... and you've got me wanting you

I'm having a bit of a quandary as to how to approach this one. First of all, I have to admit it's been almost 3 months since I read it (long story), so it's not particularly “fresh” in my mind, although I do have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it pointing to stuff I found of particular interest. Flipping through it, I'm realizing that if I tried to give it an in-depth look, we'd be having to negotiate a 10,000 word review, but as it has a virtual “fire hose” of information, I'd feel like I'd be skimming if I didn't delve into some of the details. Oh, well, here goes an attempt to reach a middle ground on it.

Dr. Robert H. Lustig's The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains is a fascinating, if not fun, book … and came into my hands via the “Early Reviewer” program. I am very torn here between outright enthusiasm about much of the depth of information, and the buzzkill (somewhat literally) of its author's attitudes and crusades. My first qualms come, as they often do, with the title/subtitle … I, frankly, expected a quite different book than what this ended up being, something along the lines of a marketing tell-all about “hacking” our minds and “corporate takeovers” of our bodies. Nope. Not even close. While Lustig rails against “Big Sugar” and other societal bogeymen, very little info here verges into the practical tell-all territory of, say, Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying, or similar marketing books, which is what the front of this would have suggested to me, were I walking past it in a bookstore.

The author has been in a long battle with sugar and fats (and obesity and resultant disease), with a number of publications out on the subject (most notably, apparently, his Fat Chance which is name-checked on the cover). One can hardly fault his background … he did his undergrad work at M.I.T., got his M.D. at Cornell, has a law degree, is a pediatric endocrinologist specializing in childhood obesity & neuroendocrinology, and “has authored 120 peer-reviewed articles and 70 reviews” … and his medical training is certainly key in the parts of this that I found most valuable. However, there were various “red flags” for me here, not least of which is that he's based out of the University of California, San Francisco, which, while not Berkeley, is unarguably the “ground zero” region for loony-tunes public policy advocates, and one has to wonder if his particular crusades would find far less support in more politically/philosophically moderate settings.

Anyway, in the broadest of broad strokes, the book is about brain chemistry, the body's reaction and processing of various substances, how these systems have parallels in other behavior, and how those behaviors are encouraged by those making money on them. Oh, and how pretty much anything that we're evolutionary hard-wired to want to consume is bad for us.

Despite the above, there is a certain measure of humor in the book, with self-depreciating asides counterbalancing the occasional jabs at certain groups and individuals. And, ultimately, the core of the book is philosophical, with two sets of paralleled related concepts: pleasure and happiness, and reward and contentment.

… because pleasure and happiness, for all their apparent similarity, are separate phenomena, and in their extreme function as opposites. In fact, pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life. But, if we don't understand what's actually happening to our brains, we become prey to industries that capitalize on our addictions in the name of selling happiness.

Reward and contentment are both positive emotions, highly valued by humans, and both reasons for initiative and personal betterment. It's hard to be happy if you derive no pleasure for your efforts – but this is exactly what is seen in the various forms of addiction. Conversely, if you are perennially discontent, as is so often seen in patients with clinical depression, you may lose the impetus to better your social position in life, and it's virtually impossible to derive reward for your efforts. Reward and contentment rely on the presence of the other. Nonetheless, they are decidedly different phenomena. Yet both have been slowly and mysteriously vanishing from our global ethos as the prevalence of addiction and depression continue to climb.
While the above may seem like an extensive quote, he follows this with two pages of contrasting reward and contentment … which is awesome stuff, but I guess you'll have to pick up the book to get into those. And, mind you, I've not even gotten out of the introduction at this point.

He notes that most of the work in this area has been done on animal models (and can you compare “depression” in a rat with depression in a human?), and that “most human studies … are correlative, not causative … you can only say that two things are related to each other” (following up this with a page of details regarding brain scans, blood tests, neurochemicals, etc.). He also notes that:

… the connecting of our moods and emotions to rational public policy is complex, nuanced, and indirect. People can't be told what to do. As a New Yorker, I admit that if someone tells me to jump, my first two words in response are not “How high?”
In the first chapter here, he primarily looks at the idea of happiness (in relation to pleasure), from word roots and historical contexts, on through global polling and even genetic factors. He says that the book is about our culture not distinguishing between the related reward and contentment, even at the biochemical level, noting that this becomes “the basis for many of today's most successful marketing strategies”, and drives “the six biggest industries which sell us various hedonistic substances (tobacco, alcohol, food) and behavioral triggers (guns, cars, energy)”.

The second chapter is about cause and effect … “You see declining school performance. I see inefficient brain mitochondria. … You see drugs of abuse. I see presynaptic transporters of postsynaptic receptors. … “, etc. Pre- what, post- what? Yes, the science stuff … he goes on to say “we're gong to need a very short (I promise) course in neuroscience”. Now, here's where it gets frustrating for me, I really enjoy this part of the book, but it's an amazing rush of info, and I'm guessing putting much of any of the details here will just be confusing (let alone taking up way too much space), so I'm going to try to cherry-pick some items that will help make later stuff make sense. These various experiences have their roots in brain chemistry …

The reward pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate between the neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the dopamine receptors of the nucleus accumbens (NA) to generate the feelings of motivation that attend reward and learning.

The contentment pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate between neurons of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) and multiple sites throughout the cerebral cortex, where the brain interprets impulses as “good” or “bad”.

The stress-fear-memory pathway consists of four areas. The amygdala, or your “stress” center, is in communication with the hypothalmus (at the base of the brain), which controls the stress hormone cortisol. The hipocampus or your “memory” center interprets memories as both good and bad. … The fourth area is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) … that inhibits behaviors that put you at risk. …
If you think that's a lot, those are actually just the describing labels for graphics of the brain … the actual copy related to these is much more rambling (it describes the vagus nerve – shut down by the hypothalmus in times of stress – as “the vegging, chillaxing nerve”) and detailed. Speaking of detailed, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here of receptor sites, molecules that bind to those, how these get processed, and sent on to trigger other things … but there are lots of these, so if you like this stuff as much as I do, you're going to have to pick up a copy of the book. Since these three pathways come into play a lot in the book, I guess I'm going to throw in the following as well:

      These three pathways generate virtually all human emotion, and in particular those of reward and contentment. The motivation for reward is experienced when the dopamine signal reaches the NA. A host of different stimuli (power, gambling, shopping, internet, substances) generate signals of reward, but that internal feeling of reward is pretty much the same whatever the trigger. This is also why virtually any stimulus that generates reward, when taken to the extreme, can also lead to addiction. …
      Conversely, while experiencing happiness is predicated upon sending the serotonin signal, the actual interpretation of that signal isn't as simple. It also depends on the receptor that is receiving that signal, which changes how you experience it. …
Speaking of receptors, there's one that's found in many of these brain pathways, the CB1 receptor, which is geared to connect with anandamide, an endogenous brain compound, which is similar enough to marijuana's psychoactive component, THC, that either works to alleviate anxiety, heighten mood, increase social functioning, and makes us want to eat (cf. “the munchies”). There was a drug developed a decade ago called rimonabant, which was leveraging the latter of those effects to be a quite successful anti-obesity drug. Users lost a lot of weight, largely due to no longer getting any pleasure from eating. Unfortunately, “they derived no pleasure from anything”, and 21% of those on the prescription developed clinical depression, with many committing suicide. Lustig says this “clearly demonstrates that the biochemistry drives the behavior – and the emotions”, and suggests “that reward-seeking behavior is a double-edged sword”, with benefits to the species, but not necessarily to the individual (a section on love/lust follows, which I'm skipping due to the complexity, as it involves “two different neurotransmitters … two different brain areas of residence … two different targets of action … two different sets of receptors, and two different regulatory systems … each influences the other”).

This brings us to Part II (of V), only 15% through the book. Obviously, my concern with running 10,000 words up top was right on the money if I keep up this way. There are a few things in this part that I found quite engaging, that I want to get in here, but the latter 3 parts I think I can skim over a bit, as they're more “social” and thereby lend themselves to paraphrasing more than the chemistry does.

The title to Chapter 3 is “Desire and Dopamine, Pleasure and Opioids”, which would make a nice combo of album names for the right band. He starts this out noting that “regardless of the species, the motivation to attain reward (eat, fight, mate) remains virtually intact and unchanged throughout evolution” and points out the role of cash in our culture “because money buys prestige and power and sex and big toys”. And all forms of reward have the danger of manifesting addiction (as he notes, “one reward is never enough”, or as the great Tom Lehrer put it: “More, more, I'm still not satisfied!”).

I wish I could stick some of the chemistry graphics from this in here (that's both iffy on “fair use”, and impractical working from an ARC, as the images in here are low-res versions of what I assume to be in the final published edition), because they're fascinating, such as the four steps of “dopamine synthesis and metabolism” and “synthesis and metabolism of serotonin”, which feature juicy descriptions such as “The amino acid tyrosine is acted on by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase and receives a hydroxyl group to form L-DOPA” (you see the difficulty with paraphrasing here) … plus one that I think I'll end up at least walking through here in a bit.

The next chapter, 4 - “Killing Jiminy: Stress, Fear, and Cortisol”, deals pretty much with the words there, but with a lot of details on stuff like the “cascade” of chemicals that lead to cortisol, and the dance of the amygdala and the PFC (prefrontal cortex) in behavior. An interesting point brought up here is that, with repeated chemical assault, neurons with specific receptors can be killed off and they don't grow back. Chapter 5, “The Descent into Hades” picks up on this:

There's a price to pay for reward. It used to be measured in dollars, pounds, or yen, but now it's measured in neurons. As the monetary price of reward fell, the physiological price of reward skyrocketed.
This deals with the way reward drops with repetition, and how this can lead to outright addiction, he notes: “If the post-synaptic neurons are only damaged but still alive, your dopamine receptors can regenerate over time.” … but if you don't stop the behavior, the neurochemical process can “snowball”, with reactions all up and down the pathway getting critical. Of course (and this is most clearly illustrated in heroin users), timing the cessation of behavior is key, because otherwise there will be withdrawal, as the body tries to deal with the sudden change of chemistry, and going back after a time (to one's previous “normal” dose) can manifest as an overdose, being more than the now-less-tolerant systems can handle. He lists the 11 criteria (in a somewhat more discursive mode than this list currently defining addictive disorders), and then discusses a number of different examples, and the brain chemistry behind them, including one fellow (illustrating “addiction transfer”) who goes from being hooked on cigarettes, to alcohol, and then sugar (and “wanting to tear his eyes out” when he tried to kick that addiction). This leads into a look at John Pemberton, the Atlanta pharmacist that invented Coca-Cola, who had become addicted to morphine following the Civil War and “developed his sacred formula {as part of} a long-standing attempt to wean himself off his addiction”. He spent 21 years searching for an opium-free painkiller, and:

Ultimately, he developed a concoction that included cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Four separate hedonic substances, four somewhat weaker dopamine/reward drugs, to take the place of one very strong one.
I'd love to type up the paragraph here where he walks down the list from heroin to sugar (on three levels of access), but while it's charming, it's a bit long (but fingers grandma as a reliable sugar “dealer”), so you'll have to pick up a copy. There is this, however, that plays into the later chapters:

Everyone has become a willing consumer of the two lowest common denominators. Sugar and caffeine are diet staples for much of the world today. Coffee is the second most important commodity (behind petroleum), and sugar is fourth.
Which brings us to Chapter 6, “The Purification of Addiction”, which starts out with a very interesting overview of the history of “hedonic substances” – noting that “prior to the eighteenth century, virtually every stimulus that generated reward was hard to come by”, and aside from behaviors such as gambling and prostitution, there was pretty much only sugar and alcohol to be had. He walks through assorted historic notes: the Yamnaya people were trading cannabis 10,000 years ago, the Sumerians first referenced opium in 5,000 bce, the first mention of wine is in 4,000 bce, and the first mention of a commercial brewery in Egypt in 3,500 bce … and the first description of addiction is in China around 1,000 ce.

The next bits in here are pretty much sociological and economic. There is a 67% use rate of alcohol in the adult U.S. population, with nearly a quarter of those being “binge drinkers”. Lustig notes that the profit margin for “Big Pharma” is 18%, but contrasts that with the processed food industry (big users of sugar) at a whopping 45%. He points out that “virtually all humans have a sweet tooth … it's inscribed into our DNA”, and implies that this is evolutionary “because there are no foodstuffs on the planet that are both sweet and acutely poisonous”. Sugar “was a condiment” up until WW2, when the drive to create new-better-faster overtook the food supply, and really started to get into everything in 1975, with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup. The two types of dietary sugar, glucose and fructose, have interesting differences. On one hand, Lustig describes fructose as “vestigial”, being that “there is no biochemical reaction that requires it”, yet glucose is essential, and “if you don't consume it, your liver makes it”. They also differ in how they impact the brain (in scans), with glucose activating “consciousness and movement” areas, and fructose lighting up the reward pathway “and several sites in the stress-fear-memory pathway”. The rest of this chapter delves into particulars about sugar, and controversies of making an essential food item an “addictive substance”.

This brings us to Part III of the book, looking at “contentment”, with its first chapter (#7), being the rather straight-forwardly titled “Contentment and Serotonin”. This first looks at what drugs “evidenced the greatest societal impact” … Lustig claims it to be Prozac, citing the figures that between 16-18% of Americans are likely to suffer major depressive disorder, “and that any given moment 6 to 8 percent of the people you know are affected”. He says “psychiatric drugs are truly a miracle of Western Civilization”, yet modern psychopharmacology arose from a “serendipitous finding” involving a tuberculosis drug that vastly improved the moods of those taking it. When Prozac (the first in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs – currently the #3 most prescribed class of drugs) came out in 1986, its prescriptions exploded, largely because it was effective for both “retarded” (would kill myself if I had the energy) and “agitated” (anxious, irritable, sleepless, and miserable) depression. One of the effects of this was “in-patient psychiatric facilities closed faster than Blockbuster Video … there weren't enough depressed people in the hospitals to keep them open”. While currently “more people under the age of sixty-five take antidepressants than any other medication”“there's no biomarker for depression, no blood test that your doctor can administer”, and the diagnosis of depression is based on a questionnaire that scores subjective responses – perhaps being the reason so many end up on these drugs. Most of the rest of this chapter looks at the brain chemistry of serotonin, but there was one factoid I thought I'd pass along … while dopamine has only five different receptors (with two of those handling most of the traffic), serotonin has at least fourteen, making “it very difficult to piece together what is happening in any specific brain area”. One of the main take-aways from this is: “the quest for happiness begins and ends with optimization of your serotonin neurotransmission” (throw in 42, and you've pretty much got all the big questions answered).

OK, so next is probably the most “fun” chapter here, #8 – “Picking the Lock to Nirvana”, which deals with hallucinogens. There is another graphic here that I wish I could reproduce – it shows the chemical structures of serotonin, psilocybin (“shrooms”), LSD (“acid”), mescaline (“peyote”), and MDMA (“ecstasy”), all of which have extremely similar forms. In the caption Lustig notes:

The tryptamine derivatives psilocybin and LSD can bind to both the serotonin-2a receptor (the mystical experience) and the serotonin-1a receptor (contentment). The phenylethlamine compound mescaline binds only to the serotonin-2a receptor. MDMA or ecstasy … not only binds to the serotonin-2a receptor, it binds to the dopamine receptor as well.
Much of this chapter involves the research in this area, the political responses (sub-section “The Feds Raid the Party”), but also looks at the resurgence of hallucinogens in a number of fields, especially in hospice situations, where they can be much less isolating than heavy doses of opiates (and, in an a study that I encountered elsewhere, the use of ketamine to treat depression) … and at some more of the chemistry. He describes a 1997 study which was looking at specific reactions of different brain areas to hallucinogens, starting with the visual cortex, Lustig reports: Injection of radio-labeled psilocybin lights up the visual cortex like a Christmas tree.”

He closes this chapter with a bit of a warning, which, I suppose, speaks to the overall thesis of the book:

      We are our biochemistry, whether we like it or not. And our biochemistry can be manipulated. Sometimes naturally and sometimes artificially. Sometimes by ourselves but sometimes by others. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Next up is Ch. 9, “What You Eat in Private You Wear in Public”, which deals with food and brain chemistry. This looks at how you get serotonin from tryptophan – “the basic ingredient to inner contentment”. There's the better part of a page here walking the reader through the chemistry, with one take-away being that only about 1% of the tryptophan ends up as serotonin in the brain eliciting the comment “It's no wonder we're unhappy.”. He discusses the relationship between serotonin and sleep, and notes that our consumption of large amounts of sugar and caffeine doesn't help. As one would guess from the chapter's title, he goes into a lot of types of food, which leads him to introducing “metabolic syndrome”, a number of chronic metabolic diseases:

… heart disease, hypertension, blood lipid problems such as hypertriglyceridemia, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian disease, cancer, and dementia …
He uses metabolic syndrome as a bit of a catch-all, from suggesting that well-marbled beef comes from cows with it (that just got butchered before getting sick from it), to pretty much “what ails ya”. This then moves into looking at gut bacteria, and omega-3 fatty acids (noting that the best source of these is in algae – we typically get it secondhand from fish), including lots of details that I'm sparing you.

Did I mention that there are 19 chapters, each addressing a different topic (in considerable, and sometimes quite technical, detail)? We're up to Chapter 10, “Self-Inflicted Misery: The Dopamine-Cortisol-Serotonin Connection”, which could be called “Stress, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Brain Chemistry” featuring MDMA, LSD, the functions of the DRN (dorsal raphe nucleus), a quote from George Bernard Shaw, references to the Dalai Lama and Scarface, and insomnia, depression, & suicide. Lustig charts out the chemistry involved in depression, addiction, and unhappiness (which “hovers at 43 percent of all Americans … {who are} on the same spectrum as those who are clinically depressed, they're just not as severe”), while suggesting that we might have less “free will” than we suppose (“Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free.”), leading us into the next Part, IV – “Slaves to the Machine: How Did We Get Hacked?”

In the last two Parts, things get somewhat murky, as the book moves from chemistry into sociology (to pick one descriptor of several that could apply). I'm opting to deal with Part IV as a continuum, something that aligns with Lustig's note about these five chapters saying that he'll demonstrate:

… how the confusion between these two terms {reward and contentment} in the name of “progress” has inflicted personal, economic, historic, cultural, and health / health care detriments to individuals and to society in general. Moreover, this confusion continues to be stoked by industry and government in order to preserve and sustain persistent economic growth at the expense of the populace.
He starts off with the Declaration of Independence's “happiness”, first noting the decline in the mean American life span over recent years, going into a lot of demographic data, and breaking that down by race, and making other assertions along those lines (and throwing in an Eagles lyric quote to liven things up). From the Declaration, he visits Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, from whom was borrowed the “happiness” bit, which got replaced by “property” in the Constitution (cf. the 5th Amendment) … dopamine trumping serotonin. Pivoting on a quote by Aristotle, he then looks at drugs, both legal and not, with a survey of how strong narcotics, prior to 2000, were primarily available just in intravenous form, but in recent years there has been a growth in oral forms, and doctors prescribing them. This is partly due to a 2001 change in Joint Commission (certification organization) standards that required hospitals to add “pain” as a vital sign, with state boards punishing doctors for inadequately addressing pain. Of course, that's one side of the coin … Lustig notes that in states that have legalized pot, the use of SSRIs have declined inversely proportional to the increase in marijuana use.

Next he gets into contrasting happiness (the surveys of which peaked in the 1950's, with figures being pretty much steady since 1972) with money. Oddly, studies show that one's level of happiness is not directly tied to one's money, but “how well you are doing relative to everyone else”, and that seems to be true across all settings. This leads to a look at global figures and how the GDP of countries don't predict happiness. The U.S. is #13 on a list of “happiest countries”, with a number of European socialist countries in the top 5, implying that in an artificially “leveled” population, there's less reason to be unhappy with one's position within society. Back in the U.S., a study showed that “contentment demonstrated a logarithmic relationship with income until a maximum of US$75,000 … after that, the relationship disappeared” with more income above that hardly moving the needle – “reward is not contentment, and that increasing reward does not translate into happiness”.

From here he gets into a chapter about individual vs. corporate rights, featuring various historical elements, and a list of what he sees as particularly pernicious, laying most of the blame at the feet of the Supreme Court, and more specifically Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in a series of decisions in the late 70's. He notes that “… we're all now living in … Powellville. All dopamine all the time with a soupçon of cortisol thrown in to stir the pot.”. Much of this approaches “rant” territory with Lustig launching salvos at various industries, parts of government, and assorted politicians … and outright stating that the manipulation of the brain chemistry from the first parts of the book is both intentional and based on substantial research.

The next chapter gets edgier … “naming names” of corporations the author feels need calling out. These include Coca-Cola, and McDonald's, as well as a handful of media pushing sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. From there he turns to the whole erectile dysfunction industry, which stands in for the more general use of “fear” in marketing, and raising the question of what separates “marketing” from “propaganda”, and introduces (to me, at least) the term neuromarketing, which is based on facial coding and other analyses of subjects being exposed to marketing materials. Next to get roasted are smartphones, with issues raised from accidents while texting, to anxiety issues related to gaming, to the medium being used as a vehicle for “bullying”. This then slides into a look at Facebook, which strangely segues into the economics of the stock market, “elastic” vs. “inelastic” price gauging of products, and this in relation to “hedonic stimuli” such as alcohol, gambling, and, of course, sugar (which Lustig claims “wastes $1.8 trillion in health care spending”). The last chapter of this part is called “The Death Spiral”, and is a less-than-cheery look at disease, health care, insurance, and Social Security (described, accurately, as a “legal Ponzi scheme”). The main take-away here is basically that we're screwed – on several fronts.

The last part of the book is “Out of Our Minds – in Search of the 4 C's”, which are (to not leave you hanging): “Connect”, “Contribute”, “Cope”, and (oddly) “Cook”, and, as you might suspect, these are also the topics covered in the last four chapters. Here the author attempts to chart a way out of the “corporate takeover of our bodies and brains” of the subtitle. This starts with reviewing the serotonin material (with focus on “-1a” receptor) preceding, dips back into the hallucinogen studies (with the “-2a” receptor), and then drifts into religion. Here he goes into a quick run-through of various experiments on believers and non-believers, even to folks in 12-step programs, and comes up with the concept that “it's the social engagement or emotional bonding that correlates with contentment”. This then moves into a look at how our social structures may have evolved, the benefits of “performing acts of compassion”, how contact with others can effect us (à la one study that suggested “obesity can be transmitted within social groups”), how much of the brain gets involved with processing feelings of rejection, and why “social media” doesn't quite stack up as “social” interactions as far a brain chemistry is concerned.

The next chapter, “Contribute”, deals with value exchanges – primarily money, of course. One interesting study cited had a group of lottery winners, compared with a control group, compared to a group of accident victims, both of the non-control groups had “spikes” (positive and negative) of happiness in the short term, “but over the next several months each group's level of subjective happiness returned to baseline levels”. This leads into a discussion of food (with the interesting data point that the U.S. spends 6.7% of the GDP on food, vs. both the French and Japanese who spend more than twice that, at 14% … noting that we buy lots of subsidized foodstuffs). He then introduces some work on materialism and sense of well-being, including the suggestion that there's an inverse correlation between these (which he backs up with a Ben Franklin quote). Next comes a look at work situations, “altruism vs. spite” (involving interpersonal games and related brain activity), messing with behavior by dosing with citalopram (an SSRI that increases serotonin), the psychology of Chinese depending on whether the lived north or south of the Yangtze, a pitch for volunteering (which “improved depression, life satisfaction, and well-being, as well as … a 22 percent reduction in risk for death”), and some brain chemistry related to donating money vs. having similar amounts put in play via taxation.

In “Cope” the topics of sleep, mindfulness, and exercise are considered, in relation of the concept of “adaptive or maladaptive” stress. Much of this has to do with nurturing the prefrontal cortex (which needs all three of those), but “unfortunately, our environment has claimed our PFC as collateral damage”. The sections dealing with sleep are a bit “naggy”, with all sorts of studies about sleep deprivation (which costs the U.S. economy $83 billion a year), plus dictates about how you should sleep (turn off the TV – he must not have hyperactive squirrels running around in his head that need to be distracted some nights!). He moves from nagging about the TV to nagging about “screens” in general, and then runs this into a rant about multitasking. This gets contrasted with meditation, which he not only recommends but touches on a couple of practices, and notes that regular meditators “have clear differences in brain structure”, although he does admit that there's no clear answer regarding if it's people with those brain differences who choose to meditate, or if meditation causes these changes. He mentions some mindfulness programs, and uses these to segue into the exercise topic via a study that used mindfulness training as an add-on for one group of obese subjects. This then goes into the differences between “visceral” and “subcutaneous” fat, the former being “the driver of the diseases of metabolic syndrome and depression”. Remarkably, there are studies indicating that mindfulness meditation can decrease this fat, and other studies showing the effects of exercise between pairs of twins. He, of course, suggests that exercise is likely to improve mood, and could be boosted in combination with meditation.

Finally, we end up at “Cook”, which seems to be an odd spin on this, except that he's framed this in contrast to “toxic food” (that stuff that's being sold to us – especially sugar). He has a bunch of statistics here, one of the more telling is that the American Heart Association's recommendations for sugar consumption for children is just 3-4 teaspoons per day, when the actual consumption is 22 teaspoons per day (for adults, it's 9 and 19.5 … unless you're not Caucasian, with those demographic groups consuming a quarter to a half more). What makes this a difficult subject on a personal level is that only about 51% of the sugar we consume is in forms (desserts, etc.) that we'd recognize as sugar – the other 49% is essentially invisible, added into almost everything to provide end-user appeal: bulk, coloring, flavor, moisture, and preservative functions. However, some of his figures look pretty iffy from where I'm sitting (for instance: “sugared beverages alone account for 180,000 deaths per year worldwide” … uh, OK). The remainder of the chapter is a pretty rough attack on all things sugar (especially those nefarious folks who constitute “Big Sugar”), and recommendation that sugar be subject to the same sort of governmental assault as was levied at tobacco over the past half century or so.

Anyway, I really didn't expect (or want) this to go as long as it has (nearly 6,000 words!), but there is so much info in The Hacking of the American Mind, that I really felt like I wasn't doing it justice to do a non-orbital fly-by and call it “reviewed”. Of course, the science of this probably attracts me more than most, so you've had to suffer through some of that, but I assure you, I only skimmed the surface. While I don't agree with the author's Big Government solution to Big Sugar, the non-political parts are very interesting, and this would likely be a good read for anybody interested in what goes on in their brain, or what goes into their mouths. This just came out a couple of months back, so should be available a the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, and the online guys currently are knocking nearly 40% off the price … so you might consider getting your hands on a copy.

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Challenging ourselves to be better ...

This was an easy decision when I saw it on the shelf at the dollar store this summer, as I've been a fan of its author for quite some time, and was very interested to see what he had to say in book length (as opposed to his Twitter or Facebook posts that I typically see). So, Allen West's Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin's Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom got into my shopping cart, without much preconceptions (or data) about the book (as is often the case with dollar store finds).

If you don't know Allen West, he's currently a conservative commentator, but was formerly a one-term Congressman from Florida, after having served 22 years in the army. You might guess that this book was more of a biography, but only the first quarter is really focused on his story, with the rest being his “philosophy” in assorted areas (albeit in the context of his experiences). The book is broken up into five Parts, “My Conservative Roots”, “Conservative Principles”, “Conservatism in the Black Community”, “The Future of the American Republic”, and “Conclusion”. The middle three (each having 3-4 chapters) seem to be almost free-standing looks at their subjects. Obviously, the subtitle's reference to being an “American Ronin” begs some explanation, and he sets this up in the Prologue (although he doesn't really carry it forward much as a theme):

… rather than offer a conventional autobiography, I'd like to share with you my philosophical beliefs and the reasons why I love this country and why I shall fight wholeheartedly and fearlessly for the future of our republic.
      My story actually has its roots centuries ago in Japan.
      I've always been drawn to the warrior spirit and the code of the samurai. But it is the ethos of the ronin that truly resonates with me.
      During Japan's feudal period, from the late 1100s to the late 1800s, a samurai who lost his lord or master, either through the master's death or the samurai's loss of favor, was known as a ronin. …
He goes on to explain that these samurai were supposed to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and the ones (the ronin) who did not were shunned. However, there must have been enough of them to have regulations regarding their status, as they were allowed to be armed, and be employed as bodyguards, etc. He frames having lost his father in his mid-20's as “losing his master”, and he “pledged an oath” to continue in the nation's service:

      And just like the ronin, I have remained an outsider, hewing to the code by which I was raised.
      My parents, my earthly masters, had brought me up as a conservative in every sense. They encouraged and championed my commitment to conservative values. Now I stood alone. I soon experienced the ronin's sense of undesirability, humiliation, and shame. I was treated as persona non grata not only by those who didn't share my views but also by some in my own African-American community.
      Because I refused to succumb and live my life according to other people's code, I was cast out. …
Although I'm jumping ahead a bit here, what probably resonated with him in the concept of the ronin is that he left the military through less-than-voluntary means (here's an article from just a few months after the fact). As any number of Leftists will harp on and on about, he ended up being put through Article 15 proceedings, which most of the MSM seems to want people to think is the equivalent of the Nuremberg trails. West discusses this over a couple of pages, and I'm going to just grab bits to give you the broad strokes:

In August 2003 we received intelligence reports that a particular Iraqi policeman had been providing information to the enemy, leading to an increase in ambushes on our patrols. We needed to detain the policeman for questioning because we believed something was about to happen. … The policeman had been stonewalling our interrogators, and we needed results. So I made the decision to put additional pressure on him with a psychological intimidation tactic. … He cried out to Allah and provided several names of individuals who intended to do harm to me and my unit. Afterwards there were no further attacks … {he immediately reports the incident, and takes responsibility} … During the hearing my defense attorney … asked if I would do it all again. Without hesitation I responded, “If it is about the lives and safety of my men, I would walk through hell with a gasoline can.” … Ultimately, as a result of the hearing, I received an Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment similar to a traffic ticket. I was fined five thousand dollars, given an honorable discharge, and retired with full rank and benefits. … I had lived up to the parting words {his father} shared back in October 1983 as I prepared to depart for Fort Sill: “Most of all, take care of your men.”
Anyway, the first chapter, “Early Lessons” takes a look at his family, their history, his youth, life growing up in Atlanta, school issues, and his move towards the military (both his parents worked in defense jobs) with University of Tennessee's ROTC program. Much of this is quite charming, but nothing stood out to quote here. Next is “Shaping Operations”, which appears to be a technical term:

      In military vernacular there are two types of operations: decisive and shaping. Before any decisive operation, there must be a shaping operation to set the conditions for the final attack and to ensure victory is achieved and objectives are met.
      My military career was the shaping operation that made me the man I am today.
This is primarily the story of his moving towards his long military career, with a lot of details of units, assignments, training, officers, etc., but also has some pieces about figures (like Colonel Chamberlain from the Civil War battle of Little Round Top, or the vets who ran the JROTC program at his high school) that he holds as exemplars. This moves into chapter three, “My Warrior's Code”, which is a bit more philosophical look at the military (and politics), with special honor given to a particular mentor:

Character is simply defined as doing what is right when no one is watching. … Courage, competence, commitment, conviction, and character were the fundamental principles of leadership I learned from a man who, had he been born centuries before in Japan, truly would have been a samurai master – “Steel 6,” Colonel Denny R. Lewis. … These principles form my personal warrior's code and combine with honor and integrity to shape my personality. I often wonder what Capitol Hill would look like if more elected officials possessed the same code. … I believe that we've come to a point in America where our elected officials possess no code whatsoever.
Oddly, for something that functions as an autobiography, this first part (at about 1/3rd of the page count) is pretty much it for a walk-through on West's life. The next part (also about 1/3rd of the book) is a review of just what he tells you it is – Conservative Principles – and is a fascinating read. At a point between the military and congress, West spent some time teaching history, and this comes out in a big way here. I've read a lot of political stuff over the years, and the “Philosophical Foundations” chapter is one of the clearest and most convincing expositions of the underlying philosophical stances of the popular options out there, from the concept of the “social contract” to an in-depth discussion of the differences of world-view of systems that evolved from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There's a look at the transition from Charles II to James II in England, and the eventual framing of the English Bill of Rights, and how that shifted the landscape of concepts of government. This then moves into the chapter “Governing Principles”, which starts out with Jefferson and Madison. This is not all philosophy, as West takes a number of broadsides at the sort of tax-and-spend behemoth that we're suffering these days, with quotes from such thinkers as Frédéric Bastiat, Ayn Rand, and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose warnings of just the sort of things that the Alinsky-inspired crowd have saddled the nation with over the past few decades. Of course, the blame for much of this falls to John Maynard Keynes, ignoring the cautions of Alexander Hamilton that the growth of government … would subvert the very foundation, the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America. Thomas Jefferson would have likewise been aghast at what the so-called “progressive” Left has made of our system: “To compel a man to furnish the funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” West runs through what he refers to as “governing principles” of the Founders, and how they're being erased before our eyes:

      If we are to live up to the governing principles our founders established, then we have a mighty responsibility to preserve the power of the individual citizen. We must resist government's constant fearmongering and exploitation of our sympathies, which cause us to gradually and imperceptibly surrender individual sovereignty and liberty, drip by drip.
West starts out the “Pillars of Conservative Thought” chapter with an arch quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” (this paired with a doozy from Nancy Pelosi) … the chapter is something of a rant about how corrupted things have become vs. ideals. This leads into “Conflicting Philosophies of Governance”, which is something of the previous “Principles” evolved into their modern manifestations, or, as West clarifies:

… during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. So in this chapter, it's time for a revolutionary act: to define truthfully what {Obama's} “fundamental transformation of America” means. … If we're fundamentally transforming America, it must mean we're moving toward the opposite of limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual sovereignty, free markets, strong national defense, and traditional values.
This leads back to Locke and Rousseau, with a few nods to Ronald Reagan. West connects the dots between Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, and even reprints eight of the ten planks of The Communist Manifesto to show how each has been pressed to service by “progressive” regimes administrations since the early 1900's. I marked several pages in a row here, but there's so much that needs to be conveyed, that I can't really cherry-pick bits to put in here. This section is one of those that I really wish could be required reading in schools – if, of course, schools weren't the first things the Left sought to take over.

The next section looks at “Conservatism in the Black Community”, which to most people sounds like a joke, although West is very clear about how conservative his upbringing in Atlanta, GA had been. Needless to say, this is very personal to him, which can be inferred by the title of the first chapter in it, “The Soul of Our Souls”, and he has a pretty good definition here: “Conservatism in the black community was not so much about political inclinations as it was a way of life that we called 'old school.'” He sets the conflict here as the philosophies of Booker T. Washington (“self-reliance and economic independence”), vs. W.E.B. Du Bois (advocating “black protest, militancy, and pride”) … “Compare Booker T. Washington, the consummate conservative, with W.E.B. Du Bois, the radical leftist, and you can see the origins of the current conflict in our community.” Obviously, West is supporting a return to the vision of Washington, and goes into a lot of painful detail of how black communities have decayed with ever-increasing governmental intrusion. Next is “The Big Lie and the Twenty-First-Century Economic Plantation” which takes head-on “the people who promoted the big lie that government will solve your problems”. He ticks through a list of big government programs that probably sounded real good to liberals, but were disasters for the very people that they were intended to help. I wish more people came to the same conclusions that West has here:

I believe these programs were never meant to rectify problems but to increase dependency on government, all for political gain. Through the Great Society, the government created this economic plantation where the only real “benefits”are the electoral votes keeping the subsistence providers in power.
He goes through a litany of statistical decline, from fatherless homes to prison population percentage, calling it a “social Armageddon” “Yet the so-called black leaders, nearly all of them Democrats, refuse to identify the true cause of these horrible statistics.”

Chapter 10 is “The Hunt for Black Conservatives”, and this isn't about seeking out them, but the pattern of attacks on them. He leads off with a story that ran about him on a satire blog, that makes up an entire interview that supposedly happened between West and a CNN reporter. Despite nothing being true in it, leftist media picked it up and ran it as real, and neither CNN nor the reporter ever bothered to deny the piece. West points out that this is straight out of the Alinksy playbook, and asks the very reasonable question: “Why is it that any philosophy in the black community that differs from the established liberal canon is viciously attacked?” He goes into the character assassination campaigns that the Left has waged against a long list (he has several dozen cited) of black conservatives … and offers the following as a very plausible reason this happens: “The Left must destroy black conservatives because it cannot afford to have freethinking, independent-minded black Americans. If we begin to pull away from the dependency society … the Left loses.”

West then takes another turn, looking forward in “The Future of the American Republic” … the first chapter of which is “Republic or Democracy”, in which he has a fairly concise framing of the question, which also casts shadows on the American educational system (in that most people have no clue):

If there is to be a future for our nation, it means understanding America is a republic, not a democracy. The future of the American republic depends first and foremost on ensuring the citizenry and the voting electorate understand the basic framework of this grand experiment.
He goes on to discuss how many more college courses favor Marx over Jefferson, cites several founding fathers specifically warning about “democracy” (vs. a constitutional republic), and lists numerous really horrible governments that have come to power “democratically” (mainly in the Arab world) in recent decades. He charts out how things went downhill, and especially points to the 17th Amendment, which changed the method of seating senators from being appointed by state legislators/governors to direct election (where pandering to the mob seems to be the norm).

Next is “The Dilemma for the American Republic”, which leads off with this choice bit: “it's not just that we are abdicating the freedom, we're doing so without a clear understanding of the issues or the unintended consequences of our surrender.” He paints a very grim picture of how things are, and how they have been going, and suggests that America is primed for a “third party”. He sets out the philosophical conflict as being between those working for an “opportunity society” and those hell-bent on driving us deeper into a “dependency society”. While he doesn't specify what a possible third party would look like, he notes the Republican Party has been fading into the “Democrat Lite” Party, and has a quite biting description of the Democrats:

Today the Democratic Party has drifted so far to the left it has lost touch with the fundamental values of our constitutional republic. The Democrats have truly embraced modern-day progressive socialism, and I would challenge anyone to show me where that model has ever been successful anywhere in the world.
West walks the reader through disastrous Democrat-driven legislation and government programs, the decay of once-thriving cities like Detroit and Chicago after lifetimes of Democratic control, and describes how “the dependency society confuses privileges with rights and sells everything as a right”. On a more politics-in-general mode, he notes:

Through microtargeting and divisive segmentation, the political machine figures out what buttons to push to maintain power. And voters fall for it over and over again. They reward the impostors and charlatans.
In the final chapter, “Servant Leadership Versus Self-Service”, he starts out contrasting recent vile Democratic administrations with the character of the Founders and fellow Americans of their era, featuring a choice quote from Samuel Adams: “If ever a time should come when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats of Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” … needless to say, West sees himself as such a patriot, and this then leads to a return to the samurai/ronin imagery, where he details the elements of Bushido (warrior code). While I'm sure that Mr. West can't be accused of wanting America to become some echo of medieval Japan, he certainly is advocating a significant shift from the direction the country's been going over the past 50-100 years. He closes the chapter with a famous quote from Reagan, about “if we lose freedom here”, which is the ultimate thrust of his thesis.

Guardian of the Republic is still in print (it's only 3.5 years old, so I guess I lucked out at finding a dollar store copy), although there's not been a paperback edition of it as yet. The online big boys do presently have it at a substantial discount (over half off) which probably bests the brick-and-mortar guys … and you can get “like new” copies from the new/used vendors for about a quarter of cover price (including shipping). As I alluded to above, there are parts of this (most of the non-autobiography stuff) that I really wish everybody would read … but I realize that West's Tea-Party-influenced type of conservatism rubs a lot of people the wrong way (although I'm certainly in the cheering section). It is quite an edifying look at the state of the nation, however, so you probably should consider giving it a go!

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I want a name when I lose ...

I had quite a battle with myself, standing in front of the dollar store shelf, wondering if I should toss this into the cart. Had it been a hardcover, it wouldn't have been a question, but this wasn't a hardcover, heck, it wasn't even a trade paperback, but a mass-market paperback – something that I've not read many of since swearing off fiction. However, I recognized the author from the band Steely Dan, and it certainly looked interesting, so into the shopping cart it went.

While autobiographies are hardly one of my more enthusiastically-embraced genres, there is a certain voyeuristic itch that's scratched by getting to peek into the lives of assorted figures with whom I've developed some familiarity. While I was certainly appreciative of Steely Dan's music, and had a couple of their albums, I was never a big fan, but was at least able to put Donald Fagen's name into the right context.

His book, Eminent Hipsters is one of those projects that I suspect involved the publisher prodding for material, as the biographical reminiscences only run 85 pages, with the rest of the book being a journal he was keeping during a 2012 tour with The Dukes of September Rhythm Review, which featured him, Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs (of the Steve Miller Band & solo work). The book is relatively recent, having initially come out in 2013 (the introduction is dated to January of that year), with the paperback being issued in late 2014. What's odd here is that there's a significant gap, from 1969 to 2012, in the material … which not only represents a huge jump age-wise (from college to age 64), but skips over all the “rock star” elements (which one would guess would be the stuff that Steely Dan fans would be looking for in a book by Fagen). As such, this comes across as pretty much two books, one about things that influenced him in his first 21 years, and, I suppose, made him who he is, and then a look at his senior existence, on the road (and dealing with “Acute Tour Disorder”).

I wish I'd be able to give you a coherent overview of what's in the first part of the book, but chapter by chapter it's pretty much a fire hose of name checks, some I recognize, but most (being that Fagen's tastes run to jazz) I don't have a clue about. However, the chapters do have themes that they stick fairly close to, so I'll try to present at least the broad strokes. This starts in “Boswell's Version”, where he notes that his cousin Barbara (“…a knockout, gorgeous and curvy, a great dancer, and hip too. Hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village, she had no trouble getting to know the major players …”) would play hot albums for the kids, and his mom (who was “…a fine swing singer who from the age of five through her teen years worked with a trio in a hotel in the Catskills …”) was “a connoisseur of what jazz people refer to as 'phrasing'”, and among these faves of hers were the Boswell Sisters, who had, according to Fagen, “created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”. Mind you, in the two paragraphs separating “phrasing” from “Ellington” in the text, he's name checked a dozen performers, ranging from those he notes to be “now forgotten” to such mega-stars as Frank Sinatra. The Boswells, and especially Connie, serve as a central element in this chapter that allows the author to paint a complicated portrait of popular music in the 20's, 30's, and some aspects reaching into the 50's.

The next chapter is “Henry Mancini's Anomie Deluxe”, which starts out with one of the more traumatic events in Fagen's life – his father deciding to move the family to a pre-fab sprawling suburb in New Jersey when he was about 8. The descriptions of “Squaresville” eventually settle into what was on TV, including Blake Edwards' memorable Peter Gunn, whose still-cool-today theme by Henri Mancini spoke to the youngster.

Mancini didn't have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edwards's vision of anomie deluxe. At the time West Coast jazz (essentially, white bop) was being offered to college kids as part of the same package that included the Beats, open-toed sandals and psychoanalysis.
Mancini was cranking out scores for the show, and its spin-offs, putting out albums of material which “sold in the zillions”. This lets the author drift down memory lane for things that drove him to learn more about jazz, and riff on pop cultural factors, and the shift from the music of previous decades to new generations, and how Mancini's music keeps re-surfacing in surprising contexts.

The next chapter takes a abrupt turn in focus, with “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi” looking at the author's reading preferences (if not obsessions), the cultural elements leading to these works, as well as that of the time in general:

Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on the counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars, the decade was, in fact, characterized by a nail-biting paranoia.
And, speaking of “general”, Fagen gets into a whole section dealing with General Semantics, which has the seed concepts that sci-fi author A.E. van Vogt spun out into a plot element of “the Cortico-Thalamic Pause” in his book The World of Null-A. The chapter moves into Fagen's first experience with San Francisco, and whips back into literature, tracing the weirdness surrounding the creation of Dianetics.

This then leads to “I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd” … a radio personality he was introduced to by his “weird uncle Dave”. Shepherd also wrote, and is immortalized as the source of the material (in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) of the endlessly broadcast film A Christmas Story. This lets Fagen get into radio issues, comedy performers (Lenny Bruce, etc.), and what does or doesn't work in broadcast vs. live. The key piece here is that Shepherd would “… get his listeners – the 'night people,' the 'gang' - to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan.” and would read stories sent in by listeners, his “spies”. Needless to say, one that Fagen had sent in was read on the air, leading Fagen to claim: “My life as an independent consciousness had begun.”

Next comes “In the Clubs”, where the author tells of his experiences going up to New York City to listen to jazz, etc. It seems odd that this started when he was in his very early teens (in the early years of the 1960s). This chapter is truly amazing … but so jam-packed with details of clubs, musicians, genres, playing styles, characters, and more, that I have no way to even begin to give you samples. Guess you'll have to get the book, eh? This is followed by a very brief (4 pages) chapter on a particular favorite of the author – an all-night jazz DJ by the name of Mort Fega – which is titled “Uncle Mort”. Another 4-page chapter comes next, “A Talk with Ennio Morricone”, which is a reprint of an interview Fagen had done for Premier magazine with the guy who did the scores for (among others) the “classic” Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Even briefer (clocking in at 3 pages) is “Exit the Genius”, a free-standing tribute to Ray Charles wherein he claims that: “When Ray Charles died in 2004, we came to the end of American culture as we had known it.” Next comes the slightly longer “The Devil and Ike Turner”, which is a fascinating look at the man, in a context that makes him look like a Delta Blues version of Faust (no, really).

The last chapter of the reminiscence part of the book is “Class of '69” which is a recalling of Fagen's years at Bard College. This was, somewhat notably, in the same general area of the planet as where Dr. Timothy Leary was running his center. The chapter starts out with the basic college stuff, questions about direction (he didn't think he was good enough at music, so initially was an English major), all sorts of heartache and/or sex and obsession, and experiments with drugs. Then he stumbles over (his Steely Dan partner) Walter Becker, and it's suddenly pretty much all about the music. There are some interesting names checked here, including a point where they had classmate Chevy Chase (yes, that one) playing drums for an band they put together for an event. The last story in this part is based on another name-check, that of G. Gordon Liddy, who led a raid on the house Fagen was living in off-campus, leading to fifty kids getting thrown in jail … they eventually get let out, but Fagen decides to boycott graduation in 1969 over what he sees as the college's involvement in enabling the raid.

Then, suddenly, it's 2012. Nice segue.

The first couple of paragraphs of “With the Dukes of September”, he backgrounds the genesis of this project, from the 1980 shooting of John Lennon, to his The Nightfly album (and panic attacks and paranoia), to getting pulled into an event series that produced The New York Rock and Soul Review, which was the predecessor of the act he's touring with. What's most notable about this whole journal is what a cranky old guy he's turned into – not helped by the much-lower tour budget that this group has vs. what he'd been used to with Steely Dan. He bitches a lot about “the TV Babies” who don't recognize classic songs, etc. As to not posting the journal on-line:

Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record … (this goes on for quite a bit, and is a delightful, if long-ish rant)
Anyway, he bitches about reading, he bitches about hotels, he bitches about long bus rides (instead of flights), he bitches about pretty much everything (“The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late '67, the barbarism had set in.”). Of course, being an almost daily report, it is a fascinating look “behind the curtain” of a rock tour – if featuring a bunch of 60-something guys as the main players. City after city. Concert hall after concert hall. Hotel after hotel. And, everything that can be bitched about in each. Oh, and even some drugs (albeit mainly of the prescription variety).

There's a bunch of less pleasant stuff as well, like the suicide of Fagen's wife's son. Also, “ATD” – Acute Tour Disorder – which he spends four pages describing in detail in an appendix. Here's a little example of the tone of much of this, from the August 9 entry, following a show in Boston:

But after seven weeks out, ATD tends to trump joy. To boot, my right kidney's been bothering me a lot, probably because of some crystal gravel, tiny kidney stones that I sometimes get.
TMI, anyone? Frankly, a lot of the tour journal is like that – reminding me of some of my hand-written journals from places back when I was traveling – complaining about stuff because the irritations are the easiest data to access at the time.

As I didn't come to Eminent Hipsters as a big Steely Dan / Donald Fagen fan, I didn't have the reaction that a lot of reviewers had in being pissed off that he didn't address the stuff that most of them really wanted to read. It's an interesting enough book, and (were he less hostile to all things digital) would have been a great opportunity for him to have put together play lists of YouTube, etc., resources of the influences he mentions. With a close read, however, you might be able to pull this together for yourself and get quite a useful background in the sorts of music that he grew up on. I guess I need to note that his Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker, died in between my reading this, and getting around to writing the review. Obviously, that's not really here nor there in terms of my interface with the book, but a bunch of the back-and-forth with his representatives deal with it not being an "SD tour" (with the implication that they'd like him to agree to one), and that now appears to be a moot point. I guess Fagen will have to get used to the crappier hotels.

Anyway, as noted, this is a relatively recent release (the paperback came out just 3 years ago from the day I'm writing this), so there's a decent possibility of it still hanging around in the remaining brick-and-mortar book vendors. It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point, but the new/used guys have it (for less than the paperback), if you're looking for something more substantial. The online big boys have this at a few bucks off of cover price, but the used options don't save you much (and used mass-market books tend to be a mess), so that might be your best bet should this sound like something you'd want to pick up. Again, I probably enjoyed this more because I'm not a particular fan of the author and his most notable band, and it might be an irritating tease if Steely Dan was one of your faves ... the “music history lessons” woven into the first part of the book are worth reading in any case.

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"Don't start with an inhale."

I'm a bit late getting to this one – as it came to me via the “Early Reviewer” program, and we're supposed to get the review done within 3 months … this title having come from the May 2017 batch. Oops. Anyway, I was somewhat surprised to have “won” this, as I ticked the “request” box on it largely due to Daughter #2 being an aspiring actress, and I figured it would be something that might be beneficial to pass along to her, as I have done on some other books previously. I think it's fair to say that Beatrice Manley's Your Breath in Art: Acting From Within is something that I would have been highly unlikely to have picked up had it not been for this particular conjunction of elements, but I found it a pleasant read nonetheless.

As is usually the case with LTER selections, there wasn't a whole lot of info about the book provided up front, and I found it odd that a book was coming out “new” by an author who had passed back in 2002. As it turns out, this is a new edition of a book she'd published in 1997 as My Breath in Art, and is something of a 20th anniversary edition (although there is no editorial material in the book to indicate this beyond the data on the copyright page). What I had somewhat expected to be a manual of the author's acting technique (which, certainly, it is on some levels), turned out to be quite the melange … obviously it has the acting elements, but also almost a yoga treatise on the use and function of breath, a lot of humor, pop cultural references (circa the mid-90's), and war stories from both acting and teaching acting.

Being the lazy sot that I am, I was really hoping that there was going to be some grand unifying statement here that I could pass along to you without the effort of much processing on my end, but no … the following (the start of Ch.1), however, pulls together some of the essential threads of the book:

      Whenever our acting takes an unpredictable, magical turn, it is because, somehow, the breath has touched our intuition and come up with what had been hidden in our thoughts and emotions.
      The breath is both unconscious and conscious, involuntary and voluntary. The breath works in secret; even if we don't breathe it breathes. …
This, trailing the opening quote for the chapter, simply attributed to “Star Wars”: May the Force be with you. Chapter 1 is on “The Breath”, and she goes into expansive detail on concepts about breath, and suggestions of exercises to attempt to get a more significant awareness of it. A line that starts section four here grabbed my attention as one of those “teaching” things that seems to express a hard-won idea: “We will never know when the mind will grasp a concept and the body will master its technique.” … more esoterically (if in the theatrical arena) is this:

      The audience breathes in the images we carry on our breath. If we don't breathe the character into the body, neither we nor the audience will find the character convincing.
Speaking of esoteric, here's a bit from Chapter 2, “The Way of Words”: “Vowels and consonants have their special place on the tongue and at the lips and the teeth.” … this chapter is filled with extremely detailed minutia on how to present words, parts of words, and how they function in our speaking/breathing apparatus. She also gets into some cultural history, quoting authors, actors, and poets, and critiquing some famous actors' performances in particular roles.

Chapter 3, “Letting the Body Do It Also”, has numerous fascinating looks at how assorted actors manifested stage presence as well, with analysis of what's going on. This part, naturally, also relates to the breath, at one point noting:

Athletes talk about getting the mind out of the way so that something can take over. The athlete said: “I can't concentrate when I think.” The body has to be let alone to do whatever it does, its own way. …
Muscular tension anywhere in the body can spoil a performance.
The next chapter, entitled “Learning How to Learn” (which is also the name of a fascinating book by Idries Shah), begins with a long letter that she “wrote and never sent” to her students. This deals a lot with overcoming various blocks. There are quite a few choice bits here, including:

The desire to perform is very great but it is often mixed in with self-consciousness and embarrassment. A part of the body shrinks back from its own presence; there is a pulling away from the gesture as soon as it's made.
… and:

If we let the critic in us take over, it will eventually paralyze us. There is a place in the body, an actual place, that each person's critic inhabits and which smothers natural talent.
Aside from discussing these topics, she additionally sketches out some exercises to use for getting over these blocks and related physical and psychological stressors … and recommends a “lab coat attitude” where, like a scientist, the actor experiments with these, and “continues to make changes until the right formula is found”.

The next couple of chapters, “Technique” and “Doing Nothing”, are each under ten pages. The concept of technique here is a bit like the body skills learned to ride a bike, and her thrust is on having these skills as baked-in as that. The most direct part here is:

      Technique is nothing but redeeming natural behavior, getting rid of physical tensions, cleaning out emotional garbage. All this so that we can find our way back to simplicity. When we reclaim our innocence, the self without fear or exaggeration, we are talented and intuitive and imaginative and creative and integrated.
She returns to Star Wars references in expressing the concept of doing nothing: “… Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke to use The Force; that now he must let go of his conscious self and act on instinct.” While there are exercises suggested, the essence here comes through, I think, in a few lines, like “Doing nothing lets the intangible happen.”, and “If simplicity makes us feel stupid, ambiguity can make us crazy: don't make something happen, let something happen. … And the ultimate in ambiguity: don't try, but don't try to not try ...” which she follows up with this gem:

“Ah,” says Maxwell Smart, “the old Zen game.”
While Chapters 5 and 6 are quite brief, Chapter 7, “The Acting Chapter”, takes up (as one might expect, I suppose) nearly 30% of the book. This is broken up into three parts, “Helpful Hints”, “28 Little Essays About Acting”, and “Thinking About the Script”. The first of these is sort of “nuts and bolts” of the acting craft, looking at auditions, rehearsals, and working with directors, with one rather odd topic of “The Nose”:

Notice how often people touch and scratch their noses. The habit is so strong that I've seen performers rub their noses impulsively in the middle of a scene. It's one thing to need to blow one's nose, it's another to grab at it because the nerve endings are screaming for attention.
The 28 essays are brief, ranging from a couple of lines to a couple of pages, and are all over the board as far as subject matter. Number 21, “No Tempo”, has a great bit part-way through it: “George Burns said he didn't go on the stage to wow them. He went on stage.”, which itself sounds a bit like a Zen teaching story … and number 28 is a generally useful “What to Do with Our Hands”, which has rather pointed stage-presence reasons to do or not do specific things with one's arms and hands – including this item: “Clint Eastwood said he took a lot of acting lessons to do nothing, to just stand there.” Part three begins with another interesting quote, this from Anthony Hopkins: … Once you've learned the part – and I try to learn the whole film as much as possible – you've got the whole recipe inside you so your mind can make unconscious decisions … . While most of the rest of the book is broken up into small, often paragraph-length, sections, this part is set up pretty much as one substantial essay about scripts, and relating to and working with them.

The last three chapters are back to being fairly brief. Chapter 8 on “Oral Reading” is a delight for the writer in me, with lots of poking around in the guts of the language, and quotes like: “If we observe the punctuation we needn't struggle with the material.”, which is followed by a passage from Edward Albee getting very detailed about the nature, and expression intended, in punctuation; and then discussed by Manley in relation to her experiences, including suggesting that in one of Samuel Beckett's plays “the author was acting the role on paper”, and that “When I followed his punctuation, I arrived at the emotions he intended.” She also discusses pacing and refining technique, comparing what athletes do (“working on that single flaw, over and over”) to what she feels actors ought to be doing, as it's what “separates the champions from the merely talented.”

Next is Chapter 9, “I Remember Fear”, which delves into various examples of working around one's fear, frequently expressed as elements of roles the author played. I liked this bit:

      There are no guarantees. The hardest thing in acting is to accept that we can't control or capture a performance, that we must find ways to let a performance alone, to let it be the words and gestures, the physical expression of thoughts. …
The last chapter, #10, is “Fame!” and is quite brief, just a few pages, and looks at fame from a philosophical stance, quoting a couple of well-known names, and closing with another George Burns quip:

… I don't try to be a hit. I don't sweat. I walk out there and take it easy. I find that if I take it easy, the audience takes it easy. If I sweat, they sweat. If we both sweat, we don't smell good. …
This is followed by an appendix of “Basic Exercises” (in 10 categories), which are fairly technical … for example (pardon my skipping the bits with the actual vowel patterns):

      The lip corners float up for the vowels in the first pattern. They float forward for the vowels in the second pattern. It makes a big difference in the sound when the lip corners move with the vowel. After you practice a while it will become automatic. Float up or forward. Don't muscle it.
I hope from the preceding you've gotten a sense of Your Breath in Art … as I said, it's quite a mix of stuff, and engaging all the way through. This new edition (from a new publisher) came out at the end of May, so it should be available either at or via the brick-and-mortar book stores that handle this sort of title … which you might as well go to for it, as the on-line behemoths are presently not knocking anything off the cover price. Again, I found this quite a fascinating and enjoyable read, and would recommend it to anyone who resonates with the above.

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Watch out for that tree?

Ah, the dollar store … what oddities you present to me, staring out from your miscellaneous and always changing shelves! Paul Rosolie's Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon was sitting there, not even three years past its publication, and, while not being one of my key reading areas, looked interesting enough (heck, it has a quote from Jane Goodall on the cover, saying it's “An extraordinary book.”) to throw a buck at. This did, however, spend quite a while in the “to be read” stacks before I got to a place in my reading where I needed an escape into “uncharted tributaries”, and opted to add it into the current reading mix.

As is often the case when I sit down to crank out these reviews (and especially after a long gap – I wasn't writing for quite a bit, due to a variety of things, and have a backlog of over a dozen books to get to that I've finished at various times over the past four months), I find myself wishing that I had stuck in more of my little bookmarks. However, this being more of a “story” (if of a biographical bent, with Green over-tones), there were fewer cues to what I would subsequently think were the “important parts” to point back to. So, I'm going to be working off of the recalls I can pull to mind, and scanning through the book here.

I no doubt have mentioned in this space that I've traveled in South America, and the “type” of Mr. Rosolie is not unfamiliar to me … although I was never specifically doing environmental tourism, the locales (and enthusiasts) for that often intersect with the archaeological tourism that was my passion at a time … having encountered Green crusaders (usually complaining about something or another that tourists/locals/governments, etc. either were or were not doing that they fervently believed they should or shouldn't be) in various exotic settings.

I bring this up to explain that my reading of Mother of God was not without some amount of irritation at points … irritation that I'm guessing would not be engendered in others' experience of the book. One of my favorite societal quotes is from the late, great Johnny Carson, who said “It takes all types to fill the freeway.”, and I try to remember that when I start grumbling about “those people” (in whatever context that grumbling arises). This is not to say that the work that Mr. Rosolie and his ilk do is unimportant, he discusses his conservation mission on his web site, and has founded Tamandua Expeditions, which offers “wildlife research, conservation, and responsible volunteer/adventure travel”.

Anyway, Mr. Rosolie was a misfit in the New Jersey environment he grew up in …

As I got older my ambition began to boil and my fight with the education system intensified … Through middle school and freshman year of high school I broke all kinds of records for detentions and suspensions and made my way to each June feeling I had barely survived … As my grades dropped below the point of no return, and my total suspensions for the year hit double digits, my parents suggested I drop out and go to college.
This in his sophomore year in high school. He got his GED before the next school year began and (while he eventually ended up in college) spent all his time trying to find some Green organization that would take on an 18-year-old “untrained high school dropout”, preferably in “the most isolated and remote spot possible” (noting that “everything else was tourism”). Remarkably, he eventually heard from a researcher working in southeast Peru, who was needing assistants. He fibbed a bit, but got set up for spending his winter break down there, a two-day drive into the jungle from any civilization. He immediately took to it (even drinking the river water the first time it was offered) and claims to have soon been getting special treatment by the folks running the research station, and was sleeping out in a hammock in the jungle soon after his arrival (instead of what sufficed for “indoors” at the center).

Needless to say, he'd found his passion. Unfortunately, he has to get back to the States for college. He does start a web site and promotion program for the Las Piedras Station, in the “Madre de Dios” region (hence the book's title), which is successful enough to get him back there again (and again and again).

Now, I had a bit of an internal struggle at this point. The book is very much a “story”, with lots of characters, places, and scenarios, and I could either go into considerable detail, or just give you the broad strokes as I see them, plus highlights … and I'm opting for the latter. If you want the details, hey, go pick up a copy!

There is a lot of information here about the Amazon basin, its flora, fauna, geography, and the threats it is facing. The longer he stays, the more involved he gets, and seems to be always having to push himself to new personal challenges … of the type that tend to leave you dead – a situation that he only narrowly avoids at several points in the story. He still goes back to the U.S. for college, raising money and booking trips when there, allowing him to return to the Amazon. However, during one semester, a professor (who taught a course on “Ecology, Economics and Ethics”) challenges him to go on a trip to India. Aside from the academic value of this, and the opportunity to see elephants and tigers, he meets a young lady there, who is a significant side-track in the story. She's from India, and he decides she's his “soul mate” and proceeds to woo her from half a planet away. They eventually win her family's approval, get married, and she comes over to this side of the world (and into the jungle).

In the early chapters in the book, he copies some of his field notes on the wide array of animals he sees out in the jungle, but a not insignificant portion of the book deals with a few specific critters, including (if not especially) Anacondas. Big Anacondas. Real big ones … he describes a particular encounter with a monster snake:

This snake was as thick as a small cow, and easily twenty-five feet long. … I could see her watching us, sampling the air with a great black tongue, itself the size of any ordinary snake.
He also has notable experiences with jaguars and other forest creatures, but one of the oddest of his story involves a baby giant anteater, which he adopts (or vice-versa), and becomes his constant companion, sleeping with him in his hammock, and going into the jungle with him. There are pictures (so I guess it happened – web joke). However, at one point he gets a horrible tropical disease (I could have done without that picture – his face covered with neon green pustules), and has to be evacuated to civilization for medical attention … during which time the anteater disappears. However, much later in the book a female giant anteater (and her brood) shows up, and acts familiar, giving Rosolie hope that this was his friend, returned to the wild.

One of the “suicidal adventures” involves him going upriver to an “undiscovered” zone that the patriarch of a local family tells him of. He works his way up river, seeing more and more amazing sights (he notes an inverse ratio of the presence of man and the wealth of wildlife), has a risky near-encountered with an “uncontacted” native village, and eventually has to try to find his way back, still short of his destination. It turns out that there is a high iron content in many Amazon basin trees, which can mess with a compass, and he found he was hiking in large circles, and coming nowhere near where he was planning to get. He has a terrifying encounter with a jungle cat that was nose-to-hammock in the middle of the night, and has to try to survive a massive storm featuring hurricane-strength winds … this, on one hand, made the jungle a very dangerous place, and on the other, swelled the river extensively … which ended up saving him, as he was able to jump onto a huge tree that was being swept down the river, and ride it on a break-neck journey of many miles, until he had to head to shore before smashing into a logjam. He'd gotten far enough down river that he managed to encounter a boat, which took him to a jungle lodge, and thence to the relative safety of places he knew.

At one point he's chided by the head of the Las Piedras Station that “Sometime the bad guys win.”, and this was very nearly true for that center. His friends had lost control of it (having been on quite shaky financial ground all along), however, the group that had taken it over eventually found it a financial drain, and his friends were able to reclaim the facility. Unfortunately, they only got back 1,200 acres of the 27,000 acres they'd previously had – with the other owners looking to sell the rest at a hefty profit – possibly to logging interests.

Well, there you have it: adventure, animals, romance, skulduggery, and fighting the good fight. It's all in Mother of God, and I've only skimmed across the surface here (and I think I may have conflated different adventures into one narrative in the above). While I didn't love this book, it certainly had enough going on in it to keep my interest, and it may be something that you'd like as well.

As noted above, this is a relatively recent book (hardcover coming out in 2014, with the paperback following a year later), and both editions appear to still be in print. The on-line big boys actually have the hardcover going for less than the paperback, offering it for over half-off of cover price. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover edition for half of that price (including shipping), which would be your best bet dollar-wise, if you can't find a copy still floating around the dollar stores. Unless environmentalism is one of your top interests, I don't think this one's a “buy it at retail” recommendation, but it's an interesting read if you do get your hands on a copy.

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A "hep" and a "balou" ...

So, I was sort of surprised when “The Almighty Algorithm” over at's Early Reviewer program picked me for one of the copies of Paula Poundstone's The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … sure, I've read and reviewed other humor books (most recently one by Chelsea Handler), but I'm pretty sure there were fans of Ms. Poundstone also in the running who would have been more enthused to have been assigned this volume. Now, I'm not a non-fan of her comedy, and I'm certainly familiar with her (although it's probably been quite a while since I caught her act in any media), it's just that I'm on something of another wavelength.

In getting myself organized to write this review, I noticed something that I'd missed previously (or got the sense of when reading this), which is that the contents (the “experiments”) of the book are based on activities spread out over seven years, which certainly puts them in a different context than one would (or, at least, I did) get in reading it (except for her kids ending up in college by the end). One of the first "ha-ha" moments with this is on the cover … the promo blurb by the venerable (which I'm saying with the nicest intent – I still fondly remember her characters on Laugh-In) Lily Tomlin: “A remarkable journey. I laughed. I cried. I got another cat.” … one of numerous kudos from recognizable names the book attained.

After some mental back-and-forth, I'm thinking that a basic walk-through of the book is going to be the best approach to it. There are a dozen “experiments” over thirteen chapters (one, the “Get Organized” experiment is repeated), each reasonably free-standing. I do have a half-dozen of my little book marks in here, so there are things that I felt well worth passing along. Oh, yeah … one more thing: in an obvious attempt to make this all look “scientific”, each experiment is broken up into sections like conditions, hypothesis, variable, uncontrolled variable, field notes, procedure, qualitative observation, constants, environment, analysis, equipment, laboratory assistant, factor, inference, and conclusion (and I may be missing some), although these are not set up in any particular order, and some are as brief as a single word, while others go on for several pages. And, another caveat: while I'm certainly not Paula Poundstone (although we're nearly the same age – which could explain the Lily Tomlin quote), there are quite a few of these that would clearly “not end well”, and I reacted with a heartfelt “what were you thinking?” to her travails, which sometimes go well beyond “suffering for one's art” (or whatever).

Chapter 1 – The Get Fit Experiment
One thing to note up front … these ramble, with parts of them about the experiment per se, but with other parts about her home life and kids, and some about her professional life. In this, she signs up for taekwando classes, paying for two twenty-one session packages up front, as she notes “for science”. There's a somewhat odd section here about doing radio interviews to promote ticket sales for her stand-up gigs around the country … which then segues into a long story about doing some activities with one of her adopted kids. Neither has much to do with the “experiment”, but possibly does set up the parameters for what she's perceiving as “happiness”. Of course, getting fit is a bitch, and she comes to it from zero … at one point she reports: “… the workout was grueling. Honestly, I could turn in after the jumping jacks and wind sprints …”, while later adding “Qualitative Observation #3”: “There was no part of me that didn't hurt.”. More stories about care of pets and kids ensue, but she does set up something that gets re-used throughout the book:

So, am I happier? Part of the problem is that we as a species have never come up with a standard form of measure for happiness: teaspoons, volume, decibels, maybe something akin to blood alcohol level. Maybe a small amount of happiness could be a “hep”, after my old cat Hepcat. I like that: a hep of happiness, and if you're lucky enough to amass four of those, you've got yourself a whole “balou” of happiness. That's a lot. And, yes, I did have a cat named Balou.
She does end up getting some results, realizing that she's feeling great after carrying 30lbs of kitty litter down to the trash, an activity she notes “is generally not a mood enhancer”, and while she does manage to lose weight she comments that “I have a bad feeling that my fat has a highly developed homing instinct” … as Larry the Cable Guy would say: now that's funny right there.

Chapter 2 – The Get Wired Experiment
The premise of this is “The entire world seems to believe that “being connected” is the key to happiness; I wish to no longer stand on the outside looking in.”, that after confessing that she writes everything by hand and has her assistant type in stuff for her web site and her previous books, further noting “I don't even know how to turn on the machine.” Aside from the writing thing, she also has some goals for doing web video “to hook up with my audience directly”. I wish I could pass along her Jeffrey Dahmer quip here, but it would involve too much set-up … but its one of those little things that make the book charming. As I've been a computer user since the early 80's, I have to admit that a lot of this experiment is quite painful to read. She has a computer guy come in to get her set up on her new laptop, and the first thing she can think of to learn is how to send an email. Send. An. Email. Oh, and this one also has a “Qualitative Observation #3” worth passing along (which I immediately shared with my wife): “I hate auto-correct. I don't need a machine correcting me, I have two teenage daughters.” Aside from attempting to make and upload little videos, she's also introduced to Facebook – which spurs “Qualitative Observation #4”: “Computers are addictive.” and sets up a (much) later observation: “Twitter has to be one of the stupidest, most narcissistic activities humans have ever come up with, and I was enjoying it very much.”. Prime take-away point from this experiment's Conclusion: “Getting wired comes with too much compulsion to be the key to happiness and you miss too much real life while messing around with tech stuff.” … I believe I've had that pointed out to me before.

Chapter 3 – The Get Earthy Experiment
In which Ms. Poundstone decides it's a wonderful idea to go backpacking with her daughter who suffers from Cerebral Palsy … really. To her credit, she presents the clear “Qualitative Observation #1”: “My life is a series of self-delusions.”. As one might expect, the preparation for this is cringe-worthy … oh, and once they get going: bugs … and bears. And, lest you think this experiment is without mirth, here's its “Qualitative Observation #8”: “After you pee like a man, you don't ask for directions.”, which sort of leads to “Qualitative Observation #10”: “It's good to not be eaten” (see “bears”, preceding). Despite the difficulties of the project, she decides that backpacking with her daughter was “good for a couple of balous and a few heps of happiness”.

Chapter 4 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part One
This one ends up with “Experimental Error” as its conclusion and “There's no way I can do this alone.” as “Qualitative Observation #3” (which oddly appears after #5 and #6), which sets up Chapter 6. It starts out with the rather revealing: “I lost my beautiful house years ago. I went broke before it was cool.”, which is sort of a sub-theme here … unlike some other comics, her career seems to be high on accolades, and low on cash, with her being big on NPR rather than on late-night cable. Here, the “Hypothesis” is a Dorothy Gale toned “I am sure that getting organized will make me happy. I just know it will.”. The set-up on this is that when she had to unload her house, and get a rental, she went to a much smaller space, while simply moving everything in, much of it yet to be unpacked, which she excuses due to being vastly behind on handing over her previous book to her publisher, and simply focused on that.

By the time I completed my first book, I was so overwhelmed by the chaotic residue left behind, I didn't know where to begin. So I didn't. Then I didn't some more.
This experiment was a difficult read for me, as Poundstone is a “saver” in much the same way as I am, if in different particulars (although, I could painfully relate with her throwing out things kept for decades), with “Qualitative Observation #1” really summing up the mental state involved: “If I throw away a screw I find in the junk drawer today, I guarantee the refrigerator door will fall off tomorrow”. Over the years she has bought numerous magazines with promises of getting one organized, including a copy of Oprah's which was about people who regularly tidied their spaces, which she misread as tie-dyed and notes “Now I had quite a mess on my hands.” … waka, waka. She confronts the clothes, the kids' old toys, the photos, the books, the videos, the bills, paperwork for pretty much everything:

I sorted paper for three solid hours and thought that it might be time to establish the “negative hep” measure. I was hemorrhaging heps of happiness.
Chapter 5 – The Get Reel Experiment
It appears that at some point in the previous experiment Poundstone promised her kids something about sitting and watching movies together all day (possibly some point near when one of the kids chimed in with “Mom, you're never going to get the cats to sleep in alphabetical order.”). She also explains that they don't watch any TV, with the kids only getting to watch videos at specific, special, times, so this promise “was an especially exotic one”. Much of this chapter hinges on the chaos of her home environment, the interactions and personalities of her kids, and the urinary habits of her numerous cats. She mentions having “tons of movies” (and given the descriptions, that might be a weight estimate), but very minimal tech ability to run the various machines dedicated to playing these … noting: “Buzz Aldrin couldn't figure out the sequence of buttons to push to watch a movie in my house.”. These experiments aren't dated, but one part of this involves going with the kids to a “video store” (do these still exist?) to select films, as it appears that the hundreds at home just wouldn't do. This leads into another swing through the personalities of her kids, and trying to rein in their understandable sudden desire for “forbidden fruit”. The bulk of this chapter is a walk through their day … which video, who's complaining, her take on the various films (her play-by-play on Fast Five is notably arch), letting out the dogs, letting in the dogs, what cat is sitting/pissing where, and the consumption of snacks. Ultimately, the experiment is chalked up as an ordeal, vaguely scheduled to be repeated in the future, when they still believe it might make for some happiness.

Chapter 6 – The Get Organized Experiment: Part Two
Yeah, my reaction would be “tried it once – didn't work”, but here we are again on getting organized. This time she opts to hire a professional organizer {shudder}, which she rather sensibly hadn't thought of before “they're pricey and … do absurd stuff like make you put everything you own out on your front lawn.”. She eventually picks one who's a “green organizer” (whatever that is), and charges $75/hr … way out of her budget. A lot in here is about her kids, as lot of the clutter relates to her kids, and there's one bit about something discovered in a closet that she tries to defend keeping, yet: “It cost me thirty-five dollars to tell the Green Organizer that story, and she wasn't moved at all.”. Needless to say, given my own neuroses in this area, the entire process was a difficult read. Poundstone does however really nail it at one point: “I was afraid that if I got rid of all of the memorabilia from my past, I wouldn't remember it anymore.” … a point I've made over and over when it comes to assorted gee-gaws which are my only physical link to some notable life event, that realistically only comes to mind when in the presence of said item!

Chapter 7 – The Get Rolling Experiment
This one is definitely in the “what was she thinking?” zone, although it begins with overtones of a classic mid-life crisis as she drives her elder daughter up to college in Oregon. The emotional impact was such that:

I needed to do something drastic to score some happiness. Until now, I had experimented with what I thought would make me happy, but I was wrong a lot and this was beginning to feel urgent.
Her solution? Rent a fancy sports car. Really … despite her very next line being “I am thousands of dollars in debt.” Now, perhaps I'm not the ideal person to “judge” this … I live in a walking / public transit city, and have never “really” owned a car (long story, but I did nominally own cars at two points in time), so the L.A. car culture is something that might as well be about ice skidders on Titan. Anyway, she looks up a luxury car rental place online and after skimming through various cars, she focuses on a Maserati (“because of the Joe Walsh song”). On the site there are prices, which she assumes to be for a week's rental, however, once she gets on the phone with a rep, she's steered towards a Lamborghini, and discovers that its rental price, of $1,576.93 (!) (!!!), is for the day. Twenty-four hours … (oh, OK, so that is just a somewhat more reasonable-sounding $1.10/minute). Still, she perseveres (“for science”). As one might expect, it's a lot more car than she can handle (see VCRs above), and keeps stalling at stops. Her son is, however, absolutely thrilled to get driven to school in it, and she convinces a friend to go ride with her (after her assistant demurs). She finds it's not much good for getting groceries, spends a lot of time going 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic, still she admits that she did get “several heps of happiness” driving it. Go figure.

Chapter 8 – The Get Up and Dance Experiment
The set-up to this one is somewhat convoluted … she's waiting for her daughter to get out of a store in a mall … she's next to a group of “swing dancers” … she'd read a book about activities that release oxytocin – dancing is one of these – and she asked one of the gals where she learned to do it. And, so, she's off to visit the “Dance Doctor” for a 45-minute private class. She's a bit better at this than she was at taekwondo (“I definitely garnered three to four heps of happiness from my very first class.”), and he “prescribes” her 2-3 private classes a week. Poundstone, however, is not the best student, and takes to it very slowly, with slow being the key:

He was playing the slow version of “The Letter” at an even slower speed. It sounded like the artist's voice had been altered to protect his identity in public testimony, and yet I could still barely keep up. … Today I learned the Charleston. It's supposed to be a snappy step, but we're doing it to “Fire and Rain.” It looks like tai chi when I do it.
She tries dancing around her son, who says “Please don't.” which spins her into a digression into teenagerhood and a reminiscence of her own teen years, and assorted scenes from her kids' schools. She eventually moves on to group classes, and, despite her expectations from having taken all those private lessons, she “sucked”, a judgment further enhanced by “Qualitative Observation #10”: “My dog plays Jenga better than I swing dance.” (ouch). While she decides that she wants to continue to learn swing dancing, she pretty much sums up this experiment with the beginning of “Qualitative Observation #11”: “Dancing is really fun. Not being able to dance while others can is not nearly as much fun.”

Chapter 9 – The Get Warm and Fuzzy Experiment
This takes quite a long time to get to the point, but it's about her deciding to begin hugging, well, everybody, which is perhaps well-illustrated in “Qualitative Observation #2”: “TSA agents hate hugging.” (she later notes “I think I'm already on the national Do Not Hug list.”), which is furthered in “Qualitative Observation #3”: “When you walk around the airport smiling and trying to make eye contact with people, you look like Carol Channing panhandling.”, which is followed by the “Field Note” about her son walking to another gate in hopes “to board a flight to another destination altogether.” A lot of this chapter has to deal with her role on NPR's Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! (which she's taking her son to a live taping of in Colorado, hence the airport stuff). She apparently hugged everybody in line at Red Rocks, to which she attributes “a whopping two balous of happiness”, as well as “a residual hep” upon reading a tweet later reporting her hugging. Otherwise, there's “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Some hugs fill you up, and some hugs suck the life out of you.”

Chapter 10 – The Get Purring Experiment
This one also takes quite a while to get set up, with lots of musings on the evolving lives of her kids, including one great quip about her second daughter, also now in college: “I miss her, but I know she's alive by the Starbucks charges on my MasterCard bill.” This eventually gets prefaced by the thought: “I look longingly at my cats before I pass out at the end of the day, but it occurred to me recently that I almost never spend any quality time with my animals.” … so, “I am going to see how many heps of happiness I can get from spending a day with my cats and dogs.” She claims to keep catnip (a gift from a fan) in a safe, and “sometimes late at night, I can hear the cats in there slowly turning the dial trying to decipher the combination”, she unlocks some of this, and unboxes a complex cat toy (another gift from a fan), which is immediately quite popular with the dogs, who then must be hustled outside to not be an impediment to the cats.

Like the movie-watching day, this is broken up by the time of the observations. Amazingly, the cats do seem quite interested in the toy. She also takes to brushing the cats … which I believe she has 13 of … which is intermittently disturbed by unwanted phone calls. Much of the content here swings back and forth between complaints about her son's school, and by-name interaction with the various cats and dealing with the dogs. Make that 16 cats. She spends most of the day brushing the cats, so by the end, the house is a mass of cat hair, filling up the vacuum three times. In conclusion, she doesn't think there was much happiness (“no more than a hep or so”) to be had in this all-day project, leading her to contemplate: “Maybe happiness doesn't come in bulk. Maybe it's sprinkled in.”

Chapter 11 – The Get Positive Experiment
The plan here is: “Although negativity is practically my native language, I am going to replace my negative thoughts with positive ones.” She looks up assorted positive affirmations on the web, and rejects most of them for the (to me) obvious reasons, but she expands on this:

They're mostly written by women who sit on mats, breathing, in front of tables covered with batiked cloth … I say “I just plain suck,” to myself several times a day. Replacing it with “My body is my vehicle in life; I chose to fill it with goodness” just isn't going to fly. … I narrowed down the affirmations to those that wouldn't require just plain lying to myself.
I hate to be negative (yeah, right) but this went about as well as one might expect … with the “Conclusion” being a very succinct “What the hell was I thinking?” and the equally predictable realization in “Qualitative Observation #5”: “Don't tell me that I said so, but when this positive self-talk doesn't work, I feel even more like a loser.”

Chapter 12 – The Get Over Here and Help Experiment
In the closing bits of the previous experiment, she notes of her son: “This is the behavior of someone suffering with electronics addiction.”, which sets up half of this … in that she talks to a number of experts in this field, and ends shipping her son off for a 10-week “wilderness program” out in Utah, where “He was probably, even now, desperately trying to get a signal.” This frees up some time for the actual experiment here, based on a Swedenborg quote about “the desire to be useful to others”. Her first two shots at this (giving platelets and offering to drive a couple that had broken down right in front of her house to where they needed to go), were met with lots of thanks, and she found that she was “enjoying the heck out of just intending to help”. She continues to go in to give platelets until she got tested as being low on iron (she doesn't report if she kept going back after that).

Most of this chapter, however, is about her volunteering at a geriatric home … in fact, the tales from there take up nearly a couple of dozen pages here. She starts from zero on this, working up a list of centers in her area, and cold-calling them to see about volunteer opportunities. One would think that this would be a much appreciated thing, with systems in place, but at some “it was worrisome how unfamiliar these ideas seemed” to the folks she spoke to. I'm afraid that if I were to pull out some amusing quotes from this part, it would sound like she was making fun of the old folks, but she obviously is working very hard to make a connection, and it's a process. Her most successful venture involved bringing one of her dogs with her … which was very popular with both sides, saying her dog ended up being “a rock star” … and she puts in the “Conclusion”:

… I'm going to continue to volunteer at the nursing home. I love the old people. Besides, my dogs practically drag me there.
… along with noting this experiment has given her “oodles of heps and several balous of happiness”. On a significantly less happy note, she follows up on her son's stint at the wilderness program, detailing that while searching for schools that were "electronics and computer free", she'd found “only two programs in the entire country” that qualified. She flew to Utah to pick him up from the summer program, and then deliver him to one of those two schools, in Virginia (where he'd be living “in another tent in the woods”). She is sufficiently hostile to these devices (and aware of Apple's early marketing) that she snarls:

These machines had stolen into our homes and schools under the deceptive cloak of the word educational … despite glaring evidence of decreasing test scores and educational outcomes … on the off chance that I am wrong, and there is an afterlife, I hope Steve Jobs's is not pleasant.
Chapter 13 – The Get Quiet Experiment
The last experiment in the book deals with meditation, which she says “is credited with lowering anxiety, rewiring the brain, and even producing bliss”, with the “Hypothesis” for this reading “Bliss could be good.”. As I mentioned way up top there, this whole cycle of experiments took place over a long time, and at this point her elder daughter is on her own, her younger daughter is a senior in college (Poundstone offers to be a “visual aid” for her presentation in an Abnormal Psychology class), and she's sending letters back and forth to her relegated-to-the-wilds son. The younger daughter had taken meditation classes at this place on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., and she signs them up for a class together. As one might expect (given the various neuroses the author confesses during the rest of the book), this does not work smoothly for her, and when her daughter heads back to school, she's on her own with it. This chapter flips back and forth between meditation-related stories, various remembrances of parental foibles, complaints about L.A. stuff, and a couple of pages of ranting when she discovers how many other books on “happiness” got published before this came out. Surprisingly, given that the experiences with the meditation classes seem so counter-productive, Poundstone reports at various points feeling “more open to possibilities”, “uplifted”, “lighter and more alert”, plus “energetic and optimistic”, and while she admits that her “science may be screwed up here” being unable to prove a causal relationship, she insists she feels more creative and is able to “pour myself onto the stage” in her “silly, stupid stand-up comedy job”. Oh, and aside from that, on the suggestion of her son, she's at least considering doing a book about electronics addiction (won't that be a fun read?).

In the “Final Report” section, she sums up the years of investigation thusly:

Happiness is more complex than I had realized. Maybe the true answer to the secret of happiness is that it is a combination of things and they don't always happen all at once. If you're happy without interruption for days on end, you're likely daft.
I'm, frankly, shocked to find that I needed this mass of words to feel like I sufficiently represented The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness … I went into this review (which took 3 long stays at Starbucks to finish) thinking it would be half this length … go figure. As this is an “Early Reviewer” book, it's new (-ish, it took me three months after finishing reading it to triage time for writing the review), having just come out in May, and so should be readily available in actual book stores. However, the on-line behemoths presently have it at a significant discount (nearly half off of cover price), and the new/used guys have “good” copies that, with shipping, are running at about a quarter of cover, if you're particularly price sensitive.

This certainly is a revealing look at the author, and given the passage of time with her life and family, one feels that she's become quite familiar by the end of it. As mentioned, parts of this are quite “cringe worthy” (she mentions in the last chapter that she's “still paying off a day's Lamborghini rental”), but the muddle of sub-themes that work their way through it almost makes on feel like “having been there”. I don't necessarily feel that this would be an “all and sundry” recommendation, but if the above sounds good to you (and, honestly, despite the length of the review, I really only cherry picked enough to give you the broad strokes), there's a whole lot more to get from this.

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"Oh, I'm just visiting. "

Fred Nadis' The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey was a dollar store pick-up …. hey, just look at that cover, who could resist, right? Honestly, I was somewhat hesitant on getting into this, as I've not read much science fiction in the past 40 years, and even when I was an avid sci-fi consumer (in high school I probably blew through 4-5 books a week), I only very rarely picked up one of the “pulps” that still existed at that time (although a few still are on the shelves of my library). I realize that I probably “missed out” on that channel, but somehow it never spoke to me, unlike some friends who are even now working in those niches. However, it turned out to be much more aligned to my more recent interests, being, on one level, a look at a very colorful corner of the publishing industry, and a very odd journey through some weird zones of “alternative” and out-there thought (as the dust-cover flaps tell us, Palmer helped ignite the UFO craze, convinced Americans of hidden worlds and government cover-ups, and championed the occult and paranormal … he molded our current conspiracy culture decades before the X-Files claimed that the truth was out there).

Ray Palmer is probably best known for his decade (1939-1949) of being the editor of Amazing Stories, and later the editor and publisher of Fate and Space World (among many other pulps). His work had become sufficiently iconic that in 1961, a predecessor to DC Comics created a character called The Atom, whose alter ego was named Ray Palmer as a tribute. His career lasted nearly 50 years, from the first “fanzine” he put out in 1930 until his death in 1977.

Born in Milwaukee, WI in 1910, Palmer's very early years were somewhat idyllic, even ending up in advertising for a local dairy as one of “Milwaukee's Healthiest Babies” at age two. This was all about to change, however, as:

At age seven, outside his family home in Milwaukee, Ray Palmer ran into the street past a row of parked cars; his foot got caught in the large spokes on the wheel of a passing milk truck and he was spun around on the pavement. … His spine was severely damaged, and several vertebrae were broken, nearly crushed. The medical ailments that were to plague him for the rest of his life had begun.
Two years later, at age nine, Palmer became “the first patient in the United States to receive a spinal column bone graft”. However, infection set in, causing him to double up from the pain, and the doctors were not willing to risk further damage by trying to get his spine straight, leading to his permanently hunchbacked condition.

From age nine to thirteen Palmer was mostly constrained in hospital beds, often in a frame that prevented him from moving. The local school system sent him cases of books, which he read voraciously, on a wide array of topics. Among these were early sci-fi classics by J. Verne, H.G. Wells, and E.R. Burroughs, which hooked him on the genre. He moved into the pulps, such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, and wrote his first story, a 16,000-word tale that his high school teacher read to his class (it was evidently quite good) … this was eventually published in 1930, when he was 20, in Science Wonder Stories.

In the 20's and 30's, the main way that fans of the genre communicated was in letter columns in the pulps, Palmer and another fan (from Chicago, who traveled to Milwaukee to meet with him), stated the “Science Correspondence Clubs” in 1928, which has been attributed as “the birth of organized fandom”. Out of this grew the first ever “fanzine”, The Comet, which premiered in 1930, and soon was renamed Cosmology. As this all was happening, more health issues came his way:

At age twenty, another infection set in on Palmer's spine, a form of tuberculosis called Pott's disease. The bone graft that had bridged several of his vertebrae was disintegrating, along with six vertebrae. In September 1930, he was sent to Muirdale Sanitorium, located seven miles outside of {Milwaukee}.
Palmer had pretty much been just sent there to die, but he again beat the odds: the doctors gave him six months to live, but over the next two years (possibly due to his self-created regimen of “healing visualization”), new bone formed where the old had dissolved, and he was released (although he had seen “hundreds” of other patients die while he ws there).

Palmer quickly re-established himself in the sci-fi world, being one of the founders of The Time Traveler fanzine, and then editor and columnist for Science Fiction Digest, where he wrote “Spilling the Atoms” (as “RAP” - his initials), the column he hoped would “make the world science-fiction conscious”. As one might expect, the fanzine business was hardly something at which one might make a living, and Palmer had returned to the sheet metal company that he'd worked at before the years in the sanitarium, so the writing/editing/publishing efforts were done in his spare time. By 1934, the magazine had morphed to Fantasy Magazine. Around this time, one of his more established associates made a pitch for Palmer to become the editor for a new magazine by Shade from Philadelphia. The new title was scuttled, but the publishers still needed material for their “detective” lines, and Palmer was able to both write for them (often under a dozen pen names) and organize others' submissions. In 1938 Palmer quit the sheet metal company, The same contact that introduced him to Shade was visiting Ziff-Davis, which had acquired Amazing Stories, and was looking to supplant the 86-year-old former physics professor that had been its editor, who was “unlikely to move from New York City to Chicago even if invited” … the call was made to Palmer, and he was at 600 S. Dearborn the next day.

There is a great deal of material in the book about authors, stories, books, promotions, contests, trials & tribulations, long-term associates coming and going, and, frankly, it's all a bit of blur to me. Perhaps somebody more “into” this than me might have dove right in, but I'm going to leave it for you to pick up a copy for that. There are also cultural issues surrounding Palmer's move to Chicago – starting with the Capone era, and moving into WW2 – it was “interesting times”, for sure.

And this is where it sort of gets weird. In an editorial meeting, they were reading “crank letters” (which they got a lot of), having a laugh, and round-filing them. However, after one, Palmer pulled the crumpled pages out of the trash …

The six-page letter was from a Pennsylvania steelworker, Richard S. Shaver, who likely had serious mental problems and believed he had discovered the key to an ancient alphabet …
Shaver claimed this “language” was “definite proof of the Atlantean legend” (albeit on mighty flimsy evidence), and Palmer insisted they run the entire 6-page letter, much to the bafflement of his co-workers. This would end up being the start of many years of involvement with the wild theories of Shaver (perhaps due to “Shaver's strange world {having} imaginative flair and a curious logic” which appealed to Palmer).

Palmer requested some stories from Shaver, which he took, re-wrote and greatly expanded, with the addition of shifting focus from Atlantis to the Theosophical Society's vision of Lemuria. From 1945 to 1949 at least two dozen stories by Shaver were published in Amazing Stories, which would “convince so many to start looking in caves to search for abandoned technology”. It appears that Palmer's intent on promoting Shaver's writings was, in essence, to “blend science fiction with the occult”, featuring the concept of “racial memory”, which was central to the justification of the Shaver material. Palmer was clearly aware of how “out there” this material was, and in editorials was playing the carnival barker to create as much “buzz” (and magazine sales) as possible. Not only Shaver's writing, but pseudonymous pieces by himself (as A.R Steber) added to the controversy … and this all worked, as Ziff-Davis had to shift paper resources intended for another magazine to Amazing Stories, whose sales shot up to 180,000 copies.

Nadis brings in a lot of material to put this in context, from similar “weird” stories preceding and contemporary with Palmer's efforts, from the Greek myth of Orpheus, to medieval tales of psychopompic journeys, to H.P. Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and devotees of Urantia. While sci-fi “purists” bemoaned the shift in focus, others ate it up:

Some readers howled their outrage, but many others linked Shaver's ideas to favorite occultist notions of astral planes, of sightings of mysterious inhabitants inside Mount Shasta … and reports from the lost civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria.
After the end of WW2, the tone of material wrapped around the Shaver material took on cold war paranoia, with Palmer posing the question: “What if the Shaver Mystery is VITALLY important to our national security?”. Eventually within sci-fi fandom the question of whether Palmer actually believed any of this or not was hotly debated … there's a report that he told a group of writers (including a young Harlan Ellison) that it was all to sell magazines, but his letters to Shaver were framed in “true believer” phraseology. In any case “as the Shaver Mystery waned, a new craze emerged every bit as beguiling. The flying saucer.”

In 1947, Palmer began to take long lunches outside the Ziff-Davis offices, along with another Z-D exec … it turns out that he had been working on a new publication, Fate, which debuted in 1948, and “became a centerpiece for the newly forming flying saucer subculture”. This wasn't quite as duplicitous as it might appear, as it came on the heels of Z-D announcing plans of moving their operations from Chicago to New York in 1950. Palmer and his partner formed Clark Publishing, and added Other Worlds Science Stories to Fate in 1949.

Nadis puts in a lot of early UFO “mystery” at this point, with stories, names, and other particulars too numerous to get into here … however it does dove-tail into another genre that apparently was pioneered by Palmer – that of “conspiracy theories”, as there always seemed to be government agents of various kinds showing up to make evidence disappear – including files at Palmer's office.

In addition to the break with Ziff-Davis, Palmer decided to return to Wisconsin with his family (at this point he had a wife and three small kids), but before the 1950 moving date to the 124-acre farm, he had yet another accident at their Evanston home. Once again, he had broken his back, which his wife attributed to a fall while working on plumbing, his version was more “mystical”, involving an attack by the malevolent forces from Shaver's universe. And, again, he had a miraculous recovery, involving visions, etc. He was, while able to walk, in fairly constant pain for the rest of his life.

While moving a publishing operation to a rural setting in these days of global connectivity is not so remarkable, it was a rather bold move in 1950, and Palmer converted parts of their “estate” to offices. Soon Shaver and his wife moved into the area, which provided almost a commune-like space for fans of “the mystery” to come up and visit both men. Of course, the 1950's were prime time for the UFO craze, with movies, books, and media appearances all across the cultural landscape. Palmer's Fate was well positioned for this trend. Unfortunately for Palmer, by 1952 his partners, who had previously been happy so sit on the sidelines and let Palmer do his thing, began to get more involved, putting forth a rule of thumb that “We don't have to believe it ourselves, but it must be capable of belief.”, which evidently drew a line outside of which was Shaver, as well as many of Palmer's ideas. In late 1953, Palmer sold his interest in the company, and began his own magazine, Mystic, which “jumped aboard the contactee movement”.

Palmer also found a new pet project, in the person of Orfeo Angelucci, whose “I Traveled in a Flying Saucer” was the main feature of the first issue of Mystic. Eventually Palmer, who had expanded into book publishing, put out a collection of Angelucci's pieces as The Secret of the Saucers. What's really bizarre (well, aside from the content of the book) is that a copy found its way to C.G. Jung, who:

… regarded Angelucci's narrative as a credible example of what he deemed the UFO encounter as visionary experience. Angelucci, in the psychiatrist's words, was “naïve, and – if appearances do not deceive us – serious and idealistic.” In his work the “individuation process … is plainly depicted.”
Nadis raises the question of where Angelucci lets off an Palmer begins, and these stories started out “interpreted”, by a long-term Palmer author Paul M. Vest, who got “as told to” credit on the stories … so what was so appealing to Jung had probably as much of Palmer and Vest in it as Angelucci.

However, the classic sci-fi pulp world was fading, falling “to competition from mass circulation paperbacks, comic books, and television.” and Palmer began shifting the focus of his publication to flying saucers in 1957, having “jettisoned the science fiction altogether” by 1959 … although he managed to keep some well known authors involved doing stories in the new genre. At the same time, Shaver got a new focus, having “discovered” messages in rocks: “he became certain that the rocks contained images and information”. In 1960 Shaver brought “an enormous stuffed folder … which contained ten years of Shaver's notes about the Elder World”, and in 1961 he started showing up with “stones along with cross-sections and photographs and to spin out his tale about the images encoded in them”.

Palmer decided to publish Shaver's writings with related materials in a loosely structured twelve-volume paperback series to be called the Hidden World that appeared from 1961 to 1964. It eventually grew to sixteen volumes. … Shaver's discoveries in stone were only one aspect of Hidden World, but this new source of information clearly obsessed Shaver, and it was an obsession to which Palmer slowly warmed.
I'm amazed to find that somebody has re-issued the whole series … so they're out there if you're interested. Palmer himself was “not seeing it”, but was willing to churn out the books … even as the material from Shaver got more and more wacky (“Attack of the Ape-Bats”, anyone?). It's easy to see Shaver's art as pareidolia run wild, and given that he moved beyond the actual stones and into paintings of what he saw in the stones, it's hard to give much of any credence to this (especially when it was expressions of the mythos of the “Shaver Mystery”).

The rest of this section deals with a somewhat tawdry tale (that resulted in the Shavers moving from Wisconsin to Arkansas in 1964) of Shaver's involvement “in the science fiction community's move toward the soft-core magazine and sleaze paperback industry boom of the 1950s and 1960s”, largely led by Palmer protégé William Hamling. It appears that Palmer and Shaver only had helped Hamling get his operations incorporated in Wisconsin (although they operated out of Evanston, IL), and had their names in some of the corporate roles – leading them to be targets of anti-porn crusaders.

Palmer's greatest failure was not finding an audience for his Martian Diary, which was initially going to be a fiction piece, but ended up as something of an autobiography. He originally conceived of it in 1963, but didn't announce it until 1970, when he made an offer of it in his magazines … “the response was underwhelming”. He claimed that he had taken his diary, and done to it what he did to so many others' writing, expanding and adding, etc. His initial intent was to make it a lavish hardcover to come out on his 60th birthday, but, bitter with the rejection, he shelved it until putting it out as part of The Secret World which paired it with Shaver's Ancient History In Stone, in 1975, the same year of Shaver's death.

In the 1960s he was publishing Search, Flying Saucers, and Ray Palmer's Forum, the latter being something of a newsletter that was 32 pages of reader letters and his editorials. As the years went on, her got more paranoid (although Nadis notes: “To be paranoid is not necessarily to be wrong; nevertheless, Rap began to see conspiracies everywhere” … “Rap” being the nickname dating back to his early days, based on his initials) and more political.

Scholars of conspiracy theory have noted that such theory takes particularly well among people dedicated to ideals of self-reliance and liberty. Palmer's political beliefs and interest in unorthodox thought made him a prime candidate.
It appears that most of his concerns were over “one worlders” who were working against freedom and American values, and “Palmer believed a secret government was already in power”. His support for Barry Goldwater, and then George Wallace “whom he believed would defend personal liberties” … predictably raised the hackles of the ever-more institutionalized left.

Nadis writes: “as he aged, Palmer became fixated on two issues: the origins of flying saucers and notions of heaven”, with the former primarily centered around “hollow Earth” or “hole in the poles” theories, and the latter seemingly influenced by an 1882 “automatic writing”-generated “bible” called Oahspe, which had been a factor in some of the materials he'd published decades previously. His interest in heaven was well timed, as he died (in Florida, visiting a daughter and a new-born grandson) in August 1977.

I found The Man From Mars quite an enjoyable read, even if parts of it (the early sci-fi) were frustratingly unfamiliar to me. Of course, having chunks of this set in Chicago is a draw, and I suspect I would have very much liked hanging out (and writing for?) Ray Palmer. Will you connect with this book? If you're into science fiction, publishing, the occult, and “conspiracies”, I suspect that's a definite “yes”. This is still in print, so might be found at brick-and-mortar sources, however, the online big boys at present have it at a whopping 69% off of cover price, which makes it pretty much a wash (given free shipping) with what's being offered by the new/used guys (including shipping), which is odd, as this has been out in the dollar store channel, which usually drives copies into the very cheap range. Anyway, it's a fun, fascinating, and informative read … about somebody I didn't know about beforehand.

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Not for the squeamish ...

OK, so this is yet another dollar store acquisition … and, frankly, I looked at this on a couple of shopping trips before it got into the cart, and it lingered quite a while in the to-be-read piles before making it into my shoulder bag. That caveat out of the way, Lt. Col. Mark Weber's Tell My Sons: A Father's Last Letters is quite the poignant read … as well as being one of those rare books whose title/subtitle combination pretty much lets you know what you need to about the book. Before getting into the content, there's a few things I want to hit up front here … first of all [spoiler alert!], the book is about the author losing his battle to cancer, etc., and this is an extended note to his sons (one who was 16 at the time of his death, and twins who were 11) … part of me thought this might be a bit “voyeuristic” – sort of like sneaking a look into somebody's diary – but, fortunately, it doesn't come across that way, although there is little “playing to a wider public” in it. Another interesting thing is that it has a (brief) Foreword by Robin Williams, who Weber had met on a USO tour (although it probably should be noted that this was penned a dozen years before the comic's suicide) … which reads like a longer version of the quotes assembled at the front of the book – and this is one of the few examples of a group of quotes like that adding something – there are a dozen from an impressive list of politicians, military men, other authors, etc., including Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus. The book initially came out from a small Edina, MN press (where Weber lived) on December 24, 2012, and what's amazing is that the book got picked up and (I'm assuming) rushed into print by Random House's Ballantine Books with a July 4, 2013 release date. One has to guess from the initial publication date that this was somewhat intended as a “Christmas present” for his family, but he managed to live to see the major publisher release, dying just over a week later.

Aside from a structure of chapters (which I'll get into in a bit), the book's in sections which are dated, from June 2010 through November 2012 (plus an Epilogue which is undated, but more specifically discussing his family) … he mentions in the Preface (addressing his kids) that he “started writing it long before any of you were born”, which, obviously, can't be the case chronologically, but he adds later “I started writing a journal, and I kept it brutally honest”, which does sound like the tenor of the book, so perhaps the intent had been there from an early age, and the execution only happening as he began grappling with the disease.

As far as the chapters' “themes”, they're based on lines pulled from Douglas MacArthur's “famous 1962 speech to the cadets of West Point” (Weber, in the Preface, claims to have committed the entire 2,000+ word address to memory, and recited it at “countless” events). I had a brief thought of typing up those here, but as the book is more of a journal than an organized set of reflections, the themes the quotes suggest for the chapters are not particularly substantive, but if you're interested, they can be found via the “look inside” feature on the book's Amazon page (the Contents listing coming after the Forward and Preface).

The Introduction starts with the assignment to command in Afghanistan of General David Petraeus, who was putting together a new team, and he wanted Weber to take on the role of Military Assistant to the incoming Afghan Minister of the Interior. Weber had previous served in Iraq, acting as a US assistant to General Babakir Zibari, the Iraqi chief of defense, in which posting he'd learned Kurdish and how to act like a local … and Petraeus wanted that same skill set. Weber's wife, Kristen, and the various generals in his chain of command had signed off on this, and:

The only remaining hurdle was self-imposed. Though already medically cleared to deploy, I wanted a more thorough look. Three years ago, I had been diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer, and this was no ordinary ulcer. Twice I had experienced a massive hemorrhage in my small intestine, and the first one nearly killed me.
He was writing this in June 2010, and he had been hospitalized in 2007 and 2009 and he didn't want to be in “some remote corner of Afghanistan” if there was likely to be another episode. The new doctor scheduled an endoscopy, and the results were bad, as it showed a fist-sized lesion in Weber's duodenum which was about 10x the size of the ulcer from the previous year, plus blood tests indicating that he was highly anemic, with iron scores that typically are in the 100-300 range coming in at 2. Weber still thought this was something that could be fixed fairly easily, but the doctor then sent him for a CT scan. This came back showing a mass that involved “the duodenum, pancreas, associated ducts, and the surrounding lymph nodes” and extended to about 75% of the liver, where there were 15 identifiable tumors. Needless to say, he wasn't going to be making that deployment.

Chapter 1 starts off with a description of the radical surgery that the team at the Mayo Clinic recommended … called the “Whipple-plus” procedure … which removes all of the affected tissue, and in Weber's case, about 60% of his liver as well. He offers up a bunch of military metaphors (including a spin on Patton's famous speech about making the other guy die for his country, the cancer in this case being the enemy force), and then gets into describing the difficult discussions with his family. This leads into a retrospective of his parents, grandparents, and his early years, including his entering into the military lifestyle via JROTC in freshman year of high school. He was a very good cadet, but a so-so student, and the counselors suggested that he wasn't “college material”, so joining the military was an easy choice, and he goes into some stories from his basic training.

Chapter 2 is dated August 2010 and begins with a long recall of his waking up in the hospital after the surgery thinking he's in a spaceship, due to the amount of equipment around him, and the painkillers he's on. He also develops some complications …

The fistula has allowed most of my abdominal cavity, from my ribs to my hip, to fill with bile and pancreatic fluids. … I look like a cut-open deer carcass … {the} entire wound has to heal from the inside out – no stitches … The muscle looks like ground hamburger, and it is bathed in a constant yellow ooze of digestive fluids that will require bandage changes every few hours or so – for the next fourteen weeks.
The rest of this is more military framing of his medical challenges, musings about fatherhood, reminiscences of how he was raised, bringing up specific events he shared with his boys (including a massive snow fort they built in November 2009 – when there was the 5th largest snowfall ever recorded in Minnesota – the fort being impressive enough to even make it on the local news), and a few more stories from the hospital (like when Kristen came with towels and soap to give him his first shower in nearly a month – on their 16th wedding anniversary), including his naming his wounds: “Buford was the open wound. Bullah was the drainage field inside my abdomen and the associated incision at my hip.”.

Chapter 3 is dated September-November 2010, which starts with his finally getting to leave the hospital. As anyone who's gone through major surgery would guess, his systems were all a mess, he'd lost about 20% of his body mass, he could barely sleep, his body temperature swung from sweating to freezing, digestion was an adventure along the entire cobbled-together alimentary tract, and the bandages filling his still-open wound “could never contain the volume of leaky digestive juices for more than an hour”. Because of the effects of the pain meds he was on (“stoned, constipated, thick-headed”) he opted to stop cold turkey, trading off functionality for having to deal with the pain.

But then on November 2, 2010, a CT scan revealed the remaining cancer had rapidly progressed and was now inoperable. The treatment options were essentially nonexistent.
His oncologist gave him four or five months to live. He was moved from Mayo to the Piper Cancer Institute, and he started to plan for his funeral. However, at Piper they ran him through a new bank of tests and found out that he didn't actually have pancreatic cancer, but something called GIST – a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, which, while without a cure, at least had treatments available. The rest of the chapter has Weber recalling parts of his early family life, challenges in grade school, some dumb things he did as a kid that he then parallels with some experiences early in his military career, writing of nearly cutting off his leg as a teen with a big pro power saw, then his many successes in ROTC before failing out of Ranger School, and finally a long-ish contemplation of how failure reflects on leadership, leading up to his getting two prestigious awards (one given to just 13 out of 37,000 eligible officers) back-to-back.

Chapter 4 is dated January 2011, and starts with his daily oral chemo for GIST – which seemed to be working well. This part is primarily about his relationship with Kristen, along with all the biographical info the kids might want to eventually know, from how they met, the chaos of their early relationship (including the wedding, when the bridesmaids got into a serious car crash on the way in their dresses, and how he had to be on a plane back to the army the next morning), how the military lifestyle took a lot of adjustments for both of them, craziness on transfers (where they opted to drive cross-country to make some additional money, and on one trip her falling asleep at the wheel and wrecking their truck), their fertility problems, a brief separation, and his leaving the army so they could be close to her dad as he dealt with his own cancer issues up in Minnesota.

Chapter 5 is dated March-September 2011, this one starts with his post-surgery decision to go back to work (despite being “medically retired” with a generous pension) with the Minnesota National Guard. Weber felt he needed the structure, and he was able to work on key projects like developing a program for suicide prevention among soldiers. Unfortunately, he was having more health issues, with sepsis caused by bile backing up into the liver and then leaking into the body … they ended up doing a catheter and bag drainage system in his abdomen. Another CT scan also showed the cancer growing, requiring him to double the chemo dose. This is also when the idea of the book began … he'd been doing a journal on-line for 22 years, and this evidently is what was used to pull Tell My Sons together. This chapter also has a long reminiscence about when he was teaching, and the events that made him walk away from that, and another long story about his assignment in Saudi Arabia, and his later unexpected posting, right after making the rank of Captain, to a logistics position typically given to more senior offices.

Chapter 6 is dated October-December 2011 and he reports to his medical team that he's experiencing pain at a “9” when he'd previously rarely rated it more than a “5” … they tried to drain some abscess but weren't getting anything other than blood, and a few days later Weber took a knife and decided to work on himself: “That abscess burst open like something out of a scene from Alien.” He had one opinion about it, but that was being rejected by his doctor, yet:

The abscess scene above played out four more times over the next three months. My flesh would always heal; the intestinal tissue would not; the bile would collect in the muscular wall and start digesting the newly healed flesh; and within a few days of searing and unbelievable pain, it would burst.
The medical descriptions are followed by a section where he talks of his religious upbringing, and how his concepts of this had changed over the years. This dovetails into a longish look at his time in Saudi Arabia, with his encounters with western-leaning Saudis who had to duck the Mutawwa, the religious control group that did everything from blacken out exposed skin in magazines to have people beheaded. He goes into very interesting detail of some conversations regarding religion here. This eventually leads into a very long look at his time in Iraq (more than 10% of the book), which is fascinating, given his position within the structure of the Iraqi military … one quote he offers here is from his Iraqi counterparts: “Can't you make the coalition understand why we can't do it that way?”.

Chapter 7 is dated January 2012, starting with him in the hospital on Christmas Eve: “What was once only a bile leak now involved mashed food escaping from my intestine. The hole was getting bigger.”, and his increasing frustration with the medical staff's adherence to “protocol” rather than the specifics of his case. If you think that some of the stuff I've blockquoted here is gross, you're probably going to want to skip chunks of this chapter, as the “ick factor” starts getting pretty heavy in the discussions of his declining health. However, his career reminiscences here are great, with tales involving persons as high up the military food chain as the the Secretary of Defense, and the heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This then moves into a wry look at some of the absurdities that he encountered in Iraq, which segues (via Catch-22 references) to a story about trying to manage his bandages while attempting to get to one of his sons' swim meet (including a scene in a Target bathroom that really needs a cinematic realization). This then moves into a bit about one of the boys being in choir, and doing a special solo called “Tell My Father” … with much tears ensuing.

Chapter 7 is a collection of bits from different times, starting in November 2010, and ending up in November 2012 (a month before the book came out from the original small publisher). In mid-2012 he was still working, but in May, it was discovered that the big tumor on the remaining part of his liver had doubled in size, and he went into a new, more aggressive chemo, which made it impossible to work. By July he was taking a chemo trial that had been developed for kidney cancer, and being feted by the military in a ceremony on August 16. The November note, evidently closing out the initial publication, was directed to his sons.

There is an Epilogue following, which I'm guessing got pulled together for the Random House edition, and it is Weber specifically discussing the effects of his illness on his family members … along with addressing the question: “what is it like to die in slow motion?”.

Tell My Sons is not a “happy” read, but it is inspirational, and a very interesting look into the life of a wunderkind in American's military. As mentioned, I found this at the dollar store, but it is still in print, so could possibly be obtained through your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it at a bit off of cover price, but there are copies to be had from the new/used guys for about five bucks (including shipping). If you have an interest in cancer, the military, or strength in the face of adversity, you might very well get a lot out of this.

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Hint: not the government ...

Another dollar store pick-up … I almost passed on this one because of the funky cover until I saw the familiar name, Michelle Malkin, as author. Despite the rather descriptive subtitle of Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs, I was rather expecting (hoping for?) something more political than what the book delivers, but that's more “my bad” than any failing of the author's (or, more realistically, it's a matter of dollar store dynamics – a $28.00 book for a buck that looks interesting gets tossed into the shopping cart without too much detailed analysis!).

Needless to say, the intent of this book is a big “F.U.” to the despicable Obama regime, and their pandering to the collectivist left. She cites numerous quotes by both B.O. and Biden, denigrating the entrepreneurial and business-owning population, and insisting that anything of worth was done, in essence, by the government (oh, and when I say cite, it's not used lightly – Malkin has about 60 pages of reference notes following up the roughly 250 pages of text!). Needless to say, what I was hoping for when I picked up the book was a enraged rant against the socialist scum, but instead this is an engaging look at ten products and their inventors/developers who created industries that are, in many cases, necessities of the modern world. She also, I take it (in that Googling the term only gets links talking about the book), coined the portmanteau “tinkerpreneur”, which she describes as:

These under-appreciated inventors and innovators of mundane things changed the world by successfully commercializing their ideas and creating products, companies, jobs, and untold opportunities that endure today.
The book is oddly broken up into four parts, the division being something I think could have been dispensed with. The first two, “Engineers of Prosperity” and “The Miracle of the Mundane” are pretty clear, but then the third “BFFs: Dynamic Duos of American Business” seems to be a different sort of characterization (partnerships that worked?), and the last chapter being in its own, fourth, part “Past, Present, Future”, at just 24 pages, might as well been an “afterword”. But, nobody asked me … although if I were an editor on this project, I would have made a serious pitch to have dropped that structure. That being said, it hardly is to the detriment to the content of the book, whose chapters are free-standing looks at specific topics.

Where much of the book deals with inventors/products that are several generations old, it begins with a living “tinkerpreneur”, Tony Maglica, the head of the Maglite company that makes top-quality flashlights. Since Maglite neither invented nor is necessarily synonymous with its products, Malkin spends a lot of this chapter “romanticizing” its founder's story … which is, admittedly, pretty much the iconic “American Dream” tale of a the child of penniless immigrants (coming from Croatia between the world wars in this case) rising up by wits and determination. He holds over 200 patents related to flashlights, and had been on the verge of introducing a revolutionary new type of incandescent bulb when the Obama regime instituted it's Soviet-style top-down dictate banning the U.S. manufacturing of this traditional sort of bulb (and Maglite has been devoted to being as close to using 100% U.S. made parts as possible). Maglica is quoted saying: “Government doesn't innovate. People like me do. Government doesn't create jobs. We do.” and Malkin points out that the bulb ban not only lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, but created an environmental issue with the mercury involved in the “selected” CFL bulb type.

The next look is at the air-conditioning industry, and the figures of Willis Carrier and Irvine Lyle who pioneered it. The two were young engineers at the Buffalo Forge Company (which made assorted industrial machinery), and met by chance on a streetcar coming in to work one day. The spring and summer of 1902 were extremely hot and humid, and a printing company was having problems with the paper on multi-color jobs reacting to the humidity by shrinking, expanding, and warping, wreaking havoc on registrations between impressions. The consulting engineer at the printer contacted Lyle for assistance, and he passed the project along to Carrier, who was making a name for himself in Buffalo's heating, drying, and blower systems. Carrier was the first to break down the issue into key sub-sections, and work back up from the constituent systems into an integrated approach. He and Lyle worked out efficient ways to make this work, and Lyle moved into high gear getting the word out on the new system. Carrier's 1906 patent is still amazing, as it uses the counter-intuitive approach of using water in a fog-like mist to dehumidify the air – with the temperature of the water going into the mist being the controlling factor. The technology was soon being used for quality control in tobacco, preventing rust in razor blades, and, in 1925, gave what was no doubt the biggest boost to the movie industry – air-conditioned theaters. The same systems soon were applied to hospitals, drug manufacturers, and offices … with eventual home use enabling the development of vast swaths of America that had previously been unfriendly to large population centers.

Perhaps a less “common use” product is in the next chapter … the metal cables that replaced fiber ropes in many settings – notably here in bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the great achievement of the Roebling family. John Roebling immigrated from Germany in 1831, and (after finding himself unsuited for farming) was inspired to come up with an alternative for the hemp rope that frequently broke under stress. He had read, back in his homeland, about attempts at making “rope” out of iron, and began to experiment with ways of making that a reality. In 1842 he was awarded a patent for a machine that would do this. His product, however, was nearly killed off in its infancy … by, of course, corrupt government … in this case, makers of hemp rope conspired with authorities to sabotage a major demonstration of the new cabling – filing through the metal to insure it would fail. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in the specific commission, and was allowed a second test, which showed the clear superiority of his metal rope. On the strength of this demonstration, Roebling won a contract for replacing the Pittsburgh aqueduct in 1845, the success of which led to his developing the Monongahela bridge. Moving to Trenton, NJ, he and his sons built a manufacturing center that produced cables and wire for a wide array of projects, which even included the stabilizing wires used by the Wright brothers, the control cables on the Spirit of St. Louis, and the cabling used in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Roebling's company increasingly became a family operation, with his son Washington (following service in the Civil War) and daughter-in-law Emily, being key figures in its projects. And projects came (although often still being opposed by other factions), such as the Covington-Cincinnati bridge, the railroad bridge at Niagra Falls, and, of course, their crowning achievement, the Brooklyn Bridge. John Roebling suffered an injury early in the construction, and died some time later, leaving Washington and Emily to complete the bridge … Malkin waxes poetic with:

The pilgrim, the soldier, and the female trailblazer bound themselves to greatness by their shared steel will, endless thirst for self-improvement, and veneration of American ideals.
The first of the “mundane” products is something about as basic as it gets … toilet paper. Malkin does an homage to Leonard E. Read's famed “I, Pencil” essay, in framing this “I, Toilet Paper” (eliciting a snickering review by the leftist Washington Post), and doing the chapter as a first-person look at the “family story” of this essential paper product. This starts out with some historical examples, which are hard put to not drift into the scatological, including materials used for the purpose before its invention, including the venerable Sears & Roebucks catalog that was parodied as “Rears & Sorebutts”, and notes:

Dependence on bathroom reading for bathroom wiping was once so common that The Old Farmer's Almanac came pierced with a hole for easy hanging in outhouses and water closets.
Much of what's here is a tale of the growth of the paper milling and printing industries, from the first mill established near Philadelphia in 1690, through the printing necessities of the revolution, from newspapers to bank notes to pamphlets. Remarkably, some of the mills started back then are still producing paper today, such as Crane, which was founding in 1770. Other familiar names are the Kimberly & Clark company, which ended up seeding many more mills in Wisconsin's Fox River valley, including Hoberg (originators of “Charmin”), and Northern (as in “Quilted Northern”). The last part of the chapter looks at the Scott family, which, over several generations, developed that familiar brand of paper products (which was bought by Kimberly-Clark in 1995). The author has this product decree in closing:

I, lowly toilet paper, am the lofty result of faith in freedom, not the product of a bureaucrat's mandate. Innovation can't be manufactured by force or decree. It's the outcome of constant self-improvement and entrepreneurial synergies.
The next chapter deals with the bottle cap (the metal crimped-on kind) … one of those things that one rarely thinks about having been engineered, however, to get to William Painter's “crown cap” a lot of other methods had been attempted, especially with the growing popularity of carbonated beverages.

The genius of Painter's success could be summarized in a single directive: Invent something “which everybody needs, better and more cheaply provided than ever before”. Competition in the manufacture of the best and cheapest necessities was fierce in the Age of Progress. The quest for the perfect bottle closure was crowded. Winning the war of the bottle tops would be Painter's crowning glory.
Malkin notes that before Painter came along there had been some 1500 patents approved for bottle stoppers, “… contraptions made of cork, glass, wire, ceramic, loops, gaskets, thread finishes, levers, and bails, or some chunky combination thereof”, all of which were intended to be reusable. Painter himself had patented a number of different systems, but kept trying to make the costs lower … for instance, while his “Triumph” stopper sold for $3.50/144, his “bottle seal” went for a mere $0.24/144 … but his 1892 patents for the crown cap (and related equipment – including the ubiquitous “bottle opener”) was revolutionary in that it was a disposable item.

One of the challenges in getting his new system utilized was that the bottles the caps were going on needed to be redesigned, with a recessed area where the cap could be crimped. To illustrate the value of the type of seal enabled by the crown cap, “Painter convinced a Baltimore brewer to send a cargo of crown-capped beer to South America and bring it back”, the bottles were then opened at a party for the press, who enthusiastically reported on the undiminished quality of the brew, despite its long journey (the PR guy in me loves this story).

One of Painter's sales/marketing team was a young man by the name of King Camp Gillette … which provides a pretty good clue as to what the next topic is here … and it was the disposability model of the crown cap that led to the invention of the disposable razor. One morning in 1895, Gillette was starting to shave, when he realized his razor was so dull that it was going to be have to be sent out to be sharpened – it was then that the idea of the “safety razor” was born, with the patent (after a great deal of problem-solving on how to make and sharpen a thin sheet of steel) being issued in 1904. The famed Gillette Blue Blade (“double-edged, rust-proof, oxidized, and dipped in a signature blue lacquer”) debuted in 1932, unfortunately, Gillette died some months before.

Last in the “mundane” section is the story of Charles E. Hires, of root beer fame. Like other soft drink inventors in the late 1800s, Hires was in the pharmacy business, and before he got around to marketing his “root beer”, he had another success with “fullers clay”, the telling of which takes up more of the chapter than the beverage story does. He'd been “perfecting and publicizing the root beer concoction he had been blending at his pharmacy since 1870”, and a childhood friend (who was a local newspaper publisher and a fan of the beverage) encouraged Hires to start advertising it, and set up a deal where his paper would carry ads for Hires' root beer, and not charge Hires until he was making a sustainable profit. Fortunately for both of them, the product took off, and soon there was advertising in all media for the beverage. It reached national attention at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and has been a fixture among soft drinks ever since.

The next part of the book is “Dynamic Duos”, but only offers two examples (neither being Batman & Robin). The first of these deals with the glass industry, and the figures of Edward Libbey and Michael Owens (whose names live on in the Libbey glassware company, and Owens-Corning). Malkin dives into a lot of history, looking back 3,000 years. This makes various stops, but spends a number of pages talking of Tiberius' Rome, where, the perceived threat of a product demonstrated for the Emperor, vitrum flexile – a flexible glass, resulted in the execution of its inventor. The author draws the obvious similarities to how governments tend to react to innovation:

This murderous dictator and his central planners cared more about protecting workers in the existing copper, silver, and gold industries than in pioneering anything new. They simply could not imagine how many more jobs, industries, and riches might result from pursuing the untried and untested. Competition and creativity were public menaces. Violent suppression, stasis, and government coercion were cures.
While glass making technologies were for a long time tightly held knowledge (Malkin writes: “For centuries, glassblowers were sworn to secrecy. The masters of fire and sand guarded their recipe books like highly classified nuclear codes.”), when governments got involved things turned ugly. The author reports that the Great Council of Venice around 1275 sought to make glass making “a tightly run government monopoly”, and rounded up all the glassmakers to an island (that she compares to Gitmo), and destroyed all high-temperature furnaces in Venice (on the pretext of “fire safety”, and if that didn't work, I'm sure they would have come up with “for the children”). This arrangement lasted for three centuries until France's Louis XIV broke the monopoly in 1684! One of the taxes that spurred the American revolution was that imposed on glassmaking … so this has been a government money-grab essentially for ever.

Anyway … Michael Owens was a child worker in a glass factory, and taught himself the ways of the masters he was assisting. He ended up being a key figure in the union. Edward D. Libbey also started early, as a “chore boy” in a glass factory's offices – with a significant difference that his father was a bookkeeper in the organization. Libbey was well schooled and rose up the ranks, traveling to Europe to learn the history and technology of glass manufacturing. The two found themselves on the opposite sides of conflict, with Owens being a key catalyst of a strike called on the company that Libbey was by that time running.

In a last ditch effort to save his company from union saboteurs, Libbey relocated {it} to Toledo, Ohio, and officially incorporated the Libbey Glass Company in 1892.
As is often the case with manufacturing moves, many of the employees were unable to follow, so Libbey began to advertise for workers. Professionally, Owens had become a glass blower at age 15, and thirteen years later he was still a glass blower, and wanted more. Despite their previous conflicts, Libbey hired Owens, who, within three months, had replaced the plant supervisor, and started to fire incompetent and lazy workers, moving up rapidly in the organization. Another labor dispute (with a different manufacturer) moved the two into a partnership, where their company managed to pick up the business that the strike at the other plant was destroying. The talents of the two men were the right strengths at the right time, and they developed innovation after innovation, completely changing the way glass was made.

I'm going to have to sort of skim the next chapter, as I've read so much over the years about Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, that it's hard to separate that background from what Malkin's presenting here. Of course, she brings a particular spin to it: “Private capital, individual initiative, personal integrity, and an abiding respect for intellectual property rights cemented the alliance between Westinghouse and Tesla.”. While Westinghouse is mainly remembered as a “captain of industry”, he was also a prolific inventor and an entrepreneur with numerous companies based on his innovations. When Tesla broke away from Edison (after having been very shabbily treated, Malkin has a very interesting background portion on this) over the conflict between Edison's direct current (DC) power and Tesla's alternating current (AC) system, he came to the attention of Westinghouse, who had himself been doing research on AC power. Again, the details on this are quite interesting … as Westinghouse's (or his researchers') work on this get less attention than the flashy Tesla's.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago won the “battle of the currents”, with the Westinghouse/Tesla AC system lighting the fair – the first time most people had ever encountered electric light. The growth of the electrical power grid is, of course, something that seems inevitable these days, but it had a start with a test plant in Telluride, CO (based on a gold prospector's pitch), and then scaled up to a regional model with the remarkable power plant built at Niagara Falls. Malkin has a couple of interesting bits here, first, quoting Tesla on Westinghouse as “the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power”, and then noting on the reciprocal relation: “Instead of working to exploit and crush Tesla, as Edison had attempted to do, Westinghouse threw his entire corporate weight behind the scientific visionary.”. It turned out that Edison had one more dagger to thrust into Tesla, unfortunately, despite the fact that Marconi's radio was based on work that Tesla had developed, Edison threw his support behind the Italian, who got the credit (and Nobel Prize) for the invention.

The last section is on artificial limbs, and other prosthetics, from Civil War technologies to the cutting edge work being done by a bunch of different companies, individuals, and groups. It's one short chapter, which covers a lot of ground, so I'm just going to leave that description. The book's Conclusion deals with intellectual property law, patents, etc., which starts out with the U.S. Constitution's first article, runs through Thomas Jefferson (who was the first patent examiner), into some of Abraham Lincoln's own patents, and to the current perversions of these systems by, among other things, the so-called American Invents Act, the AIA, which Malkin says is a special-interest boondoggle that enriches corporate lawyers, Big Business, and federal bureaucrats at the expense of independent inventors and fledgling innovators the American patent system was created to protect and encourage”.

While I would have liked Who Built That to have been a more in-your-face broadside against the leftist corruption of American greatness, it certainly is an interesting read, with little nuggets of calling out the collectivist enemies of our culture. If you have an interest in American innovation, industry, and history (and a libertarian bent), you should find plenty in here to enjoy. As noted up top, I got a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store, but it looks to still be in print, so you should be able to get a copy via your local brick-and-mortar store, and otherwise the on-line big boys presently have it at 42% off of cover, and the paperback edition at about 2/3rds of that … while their new/used guys have “very good” copies available for under five bucks (with shipping). This may not be the anti-socialist screed that I was hoping for, but it's still a quality read, and worth checking out!

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Godzilla likes the title ...

Some times I'm amazed at what I find at the dollar store, and this was one of the treats. Robin Shulman's Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York (yeah, quite the sub-title), is a fascinating book, at once a travelogue (if within one large city), a series of history lessons, a look at a spectrum of food/beverage industries, and an overview of current (well, those active up to 2012 when the book came out) purveyors of these products (and how they're making them) in New York.

The author grew up in rural Canada, but moved to New York at age 16. She was an English major at Columbia, studied Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. Her journalism credentials are impressive, having been a reporter for the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, and San Franciso Chronicle, among others, and those skill sets are certainly on display here, with a combination of deep historic research and probing, wide-ranging interviews. Oddly, her main news beat was the Middle East, and she was off reporting on “war, terrorism, and destruction” for a decade, before returning in 2005, when she saw a city transformed from a “wilderness of human neglect” … so much so that she felt “unmoored in the place I had called home” … which led her to “literally plant roots” by working in a neighborhood garden. However:

Soon I realized I was more fascinated by the stories of the other gardeners than I was patient with the solitary labor of coaxing life from soil.
As she heard more of these stories in her neighborhood, the idea of this book began to come together, she had a lot of questions about how the the modern city, which was now exhibiting glimmers of an “urban back-to-the-land trend”, had gotten here, what were the antecedents, legacies, and remainders of food in our country's biggest city, that were somehow informing a new blossoming in the past few decades. She notes that she gathered material for this from 2005 through 2009, and did most of the intensive work in 2010-11, with the book debuting in 2012, and the paperback (which is still in print) coming out a year later.

I'm somewhat frustrated in writing this, as the book is dense with both very attractive prose and amazing factoids that I'd love to pass along. Frankly, in the Introduction alone, I've had to talk myself out of blockquoting a good half-dozen paragraphs, because the material is so good. And this just ramps up in the seven chapters (I was going to list them, but you can pretty much figure them out from the subtitle, and they'll be evident as I get to them), each of which could easily be a free-standing look on that particular topic … in terms of structure (there is very little cross-pollination between the subjects, although I recall some occasional name-checking here and there), and length, averaging around 40 pages or so each. As much as I enjoyed the book, I was surprised to find only one of my little bookmarks in it (and that for something I wanted to research further), but this is due to the depth of the information here, I'd be looking at pages and pages of quotes to get “the good bits”, and neither you nor I, nor the author/publisher really wants that, so I'm going to be improvising and cherry-picking in the following, trying to give you some sense of each of the topics/chapters.

The first subject here is honey. Beekeeping has become “a thing” in many cities, Chicago among them (I've been familiar with the Bike-a-Bee group here, and shot a video of them doing a presentation a few years back). An unappreciated factor in urban honey is that whatever is destroying bees generally, doesn't seem to be in the cities, and bees tend to thrive in this environment. Another is the concept of “terroir”, a French term most commonly related to wine, but in the context of urban beekeeping, the honey from a hive on one end of a park may end up markedly different from that on the other end.

As one might expect (and this is a recurring theme here), large government bureaucracies are typically more interested in oppressively regulating (or outright banning, as New York City did from 1999 to 2010) activities that seem out of the ordinary, which certainly includes “a ball of 30,000 bees flying through the air making a noise like a buzz saw”, that will try to make their home in “one of many tree-like structures such as a traffic light or a street sign”, which is the result of a hive dividing and half “swarming”, and something that needs to be dealt with by the beekeepers. This chapter has, perhaps, the least historical material here … focusing instead on a half-dozen or so individuals involved in the honey business. I found this bit especially charming:

      Much of city beekeeping is vertical work. Up a narrow stairway in the dingy darkness, carrying tools to hives on a roof in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Down six flights of stairs from rooftop hives on a different building on Second Avenue, balancing heavy, oozing frames of honey.
One thing that surprised me here was from an interview with a “bee expert at the American Museum of Natural History”, who noted that there were “more than 240 kinds of wild bees recorded in New York City”, so there's a lot of company for the Apis mellifera honeybees! Aside from the challenges presented by the government, sometimes hostile neighbors, and the complicated geography of the city, there are often mysteries to be solved … such as the red bees/honey that started to show up in hives in the in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. The effected beekeepers tried researching this as some sort of disease or mutation, but eventually (after having the honey tested and finding it contained Red Dye No. 40), discovered that the bees had found a local maraschino cherry factory and were opting for the easy sugar syrup there over foraging for more natural sources. It turns out that this is not unusual behavior, with stories of candy and gum factories providing the raw materials for rainbow-hued honey, or not-quite-organic spearmint flavored honey.

The next chapter deals with what most folks would recognize as “urban farming” – vegetables from city lots – and focuses on one Harlem grower (and former numbers runner – before that business got eliminated by government lotteries), Willie Morgan, who harvests a wide range of produce from “skinny, shady strips of land between tenements all over Harlem”. You might think that Harlem was an odd place to be growing food, but:

… For hundreds of years, Harlem was a farming village. Lenape Native Americans cultivated the fertile terrain spreading from an inlet off what is now 125th Street, near Willie Morgan's garden. …

      The first Dutch farmers found the land they called Nieuw Haarlem easy to farm, as it had already been cleared … The rich dark earth yielded more than the soil of lower Manhattan, and … helped make New Netherland self-sufficient.
      As time passed, the great families of the settlement planted vegetable fields, fruit orchards,
{etc.} … Their names are familiar to us now mostly through street names: the Delanceys, Beekmans, Bleeckers, and Hamiltons.
This then tracks the eventual urbanization of that part of Manhattan, through various waves of development and decline, and how food memories survived over the decades, yet had a profound change with the Black migration north following the Civil War. In Willie Morgan's case, he got into urban farming as a promo ploy for the gambling business:

Early on, he understood the importance of marketing to women. Many of his first customers were mothers playing the numbers to put food on the table. A bit of fresh, free produce could certainly make the difference when such woman decided where to gamble.
Of course, as New York declined in the 70's, more and more vacant lots opened up in places like Harlem, and the city started to rent lots to gardeners for a buck a year, figuring that a cultivated lot was a lot better than a wasteland with the detritus of the drug trade. With the upturn in the early 2000's, the city started to sell off the lots to developers, and this disrupted much of the local gardening. However, many organized, and brought a suit against the city, which resulted in many garden lots being protected, and others being offered alternate spaces.

Meat is the subject of chapter 3. It's somewhat difficult to picture Manhattan as the home of pastures and piggeries, but run the clock back to the late 1600's, and you find not only the native meat sources (“buffalo, raccoon, beaver, wild rabbit, turkey, and deer” … Coney Island got its name from the rabbits), but cows, sheep, and swine brought over by the boatload from Holland. As the city grew, and industrialization spread, you also have the grim specter of urban meat processing right out of Upton Sinclair's look at Chicago's meat packing industry, The Jungle, albeit with the noted variation of specialized kosher factories to service the expanding Jewish population. As late as 1929 it was noted that “the stench of slaughterhouses filled the air a few hundred feet from Times Square”, and while much of the meat business was shuttered or moved (to the Bronx and beyond) by the 60's, there were still hold-outs such as the Fourteenth Street meat market, which had a dedicated elevated line bringing in stock as late as 1980, and that the New York Times reported “the sidewalks run with rivulets of greasy blood” … due to a single real estate investor buying up much of the area, this market was able to survive until his death in 1999 – a remarkably recent date to imagine this sort of business happening in the heart of New York.

Of course, few people around these days ever had the experience of this sort of meat processing, as post-WW2 marketing brought the factory butchering/packaging operations that deposit styrofoam-cradled and hygienically plastic-wrapped cuts of meat into most of the grocery stores. It wasn't until 1970, however, that this was able to be sold in New York, as the unions refused to handle it. Now, lest you think this chapter is all history lesson, it switches back and forth between these fascinating looks back to a narrative of “the conquering hero of hipstavore Brooklyn”, Tom Mylan, whose “The Meat Hook” combines small-town butcher shop intimacy (with both the butcher and the butchered), with trendy classes in the disassembly of recently deceased critters. Like many things in this book, much of what he sells is raised locally, with craft-inspired uniqueness.

The next discussion covers sugar – which, frankly somewhat surprised me, but it's one of those things whose history in many ways parallels the growth of the city. The Dutch West India Company was set up in 1620 to trade in sugar, tobacco, spices, salt, and other goods, and a few years later they founded the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the lower tip of Manhattan, later ceded to the British, who, of course, renamed the island and surrounding areas New York. Shulman suggests: “Sugar was the industry that elevated old New York, helping transform it into a cosmopolitan, powerful financial center in the 1700s.”. Like the previous chapter, this bounces back and forth between history and a local figure (Jose Torres) who stands in for all Puerto Rico, and the culture from the islands that is such a presence in New York. Here, the history goes way back … sugar cane apparently originated in New Guinea as far back as 8,000 years ago, and eventually made its way to India, where a general in Alexander The Great's army wrote of it in 327 bce, and it expanded with the Arabs around the Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus (who had at one time been a sugar buyer) brought it to the Americas, where it thrived in the Caribbean, and eventually in large parts of South America.

Growing, harvesting, and processing cane was a key driver of the early slave trade, and the many forms that sugar took, including rum, were significant engines for the growth of New York, although, obviously, the growing and harvesting were not done there, “by 1770 the city supported seventeen rum distilleries”. Numerous forms of sugar, recipes for sugar and molasses, and rum drinks are noted here, as well as individuals and organizations involved in its trade (interesting, there were a lot of pirates based out of New York), and those involved in developing new forms of refining. It was the sugar interests who made sure the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico in the war with Spain, and within days of our Navy taking the island, industry representatives arrived to organize production. For fifty or so years, sugar cane was the cash crop there, and the workers, no longer slaves, per se, were institutionally locked into the industry. The life of these folks is illustrated with Torres' story, and the diaspora to New York when the cane industry began to fade in the 1950s.

The story of beer in New York is largely more recent, and that chapter looks primarily at a few craft brewers in various boroughs of the city, and the history. As is the case with most of these subjects, New York was at the one point the center of brewing in the U.S., with roots that went back to the very early Dutch presence. Germans eventually followed, and many traditional European brewing styles became established. This was eventually problematic during the World Wars, and prohibition certainly didn't help. Nearly as frustrating as that governmental intrusion are the off-putting “arcane regulations and overlapping bureaucracies” that current-day brewers have to deal with, and (I'm hoping this isn't going to be “a spoiler” for anybody) the two featured beer entrepreneurs end up ditching NYC to move out to Portland, OR.

This chapter looks at the evolution of the beer biz in the U.S., how it thrived and then faded in New York (the last industrial brewer closed there in 1976), how styles changed over time, how marketing changed (Lite, anyone?) the industry, and how assorted cultural shifts re-shaped the brewing world. I found a lot of the historical bits of how different European traditions expressed themselves in bars/restaurants as new immigrant groups swept in (Germans made up 1/3 of NYC's population in 1875, for instance), including the brewery-owned locations (there are still numerous Schlitz-branded buildings around Chicago from this era) of the Rupperts company, among others. An interesting note about this sort of establishment: “Beer came with a free lunch – Bismarck herring with onions, vinegar, and Tabasco, sandwiches of fresh-cut bologna full of garlic and cloves, highly seasoned wursts and limburger, mustard, and horseradish.”

I guess herring makes an adequate segue to the next chapter, dealing with fish. It's hard, even today, to disassociate New York from its maritime roots (given the docks all around Manhattan), but local fish is not something that immediately comes to mind (oddly, when contemplating this, Snakefinger's 1980 tune I Come From an Island does, with its lyric Fish, that's all we get to eat here, fish … It is our national dish.). The chapter starts with a 12-year-old girl working crab traps in the surf off of Coney Island, right by a sign warning against eating anything from those waters, which are polluted with a nasty mix of toxic chemicals. However, if you're poor, and want to get something to eat, it's a tempting resource. I was surprised to read here just how productive they can be … a community organization polled “two hundred Greenpoint and Williamsburg {neighborhoods in Brooklyn} anglers and found that they caught an average of fifty-seven fish a week each: blue crabs, eels, bluefish, and striped bass”, with their family members averaging eating nearly 10 of these each per week, against the recommendations that women and children never eat any, and men only once a month or so … that's a lot of seafood, as well as a whole lot of risk (I can remember as a small child in NYC catching crayfish using a can-and-string contraption up in Harlem Meer, the lake at the north-east corner of Central Park … an activity she mentions … so I have some experience with this, but I never even considered eating what we caught!).

It really is pretty horrific what's been done to the waters around (and within) Manhattan since the mid-1800s, when it was reasonably clean. The Industrial Revolution began the downward trend, and it still continues with raw sewage being dumped into Newton Creek (which had become notoriously noxious as early as 1881), between Brooklyn and Queens, along with a long list of toxins (the author devotes a paragraph), as an example that's detailed here. This list contrasts one of fish available in the New York waters back in 1679 … including foot long oysters, once a signature food of the city. This chapter somewhat rambles, as it goes from fisher to fisher, from crab trapping teens to chartered fishing boats, and pretty much all points between, discussing the people, the catch, and even the ways they prepare the food. The ecological dangers are certainly chastening, but there evidently are a lot of people choosing today's meal over the possibilities of PCBs, mercury, and even radioactive waste eventually ruining their health.

The final chapter looks at wine, and at one point Shulman pretty much defines the theme of the chapter as: “New York City wine-making has not been about quality wine, but about expressing tradition”. This topic probably has the least historical material in the book, a few paragraphs giving the broad strokes of wine (of all sorts) in various cultures, a few quotes about the native grapes found by the Dutch locally (deemed no good for wine), and how the European wine grapes kept failing (due to a vulnerability to an indigenous parasite), leading to the development of hybrids. It's primarily focused on immigrants and their wine cultures, specifically the Jews and the Italians, here personified by stories from two modern New Yorkers, Yatif Jiji, a college professor who grew up in a Jewish community in Iraq, and Sal Meglio, whose family had imported California grapes into NYC for generations. An interesting data point here is that both of these cultures “took advantage of a Prohibition loophole … the law did not prohibit all alcohol consumption – but allowed people to make limited amounts of wine to drink at home”, a loophole that, as one might expect, got abused quite a bit during the time the 18th Amendment was being enforced.

This latter factor is another element here, with the development of Kosher wines that were permitted, and were marketed by Rabbis of sometimes dubious provenance, eventually leading to still-familiar brand names like Manischewitz. Most of the chapter, though, deals with the family/neighborhood wine-making of previous decades … where nearly every housing unit had barrels of home-make wine sitting in the basements … and how this tradition faded as people began to move long distances from their families. The author also notes a number of modern commercial vintners who operate in New York (such as the Red Hook winery in Brooklyn), but the tale here more centers on figures such as Jiji and his huge (if somewhat unintentionally begun) grapevine that grows up the back of his townhouse on the Upper East Side, which can produce as much as a dozen cases of wine in a good year.

As you might have surmised by the length of this review, I found Eat The City quite engaging, and I've barely skimmed the surface of the information packed into it here. If you have interests in agriculture, cuisine, urban history, or the growth of the Green city, you will find a lot of fascinating material in this. As noted up top, I found this hardcover at the dollar store, but it's relatively recent (only five years old as of this writing), and still in print, and has since been joined by a paperback edition. The on-line big boys presently have both of these at more than 60% off of cover price, making them quite affordable (if you can't find a copy at the dollar store), and what they have the paperback going for is even less than what the new/used guys are offering when shipping's figured in. Needless to say, I really liked this one … and would highly recommend it to anybody with similar interests!

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