railroad concerns, who found themselves having to re-route trains through the central valley, or ferrying across the channel. With the popularization of automotive transportation, the ferry business became a huge operation, and a major bottle-neck, with commuters having to wait in lines hours long to get their turn on the ferries. It's also in this chapter that some key players in the bridge's development are introduced, including San Francisco city engineer Michael O'Shaughnessy, and Chicago-based bridge engineer, Joseph Baerman Strauss (another Chicago connection in the story is that of Daniel Burnham, who had developed a “Burnham Plan” for San Francisco, delivered just before the 1906 quake/fire that destroyed much of the existing city … in their haste to rebuild, even less of his plan got built there than was the case in Chicago).

One of the interesting aspects of the bridge is that it was a local development, and managed by a local board, the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. The “Politics” chapter goes through the extremely convoluted pathway it took to make this happen (it was structured to take advantage of existing legislation “authorizing multi-county irrigation districts empowered to issue bonds, raise money, construct irrigation projects, and administer ongoing irrigation programs”). There were numerous interests both supporting and opposing the bridge, and from its initial approval in 1923, there were on-going lawsuits and challenges. These were still going on when the stock market crashed and the Depression started, and even though the project won what should have been a “final” vote (carrying by a 3-1 margin), more lawsuits were launched at it. In the “Money” chapter, the details on the financing are looked at, noting the influence of banker Amadeo Peter Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy (in the Italian areas of S.F.), later to become Bank of America and the Transamerica Corp.. His backing of the bridge (agreeing to purchase the first offering of bonds) gave it a key boost in the wake of “the fire” and amid the Depression.

There's more dirt being dished in the “Design” chapter, as it appears that Strauss' initial design was quite uninspiring, Most of the “heavy lifting” in terms of the mathematical calculations necessary to build the largest bridge in the world, were coming out from the pencils of Charles Alton Ellis, a professor of structural and bridge engineering at University of Illinois … although he was later all but erased from the project by Strauss (who liked having the credit to his firm) … in cooperation with engineers Leon Moisseiff, Othmar Hermann Amman (who had designed the George Washington Bridge in New York), and Charles Derleth, Jr., along with geology professor Andrew Lawson (who was key in certifying the stability of the bases of the bridge's pylons). Two architects were largely responsible for the Deco “look” of the bridge, John Eberson and Irving Morrow, neither of whom had any background in bridges, the former making his name in theater houses, the latter being a “thought leader” in the architectural community. This chapter also dips its toe into Pythagorean theory, and discussions of some of the extreme technical challenges faced by the design team. One fascinating point discussed here was about the bridge's “International Orange” color … it was not necessarily an intentional choice, but was the color of the lead-based primer used to protect the components of the bridge as it was being built. Despite numerous other suggestions being put forward from everybody from the Navy to some of the engineers, the orange-red seemed to have “compatibility as far as the site and atmospherics were concerned”, helped make the bridge more visible in foggy conditions, and ended up as the iconic hue it has become.

The “Construction” chapter is fascinating, as there are elements involved that I never suspected … such as the cables needing to be spun from 0.196” wire on site, with carriages holding the spinning mechanisms moving 640ft/min. When there were 452 wires spun, they were banded into hexagonal strands, which were the put into groups of 64, and six circular hydraulic jacks compressed these into a single cable. Pretty amazing. One notable thing here is that Strauss established a hard-hat requirement, soon to be an archetypal element of construction sites, and set up a safety net, which saved many workers. In the “City” chapter, more construction factors are covered, including the shocking news that the bridge might have been destroyed (much like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940) in a violent windstorm with 69mph gusts in December of 1951 … the report noted that had the winds kept up another half-hour, the bridge likely would have failed … this led to an update “which increased the torsional rigidity of the Bridge by a factor of thirty-five”, completed in 1954. Similarly grim is the “Suicide” chapter, which notes that the Golden Gate Bridge is the second “most popular” place on the planet (behind a volcano in Japan – go figure) for folks to kill themselves. Starr goes into a lot of statistics here, both on numbers of deaths, and the tech issues (velocity achieved on the way down to the water, etc.) involved, all of which I think I'll spare you (although the paragraph with the “chum for sharks” comment was very tempting). This is filled with demographic info (85% of jumpers are locals, for instance), and touching stories about notes, interventions, and even a movie (The Bridge) about these suicides. The final chapter, “Art”, is (predictably), an over-view of how the iconic structure has manifested in photography, painting, film/video, and popular media.

As noted, Golden Gate was quite an engaging read, and I think most folks would find it of interest. It's still in print in a paperback edition, but the hardcover I found at the dollar store is in the new/used channels with “like new” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping), so it can be added to your library quite reasonably if it sounds like something you'd like to have.

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Sunday, September 11th, 2016
11:32 pm
The "Pathfinder of the Seas" ...
There was a time when I “stocked up” at the Newberry Library Book Fair, however in recent years (when I've been broke – and since I discovered the dollar stores as a source of books) not so much. I typically go on the last day (Sunday) when everything's half-priced, and see what I can find. This year I ended up with just a couple of books (and a few CDs), one of which was Chester G. Hearn's Tracks in the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans, which was not only “like new” (frankly, it looked like it had never been opened), but only setting me back $2.50. I'm somewhat surprised that it managed to get right into my reading rotation, as the subject isn't necessarily one that's in my main thematic groups … but perhaps that's why it appealed – as a change of pace.

I had actually anticipated this being a science book, looking at the technologies enabling the “Mapping of the Oceans” in the middle of the 19th Century. However, while there is a not insignificant amount of material on that, this is much more a biography of Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose vision of amassing, condensing, and processing data about sea conditions enabled a huge leap in the development of reliable nautical charts.

This is also one of those cases where I've not put any little bookmarks in while reading, so I didn't have any particular “ah-hah” moments with key points that I could string together for a review … and the book is so full of details of ships, journeys, captains, countries, companies, and conspiracies (as well as minutia about Maury's life), that it's likewise going to be hard to summarize. So, I'm leaning towards doing some “cherry picking” of bits that (although not marked during the reading) will give you a sense of the book. The following seems a good place to start:

Navigators shared their knowledge of winds and currents with other seafarers, passing down through generations a combination of wisdom and rumor. But it remained for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a self-educated lieutenant of the nineteenth-century U.S. Navy, to apply any sort of scientific discipline to the collection and analysis of meteorologic and oceanographic data. His research led to publication of wind and current tables for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and later, in 1855, to the first textbook of oceanography, his Physical Geography of the Sea.
The development of accurate navigation technology was long in coming. East-west traffic was reasonably predictable, with a compass for direction and angles figured to celestial objects providing a rough estimate of north-south position. However:

An accurate timepiece for calculating longitudes took six thousand years to develop; even after John Harrison's chronometer was recognized by an act of the British Parliament in 1773, it took another fifty years for the maritime world to adopt the chronometer for common use.
While, contrary to common myth, navigators in Columbus' era (and long before) were aware that the earth was round, it took a combination of those accurate timepieces and some rather esoteric “spherical trigonometry” to create accurate charts and the ability to plot reasonably precise pathways from point A to point B. While there are historical examples of some fairly sophisticated mapping (such as exhibited in the famed Piri Reis map), it wasn't until the late 18th Century that sea voyages weren't very much a matter of dead reckoning and luck (Hearn illustrates this with the story of the Peggy, whose 1765 “40 day voyage” ended up running over three times as long – with the crew descending into cannibalism – yet, when finally rescued the captain discovered “that he had drifted to within a few hundred miles of the coast of England”). Among the many ships and sailors “name checked” here, there are many familiar ones, from Cook to Bligh (yes, who was a historical figure), and many more.

Matthew Maury was born in 1806, the seventh of nine children of a less-than-prosperous Virginia farmer, whose family re-located to Tennessee when Maury was still a child. Inspired by an older brother who had joined the Navy in his early teens, Maury aspired to the service and by 1825 he was serving on the brand new (he'd watched her being built) Brandywine. Maury had a natural curiosity, and despite the lack-luster training available, manged to wrest as much knowledge of navigation that he could out of the senior staff.

The book goes into a great deal of detail of journeys made by various ships at various times, and elements of the conditions that they encountered … including the round-the-world trip Maury was on (the first for a U.S. Navy ship) aboard the Vincennes. By 1831 he was the “sailing master” for the Falmouth which gave him opportunity to manage the logbook:

When the cruise began, Maury planned to emphatically demonstrate his skill as a navigator. He expected the cruise to be his opportunity to establish a reputation, so he took a keen interest in the winds and currents. Why such information was not available to seafarers baffled him, so began keeping remarkably precise records of his daily observations.
The year 1834 was a big one for Maury, not only did he marry his long-romanced cousin Ann, but the American Journal of Science and Arts published his “On the Navigation of Cape Horn”, as well as an instrument design he'd developed. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1836 (the rank he'd carry for most of his life – there were only a handful of ranks at the time). Publishing was one of the key ways that Maury gained notoriety, and in 1837 the Navy put his 1836 book Navigation “on every ship in the Navy”.

He had been set up to be the “acting astronomer” for a scientific expedition … but this had been delayed numerous times (partially due to other people actively trying to sabotage Maury's efforts for their own purposes), and he had been back in Tennessee in 1839 when he got orders to report for sea duty … on the stagecoach trip to New York, there was an accident, and Maury was seriously injured, and by the time he was able to get to the coast, the ship had sailed without him. During this period of disability, Maury wrote more, notably the pseudonymously-released (as Harry Bluff) “Scraps from the Lucky Bag”, which voiced his criticisms of the Navy (both on issues of training and pointing out how much more expensive ships for the Navy were vs. their commercial counterparts ... padding government invoices appears to be a long tradition) – and offered a plan for correcting the failings. These publications were very popular with the rank-and-file Navy, but understandably less so among the established authorities. This came to be an on-going problem for Maury, as at nearly every point in his subsequent career, he had other factions' candidates trying to take positions for which he was seeking.

In 1842, Maury became head of the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments … Hearn notes:

That Maury could jam all the records and instruments into the lower level of his home and still have room for his family on the second floor indicates how modest the Depot of Charts and Instruments was in 1842.
One of the “suggestions” made in the “Lucky Bag” material was for the establishment of a facility which would not only serve as the Depot (for “… a library of charts and nautical books issued to departing vessels and returned at the end of each cruise”), but as an observatory to ensure the accuracy of astronomical info … fortunately, the Secretary of the Navy at that time was one of the fans of “Harry Bluff”, and managed to get an appropriation pushed through Congress, resulting in the construction of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In the meanwhile, Maury was organizing the materials he'd inherited in his new position:

… he found little of value for the navigator, only heaps of disorganized data and a thousand dusty logbooks that had been kept since the birth of the United States Navy. His predecessors referred to the logbooks as depot rubbish, but Maury began to slog through them. The more he read, the more excited he became. Although some logs offered little information of value, other logs contained enormous detail. They might be dead storage to the navy, but to Maury they represented a treasury of priceless information, for they contained records of weather and sea conditions for every month of the year in all parts of the world.

… he laid out a simple program for excising data on the force of winds, rain, for, unusual ocean currents, the distance covered during a daily run, all natural or unusual phenomena observed, and any other detail that might prove significant or insightful …
Amazingly (by today's standards), the mid-19th century Navy had only 37 ships at sea ... so Maury devised a standardized logbook, and got the Navy to approve offering free charts to merchant ships, in exchange for keeping data in the new format. Fortunately, this was approved, and the value of updated charts was enough of a “carrot” that many shipping companies agreed to the deal (more as the ships using the new charts cut time off their voyages). This ended up providing ever-increasing amounts of data for Maury to work with.

As head of the U.S. Naval Observatory Maury was able to amass ever more data (especially as the merchant shipping got on board), and produce more accurate charts for ever expanding parts of the ocean. In 1853 he pioneered the first international marine meteorological conference, in Brussels, which led to his getting a great deal of attention from the participating countries (many offering him gifts that he had to refuse). This eventually created further problems for him at home, as he was accumulating “enemies” elsewhere in the government … many (with academic credentials) resenting that a “self-taught” figure was getting the advancement that Maury was seeing, and others (such as the head of the Smithsonian) seemingly just engaging in a “turf war”.

There's quite a bit on the nature of charts, the issues with various oceans, the voyages of numerous ships whose logs were particularly useful, races between different ships, and how much time, as more captains adopted the charts, was being cut off of long journeys. One of the more fascinating (to me, at least) things here were the reproduced chart figures, such as the grid that represented the ocean, but rather than have coastlines, etc., it has a disk with all the data on winds at different times of the year. The navigator would use these to mark out specific pathways to take advantage of the conditions at the time of their being there.

The issue of his health arose as a part of the political maneuvering against him, and in 1855 he was “plucked” from active duty … a move he fought until getting re-instated in 1858. This episode (with the unpleasantries that preceded it) not doubt influenced his decision in 1861 to join the Confederacy. The people that took over his position did not have the vision that Maury did regarding his nautical charts, and his knowledge of these provided a great advantage to the tiny CSA Navy, whose raiders seemed to be able to strike and disappear at will (and were able to use the very charts that the whaling fleet used to find their prey, to attack those ships). With the defeat of the rebel states, Maury had a difficult decision, and opted to move to Mexico and work for their military, even becoming naturalized. Maury, with many other Confederate officers, was pardoned in 1868, and returned to the U.S. for a position at the Virginia Military Institute, where he worked until his death in 1873.

Needless to say, Maury's life was a remarkable one, that changed the ways that people got around the planet. Unfortunately, he seems to be all but forgotten, as his revolutionary systems of obtaining and processing log book data into accurate maps and reference books began to fade as sail power gave way at first to steam power, and then to diesel (and nuclear). As noted, I was less interested in the parts covering his personal life, and the political in-fighting that he had to put up with, but for many these would be quite interesting.

Tracks in the Sea appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I found, but seems to still be available as a later paperback edition. Both are in the new/used channels, if you want to save a few bucks. Again, there's a lot to be said for this book, Hearn was able to put together a very wide look at Maury's life, so it offers angles of approach for people with varying interests, in the science (that was what got me to pick it up), as a Navy book, as a look at a developmental stage in our country's history, as a cautionary tale about professional jealousies, and as a basic biographical sketch.

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Saturday, September 10th, 2016
11:43 am
A snapshot ...
Another thing that was staring out of the dollar store shelves recently … I'm not proud to say it, but the main reason I picked this up (being that I'm generally quite disinterested in “celebrities” unless there's a compelling story arc in the book) was that I was hoping it would be providing an insider view into one of the more notorious entries on the “Clinton Body Count” … JFK Jr., having tragically died in a “mysterious” plane crash (with his wife and sister-in-law) just before making a run for the New York Senate seat that a certain current Presidential candidate had her eye on back in 1999. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Matt Berman's JFK Jr., George, & Me: A Memoir on this (I was disappointed), but, frankly, there was nothing political in here at all. Of course, I would have worked pretty much all the way through to book to get to the potential Democratic Senatorial primary, so the absence of that did not notably detract from the reading … although, I suppose, part of me was waiting for it to turn up.

So, I sailed into this hoping for juicy political intrigue … and got … well, a breezy look inside the glossy magazine biz. As this is “A Memoir”, it's ultimately more about Matt Berman than it is about JFK Jr., but is (obviously) focused on the part of Berman's life when he was helping to develop Kennedy's George magazine. The author was “a shy, self-deprecating, artistic kid” who grew up in Connecticut (and had a significant trauma in his life a year following the JFK assassination, when two raccoons ripped up his 5-month-old face – permanently scarring him). He was a good enough artist that he attended Carnegie Mellon, and got his degree from the Parsons School of Design … and managed to talk his way into the Art department of the American ELLE Magazine in 1986. The parent company of ELLE, Hachette, was launching the JFK Jr. project George, and his boss thought he'd be a good match with Kennedy … after getting the nod from JFK Jr.'s then-girlfriend (later wife) Carolyn Bessette – who'd been asked to come in to check out the logo that Berman was working on – he got the gig as Creative Director of the magazine.

The book is about 1/3rd dishing about the magazine business (and especially characters around the Hachette New York office), about 1/3rd dishing about the various celebrities who were featured in the magazine (with lots of stories about famous cover shoots), and about 1/3rd talking about himself and John:

We were an unlikely team. John was confident, charismatic, the son of the most beloved president in history. I was self-conscious, self-deprecating, and son of the most beloved restaurant supplier in all of Fairfield County, Connecticut. John loved football in the park on a Saturday; I loved a good Twilight Zone marathon on cable. … When I was blearily hitting the snooze button at seven in the morning, he was plunging into the Hudson River in a kayak. This split-screen idea always made us laugh.

My brothers … always seemed so cool … I felt that way about John, a brother who led an impossibly cool life.
There's lots of “fun” stuff in here about the famous and/or beautiful … including separate sections on “The Shoot” featuring tales of photographing Cindy Crawford, Demi Moore, Barbra Streisand, Drew Barrymore, Kate Moss (who was a last-moment replacement for Pamela Anderson – no, really), Elizabeth Hurley, Barbara Walters, and Ben Stiller (who was doing a feature sending up John). I'm sure that those who enjoy celebrity “stuff” will find these quite appealing.

On a more obscure (for most) plane, there's also a lot of talk of fashion industry photographers, make-up artists, stylists, etc. … plus (on an even more rarefied level) talk about “legends” in the magazine (fashion primarily, and European at that) biz. It's interesting to read Berman's take on these folks, but, without a whole other book to fill in the back story on who these people are and what they've done, and why I should care about it … it seems a bit “niche”.

Having “gone a-googling” a bit, it turns out that Berman (following the changes at George brought on by JFK Jr.'s death) ended up moving to Paris, and working in the fashion magazine field for more than a decade, before returning to the states to work for a while as an executive with a clothing company (where he was when this book happened), and eventually hanging his own shingle out as an advertising design consultant.

Oh, being the cantankerous old geezer that I am (who well remembers the way things were “back then”), I found another subtle sub-theme here endearing … how all this happened in a very primitive technological context … Berman talks about doing manual paste-up, doing photo research by looking at sheets of slides, and notes towards the end of the book:

It's amazing to think that I never received an email from John. We didn't use it yet at George; we used telephones, FedEx, and fax machines. I wonder what John would think about an iPhone or Facebook, and then I realize he didn't even live to see the tsunami in Phuket or the horrors of September 11, only blocks from his home.
It would be easy to say Matt Berman is using the fame of JFK Jr. to “sell” his memoir (and, honestly, would it have seen print without that connection?), but this is a sweet and loving recalling of his boss from those years, providing the over-all arc to a look at the many elements which made up George, from the stars on the cover, to the quirky folks in the office.

JFK Jr., George, & Me is still in print, in a paperback edition. It is somewhat odd that it found its way to the dollar store, as it's only a couple of years old, and the new/used guys don't have it at a deep discount (you can, however, get new copies of the hardcover for about a quarter of what the paperback is going for). While this wasn't the book that I was thinking it might be when I picked it up, it was an engaging read, and an interesting look at a part of the publishing world that I wasn't particularly familiar with. If you're “into” fashion and celebrities, I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy this even more than I did.

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Friday, September 9th, 2016
3:47 pm
A lucky tale ...
As one might imagine, much of the time when picking up books at the dollar store, they are purchased more on the fact of being only a buck, rather than my having a particularly burning desire to read the book in question. This leads to a lot of dollar store “finds” sitting in the to-be-read piles for long stretches of time. The current book went through this, having been bought nearly 4 years ago (when it had just been out 3-ish years), and only in the past few weeks fitting in the mix of what I was feeling like reading.

Anyway, Jere Van Dyk's Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban grabbed my attention, and got into the reading queue. I will admit that I took a peek at some of the existing reviews before jumping into it, so I was a bit hesitant, having noted the slams like “selfish, careless guy cries for your sympathy” … and, frankly, that's not uncalled for here … but it hardly encapsulates the story.

Jere Van Dyk is a journalist, writing for the New York Times, CBS News, and others. In the 1980's, he was embedded with the Mujahideen during their struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 2008, he got the idea of doing a similar type of story, and set about getting himself hooked up with connections to the Taliban. What he seems, at least on some level, to assume is that he can set up the trip he's intending like it's a rafting adventure on the Brahmaputra or something … which is certainly not the case. Early on here he's pretty clear on that point (albeit this certainly could be in 20/20 retrospect once he was home and writing the book), saying:

It is a very murky world here, a place of ancient tribal ties, betrayal, warfare, double-crossing, and where a man's honor and tribal codes count for everything.
Unfortunately, the above is the only thing I had bookmarked in the whole tale … perhaps more indicative that the book is pretty much set up like an on-going journal than featuring major expository bits – so it was sort of hard while reading through this to pick out the “key elements” on the fly. Perhaps I'll drag a few out while writing this, perhaps not … we'll see.

For somebody who has spent as much time as he has in that part of the world, the author seems awfully naive, beginning with the concept that it would be “a good idea” to illegally cross the border into Pakistan. While the author describes himself as living “like a Pashtun”, and I guess – unless he opens his mouth – he can “pass” in a crowd. He also notes that he has “sneaked into the tribal zones” in Pakistan several times previously … I guess giving him the confidence that this project was workable. The problem was that there were so many inter-related forces involved, sometimes working together, sometimes killing each other. There was the Taliban, there was al-Qaeda, there was Afghan Intelligence, there was Pakistani Military Intelligence, and various tribal structures running back and forth within these. At one point he finds his driver crying, because one of his brothers is being held by the Afghans, and one by the Pakistanis. And, even in the tribal groups, even within individual families, there were deep animosities, so that almost everybody in the tribal areas was armed – especially when relatives came to call. He notes that he was entrusting his life to “a man who had killed the brother of my oldest friend in Afghanistan”, just because he seemed to have the necessary connection to get Van Dyk where he was wanting to go.

One thing that I have to agree with the other reviews who found the author somewhat “whiny” on is that he's constantly in emotional flux. I don't know if this is some attempt to paint a picture of how changeable the situation was there, or what, but he'd go from really liking one of his captors or fellow prisoners and feeling very hopeful that he'd be released (or, early on, sent of his way to meet Abdullah), to being angry, scared, and hopeless … often through multiple cycles on the same page. It was not particularly clear how he was keeping notes … as it was only halfway or so through his 45 days of captivity that they deigned to give him back his notebooks. One could imagine if he was making 1-2 sentence notes on paper scraps that one would be “hate this guy”, the next would be “this guy's great”, etc., and those might have be strung together in the book.

Although he looked like a Pashtun (including a full grey beard), he didn't have much linguistic skills for somebody who had lived over there (the “ugly American”?), and hadn't even prepared himself with the basics of “passing” as a Muslim – like memorizing the core prayers and rituals that everybody there would have as a matter of course. When they are first captured, he is asked where they came from and where they were going:

When I said “Peshawar” I pronounced it Pesh-hour, as I had always heard it pronounced. That is the English pronunciation. No one had ever corrected me. I learned later that here it is pronounced Peck-a-waar.
It really is a miracle that he didn't get his head cut off within the first 18 hours of the escapade.

So, he (and those with him) get captured … and are driven off, blindfolded, to some tribal village somewhere (again, the details are murky) in the border region. They are put in an enclosure with minimal facilities – cots and a drain, basically. They get water for the ablutions necessary for the Islamic prayers, and he is very strongly encouraged to learn these. In fact, the figure who seemed to “have them” was quite enthusiastic to have Van Dyk convert.

Later on the presence of the drain becomes a problem, as sufficient water is coming out of their enclosure that it is notable to people in the area. The fellow whose home they seem to be being held at is worried that his relatives will notice and realize that he has “guests” (albeit ones frequently chained to their cots), which could cause rumors to get to other factions. Even the head guy is playing a bit of a game, as he's unwilling to have the author's group transferred to a regional headquarters – although at points his co-captives are brought there (feeding paranoia that they're part of a plot). This was probably good for Van Dyk, as it sounds like the odds of him being executed there were a lot higher than where he was. Again, there are factions and sub-factions, and various interests all playing against each other … and it's unclear who's working for what goal.

It appears that one of the things that keeps Van Dyk alive is that he's perceived as being a high-value captive, and the ransom figure varied from a million bucks to a couple of hundred thousand. I don't think the amount eventually paid (by CBS, evidently) was ever specifically determined, as everything was constantly in confusion in the telling.

Obviously, the main part of the book is the period of time he was in captivity, but this is, as noted, a bit of a jumble of repeated and/or developing scenarios … they're interrogated, they're fed, they pray, they talk, and the author goes through every possible emotion around each of the other characters – as mentioned, frequently paragraph-to-paragraph (this is quite irritating, honestly).

The most interesting thing here, and pretty much the #1 take-away from the book, is how massively backwards these various sub-cultures are. Their focus on religion takes precedence over everything else, with the stress being on how one's going to be in the afterlife rather than anything in this life. The fundamentalism is total, and stifling. The only thing acceptable to study is the Koran and the Hadith, and ignorance (of anything else) is seen as a positive. While Van Dyk doesn't explicitly frame things this way … it's quite a cautionary tale regarding “the sort of people” we appear to be in global war with at the moment.

Captive must be a reasonably popular book, as the later paperback edition is still available (at full price) from the on-line big boys. The hardcover (which is what I got at the dollar store), however, is offered new by the new/used guys for as little as a penny (and, for the first time that I can recall, you can get that with free shipping if you're an Amazon Prime member), so if this sounds interesting, it can be had for cheap!

Again, my take on this is mixed. It's an interesting tale, with a lot of stuff happening around the main story line … but it's also a real yo-yo on the author's emotions, and you (or at least I) really want to “bitch slap” him and yell at him to get his act together. Yes, he's in constant hazard of being executed, yes, it's not a nice situation that he's gotten himself into, but most of this is his fault, and the “I like him” / “he's going to help us” / “he scares me” / “I don't trust him” / “I hate him” vacillation (over and over and over) gets old real fast. As mentioned previously, it's remarkable that he made it out alive.

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Sunday, September 4th, 2016
8:43 am
Originally nothing. Where is dust?
This may be a bit into the “TMI” zone … as I came to be reading this book through a “very personal” route, one that many might not choose to volunteer in public. I quit drinking 31 years ago … but have just recently begun to attend A.A. Meetings because, while I evidently “got” the first step way back in 1985, I've been feeling that I “missed something” regarding the full program. As regular readers know, I'm at least “deeply agnostic”, if not enthusiastically “antitheistic”, so the second (and third) steps in A.A. were a wall that I could not figure a way around. A couple of weeks back, I had a discussion with a fellow following a meeting who suggested the Korean Zen concept of “don't know” might provide me with a way to have a “higher power” that did not seem to be a lie (which would, in my view, taint all the subsequent steps as being built on a falsehood).

This struck a chord with me, as I had long quoted a bit of this (as I recalled it) from a talk I'd attended at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions here in Chicago, where a Korean Zen master (possibly Samu Sunim, but I wasn't able to find definitive identification) did a talk, and said something to the effect of if you say “yes”, I hit you with stick, if you say “no”, I hit you with stick – what you gonna do?, with the intent of getting into that pure “don't know” consciousness. Inspired by this, I went off to Amazon and found Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen by Richard Shrobe and dug into it. While I didn't have a “lightbulb moment” with this (the “don't-know mind” is still pretty abstract, but perhaps less so than gravity, which was what I was otherwise coming up with as a “higher power” that I had faith existed), it certainly fleshed out the concept to the point where I suspect I might be able “to work with it”.

Anyway, embarrassing “breaking of anonymity” out of the way … this is quite an interesting read. First of all, there is an approachability of this being issued under the author's “birth name”, rather than his “Zen name”, Wu Kwang … this alone is enough to indicate this isn't some newage twaddle, as it's the opposite of what frequently happens in those cases where somebody without much in the way of credentials starts “spewing in public” based largely on some “sacred name” they've come up with! Shrobe is the main teacher at the Chogye International Zen Center in New York City, and this book is primarily a collection of talks that he's given there.

The book operates on several levels. There is a goodly amount of the history of Zen presented here, with discussions of the various “schools”, and the key figures involved in these. There is the presentation of teaching materials, and explanations of how these work, and there is the underlying offering of what one might hope is possibly enlightening. The book is divided into three sections, “Origins”, “The Classical Period”, and “The Modern Period”, each looking at highlighted teachers and approaches. Because this is based on talks, this does not hew to a particularly academic voice, with the author “breaking the fourth wall” here and there to add context and commentary for the reader, which is attractive when it happens. Because it's coming from a Korean Zen standpoint, the names of the protagonists are given in their Korean forms, but – very usefully – these are followed by their Japanese and Chinese forms, which are (for me) typically more familiar.

Now, when I was reading this, I was primarily focused on bits I could use in wrapping my head around the “step” thing, so most of my little bookmarks are leading me back to things I found illuminating, rather than illustrative quotes. So, bear with me. The first of these deals with a teacher named T'aego, born around 1300ce, when the Mongols ruled the region. T'aego had established a mountain Zen center near what is currently Seoul, and sought to bring together the feuding “Nine Mountain Schools” into a single school that would revitalize Korean Zen. The kong-an (koan) that grabbed my attention was:

The ten thousand things all return to one.
To what though does the one return?
The author cites a book that came out some time back on the teachings of this T'aego, and notes that he was inspired by parts of this. This section is exemplary of how the “discussing” vibe comes across here, as there are bits detailing how the various elements work in this, how things (a presentation at the palace for the King) would have been perceived at the time, and the offering explanations such as:

T'aego is establishing that on the one hand you can look at this thing as being something which is before name, before form, before speech, before words, never moving, never coming, never going, just universally covering everything. But at the same time, you can find this truth revealed in every activity, in every function, because everything is expressing it just as it is. These are two sides of the coin.
For a historical example, there's a look at the transmission between the Fifth and Sixth Patriarchs, where the head monk of the Fifth Patriarch's monastery was assumed to going to be the one to get the nod. However, the Fifth had requested that everybody there write a poem to demonstrate their “understanding and attainment”. The head monk wrote his poem on the wall (rather than directly presenting it to the Fifth Patriarch), which was noted as being a “good poem”, however, Hui-neng, a newcomer who could neither read nor write, heard the poem and realized that “it did not go to the heart of Zen Dharma”, and dictated a new poem to be put up next to the head monk's. The Fifth Patriarch saw that the author of the second poem was the one to pass along the transmission to, but he had to do so in secret, and then send Hui-neng (now the Sixth Patriarch) away from the monastery, as he knew the internal politics would not accept him. For several days the Fifth Patriarch gave no teachings, and the monks began to wonder, and he eventually said “the Dharma has left here” and explained that the lay brother who had been working in the rice shed had become his successor!

Another snippet which resonated for me was from the teachings of Kyong-Ho, a “modern” figure (1849-1912):

What does this which is now seeing, hearing, and thinking look like?
Examine and observe this matter carefully. … Let your examination and observation be focused at the one point and do not forget it. Keep it before you by raising doubt and questioning yourself.
Shrobe notes that “doubt” here is perhaps better rendered as “perplexity”, and that “don't-know” is the feeling of trying to frame the “this” in the above. Later there are a few other pithy statements from Kyong Ho, including one that reminds me of one of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quotes:

Don't expect to practice hard and not experience the weird. Hard practice that evades the unknown makes for a weak commitment.
While this didn't get me where I was hoping it might, I certainly enjoyed reading it, and found the approach taken by its author ideal for presenting the material. Having previously only had that one brush (at the '93 PWR) with Korean Zen, this certainly filled in more details than “I hit you with stick” (although that element is touched on here). Of course, I came to this specifically looking for details on the title state, and might have benefited more from something more conceptually focused, but that would have no doubt been a lot less enjoyable read that this proved to be.

Don't-Know Mind must certainly have its audience out there, as it's not only still in print (a dozen years later), but the on-line big boys have it at full cover price, and the new/used guys don't have it for cheap (well, it can be had for 1/3rd to ½ of cover). I would certainly recommend this for anybody interested in Zen, and the Korean manifestation thereof … but it's probably not an “all and sundry” thumbs-up because it's really for those with those sort of interests. It is certainly an engaging read, however, from where I'm sitting.

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Saturday, September 3rd, 2016
8:29 am
An amazing look at an icon ...
This has been sitting in my “to be read” piles for a few years … I picked it up at the Dollar Store down in the Back of the Yards neighborhood when I was working with “the worm guys” … which was a strange place to find a book on Barry Goldwater. That's the old stomping grounds of the nefarious Saul Alinsky (philosophical godfather to both the execrable current POTUS, and the equally vile Democratic presidential candidate), but maybe the hard-left skew of the area is the reason this was still sitting on the shelf for a misplaced Libertarian to find it..

This might have sat around longer, waiting for me to randomly develop a hankering for some “political history”, if not for my recent read of Wayne Allyn Root's The Conscience of a Libertarian, which was primarily inspired by Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative (which Root claims to carry with him everywhere) … and my curiosity was piqued enough to delve into Pure Goldwater.

I'm am very glad I decided to finally get around to reading this, as it is a fascinating book. It is put together by Goldwater's son, Barry Jr., and John Dean (yes, Nixon's White House lawyer), who have been friends since their early teens – both, obviously, having close connections to the subject of the book. However, this is not written by them, but assembled from the vast stores of archival material held by the Goldwater family and the Arizona Historical Foundation. There is so much material because Goldwater was a dedicated recorder of his activities, both carrying around a portable typewriter and camera (he was an award-winning photographer), and later making taped notes for others to type up. In the Preface the “authors” write:

In fact, this is a book by Senator Goldwater about himself, although he did not write it for publication. Throughout his adult life he paused from time to time – albeit on an irregular basis, yet with sufficient frequency to create a meaningful collection – to gather and share his thoughts and put them down in written form.
The current book is nearly 400 pages, and they note that it was seriously trimmed down to reach that length, as the amount of available material is quite voluminous (not even counting official government/legal transcripts – some of which are excerpted here), and they eventually had to bring in outside editorial help to tighten things up and bring down the page count.

The primary source material for Pure Goldwater is the journals that he intended as a record of his life to provide to his children … so this is quite personal (and occasionally somewhat pedagogical in a “Dad says” mode), and, by extension, revealing of the man far beyond what an intentional autobiography would provide. In fact, the authors point out that there were several significant items in there that they had never known, including that Nixon had at one point promised Goldwater the ambassadorship to Mexico (which they say he would have loved), and that Ford had asked him to be his Vice President … which, if it was news to his family, it's probably the first time this info has gotten out to the public.

Again, this is collected of various materials in various forms, and from various dates … and while Goldwater had put down a number of “recollections”, much of what is in the earlier parts are pieces he composed some 50 years after the fact, so they are, understandably, not as immediate as his later journals. One amazing item (which is where the book starts) is a letter he wrote to Thomas Edison when he was 14 years old, letting the famous inventor know that he was operating a radio station and was very interested in electricity – this having surfaced in Rutgers' Edison archives in 1989, and sent to the Senator. One of the first recollections here was of how early his interest in flight appeared … he pegs it to 1917 (he would have been 8) … and he got his pilot's license in his late teens (and flew for the military – eventually reaching the rank of Major General – as well as personally for decades, with many of the notes here recorded while in flight).

Goldwater's family owned a mid-size department store in Phoenix, AZ, and when his father died at the end of his freshman year at University of Arizona, he opted to join the family business rather than continuing with college. Instead of being a “silver spoon” kid coming in to run the show, he wanted to learn the business: “I started literally at the bottom in the piece goods section … after that I worked in every department in the store except for corsets and shoes … I gradually worked my way up until I was merchandise manager of ladies ready-to-wear ...”. He helped the business navigate the depression (“the business didn't make any money but it didn't lose any either” and they “were able to maintain our employees and our salary scale”), and he was elected as president of the board in 1937, running the company until he left for military service in 1941.

As a Libertarian (a movement strongly influenced by Goldwater, although he was a life-long Republican), I was amazed at how much what he wrote fifty (or more) years ago could just as easily be put out there today as criticisms of the government. In a 1937 piece directed at FDR he says “Instead of the businessman having confidence in you today, he distrusts you and fears your every utterance.”, and “Are you going further into the morass that you have led us into or are you going to go back to the good old American way of doing things …? I would like to know because I like the old-fashioned way of being an American a lot better than the way we are headed for now.” – how 2016 of him!

Goldwater started out slowly in politics, getting involved in local Phoenix and Arizona politics as an outgrowth of his activities as a local business leader with the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce … eventually being elected to the Phoenix City Council, and becoming the campaign manager for a Republican candidate for Governor. Here's a bit from a speech he gave in that campaign:

Our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes but most important of all they pledged their sacred honor. Today, because of the almost total ignoring of those basic concepts, we find our nation treading on the threshold of socialism. Our government's being run by people who think one way and act another. Whose fault is this? It is yours and mine – the people of this state and nation. Plato once said, “The penalty that people pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by people worse than themselves.” Now, hasn't that come true?
The briefest glance at D.C. would confirm that! He, obviously, did have an interest in politics, and mounted his first Senate campaign in 1952, creating quite a splash by defeating the sitting Senate Majority Leader. There are numerous pieces here that Goldwater wrote as he was acclimating to the way that things get done in Washington … the last bit of this particularly stood out:

While I am trying to learn to be patient, I find it exasperating. It is difficult to get used to the time that is wasted here, for it is a fact that much time is wasted. Nonetheless, this may be just fine. For I subscribe to what I heard someone say the other day: It isn't the laws that are passed here that help the country; it's the legislation that doesn't pass that really does the country more good.
This clear distrust of the ever-growing power of the government is also reflected here (my edits to focus on the main point):

I have learned some things in this year. I have learned that our fears in the West about people in this country wanting to circumvent the Constitution are certainly true. And I am just as fearful as I was a year ago when I was heading to Washington that this could and might happen to this country. People here don't recognize rights of the states. Rather they laugh at them. The concept of government here is one of federal domination. It's one of the federal operations doing everything. … Members of Congress … have lost sight of this basic fundamental concept of government that the power of the federal government stems from the states and the people, and not in the other direction.
And this was decades before a dictatorial madman decided that he could completely “circumvent the Constitution” by pen & phone fiat! Interestingly, in the (highly recommended) book referenced above, Mr. Root charts out a superb plan for re-organizing government – no doubt originating out of these sorts of concerns initially voiced by Goldwater.

Oddly, there is very little from Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, as it appears that he had largely put aside his journal writing during that time. There is material here indicating that he and JFK were friendly (there's a pic of Kennedy included with a note he'd written on it encouraging Goldwater to follow his “talent” and become a pro photographer rather than a politician!), and they had discussed the upcoming campaign, even to the extent that “we talked about the possibility of staging an old-fashioned cross-country Lincoln-Douglas type debate on the issues of the day”. However following the assassination, Goldwater was certain that he didn't have a chance, with the Democrats using JFK's death to push through massive legislation that would have been hard to pass otherwise, and Johnson into the White House.

Another thing I found strange is that about 1/3rd of the book is looking at Richard Nixon. Sure, the Nixon years were those when Goldwater was strongest in the Senate, but it seemed “off tone” for the rest of the book (perhaps this is due to John Dean being as familiar with that administration as he is). I didn't flag a lot to bring up in here from that part of the book, but there is one bit that I hope is top-of-mind for the aforementioned Mr. Root in his current political ventures … this in a meeting with other Congressional leaders and Nixon, where each was able to raise key concerns:

I minced no words in saying the administration reminded me of when Eisenhower came into power and failed to remove some thirteen thousand Truman appointees, and went on to subject himself to eight years of abuse from people in government who actually hated the Republican Party and who would never follow the policies laid down by the leadership. I reminded the president that only a few weeks after his inauguration I had advised him that if he did not get control of his government by May he would never get it, and I said, frankly, Mr. President, you don't have control now and I don't see how you are going to get it unless something drastic is done.
Needless to say, the past 50 years have been a long ugly slide away from greatness in this country, and Goldwater saw this all too clearly. At several points here he is questioning remaining in the Senate because of how bad things were even then, and this is part of his thinking on that:

We are following the same paths that were followed by the ancient government of Rome and by the government of Austria when it brought on the depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. We are becoming a military power of second rate stature at a time when the world only understands strength and needs more of it, not less of it. … I am deeply concerned at this point in our history and my life, as to whether or not this country is going to remain a free Republic or whether we have gone so far down the road to socialism, particularly now that we have controls over the economy here in Washington, that we will find it impossible to return. No country in the history of the world has ever made an exploration into government control and then found it possible to completely extricate themselves from that situation. … It is a terrible time in our history, a very particular one, but not unusual in the sense that we might think no other country or people have ever faced it; in fact they all have. The sad and terrible thought is that none of them has had he guts to come back after facing the failure of the loss of freedom.
Oh, one thing to note on the Nixon material … I don't know if this has surfaced in other sources, but it appears that Nixon kept his VP, Spiro Agnew, totally “out of the loop” on nearly everything, to the extent that it became a recurring point of contention in Goldwater's journals. Another factor that I had not been aware of was how much a “player” General Al Haig had been in the Nixon White House – as Chief of Staff … as my view of him was almost exclusively from his tenure as Reagan's Secretary of State.

The last parts of Pure Goldwater look at his stands of a wide range of issues, many of which might surprise you (there's a lot of reasons he's an icon to Libertarians), plus a very detailed chronology of his life. By the time I was done with this, I felt I'd been able to follow a great man around and be privy to his thoughts over his whole life. Needless to say, this makes the book stand out as something special. It's not an outsider telling a life story, nor is it a “for publication” somewhat sanitized autobiography, but something else, with the protagonist telling his story, but in a manner intended for his kids, and not for the whole world.

It sadly appears that this is out-of-print, except for an e-book edition, even though it's a reasonably recent publication (2008). There are numerous copies in the new/used vendors channel, however, with “like new” copies offered for as little as a penny plus shipping … so it's available. Obviously, 400 pages of a politician's reminiscences isn't something that's “for everybody”, but if you're libertarian-inclined, or have an interest in politics in general, I urge you to pick up a copy, as it brings a near-mythic figure to life in a way that I certainly didn't expect when I got mine!

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Monday, August 22nd, 2016
7:23 pm
The Odd Couple ...
This was another Dollar Store find … with the standard “didn't go looking for it” aspects involved in seeing something that looked plausible staring out from the shelf for a buck. I don't think that I'd have acquired this if it hadn't been in that channel, as I really didn't care that much about the authors (and their legendary mis-matched relationship), but it was “interesting enough” to get into my cart a few months back.

I'm glad that these various factors conspired to get me into Mary Matalin and James Carville's Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, as it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I'd been hesitant, because I'd hated the Clintons so much, and Carville was their personal media pitbull … and I wasn't sure that I wanted to put myself through some glorification of that sorry period in our nation's history. Similarly, I wasn't sure that I really wanted to follow behind Matalin's track through two Bush administrations … with the emotional scars still left from those years.

However, while the political stuff is certainly in here, it's much more a dual memoir of two completely different political players (if you're not familiar, Matalin is a conservative Republican, who is remarkably fond of her former boss Dick Cheney, and Carville is a co-conspirator with the Clinton Crime Family – and otherwise a supporter of the worst of leftist politics), and how their lives have played out. The dichotomy here is perfectly clear, as the book is set in two typefaces – one for the “Mary” parts, and one for the “James” parts – so you always know who's talking.

If there was one pivotal element here, it would be when the couple (well, family at that point) up and left D.C. for New Orleans. Carville, of course, was from down there, and still had a huge extended family around, but Matalin was from Chicago, and as hot and humid as our summers can be, it was certainly a change for her (although, oddly, she favors open windows, while he wants heavy-duty AC). Of course, their having their daughters (and the various stories of the kids growing up) is another thread here, but the “good stuff” is really the fly-on-the-wall look into the world of Washington, politically, socially, and its accompanying media.

Flipping through this, I'm seeing that most of my little bookmarks are highlighting places with “gotcha” reminiscences (needless to say, mainly from Matalin), which throw a particular light on stuff that usually goes unseen. The book sort of (it jumps around quite a bit) starts with the biggest conflict between the two, the re-election loss of Bush Sr., for whom Matalin was deputy campaign manager, to Clinton, whose campaign was being run by Carville. Following the election, Matalin couldn't find any work in her field, and ended up being hired by CNBC to co-host a “girl-gab show” with Jane Wallace, called Equal Time, that had been described as “Wayne's World on estrogen” (something with which it initially shared a lot of production values). This started out as pretty much just a time-filler, but ended up building up a devoted cult following, which eventually got noticed. She says:

It turns out, when your ratings are lousy and nobody's watching, you are left alone to die a quiet TV death. It's when you have a hit that the problems start. Once we were “discovered” by the TV critics, the CNBC suits appeared like Death Eaters and tried to suck the blood and soul from Equal Time ...
The “last straw” for her was that she did not want to do anything about the O.J. Simpson trial:

The rest of television was doing the O.J. Trial nonstop. What intelligent or edifying thing could I possibly add to that? What intelligent or edifying thing could anyone say about that? The O.J. Trail clearly marked the early stages of cable crapdom: the dumber the story, the greater the coverage.
This then moves into the couple's work on Crossfire and their long friendship with the late Tim Russert, with various stories from each of them regarding how that show impacted both sides of the political spectrum.

Again, this is very much a personal memoir for the two authors, and it here shifts into discussing Mary's multitudinous pets, and James' dislike of them all … followed by a chapter on raising their kids … followed by a very brief chapter on, well, “bedroom stuff” (largely summarized by its last line: “none of your damn business”) … followed by a look at how they had grown up, and how James is a classic case of ADHD (and how different they are in their personality types – she's big on spontaneity, and he's a stickler for a locked-in schedule).

This takes us to a chapter called “The Dark Ages” which is about the “hanging chads” end to the 2000 Presidential election. Just about the only thing (well, aside from the kids) that seemed to save their marriage is that Carville thought Gore was an ass, so didn't have quite as much blind devotion to him as he did to Clinton … but it wasn't something that he was prepared for when Matalin got tapped to work for V.P. Dick Cheney. She had insisted that it was only going to be for six months, although this wasn't going to be the case. One part here that drew my attention was in her discussion of how hectic these transitions can be …

      Meanwhile, it turns out that there is something worse than a transition hell that's smooshed into a few short weeks. And that is transitioning from an administration with a civility and maturity level lower than Animal House's, a comparison that is actually a compliment to the outgoing Clinton administration.
      You think I'm being a partisan exaggerator? Well, would you call this mature and civil? Once into the White House, we found all the W's had been stripped from our computer keyboards and our desks were full of molding garbage, uneaten fast food and/or porno – and those were only the cute stunts. The vice president's office were the worst because, as it turns out, Al Gore is not what you'd call graceful in defeat. Instead he lived up to his reputation as a real loser.
Because of the destruction of the White House facilities by the outgoing regime, the VP transition was happening from Cheney's home, with a single phone line for communications. Matalin ended up with a pretty impressive dual title, Counselor to the Vice President, and Assistant to the President, giving her remarkable access across the Bush Jr. administration. By August 2001, she had the office of the VP, “a (mostly) well-oiled machine” , and she and James took a cruise together without the kids, and things began to look like she was ready to start her own transition out of the White House.

And then it was September 11, 2001. That morning Carville was speaking at a conference and said, regarding Bush “I hope he doesn't succeed, but I am a partisan Democrat.” … minutes later cell phones started buzzing around the room, with the news of planes flying into buildings. Matalin had arrived at work “spiffed up” in designer duds (and spike heels) to make an impression at a labor meeting scheduled for later that day … a bad choice as things turned out.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Love & War is the play-by-play from within the White House (and subsequently those “undisclosed locations” that the V.P. was being shuttled off to) on 9/11 and the time following. As you may recall, Bush was out of town (reading to school kids in Florida) when the attack came, and the Secret Service whisked (here described as being physically picked up and carried) Cheney off to a safe room in the sub-levels of the White House, while most everybody else was told to get away from the building, as it was expected that a plane (perhaps the one that was taken down by its passengers) was headed for there. Matalin was a few blocks away (in her stiletto heels) when she got a call from the Secret Service – Cheney wanted her there, and they managed to find her and get her back and down to the WW2-era PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center) … evidently the first time this space was used for its intended purpose, and what had been “state-of-the-art in FDR's day” was poorly equipped for current tech. Plus, with as many people who ended up being in that space, they found the ventilation was less than needed. One poignant bit here was in her discussing trying to get in contact with key administration members … “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was literally incommunicado … We discovered later that he was pulling his injured and dead colleagues out from the smoke and debris of the Pentagon carnage.”

I don't believe I've read any specifically “post-9/11” books (although I've seen quite a bit online), so I don't have other examples to compare this to … but being able to look over Matalin's shoulder, as it were, as she discusses what was happening in the upper reaches of government over those days, weeks, and months of doubt, rage, and chaos is remarkable here. The details are revealing, and they confirm my counter-to-the-MSM-story gut reaction about the nobility of the Bush administration, especially when compared with its venal predecessor. Needless to say, being part of Cheney's team, her family life was deeply disrupted, as Matalin was off at whatever “undisclosed location” that they were keeping the V.P. (one story she tells was of a Christmas trip out to Wyoming when they were able to have their families join them … she had shipped out – on Air Force Two – all of their holiday ornaments, and requested the advance team find a tree for their living quarters, which she describes: “{it} wasn't a tree so much as a spindly shrub with a few errant branches, a very small version of a freaking Charlie Brown tree”, which caused a major break-down … James came through, however, and notes: “the tree was kind of puny, in a comical way”). Needless to say, as time rolled on, the Iraq war became an issue in their household, and in 2003 she finally disengaged from the White House job. In the course of this both authors do a lot of musing on the reality of the D.C. scene … I found this bit by Carville worth noting:

Most times people do something because they actually think it's going to work out. Most times, they are not evil people trying to undermine America. Most times, there's not some underlying conspiracy or motive. … There's a great tendency to overestimate conspiracies and underestimate stupidity.
Of course, this is a guy who worked hand-in-hand with the Clintons, so you'd expect him to try to sweep as much “evil people trying to undermine America” under the rug as possible. But, I digress.

As one would expect in a memoir, there's a lot of “personal” stuff in here, a lot of family issues with the Carvilles (including its matriarch, his mother, dying during this time), the lingering death of their much-depended-on housekeeper/nanny, and even their getting re-married. It turns out that their original nuptials were not up to snuff in the view of the Catholic church (Mary had been previously married), and, as she was starting to get into that brand of imaginary friend stuff, this both became an issue and an excuse to throw a big party down in Louisiana. Lots of stuff about new friends, new experiences, and other revelations of their shift to New Orleans, including their girls growing up and heading off to college.

Amid this there's also a section when they “get partisan” again, with reflections on some of the campaigns and opposing sides of issues they'd been on. Matalin has a great “rant” in here about dealing with the MSM (in parts worthy of Limbaugh or Gutfeld), which of course spoke to me. Here's some of the key bits:

Eighty-nine percent of journalists self-identified as liberal. … Who were the 11 percent who confessed to not being liberal? … As annoying as it is to the public, I much prefer today's open partisanship of the media. Nothing produced more hair pulling, breast thumping and chain-smoking in GOP camps than reporters professing no bias while reporting like Democratic operatives. … Do you ever see even a scintilla of fair and balanced reporting from MSNBC …?
To his credit, Carville takes a less aggressive tone in this part (despite his clear loathing of many of the players in both Bush administrations), and has a lengthy entry taking a look, on various levels, at “what's wrong with Washington”, and this bit certainly rung a bell:

I sincerely believe that part of the problem is that so many of the people in positions of power in Washington truly, utterly, do not understand the struggles of average people. They literally can't wrap their minds around the battles ordinary people have to fight every single day ...
The book, which came out in 2013, sort of peters out (being something of a “snapshot” from their lives, things don't get all tied up with a ribbon), taking a look back at the Katrina disaster, and how it is still effecting things down there, and has a final “punctuating” event of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion (and subsequent major oil spill), which happened in 2010 (a scant few months past the Saints winning the Super Bowl – an event that the authors had been heavily involved in – which was a huge thing for the New Orleans community). This part isn't long, but it sort of puts a pin in the timeline as a place to leave off the chronological narrative, and allowing them to finish with some “looking to the future” stuff.

I really enjoyed reading Love & War … the back-and-forth between Matalin and Carville (although not in response to the other's writing – they appeared to have written this separately, but in tandem, taking up a topic and letting the editors piece the bits together) is an appealing format. It does, though, go without saying that this would be far more engaging for “political junkies” than it would be for those whose obsessions lie in other realms. That being said, however, the “behind the scenes” looks at those challenging times following 9/11 are well worth the price (and I'm talking retail, not Dollar Store here).

It appears that the hardcover is now out of print, but there's a more recent paperback version out there, so is a pretty good bet to be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor As I noted up top, the hardcover has gotten out to the aftermarket and the on-line new/used guys have "like new" copies of it for 1¢ (plus shipping), so if you can't find a Dollar Store copy, that would be your best bet. Again, it's an engaging read, with some really fascinating material in amid the "Mary & James' life together" stuff.

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Sunday, August 21st, 2016
3:54 pm
How does that work, again?
I'm always pleased to find a book like this at the Dollar Store … which I've come to understand is often (as I'm sure is the case here) “pure luck” of my swinging by to look at the shelves when some particularly choice titles have been rolled out of Walmart and into the aftermarket. Certainly, it beats the old system of having the covers stripped off and returned to the publisher with the actual books going into the trash! I used to be confused about this, as a recent release (this one's only 4 years old) that's still at full price through the on-line big boys seems to be an unlikely find for a buck … but now I'm just happy to get 'em!

Needless to say, that's how John Long's Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology got into my hands. This can be seen as a rather odd book, as Long is a biologist (he's Chair of the Department of Biology at Vassar), although he's also a professor of “cognitive science”, which I suppose does get one into at least the neighborhood of robots. He was a PhD candidate who got enticed into studying the backbones of marlins – a fish that is incapable of surviving in captivity, so can't simply be brought into the lab. In Hawaii, he was able to obtain the backbones of recently processed marlins, and was able to study in detail the fine structure and various motions achievable via that bit of organic architecture, but this wasn't something that could be functionally tested as the backbone was missing the marlin.

One of the most interesting factors of Darwin's Devices is it's very much a “science book”, no so much a “popular presentation” of the subject matter, but a tracking through the process of “doing science”, including discovering one's big errors, bad assumptions, experimental challenges, and limits caused by both funding and available technology. Early on here, the author frames what's coming with:

At this point the best model of a marlin backbone is not a marlin backbone. Because we couldn't study it any further in the living fish, we were left with three choices. One: quit and do another project. As depressing as that sounds, sometimes it is the only practical alternative. In the hopes of finding a species that works really well for answering a ton of different questions (which would make it a “model organism”), switching species is a common response. Two: try to build a new instrument or experimental procedure to answer the question. For the stubborn and electromechanically minded, this is often a way to work out your frustrations and keep busy while you come to grips with the fact that you really, truly are stuck. Three: build a model of your fish. For those of us who need to keep writing papers so that we can earn tenure and win research grants, this is the way to go – we model.
While modeling offers a lot of flexibility as far as how/what you're looking into he notes “... we always have to make, even in the most accurate models, many simplifying assumptions. The trick is to make the right ones.”. His initial “capstone” to his doctoral research involved a computer model of the dynamics of the marlin backbone in action. One can model in either the computer or in a physical device, but, as he's reminded “every computer model is doomed to succeed”, and his had the unfortunate factor of violating the laws of physics (in this case, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics), something that did not faze the computational environment at all … he subsequently outlines why it's often more useful to go with a physical model: “If an engineer's design violates the laws of physics, the machine won't go on forever: instead, it just won't go.”

At this point Long goes into a discussion of the surprisingly wide array of backbones and related structures (notochords, etc.), various of which appear to have evolved independently in a number of different phylogenetic lines. This sets up the choices made for the first physical model, the Tadro (shortened form of “tadpole robots”), which “are based on the tadpole-shaped larvae of sea squirt chordates”, each having “for its axial skeleton a notochord of differing stiffness”, the stiffness controlling the swimming performance of the model, and which is genetically coded, allowing that variable to evolve from one generation to the next.

Here the author goes into a bunch of technical detail about natural selection, and how traits will change in a population across generations … even getting into some delightfully obscure (to me) mathematical short-hand such as “delta x-bar equals delta p”, which indicates how genes relate to phenotype, and logical formations such as ceteris paribus, a Latin phrase meaning “all else being equal”, which is the method by which “we isolate one variable and understand how it influences the whole system”.

The Tadro model went through various stages until they had Tadro3, which was a simplified system (basically a small computer in a bowl) which, like its tadpole-ish larva predecessors, responded to light, and whose tail stiffness could be varied (the stiffness standing in for vertebrae). The “success”, evolutionarily speaking, was the Tadros navigating to a light source, which was its “food”. Through a number of equations, the ability to do so defined the “fitness”, and so determined what particulars the next “generation” would exhibit.

Here the book wanders into a look at robotics and “intelligence”, noting that the evolution of these robots involved “embodied intelligence”, each generation got more efficient via optimizing chordate stiffness, not getting any “smarter” except in a body sense (the entire program that ran these is reproduced here, and it's only about 50 lines of code). There's a reasonably detailed look at the competing intelligence theories of Alan Turning and John Searle, and how these different stances can create dramatically divergent ways of considering what's happening with the robots. This then leads into a thread about the work of a number of neuroscientists, whose research points to yet another whole “world” in which the Tadros operate (and the author does admit – even celebrates – the confusion inherent in these different cognitive contexts).

There is a LOT of material being backgrounded in these sections – with discussions of if a “brain” (what one MIT professor calls a “cognition box”) is really necessary, when a palette of “reflexes” might be as functional, or even more so. Various versions of these frames are charted out as both organic and electronic diagrams, and reduced into some more Greek-abbreviated mathematical formulas. It's all fascinating (and not oppressive) in context of the read, but a bit complex to summarize in this review.

While not evolving per se, the Tadro3 gets supplanted by the Tadro4, which is equipped to model predator avoidance. It ends up with two light sensors (to better determine direction), and “an infrared proximity detector” which is designed to some extent mimic the “lateral line” of sensing cells on fish. One of the other interesting “sciency” things here is that one of the factors that they'd set up to determine “fitness” in the Tadro3 turned out to be messing up the data. They had decided that “body wobble” was a negative, but discovered that penalizing for wobble ended up degrading the feeding efficiency … as it was “functionally dependent of swimming speed”, and the faster moving units were exhibiting more wobble, but could maneuver better. There are various tables and charts looking at how they processed this info, but it stands out as big “oops”, and a cautionary tale of how one's initial assumptions when setting up models need to be very carefully considered!

Another significant change in the Tadro4 was the addition of “vertebrae”. They took the gel-based notochord of the Tadro3, made it a consistent stiffness and length, and added bead-like vertebrae … as the other elements are constant, the flexibility of the “backbone” was only determined by the width of the “intervertebral joints”, which was variable in relation to the number of vertebrae placed on it (more vertebrae, less joint space, stiffer spine). They also made two versions of the Tadro4, an evolving “prey” unit, and a non-evolving “predator”. The Tadro4 was modeled on a different type of critter, an early (400 million years old) jawless vertebrate fish, Drepanaspis. Having multiple sensors allowed the team to test for the relation of sensory systems and vertebrae, with the hypothesis that having the sensory system (to determine the presence of predators) would spur the development of (propulsion-enhancing) vertebrae.

It pains me to do so, but at this juncture I'm going to throw my hands up and say “too much stuff – can't summarize it!” … the author bounces around between some very technical evolutionary theorizing, overviews of the experiments his team did, and charting out “adaptive landscapes” (which, short of scanning and including those graphics in here, are kind of hard to describe). He also shifts from the development of the tail-mobile Tadros, and into an “ET” (Evolutionary Trekker) called Madeleine, which has four flippers … and is named for its vague similarity in shape to that small French pastry. This takes side trips off into considering Plesiosaurs, and aquatic vs. terrestrial tetrapods (where there are 1,679,616 possible different mobility options … needless to say, only a tiny fraction of those being tested with models).

It's at this point that a lot of the action shifts from the college lab to the R&D centers of various robotics companies … and ultimately off into the acronym-laden world of DARPA and military applications of robotics. However, it's hardly just our folks looking at this … he quotes an expert in the field as saying that at least fifty-six countries are developing robotic weapons. He quotes an associate as saying that military robots should be “unmanned, expendable, and cause maximum damage”, and gives an example of something called the MicroHunter which is a palm-sized torpedo-like vehicle, with just one moving part – the propeller. These were tested against a SEAL diver, and the SEAL was only able to stop these from hitting the target 50% of the time (they had otherwise been getting 100% marks) – and that was with just four in play. The book ends up with a “philosophical” look at how to manage this sort of technology, but with a “SkyNet” dystopian vibe hanging over it all.

As noted, Darwin's Devices is still in print, and the on-line big boys seem to have it a full cover price. However, having gotten into the Dollar Stores, “good” copies are available from the new/used guys for a penny plus shipping, and “new” copies can be had for under a buck (plus shipping). Again, this isn't exactly one of those “popular science” books, as it's more focused on the experimental/research/theory aspects than most of those would be … which is one of the reasons I'm looking to pass this along to my robotics-obsessed (she's currently off developing an aerial mapping drone on a summer internship!) engineering student daughter … but it might be a bit overwhelming for some (I'll admit that I got a bit lost at a few points here). It is, however, a fascinating look at a line of research, with all the complexities involved in that, with an over-all arc which charts out the (somewhat disturbing) development of this sort of robotic system. A definite recommendation for all science/engineering geeks out there (others' “mileage may vary” on how you'd like this).

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Monday, August 8th, 2016
12:11 pm
My choice is "nope!" ...
This was another book obtained at the dollar store. Sometimes I get great stuff there, some times “not so much”. I wonder had I taken the time to look at this more closely if I'd have bothered to put it in the cart. At the time I must have figured that if it had Richard Branson and Jack Canfield involved, how bad could it be? Well …

Choice Point: Align Your Purpose by Harry Massey and David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., is based on a film (that I'd obviously never heard of) by the same name, which evidently was primarily set up by stringing together interview clips with a lot of people in fields related to the interests of the authors. More on this in a bit. It also came out in 2012, and was evidently part of the “Mayan Calendar Ending” the-sky-is-falling mania from back then (interesting, the book has no copyright date, although the Foreword, Preface, and Introduction are dated – all to late 2011 – with Amazon listing the publication date as February 1, 2012). It purports to be a “personal blueprint of transformation”, but is pretty much New Age twaddle serving as a loose matrix to hold quotes from “names” interviewed for the movie.

The guy behind this, Massey, is a co-founder of NES Health Ltd., which peddles “a 21st-century system of natural holistic health care based on integrating physics and biology” … this is one of those books that actual physicists hate, and every time the text floated a physics term, the Inigo Montoya (from The Princess Bride movie) quote “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” came to mind … over and over again. Almost every scientific term in here is twisted around to some cringe-worthy “unicorn fart” interpretation.

And, of course (it wouldn't be New Age without it!), they're selling a course … which seems to follow the general outline of the book, with out-takes and transcripts from the movie (which they're also selling DVDs of).

As regular readers of these reviews know, I typically have several little slips of paper to guide me back to the “good parts” … I had one in here, in the Preface (notably, not written by either of the nominal authors), which seemed pretty promising:

The knowledge of how a cycle begins and ends is the key to using choice points. Whether the cycle lasts for one day or thousands of years, the principle of when it starts, when it ends, and what happens in between is the same. Each cycle begins with a seed event – something that sets a pattern of energy in to motion. Before the pattern repeats itself as the next cycle, however, it ends with a window of time where the pattern is absent. This place of no patterns is the choice point of the cycle. The choice point is the greatest window of opportunity for each cycle because it holds the greatest opportunity to change patterns of the past before they repeat. In this way, cycles of time and our power of choice are closely related.
This reminded me a lot of the Gurdjeffian enneagram concept with the “shock points” (deleted in the since-popularized corporate “enneagram” crap) and motion … which made me hope that the whole “Choice Point” thing would be a system along those lines. Nuh-uh.

The book is, however, structured to be a system of sorts. It has ten chapters across three “phase” Parts, with 3-6 topics per chapter. The “parts” are “Understanding Your World”, “Align Your Purpose”, and “Be The Change” … which would be fine, I suppose, with less “fluffy” filler. What's frustrating here is that it's hard to totally reject the project, as there are some pretty substantial quotes from the 20 “visionaries” (some of whom hardly qualify for that label, being simply “newage” activists of various stripes that fit the authors' paradigm). Frankly, this whole thing reminds me (embarrassingly) of some of my college papers, which strung together more-or-less applicable blocks from multiple sources with narrative copy steering everything toward the point I was trying to establish. I wonder just how “involved” the bigger (or less woo-woo) names included here actually are/were with the project, as in a lot of cases it feels like they were interviewed once, and had various “sound bites” extracted, first for the movie, then for the book, and eventually for the course!

There was one thing that I actually liked here … but it's more “structural” than anything … at the end of each chapter there's a list of “Things To Remember”, which gives one the outline of the material without being burdened with the saccharine blah-blah-blah of the actual text. Here's an example, from Chapter 7, “How To Be The Change”:

  1. Changing ourselves ensures that a change is a lasting one.

  2. We need to be a match for what we want.

  3. There is an interplay between destiny and free will.

  4. We can choose how we act within natural cycles and choose to align with specific patterns.

  5. The outer world reflects the inner world.

  6. If we look within, we can discover our inner world.

  7. If we want to see peace in the world, we need to be peaceful.

  8. If we look inside and deal with any emotional wounds, we can discover our true selves.

Sounds great, yeah?

Now, I have to admit that I'm a cynical, curmudgeonly, cranky font of darkness, so all that “peace & love” stuff makes me snarl … and I suspect that somebody more on the “flower power” side of the gauge would likely have no problem getting behind this. However, it's one of those reads that had me channeling Michael Ironside's “Ham Tyler” from the original “V” TV series, with his contempt for Marc Singer's “Mike Donovan” character, with the book's authors standing in as the nauseatingly light “gooder”.

Needless to say, it's a good thing that Choice Point only cost me a buck. This had the potential of being a valuable book, but it would have to have been taken out of the hands of its authors and put into the control of some less hearts-and-flowers types. If you're into that stuff, hey, you might like this. Bizarrely, this appears to still be in print (the on-line big boys have it at full cover price), and even stranger, the new/used guys are actually charging a few bucks for it.

Again, if they hadn't played fast-and-loose with the science, went with fewer “gooder” types stuck in as “visionaries”, and wrote out the 2012 “Chicken Little” vibe, this could have been a worthwhile read … but that would be a different book, wouldn't it?

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Sunday, August 7th, 2016
9:21 am
Observing culinary history ...
This was another delightful, if surprising, dollar store find. Surprising in that this is relatively new (it's only been out for three years at this point), and the on-line big boys have it at full cover … which means that I was very lucky to have run into it for a buck as it must have just have made that strange journey off of the Walmart shelves.

As my previous life had been in food publicity, I knew of the author (although I don't recall if I'd ever met him), and he's certainly only a one-degree-of-separation connection, having name-checked an old family friend in passing here (as somebody he'd assumed was getting the New York Times job instead of him). But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The book in question is Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food by Raymond Sokolov, who I think I know best from his magazine work.

To start off, I want to say this was a delightful and engaging read, but with the caveat that, having spent much of my early career in the PR outlands of the food biz, this could well be more appealing to me as a “trip down memory lane” than it might be for a random reader picking up the book.

As one would gather from the subtitle, this is a memoir, and not some high-concept treatise on the food/restaurant/media world. It's about where Sokolov was, what he was doing, and how it effected him. The book's set up in five sections, which largely walk through his life and experiences. To be deeply presumptive when commenting on a book by somebody with the sort of C.V. he has, I really think this would have been significantly improved if it had been broken up a bit … as the five chapters tend to carry a lot of material each, and having those broken up into 3-5 thematic sections would have made this “tighter”, not that it particularly rambles or anything, it's just that there are narratives in here which sort of meander from one into the next, where they might have been more definitive were they to stop, summarize, and then move into the next topic. Again, who am I to kibitz on his (or his editors at Knopf's) decisions? But there it is, all the same.

The book starts with a recollection of a lunch that he had with the legendary Craig Clairborne and his managing editor in 1971, in the cafeteria of the New York Times, when Sokolov was preparing to transition into Clairborne's role at the newspaper. The book's title comes from the advice that the legend gave his woefully unprepared successor (“In Craig's world, I was indeed a nobody. I'd never taken a cooking class, published a restaurant review or written a recipe … in the kitchen, I was a cipher … I had no business at this table ...”) during lunch … because if you ask for a copy of the menu, you might well not get it (and, of course, restaurant reviewers are ideally incognito when doing their forkwork, so there's no good reason for the staff to agree to let a random person have a menu).

The initial section, “First Bites”, does what one would expect in a memoir, tracing his life from his birth in Detroit a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His family was more interested in food and eating out than the average, and so he ended up getting a varied basis in assorted cuisines. A bit of a child prodigy (at least in spelling), he ended up at Harvard, and then Oxford, and was working towards a doctorate in the Classics (his proposed thesis topic focused on “rare Homeric vocabulary in Theocritus”). In the early 60's he was one of multitudinous American youth who took advantage of the post-war exchange rate to bum around Europe, which not only allowed Sokolov the ability to deepen his connection with the classics, but also get a very good grounding in food – if mainly in the lower-end eateries affordable to the traveling college student. He passed his PhD orals at Harvard in 1965, and took a job as a correspondent in the Newsweek Paris office, where he frequently found himself with “almost nothing to do”, and an expense account …

… I busied myself with entertaining “sources” … at restaurants of high gastronomic quality. No one in the office minded. In fact, the bureau chief seemed glad to not have me nagging him for work, and it amused my colleagues that I was putting so much energy into establishing contacts in corners of French life they had no time to investigate.
His timing proved to be excellent, as it was in these years that “the nouvelle cuisine revolution had already begun simmering in the provinces”, and he had his first food piece published (anonymously) in Newsweek in 1967 based on an assignment he'd been given to check out the awarding of a third Michelin star to an Alsace restaurant, L'Auberge de l'Ill, which was a replacement for an initial pitch for a story about an up-and-coming chef by the name of Paul Bocuse.

Soon after, he was offered a spot back at the New York offices of Newsweek, and he (with his young family) landed back in the US on his 26th birthday, in August of 1967. His main responsibility in his new position was doing book reviews, which included a number of cookbooks. He had tried to angle some freelance work with magazines such as New York, but that hadn't gone anywhere. However, in 1971, an associate had suggested that he apply for the New York Times food job, who additionally mentioned the idea to another associate, who ended up speaking with Claibourne's editor, resulting in a lunch appointment. On the way back from that lunch, he was told that because he didn't have much of a food track record, they'd want to get “some tryout pieces” from him, which they'd pay for, and cover his expenses. They liked these and he was hired.

The next section “The Ungatronomical Me” starts out with a note (much like his impression on Craig Clairborne) about his wife's belief that he “was radically, hopelessly unqualified for the job” and his reflection that:

If you had told me then that I would spend the rest of my life writing and reporting on food in major publications and in many books, I would have laughed at you.
He goes into a long-ish side track here to describe his youthful spelling bee fame (at 10 he was the youngest contestant ever in the National Spelling Bee). While this does seem a bit self-indulgent, it serves as a key turning point – amid all the press attention he experienced, he got “fatally interested in journalism”. which led him to working (doing movie reviews) on the Harvard Crimson, which in turn opened the door for his getting that Newsweek position, without which he suspects that he'd have ended up “a disappointed retired professor of Greek at some provincial university”.

This leads into the meat of the story, the “Food News” section, which starts with a humorous reminiscence of his first week at the Times, and his introductory interview with the HR department – which had evidently not been clued in that he was the new food editor – when asked what he had been hired for, he said he would be “handling food”, and they ended up putting through the paperwork for him being an assistant salad handler in the cafeteria … the error being first discovered by the rather substantial discrepancy on his first paycheck between what he was expecting and what showed up!

There is a vast lot of material in this section, and quite varied – making it somewhat difficult to cull out specifics for highlighting here. He starts with a bit of reflection of just how Clairborne had changed the “food editor” gig in his 13 years at the Times (including discarding “the old food-page model of recipes handed out by food-product companies”, a trend which would eventually doom my family's PR firm a couple of decades later), how their operation functioned (including minutia such as who answered phones in what order – he was the fourth option if everybody else was already on a call), and a look at the early growth of Chinese regional cuisine in the New York market (originating with one of those “tryout pieces” that he rushed into print when Clairborne opted to not do his last week's projects). From there he wanders off into politics (sort of – it starts with a rambling recall of a story based on presidential offspring Tricia Nixon's wedding cake, but circles back to his spelling bee days and then fast-forwards to the opening of the LBJ library, all of which anchored in the author's animosity towards Richard Nixon). He gets back to the Times job, and mentions that he “was not happy with the mediocre gastronomic outback I found myself in” (New York???) and describes how he took a rather “activist” stance in knocking down some restaurants and building up others that “reminded me of my time in … Paris”, including taking credit for launching Lutèce into its run “for the next thirty years as the top restaurant in the United States”. He follows this with a return to France, and this time succeeding in connecting with Paul Bocuse. Then he's back talking about Chinese food, which leads (in a vague way) to his dismissal from the Times.

However, before he got canned, he was still connected with the paper, in the form of an (embarrassingly to all involved) at-that-point still upcoming cookbook. This is the lead story in the “Upstairs In Front” section (named for what he'd put down for “where he worked” on forms – being a description of where his desk was in their house), which covers his freelancing years. He wrote for Time, the Sunday magazine at the time of the Chicago Sun-Times called Midwest, he still did book reviews for the Sunday New York Times, and magazines like Travel & Leisure. Also, notably, he began writing for Natural History magazine, a monthly from the American Museum of Natural History (which I used to subscribe to, and so best know Sokolov's writing from), where he wrote a food column for 20 years.

One of the more significant projects of this period was his work on the book The Saucier's Apprentice, a definitive text on the art and array of classic French sauces, that Julia Child's co-author Simon Beck noted: “no one, not even in France, had written anything like it”. Given that Sokolov had arranged to do the book when he still had a test-kitchen staff, it's especially a remarkable work, as his experience was at the table, and not at the stove. He says:

My idea was to match up the assembly-line efficiency of the old sauce system with the preservation magic of the deep freeze. … giving directions for twenty-five brown sauces, following recipes for their most unremittingly orthodox versions in Larousse gastronomique. These “small or compound” brown sauces fitted neatly into a family tree, ranging from africaine to poivrade, plus two game sauces descended from sauce poivrade, which constituted a third generation, demi-glace's grandchildren.
His description of what he had to go through to get this done in his home kitchen is rather off-putting, yet the thrust of the book is to make these heretofore arcane culinary gems accessible to the home cook, to be poured out into ice cube trays, frozen, and doled out as needed. I need to get a copy of that!

In another veer (one of the points that I think would have been better served with a break into a sub-section), he goes from the efforts for making these old-school French sauces approachable to everyone, to a look at the spread of nouvelle cuisine into the U.S. (and global) markets. Here he name-checks chefs, restaurants, cook books, and gets into quite a lot of technical detail on how the “new cooking” was conceived and composed. Oddly (again, a sub-section split would have been useful here), this leads to his tenure at Natural History, where his column was framed as needing to “reflect the various fields in which the {Museum} intersected with what people ate” … which he discovered was pretty wide-open as “anthropologists had by and large ignored what the people they studied ate”. Needless to say, with two decades of stories to draw from, this part of the book is a bit of a fire-hose of Sokolov trying to put out a wide array of the sorts of things that he covered, from cannibalism myths, the history of Navajo fry bread, Cornish vs. Finnish pasties, to the botany of the Key Lime. This leads to a discussion of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, which then leads off into more info on industry organizations and individuals, and eventually gets around to his work at the Wall Street Journal, initially with the short-lived Book Digest where he would identify books to buy excerpt rights for, and subsequently at the WSJ proper, managing a daily “arts” page.

The last section “With Reservations” starts off on September 11, 2001, with Sokolov taking his dog for a walk in southern Manhattan (“the Journal's offices had look directly at the Twin Towers from across West Street”). He mentions that he'd been hired to do a story on the innovative food-service network that Joe Baum had designed for the World Trade Center, back before it was constructed in the early 70's … so he had a long history with the location … including him having been scheduled to have lunch there in 1993 when the first terrorist attack (with a van full of explosives in the basement garage) happened. The chaos and subsequent difficulties following 9/11 caused a major shift in the WSJ, and he ended up losing the job there in 2002. This led him to starting a new book project, and picked up work at Harvard on his “long-abandoned PhD”. He goes into a discussion of the details of going back to academia after such a long period (unsurprisingly, his extremely obscure thesis topic had not been scooped up by some subsequent Classics student). His subsequent brief foray into academia ends up with a return to the WSJ to write restaurant reviews … which then morphs into his doing “pop-food odysseys” which he compares to some of the “American folk food tradition” stories he did for Natural History. This rambled through searches for “the best hot dog” and different BBQ traditions around the country, the growth of Las Vegas as a culinary hot-spot (especially for insanely expensive experiences that could hardly be sustained elsewhere), the explosion of high-quality cuisine across the country (notably even in small backwaters, of which he details several), and the evolution of cutting-edge work in “molecular gastronomy” and other “modernist” experiments. His later work with the Journal expresses itself in notes on dozens of up-and-coming (in 2013) restaurants and chefs … which is pretty much where the book stops.

Again, because I love the subject matter (and how I ache to have some of those meals he reproduces menus of!), Steal the Menu was a gripping read for me. If you are a fan of fine dining (and perhaps publishing) this should be attractive to you as well. It is certainly still in print, so you could find it at your local brick-and-mortar, especially as the online big boys aren't presently discounting it. However, as it's found its way to the dollar stores, the new/used guys are also offering it, with “very good” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping), so it's not going to set you back much to pick this up. I quite enjoyed this (despite my occasional bitchiness in the above), and am pretty sure you'll like it if “it's your thing”.

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Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
12:26 pm
Once upon a time, there was a ...
It's a fairly defining feature of shopping trips to the dollar store that one is never sure what you're going to be coming out of it with … as stuff that's been there each of the past half-dozen times predictably isn't when you're up there looking for that specific item. And this is even moreso when it comes to the supply of books. I had a nice haul a couple of weeks back, coming out with four hardcover books (with a combined cover price of over a hundred bucks), and this is one of those. Of course, one of the other factors at the dollar store is that I'm rarely specifically looking for any particular book, so most of my purchase decisions are made on fairly shallow investigations into what I'm buying … after all, they're just a buck if I end up with a clunker.

Well … this one is sort of in that “hey, what do you want for $1?” zone … not that it's bad but I had NO idea (until I'd logged it in my “reading” list and had started in on it) that this was not a discussion/analysis/system book, but was one of those “business parable” fictional narratives. As I have pointed out numerous times in the past, I do not relate well to this style. Give me structure, give me bullet points, give me charts and end notes and references … don't just tell me a dopey story!

Now, Dennis Bakke's The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time is not as “dopey” as a lot of these sort of things are … but it's still “neither fish nor fowl”, as it were, not a straight-forward dissertation on the program of corporate re-organization that the author is pitching, nor is it particularly gripping literature (although, I have to admit, I was engaged enough by the telling that I didn't find this as irritating as I usually do with these “teaching story” things).

Of course, that's me … others, I'm sure, quite like having their information cross-platformed into a parable (sort of like the jibe at the Waldorf schools where one might have a student doing their chemistry final in the form of interpretive dance or a P.E. exam satisfied with a toothpick sculpture) … but I kept wishing Bakke would get to the point – and, unlike some other books of this sort, he did not upgrade the story with direct presentations of the material in sidebars, etc. (although there is a “slide deck” in the Afterword, and available on SlideShare which summarizes it fairly well).

As I was not interfacing particularly deeply with this, I also didn't end up with a lot of bookmarks in it for the “key points” (indeed, it appears that there were only two here, one marking a bit which reminded me of a famed Lorne Michaels quote, which really didn't have anything to do with the material being presented, and one marking the part with the graphics of the “slide deck” that can also be found on the book's companion site), so you're going to get a lot of vague paraphrasing in this review. Sorry about that.

So … there are these two guys who had worked in a very buttoned-down and obsessively hierarchical corporation, and they had wanted to get out there and forge their own path. They ended up buying (with the substantial assistance of an outside investor), a medical supply/device company, that, as it turns out, also was very regimented. The story picks up fairly early on in their tenure at the company, and with a significant catastrophe … one of the main machines on the production line had exploded, and was a total loss. The fellow running the machine survived, because he was off trying to find the right supervisor to get the required approvals to shut down the machine, which he could clearly see was about to have a problem. This “institutional inability” of this worker to shut down the machine in an emergency situation is the start of the whole re-structuring of how the company does business.

There are several “stress points” here … one of the new owners is the “idea guy” and the other is the “money guy” and they are both beholden to the lady investor who has substantial say in the company (although she's not involved on a day-to-day basis). The “idea guy” starts with setting up situations where individual workers on the production floor can stop the machines mid-run, and then expands that to a more generalized system of “decisions” … and ultimately into “The Decision Maker Process”, which (from the slide deck) is:

In a decision-maker organization, the leader leads by choosing a decision-maker.
The decision-maker must ask for advice.
The advice process brings multiple perspectives together to guide a successful outcome.
But the decision-maker makes the final call – and takes responsibility for it.
Needless to say, there is a lot of institutional inertia that the “idea guy” has to fight against to get these things implemented, aside from the resistance from his partner and their main investor. Assorted parts of the company are involved in the story at points – from the R&D teams whose specs aren't always “doable” when it gets down to prototyping, and there isn't enough communication between them and the techs (or the manufacturing) … at one juncture somebody orders in a full product run's worth of an alternative material because, on paper, it's much cheaper and nominally to spec – but it (spoiler alert!) is too brittle and easily breaks – leading to the company having to absorb those costs. In another situation (another spoiler alert!) a long-time employee in charge of the shop floor figures he knows the manufacturing better than anybody, and doesn't need anyone else's opinions, and not only won't go through the “advice process” but he's also in the habit of simply filling in the government regulatory forms from the R&D spec sheets, rather than actually testing the products. One of the operators (of course, the same guy who was trying to shut down the machine) had tested the product and noted discrepancies – problems that had the potential of destroying the company were the government apply maximum fines. Ultimately, the owners made the manager the “decision-maker” on whether he'd be fired or not!

I guess this brings us to another good place to dip into that slide deck. Here's a list of considerations for choosing the decision-maker:

Proximity. Who's close to the issue? Are they well acquainted with the context, the day-to-day details, and the big picture?
Perspective. Proximity matters, but so does perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can be just as valuable.
Experience. Has this person had experience making similar decisions? What were the consequences of those decisions?
Wisdom. What kinds of decisions has this person made in other areas? Where they good ones? Do you have confidence in this person?
As you might have guessed from the scant outlines above, the guy on the floor who wanted to shut off the machine takes over the job the guy who was fudging data had (who stayed on as a consultant), and there are lots of other “blossomings” of people from being given the ability to make essential decisions. Along the way a lot of people are worried about losing their jobs, but eventually find new roles, plus there's another character who had been at the same company the two owners had come from, and when he tries to implement this system, it's a disaster, but that's blamed on the other fellow being a total “bottom line” guy, more interested in the dollars than the work environment. This, of course, presents something of a caveat: these ideas might not be universally applicable – at least without totally over-hauling the “personality” of one's company.

As the story plays out, everything falls into place as one might expect it to (frankly, I was thinking that they should make this into a Bollywood musical, culminating in a big dance number involving the penultimate scene of the big happy company barbecue), with everybody (well, except for the “bottom line” guy at the other company) living happily ever after. La-di-da … but I guess if you're a “parable person” this will be a lot more appealing to you than it was for me.

That being said, I liked The Decision Maker a lot more than I typically do for things in this format, the core concepts were interesting, and the potential of this being a “business model” is quite enticing (I'd like to work there … but, after 7 years mired in a job search, that's not a particularly high bar). This is fairly new (it came out in 2013), and the on-line big boys still have it at pretty much full price … suggesting that this was only on the dollar store shelf due to the rotation of books in and out of Walmart (where a lot of the dollar store stock originates). However, having found its way to that channel, it also is available via the new/used guys, with “like new” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping).

While not what I was expecting (nor being in a format I much care for), I felt this was a worthwhile read, and can recommend it to anybody with an interest in running businesses. And, again, if you're a fan of fiction, you'll no doubt be more enthusiastic about this than I was.

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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016
11:41 am
Training camp for the emotional side ...
As regular readers of this space no doubt know, I get a book to review from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program pretty much every month. However, as opposed to what's implied in the program's name, it's a fairly rare occurrence that the books are actually early, as in pre-publication … I guess the LTER program is seen by most publishers as a way to get a bit of a bump in visibility well after the book is out there (even if they're sending out ARCs – advance review copies). This one, however, is not due out for another month yet.

Of course, one of the downsides of reviewing an ARC is that it's frequently “unfinished”, with assorted bits and pieces noted as “TK” (“to come”). Also, one of the standard notes to the reviewer is to not quote from these as the copy may change between the ARC and the final release version … which also goes for notes on the graphics (I almost bitched about an ARC of one of Gary Vaynerchuk's books for crappy looking images when reviewing it, but the publisher fortunately sent along a copy of the beautifully-illustrated publication version before I got that posted). I bring this up because there is a lot of what I'm hoping are “place holding” rough graphic pages here that are probably going to be much nicer looking in the actual hardcover when it appears next month.

Anyway, I seem to be on a roll of getting semi “self-help” books from the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” (nice to know it cares), and so I wasn't overly surprised to find that I was going to be receiving Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, PhD. This is set up in something of a flowchart (with an arrow-line that runs through the book between chapters) for a “system” of moving from a starting point of being “Hooked” to an ending state of “Thriving”. While I can't exactly duplicate how this lays out in the book, here's the general idea:

Hooked ==>
      Showing Up ==>
      Stepping Out ==>
      Walking Your Why ==>
      Moving On ==>
… each step of which involves assorted other elements. The term “hooked” here relates to the idea of a “hook” in a movie … a narrative in our head that serves to explain, rightly or wrongly, our experiences … once we get into one of these “hooks”, we start bending all other aspects of reality to fit with that narrative. The author provides several very interesting examples of automatic responses, such as filling in the missing word in “Mary had a little _____” … pretty much every English speaker is going to stick “lamb” (and not, say, “velociraptor”) in that blank, but we have automatic responses to situations in our life which are as predictable as that – if unhelpful, and ultimately not “reality based” – but are things which got plugged in at some point and have become our default response. She also presents some fascinating research on some brain science, like the relation of words to shapes, with sounds and outlines being perceived across cultural and linguistic boundaries with as many as 98% of people studied associating the same sounds (words?) with the same (sharp or bulbous) images … and then relating this to the ability to process metaphors (“sharp” cheese, “loud” shirt, etc.), which appears to take place in the angular gyrus of the brain (damage to which will render people unable to make sense of metaphors, and which is 8x larger in humans than other primates).

There are four most common hooks: “Thought Blaming”, “Monkey Mindedness”, “Old, Outgrown Ideas”, and “Wrongheaded Righteousness” … which are pretty much what they suggest. There is the sense (although I don't think that the author outright says this) that these are nearly as hard-wired as the sound/shape patterns noted above. She moves from defining these to looking at how we attempt to “unhook”, and offers up a 3-question quiz (with 3 options each) which shows how one typically tries to unhook … one set of responses indicate that you're a “bottler”, which means you “try to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things”, and another indicates a “brooder”, who is likely to “stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around, and around”. Not surprisingly, there is a definite gender disparity between these, with the “bottlers” typically being male, and the “brooders” typically being female.

One of the things she brings in at this point – which certainly got my curmudgeonly attention – is the benefit of negative moods … “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” (which reminds me of a phase an associate of mine was going through where he was constantly trying to force happiness, which was really irritating to everybody else around him) … which is followed up with sections on “Good News About Bad Moods”, and “The Upside of Anger”.

There was a third option in that brief survey, and those who selected that other option were “being present”, which is the topic of the the first step of the process here … “Showing Up”. This step is broken into three elements: “Practice Self-Compassion”, “Choose Willingness”, and “Learn from Thoughts and Emotions”. In the first of these the author goes into quite a lot of detail contrasting guilt from shame“Guilt is the feeling of burden and regret that comes from knowing you've failed or done wrong.”, while “Shame casts one not as a human being who did a bad thing, but as a human being who is bad.”, with the difference being “self-compassion”. Interestingly, she notes that criminal recidivism rates are higher for those who exhibit shame over those whose equivalent emotion is a sense of guilt. The “willingness” is largely framed here in terms of cravings – that if you are willing to accept the fact of a craving, you are more likely to avoid it, rather than struggling with the whole concept (sort of like the A.A. idea of “not drinking today”). In the “learning” part, she introduces a question: “What the func?”, a shorthand for “What is the function of this emotion?”, the analysis of which can reveal a lot of deeper realities hidden beneath the external levels of things like anger.

The next step is, well, “Stepping Out”, which includes sub-elements of “Notice with Curiosity and Courage”, “Create the Space in Between”, and “Let Go”. One piece of this that I (predictably) found of interest was the research of James Pennebaker where:

In each study … the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced a marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. …”
… which reminded me of the “morning pages” discipline (see here or here). She relates this to a project with a group of 100 senior engineers who got down-sized late in their careers, a third did a writing discipline like this, a third did a more neutral writing assignment, and a third didn't write … “the degree of change between them was astonishing … the men who had delved into how they truly felt were three times more likely to have been reemployed than those in the control groups”! Referring to a wider study of similar situations she notes: “by dissolving the entanglement that had built up between their impulses and their action so they could see their experience in context, and from a broader perspective, they flourished despite it all.”. She also offers up some techniques for “becoming more mindful”, and shows an interesting “perception” quirk, where context determines meaning … how (written out differently than here) A B C and 12 13 14 can have exactly the same lines being seen as “B” in one and “13” in the other.

The next step, “Walking Your Why”, just has one part: “Choice Points: Make Towards Moves” … both of which are sort of “huh?” to my ear … the former is defined as “the art of living by your own personal set of values – the beliefs and behaviors that you hold dear and that give you meaning and satisfaction.”, while the latter comes to bear in the face of a matrix of influences that enables the environment (culture) to make decision for us, ranging from “social proof” situations (buying stuff because those around us are buying) to “dangerous groupthink” … “The more you choose moves that are toward your values, the more vital, effective, and meaningful your life is likely to become.”

The last of these steps is “Moving On”, which has two chapters, each with one multi-element part to it, first: “The Tiny Tweaks Principle” which includes “Tweak Mindsets”, “Tweak Motivations”, and “Tweak Habits”. I was interested to see in the “mindsets” section some research I'd read in other contexts (I don't recall where, or I'd toss in a link here), which involved planting the idea among a group of hotel maids that their daily activities “were, in fact, exercise” which met the surgeon general's daily recommendations … with no other changes, just having that one piece in their “mindset”, the test group had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, and improved body-fat ratios compared to the control group who had not been told that what they were doing (although having the same activities) was meeting those exercise levels. Similar examples with children being exposed to information of how the brain can grow and improve with study, and elderly subjects who had varying views on the aging process, showed that just a few cognitive factors could result in significant positive changes. In the “motivations” topic, the thrust is largely regarding activities that one “had to do” versus “wanted to do” … with the complication that “our baser instincts have a head start … according to brain imaging, when we're faced with a typical choice, basic attributes like taste are processed on average about 195 milliseconds earlier than health attributes”, meaning that the brain is likely to have made the decision that it wants that cupcake “well before willpower even enters the picture”. There's also some interesting research outlined in the “habits” section, where different signs (encouraging the same behavior) had different levels of effectiveness depending on their location in relation to the activity (i.e., taking the stairs), the author uses elements of this to present a number of suggestions on how to best develop the behaviors that one wants in various situations.

The second “Moving On” chapter features “The Teeter-Totter Principle”, which has the elements “Live at the Edge of Your Ability”, “Choose Courage over Comfort”, and “Opt for What Is Workable”. These hew pretty close to what you'd expect reading those sub-headings, and are presented with a fire-hose of references to well known sources as Bruce Springsteen, Jim Collins, Pierre de Fermat, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others … way too much stuff to try to summarize here … however the “teeter-totter” image is meant “to illustrate the idea of balance, the sweet spot in which challenge and mastery are in a state of creative tension” … with the further note that “emotional agility … involves moving towards clear, challenging, yet achievable goals that you pursue … because you want to, because they're important to you.”

Oddly, when the line reaches “Thriving”, it starts with an extensive look at “Emotional Agility at Work”, as in at one's business. This seemed to be a somewhat odd progression, but I could hardly argue that there's some seriously twisted thinking involved in current contexts:

The prevailing wisdom of today's business culture is that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings have no place at the office, and that employees, particularly leaders, should be either stoic or eternally optimistic. They must project confidence and damp down any powerful emotions bubbling up inside them, especially the negative ones. But as we've seen, this goes against basic biology. …
Dr. David has evidently done a lot of work with clients in the corporate sphere, and goes into a number of “case studies” here, looking at “hooks” that effect both individuals and groups. In a sub-section called “The Why of Work” there was another assertion which is very close to my own concerns:

… work provides far more than a meal ticket. It can give us a sense of identity and purpose, as well as a framework around which we organize our other activities and interests. Work can also bring substantial mental health benefits.
This is followed by a chapter on “Raising Emotionally Agile Children” which includes a few stories of the author's own parenting efforts, and walks through suggestions for various aspects of childhood development (how to think, caring, ways to coach your kids, etc.). The book ends with a visit to the classic The Velveteen Rabbit, and the concept of “becoming real” … I have always found that a serious tear-jerker, which made the close a bit of a gut-punch to me.

Anyway, Emotional Agility will be hitting the store shelves on September 6, but the on-line big boys have it for pre-order at a generous 36% off of cover. This is one of those books that could be “for all and sundry”, but that depends on how you feel about the self-help/personal-development niche. I'm glad to have read it (and have picked up a number of things to talk about with my therapist – to whom I suspect I'll be lending my copy), and think it's one of those that may end up being a long-time go-to book in the popular psychology category.

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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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