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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 20 most recent ones recorded in btripp_books' LiveJournal:

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Friday, July 14th, 2017
3:17 pm
The man of noble mind ...
Yeah, I had thought when I finally broke down and got Amazon's Prime service I'd not have to worry about ever nudging order totals toward a minimum number (which is one thing that Dover Thrift Editions are wonderful for), but ever since they've instituted the “add on” listings (which, unfortunately, includes our turtle's favorite food), I'm finding myself once again looking for a way to get an order up a couple of bucks without getting into a full-fledged additional book/garment/doohickey. Of course, the other thing that the D.T.E. books are great for is plugging holes in my education … and that's what's going on here with Confucius' The Analects (what, you read this in school?).

Of course, one of the challenges in trying to review ancient philosophical treatises is that they're hardly formatted with modern sensibilities in mind … not to mention that they're ancient and philosophy. Aside from those factors, this is laid out oddly … each “Chapter” (in the 20 “Books” that are organized in 10 2-Book “Volumes”) runs from 1 to 30 lines, and none taking up more than a single page, with my guess as to the average length being 6 lines (in blocks of text, not set up as “poetry” and/or bullet-points).

Confucius lived from 551 to 479 bce, which puts him well in front of the Big 2 monotheisms (although a few generations after Siddhartha Gautama and a generation or so after Lao-Tzu). There is an odd chronology up front here, which starts with the “semi-mythical first rulers”, Emperor Yao (c 2356 bce), and Emperor Shun (c 2255 bce), probably because Confucius refers to them with some frequency. Then a few historical dynasties, followed by some ancestors and immediate predecessors in Confucius' line. The main portion of this follows through his life, including the various positions he held, the periods he was in exile, and significant losses (his wife, his son, key disciples). The last two entries on the list are his own death, and the life data on Mencius, a century later.

There is also a list of 36 disciples, with some descriptive material … and in most cases at least two names. Obviously, over the centuries the details from Confucius' time have had plenty of opportunity to get hazy, re-interpreted, and subjected to linguistic shifts, so it's not terribly surprising that these names have gotten slippery, but it's confusing throughout this with the name in a particular “Book” appearing one way, and there having to be notation to “clarify” which person (both of the disciples, and various other characters – rulers, etc. – who weave in and out of this) is which … heck, even Confucius himself gets a half dozen other names that seem to be particular forms of address from assorted other speakers. Personally, I would have preferred it had all the players been relegated to “common English forms” of their Chinese names (like Confucius for K’ung-fu-tzu) rather than the “how do you pronounce that?” permutations with linguistic notation that I can't find in the Windows Character Map.

The Analects are set up thematically, with each of the 20 “Books” having a general subject under which the (what I take to be much-later-collected) assorted materials are organized. Some of these are “Concerning Fundamental Principles”, “Concerning the Sage in His Daily Life”, “Concerning Ancient Worthies”, and several that are less specific, such as “Chiefly on the Maintenance and Principles and Character”. Very little here is actually by Confucius, but is set up in blocks of “The Master said:” or bits about his activities … so it is all at second hand, at least.

I was disappointed that I only had a couple of my little bookmarks in this to point to the “good parts” to pass along here … so I'm going to be flipping through and looking for excerpts that seem like good examples of the whole. One of the most telling usages of Confucius is the idea of the Superior Man, who conducts his life appropriately, be this the ruler, or the commoner. There are several points where he is being asked about some seeming luxury (when he was serving at court), and he'd respond to the questioning disciple that there were forms to be followed, and without a robe of office, or a carriage, he'd not be doing the right thing in his activities. Confucius is quite hard on various leaders who he believes were taking rank and privilege that were unearned or not properly bestowed (especially in cases where power had been wrested – violently or otherwise – from the previously established ruler … in these cases he'd have nothing to do with the non-virtuous states).

One might ask, “what is the use of studying 2,500-year-old philosophy?”, well, as I've discovered in other books, the general tenor of the massive modern Chinese government is quite in line with Confucian thought … and the sort of expected relations between rulers and the ruled, states and their neighbors, and functionaries on all levels of bureaucracies as set out by Confucius is very much a template that can be used to gauge what is happening in and with China, as well as giving a guide as to what to expect from the Chinese (I'm certain that the C.I.A. has a number of scholars who know this stuff backwards and forwards on hand to put this sort of perspective into play).

Again, I'm having to snag most of these on the fly, so I'm not going to be telling you much of a “story arc” with broad strokes here … just trying to give you some sense of the book (oh, and the notation accompanying them here is my own extraction of the volume, book, and chapter numbering … and I'm avoiding ones with funky typography, so nearly all of the ones mentioning his disciples, etc., were skipped in the following).

V-I, B-I, C-III:
The Master said: “Artful speech and an ingratiating demeanour rarely accompany virtue.”

V-I, B-II, C-I:
The Master said: “He who governs by his moral excellence may be compared to the pole-star, which abides in its place, while all the stars bow towards it.”

V-II, B-IV, C-XIV:
The Master said: “One should not be concerned at lack of position, but should be concerned about what will fit him to occupy it. One should not be concerned at being unknown, but should seek to be worthy of being known.”

V-V, B-IX, C-XVI:
Once when the Master was standing by a stream he observed: “All is transient, like this! Unceasing day and night!”

V-VII, B-XIII, C-VI:
The Master said: “If a ruler is himself upright, his people will do their duty without orders; but if he himself be not upright, although he may order they will not obey.”

V-VII, B-XIII, C-XIX:
Once when Fan Ch’ih asked about virtue, the Master said: “In private life be courteous, in handling public business be serious, with all men be conscientious. Even though you go among barbarians, you may not relinquish these virtues.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-IV:
The Master said: “When law and order prevail in the land, a man may be bold in speech and bold in action; but when the land lacks law and order, though he may take bold action, he should lay restraint on his speech.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-VII:
“There may perhaps be men of the higher type who fail in virtue, but there has never been one of the lower type who possessed virtue.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-XI:
The Master said: “To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not arrogant is easy.”

V-VII, B-XIV, C-XXXII:
The Master said: “A wise man is not distressed that people do not know him; he is distressed at his own lack of ability.”

V-VIII, B-XVI, C-IX:
Confucius said: “Those who have innate wisdom take highest rank. Those who acquire it by study rank next. Those who learn despite natural limitations come next. But those who are of limited ability and yet will not learn – these form the lowest class of men.”

V-IX, B-XVII, C-III:
The Master said: “It is only the very wisest and the very stupidest who never change.”

V-X, B-XX, C-III:
1. The Master said: “He who does not know the divine law cannot become a noble man. 2. He who does not know the laws of right conduct cannot form his character. 3. He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.”
One other thing … as is the case frequently with the Dover Thrift Editions, this is a reprint of a much older book, specifically an edition put out in Scotland in 1910. I went looking for an on-line version to pass along to you, and was surprised to see that the “Volume/Book/Chapter” organization here seems to have disappeared in more recent presentations. Needless to say, I don't have the experience with Chinese texts to be able to figure out if the “chapter” breaks here are as notably separate in the original materials, but from what I saw poking around on the Web, these seem to have gone out of favor, being replaced with simple paragraph breaks (although I think the format here does do a better job of separating individual “stories”, which might tend to blur into a somewhat less coherent – not that this is particularly coherent – narrative).

Anyway, The Analects, being the classic that it is, can no doubt be found pretty much anyplace they have philosophical books … and the Dover Thrift Edition has a whopping $3.50 cover price, so if you want something more tangible than that link above, cost shouldn't be much of a factor. To be honest, I can't say that I really enjoyed reading this, but it was quite interesting, especially as projected to current global politics. Hey, it's cheap, it's a short read (under 130 pages), and it will make you sound smarter than you were going in … what's not to like?


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Thursday, July 6th, 2017
5:33 pm
Reports from Planet Writer ...
This came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, so has all the lack of foresight and intent that is involved in that channel (clicking a “request” button after reading a few sentences of description about the book). As such, the question “what was I expecting” from the book is somewhat moot – I was expecting to get one of four or five requested books sent to me for review. That being said, I rather enjoyed Joni B. Cole's Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, although I'm deeply puzzled at how it managed to get 94% 5-star reviews on Amazon, unless Ms. Cole encouraged her writing workshop students to pad the numbers with raves (but, then again, I rarely rate any book higher than a 4 if I am forced to give a star rating).

Frankly, perhaps my biggest gripe with the book is the title … it is, I suspect, yet another “marketing” decision, taking a chapter's (which has to do with sharing one's early drafts with others) title, that is ambiguous in a somewhat titillating way, with hopes that shoppers will pick it off the shelf or click on it, looking for the “naked parts”. For somebody who has spent his entire life in some form of marketing communications or other, I really hate those sorts of ploys. If they wanted to go with a chapter title, a much better one (in terms of conveying the feel of the book) would be “Every. Single. Day.”, which is a quote from a nightmare boss she had in an early job that required her to call people who were late with payments – but turns this into something of a therapy session for writers who have latched onto the idea that they are failures (or vile slackers) if they don't have a predictable writing schedule that rules their lives …

Sometimes we don't write for another reason that is harder to excuse, and that is that we just don't feel like it. … How can it be so hard to make ourselves do something we value so highly is one of those incongruities of human nature that defies explanation. But one thing I do know is that wanting to write, but not wanting to write, can lead to a lot of guilt.
In the way I described Stephen King's On Writing as a workshop on writing, Good Naked is like a series of “coaching sessions” with Ms. Cole … albeit ones that spring from her issues/experiences/challenges rather than (for obvious reasons) the reader's.

Now, I have to admit that I've never taken a writing workshop per se … I had writing classes in college that were something along those lines, but nothing where I've signed up to hobnob with (and expose early drafts to) other writers – no doubt attributable to my one-size-fits-all misanthropy (which has certainly not been tempered with my ever-deeper descent into curmudgeonhood). I have considered these, but never gotten into a place where I moved ahead with the concept. I bring all this up here because, generally speaking, this book is based in the authors workshops, either using the dynamics of these (and their participants) as jumping-off points for discussing particular writing issues, or expressing her own concerns as they arise in these settings. While the book does have a certain structure to it (it's in three parts with 6-7 chapters each), and sort of walks the reader through from “first things” to “endings”, but it isn't much on the linear side, so I'm not going to try to break out the “what” of the twenty chapters. I do, however, have quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in this, and I'll try to suss out the passages that I was sufficiently enthused about to leave that trail of paper slips when reading it to give you some sense of the book. Unfortunately, Ms. Cole is not crafting bullet points here, and so most of the “good bits” go on into paragraph length … leading me to pass over some that, while excellent, would require quite substantial block quotes to get where they're going, and to selectively edit (love those ellipses) others. Oh, and the author name-checks other writers with quotes all through this, which is interesting in the reading, but a little “meta” in the citing within the review.

In the “Planet Writer” chapter (which has a delightful lead-in, but is a bit long to use for a description here), she gets into looking at happiness in relation to the world of writers, referring to various research that indicates that “positive emotional states” lead to all sorts of good results. This ends up here:

And yet, the myth of the suffering artist and its alleged value to the creative process prevails, and it is not hard to figure out why. Many of the world's most famous writers were as noteworthy for their psychic pain as their literary gifts. Depression. Addiction. Mental illness. Because creative expression is an outlet for pain, this is likely why people who are battling emotional demons, or confronting life's cruelties, often gravitate toward artistic disciplines. … It can demand an enormous amount of courage and stamina to create during these times of trouble and when filled with despair. Thus, all the more reason to credit the person, not his afflictions or circumstances, for his creative work.
In the “In Good Company” chapter, she says to “think of a workshop as a 'social-belonging intervention'”, which I found an interesting concept. She expands on this:

As writers, to be part of a creative community is to sheathe ourselves in white light. That white light stays with us, sometimes long after we return to the solitude that our work demands. It illuminates the vast difference between loneliness and being alone, and within that clarified space this is what often happens: We write more. We write better. And we are happier.
In “The Reverse Curse” chapter, she starts by describing a black magic practice of some Australian aboriginal tribes, called “the bone pointer”, and (cut down a bit) here's how she introduces this concept for writing:

Inside almost every writer's head is a Bone Pointer. Some internal sorcerer, some part of ourselves we have vested with the power of killing our writing dreams. … They have only to sneak up on our psyches … and curse our writing ambitions. From that point forward, fear quickly begins to lay waste to our future. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of exposure. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of finishing. Fear of letting go. Whatever form the fear takes, the outcome is the same. …
She goes on to counter this with a recommendation: “One scene after the other, then just slap on some craft.” (which reminds me of the observation made elsewhere that it is mighty hard to edit a blank page), although she notes that this may not be enough if one is letting the Bone Pointer in.

In the “Every. Single. Day.” chapter, she gives examples of a number of famous writers' daily goals … many of whom had targets as meager as 500 words (I used to do a “morning papers” regimen on the 750words.com site, which, unsurprisingly, had me spewing out at least 750 words when I got up every morning), with some running as high as 3,000 words. I find these numbers comforting, as I have often thought of “writing a book” (different from the dozens of titles I have in print, mainly poetry and reviews), and I could certainly make that sort of daily output. She notes:

When I say writers need a bar, however, what I mean is a tangible measure of productivity tailored to each of our creative processes and temperaments. Your bar may be higher or lower than my bar, but the same rules wold apply. If your productivity falls below the level of achievement you have set for yourself, then, and only then, can you feel guilty about your slacker tendencies. Otherwise, give yourself a break. …
Some of this is pretty autobiographical. In the “Drama Queen” chapter she has a bit of a rant that, while long-ish, I'll type up here, as it's a great look into her (and, by extension, lots of other writers') head:

      I straightened a pile of papers of my desk. For confidence, I skimmed a book I had previously written that I still like, though as is often the case when I reread work from my past, I experienced a feeling of disassociation. Who wrote that? I thought, appreciating a passage. That author was so lucky to have the words come out just as she had envisioned them in her head. I want to be an author! I glared at my book jacket photo. Just look at her, smiling, with her hair all combed. Authors have it so much easier than writers. Resentment towards my former self darkened my mood further, even as the same part of my mind was well aware that this previous book had not come any easier than the one I was wrestling with now.
In the “Seeing Blue” chapter, she has a list of “four rational responses to the question, Why does your writing matter?” … these are:

1. Your perspective.
… “every type of experience has been covered, but you will always be the first one to do it through your lens”
2. Your voice.
… “when you do settle into the voice you your story, you will own that material”
3. The future of civilization.
… “neuroscientists … have shown that stories allow us to have surrogate experiences that our brains process almost identically to lived experiences”
4. The color blue.
… “you only have to give them {your writing material} words, and what was absent before becomes visible to you and your readers”
… this last one is based on speculation that at one time people didn't see blue because there was no word for it, and it showed up in ancient Egypt only when they began developing dyes of that shade … and she points out some research on an African tribe that could not pick out a distinctively blue square on a screen with eleven assorted green squares.

In the chapter “A Walk around the Block” (as in writer's), she talks of a lecture she attended by Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist Orham Pamuk, who spoke about the French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Montaigne, who is

… famously known for his motto, 'Que sais-je?' Translation: What do I know? As a skeptic, Montaigne recognized that he and his fellow philosophers actually understood very little about the world, and therefore he strove instead for self-knowledge, dwelling on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
      What do I know? This is the question that confronts all writers sitting alone at their desks, trying to figure out something meaningful or engaging to put on the page. Sometimes we cannot wait to start typing to discover the answer. When we are really on fire, it feels like we are conversing with some remarkably engaging and deeper version of ourselves. … But when we are struggling, what we hear in response to that question is silence, silence, and then a more prolonged, deafening silence.
She follows this up with some tales of times when her or others' blocks got broken in fairly mundane settings, with details (in a more conjectural frame) of how these might play out as a method.

In the “Decluttering” chapter (which does also have to do with tidying up) she gets into a concept about writing that is interesting:

… editing can feel overwhelming if you focus on the whole. This supports another benefit that comes from acknowledging the reality that writing is rewriting 41,000 drafts. It frees us from the expectation that we are supposed to be able to address every issue in our manuscript at once.
Now, “41,000 drafts” sounds like an impossible amount of work, but this is all the bits and pieces … she describes a sample as:

You revise a sentence. Then you delete the revised sentence. Then you press Control Z to restore the revised sentence and revise it again, but it is still not right. Then you take a shower, and the perfect wording comes to you as you are lathering your hair, so you run foam-headed and dripping to your computer and revised the revised, deleted, restored, re-revised sentence one more time.
… she also counts that as at least four drafts!

Anyway, I hope this has given you a sense of how this book proceeds. There's a lot of wandering off down sub-referential alleyways, name-checking of the famous and/or important, and tons of personal anecdotes, but it does attempt to create a logical arc covering the writing process, at least as processed through the sausage-making machinery of writing workshops.

Good Naked just came out in April, so it's relatively new. Oddly, the online big boys don't have it at much of a discount, nor do the new/used guys have it at any much deeper deal … so you might as well go in search of it at the brick-and-mortar book vendors who carry this sort of title. While there wasn't much that was an earth-shattering revelation to me here, I did quite enjoy reading it, and, as I noted up top, it did feel a bit like having private coaching sessions (or a whole series of coffee dates) with the author. If that sounds appealing to you, by all means do pick up a copy.


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Monday, July 3rd, 2017
1:10 pm
As it is ...
Since I get so many of the books I cover here either as review copies, or from the dollar store, I guess it's worth noting when I pay actual retail (or the on-line discounted version thereof) for a book, and in the case of Revival: Resurrecting the Process Church of the Final Judgement, even pre-ordered it. Yes, you can say “Wow!” … I'll wait. OK, so that's the first thing I needed to mention about this … next is that it's a fiction title. As those of you keeping track at home will realize, fiction has had a vanishingly small presence in my to-be-read piles over the past couple of decades, I'm guessing somewhere south of 1% of what I read. So, this is both a fiction title, and something I shelled out near cover price for … what makes it so special? Well, it's by William Sims Bainbridge, a sociologist, co-director of Cyber-Human Systems at the National Science Foundation, and a prolific author with a couple of dozen (non-fiction) titles to his name, including the remarkable Satan's Power: A Deviant Psychotherapy Cult, which arose from his joining the notable Process Church of the Final Judgment, and studying it from within back in the 70's.

Now, I guess I'm going to have to throw in a couple of caveats … number one: this is fiction, and I feel somewhat out of place reviewing this category, as I've observed on the web that most fiction aficionados have various levels of freak-out over “spoilers”, something that I, as a non-fiction reader, have a limited appreciation for … so this is likely to not be a particularly comfortable review for either of us. Number two, and this is a biggie … I almost didn't go to college because I was hanging out with the Process' successor organization, The Foundation, back in the mid-70's. This was the one place I've ever felt I “fit in”, and especially so at their New York HQ, which is a key location in this story. As I've noted in another review, it's very hard to separate my experiences from books on this subject, and so there were several places here where I was alternately getting quite wistful and expectantly excited (until I recalled that it was just fiction). I had been familiar with The Process, and interacted with its members out on the street corners where they were “funding” (exchanging newsletters and magazines for donations), and had even tired to show up at their house up in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood a few times (it was just a couple of blocks from where I lived), but never got an answer at the door. I sort of lost track of them after they moved (down to Wells Street in its counter-cultural prime), which I later discovered was due to “The Schism” when a substantial portion of the organization split from Robert deGrimston (the “Teacher” who wrote all the theological materials), and set off on its own, minus the previous doctrinal underpinnings. The Chicago center had done a rather dramatic “rebranding”, and I, honestly, did not realize that the two were connected until I'd been loitering around the coffee house for months. I ended up opting for college instead of “going in” (and after reading Wyllie's book, that seems to have been a good call), but stayed active as a lay member for many years, even visiting the new HQ out in Kanab, UT back in August 1994 … as I was only on the periphery of both groups, I probably saw all their best, and very little of the worst (well, I was frequently tasked with cleaning out the vegetable bins, and that was typically pretty horrible).

I suppose it probably would be useful to paint the broad strokes on the Process theology here … there were four God patterns, two forming the “Union”, Jehovah and Lucifer, and two forming the “Unity”, Christ and Satan (the main public tenet being The Unity of Christ and Satan) … knowing this up front will make a lot of the book a bit more understandable (although Bainbridge does fill in backstory as needed).

Before I get into the book, I should reiterate that I enjoyed reading it, and found a lot of the stuff in it fascinating, but I really don't connect well with fiction, or (as is often bitched about here) “teaching stories”/parables, and I had numerous things that likely irritated me far more than they would most folks (who, honestly, might not even have registered the dissonance). I do not do well with intimations of what things are, and really like to have things defined, and so much here (and, of course, this is not unique to Bainbridge's book) is sketching out some symbolical representation of what's being addressed, which I, at best, find frustrating, and at worst, miss altogether (with a nagging residual sense that I am, indeed, missing something).

Anyway, to the book. The central character whose point-of-view the story's set in is one Robert Anson head of the “Social Computing” department of the “National Social Science Institute”, clearly based on the author and some of his work at the NSF. The book starts directly with a swerve into fiction, as it opens with Anson getting a delivery from the recently-deceased Colin Stewart, who supposedly had re-started The Process at some point (I don't think that Bainbridge specifies this any closer than “a third of a century” past 1974, placing that in the first decade of the 2000's). This is one of the disconnects I had with the tale, as that would mean that Colin's version of the Process had only been around a decade or so prior to the present day (where the story appears to play out), and it seems to have a lot more of an established base than what one might assume for a short-term re-creation of the old Church.

There are a plethora of characters to try to keep straight, but the core group are four people from the NSSI … aside from Anson, there's Watson Skinner, who's head of psychology program, and the first person that Anson goes to when the box from Colin Stewart arrives, Cora Benedict, director of the anthropology program, who is also an old flame of the narrator's, and Anne Parsons, director of the sociology program. Obviously, each is bringing a useful expertise to the situation, but I can't help but wonder if they're also supposed to be manifesting the various Processean god patterns (although, typically, I wasn't able to suss out any specifics on this in the reading), a likelihood when they eventually drift towards coupling up (as in the Union and the Unity). There is also an ambiguous character going by Jack Grau or John Grey/Gray (a figure in Processean literature), and other names, who appears to be involved with some intelligence service, and is active in one of the Process Chapters.

This is a key divergence from the classic Process model (where people exhibiting the various god patterns were all mixed together): it appears that Colin had opted to develop separate centers for each of the God types. There are two in the Boston area, one “Christian” and one “Satanic”, the big building in New York (which was the HQ of the Foundation in real life) is here the “Jehovian” one, and they eventually discover the “Luciferian” one in a small town in New Hampshire.

There is quite a bit of technology woven through the book, with a bunch of cybersecurity issues raised via the emails from supposed government agencies, my old stomping grounds of SecondLife (which the narrator uses for several “face-to-face” meetings), and a lot of theory about machine-human life extension, centered around what was in the box delivered after Colin Stewart's death. It seems that he had identified Robert Anson (his old school chum) as the one person he felt safe in sending these four cylinders to be passed along to “someone who loves me and may someday have the technical or economic resources to restore me to life” … each of which contains “a sample of my DNA genetic code and a set of computer disks carrying data about my memories, skills and personality”. While the dispensation of these cylinders are a central plot element, there is very little specifically about them, aside from the competing factions which seek to control them. I understand, from communicating with the author, that Revival is intended to be the first of a series of books, so there are several places where plot points are established, but don't really go anywhere, and I guess the situation of the on-going existence of Colin via the materials in the cylinders is one of those that are slated for future installments.

Aside from the technological material in the book, there is also quite a lot of detail on the systems of institutes like where the main characters (and author) work, including what seemed to me a vast lot on the funding of projects, and how those are approved. Perhaps this is something else I'm just “not getting”, but it seemed odd, except as an instance of Bainbridge writing “what he knows” to give a more solid impression of the fictional institute where the characters work.

Of course, the book also features quite a bit of old Processean ritual, chants, song lyrics (some transmitted by the real-world, reasonably recent, group Sabbath Assembly, which is a Process-themed band that has re-worked several old ritual pieces), and even an example of “P-Scope” work. Of course, in the context of the book, these are divided up between the different manifestations, but it's interesting to have a peek into how Bainbridge envisions that.

Sooooo … here's where my lack of fiction reviewing comes into play … I never know what will be considered a “plot synopsis” and what will be held to be “spoilers” (which rarely, if ever, come into play when looking at non-fiction books!). I'll try to not give away specifics in the following, but figure I should at least do a general outline of the story. You have been warned if you're among the spoilerphobic.

The basics are that the narrator gets a box with a letter from his recently-assassinated old friend, entrusting him with these odd cylinders. The narrator shares the info with colleagues, and they form a sort of team to research the situation. They connect with various Process Chapters, and are shadowed by what purports to be a government agency, but might be something else. In the course of interfacing with the assorted Process groups, they are made Processeans (in the sense that the old Church used to say there were “several million Processeans in the world, some of them quite consciously”, I suppose). Some people are killed. Some buildings firebombed. Technology goes missing. Their team sets up a new Processean web hub. They eventually encounter the Luciferian Chapter. And, eventually they “recognized that without benefit of any ritual, our quartet had become Masters of the Process, ready to found a formal chapter in the Washington area”, which they then set out to do. Again, there's a lot of “set up” stuff for subsequent books right at the end … they bring in two other people from the Institute, they buy a run-down motel complex on the outskirts of D.C. to make into a center, they start organizing the remaining folks from the various Chapters, and they design uniforms for their new center, a new symbol, and some new ritual (their theme is “merging science with religion”, and define the new Process “quest” as being to “unite Mind, Body, and Spirit”, as “the combination of science, technology, and religion for human benefit”). At the very end, they see on TV that several other spiritual centers (the Rosicrucians) were under attack … which provides a bit of a cliffhanger.

As noted up top, I am quite emotionally connected to the Process, and much of what Bainbridge writes here (especially in terms of the new Process being formed at the end), was incredibly enticing to me. I've tried to convey some sense of Revival without getting into too much “spoiler” material, I've also tried to veer away from over-all quibbles I had with the book, as I'm guessing that most of these are just endemic to fiction, and not necessarily faults with the writing.

This just came out in May, so it's new enough that it has a pretty good chance to be physically present at some of the better-stocked (or metaphysical) book stores. The on-line big boys, however, have it at about a third off of cover, and being as new as it is, that's probably your best bet (with free shipping) at the moment, as the new/used guys have it at about a wash with that once you add in their four bucks to get it to you. Again, I liked the book, wish it was real in a lot of parts, found some of it strange (the stuff about grants, etc.), and was quite excited about where it was going. But, of course, the subject is “special” to me, and if you don't know about the real Process/Foundation, I'm not sure how much this will speak to you … but you maybe should give it a try.


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Thursday, June 29th, 2017
1:58 pm
The other founder ...
This was a dollar store find … and I might not have picked it up had I known it was a “young adult” book (the info on Amazon says it's targeted for ages 12-17) … however, the only indication of this on the book itself (which I discovered once into reading it) was a /kids in the publisher's URL on the back flap of the dust jacket. Which is, in this case, a good thing, as Albert Marrin's Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty: How One Man's Ideas Helped Form a New Nation is quite a well-crafted look at this seminal American figure. Frankly, it's not a trivial read, and the only real indication within the text that this was a book specifically for kids are notes that explain things like the symbol £ representing “British pounds sterling”.

While I've read nearly all of Paine's major works, I don't believe I've hit something covering the man himself, and this is certainly a good overview on him. Also, being targeted at the audience it is, this is extensively illustrated, with a graphic of some sort (mostly reproductions of revolution-era paintings and press illustrations, with a few photographs thrown in) on nearly every other page … giving a very visual impact of the times and characters. The book (which is just shy of 150 pages before the notes and index), is divided into five sections plus an introduction, the titles of which are: “The Age of Paine”, “Portrait of a Failure”, “The Great American Cause”, “The Peculiar Honor of France”, “The Age of Reason”, and “An Honest and Useful Life”, which pretty much track through his life. Needless to say, it's odd to start off a biographical book with a phrase (from the introduction) like:

      In certain ways, Paine will always be a mystery. Much of what we would like to know about him is unknown and unknowable. The public Paine was a celebrity, his name known to millions. Of his private life, however, we have only the slightest hints.
Marrin notes that all of Paine's papers were destroyed in a fire not long after his death, so “None of Paine's letters remain except the ones kept by their recipients.” ... meaning that, to a very large extent, he was having to work with secondary sources of events around the man.

The book starts off with a survey of British culture at the time of the Enlightenment, and the development of the kingdom from the Middle Ages forward, with looks at the Magna Carta, the execution of Charles I, and exile of James II. There's a rather grim overview of “the rule of law” at the time, with over 250 crimes carrying the death penalty. The state of the government was also very heavily weighted to the aristocracy, with (Paine's home town of) “Thetford, a town of two thousand, had only thirty-one qualified voters.”. Paine's family was fairly low on the totem pole, with his father being a maker of corsets. When he was nineteen, he ran away to London, with the idea of joining the crew of a privateer (a licensed pirate-ish ship serving the Crown). His father, however, followed, and talked him out of this plan (luckily, too, as the ship he intended serving on was bested by a French privateer soon after sailing, losing almost all its crew). Paine opted to remain in London and used his family skills to go to work for a corset maker there. The London of the time was (except for the rich, of course), a vile place, with no sanitation, poor housing, riots, and beggars everywhere … with most of the population drinking gin rather than water (as it was safer). Paine eventually opted to try another privateer, which this time was a great success, with his cut of the booty being more than his father made in a year. Returning to London, he used this money to educate himself, hanging out in bookstores and attending paid lectures. When the money ran out he set himself up as a corset maker, and eventually married the daughter of an exciseman (a tax collector on imported goods), and he switched to that career. His first wife (and child) died a year later, and Paine ended up marrying the daughter of a tobacco dealer, whose business he eventually took over. At this time he began writing for assorted publications. Unfortunately, both the business and the marriage soon failed, and he had to sell off everything to avoid going to debtor's prison. In the wake of this, he returned to London, and was introduced to the already famous Benjamin Franklin, who suggested Paine move to America, and wrote letters of introduction for him, easing his departure in October 1774.

Paine arrived in Philadelphia (which at that time was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world, after London) on November, 30, 1774. The Atlantic crossing was not, as the author puts it for the meek or the weak, and during Paine's trip, five passenger died, plus nearly all were sick with Typhus. Fortunately, due to Franklin's contacts, Paine was whisked away by a doctor, who saw to his recovery over the following weeks. Once on his feet again, Paine found work with the Philadelphia Magazine, writing a wide array of pieces, including ones denouncing slavery, nothing the hypocrisy of those who demand liberty for themselves while denying it to others. One thing that Marrin sketches out here is an economic factor that led up to the Revolution – the British, having won the French and Indian War, were deeply in debt and having to man a new frontier. There were taxes on everything, and the Crown was looking for ways to further squeeze the colonies, including to extending the Stamp Act … which was what was being complained about in the “taxation without representation” slogan. The British eventually backed down on that, but came up with another set of taxes called the Townshend Acts, which included the duty on tea, that led to the “Boston Tea Party”, numerous attacks on tax collectors, the protests that resulted in the “Boston Massacre”, and eventually the conflicts at Lexington and Concord. In the wake of these, Paine was encouraged to generate a pamphlet with his views, the result was Common Sense, in which he built the case for independence. Initially published anonymously, the small book exploded across the colonies, selling 150,000 copies in a matter of weeks, and newspapers in many cities reprinted it for their readers. It was translated into a number of languages, and had reactions coming from as far away as Russia. George Washington was an admirer of it, and ordered it read to the troops (Paine donated all the proceeds of the book to buying supplies for the Continental Army). Nearly all of the Founding Fathers embraced it, and its demand for a “declaration of independence” … John Adams even wrote to Thomas Jefferson that History is to ascribe the American Revolution to Thomas Paine”.

Paine volunteered for the military, but he was ill-suited for combat, and Washington told him that “he needed his pen more than his musket”. The war was going badly for the colonists, and Washington needed a significant victory, and wanted some way to get the troops focused for his attack on the Hessian forces holding Trenton. Paine came up with The American Crisis (that ended up being a series, under the same title, of 13 pamphlets over six and a half years) which starts with the famous phrase “these are the times that try men's souls” … this gripped the imaginations of both the existing troops and a flood of new volunteers.

Paine served in various offices in the war, but was somewhat at loose ends once victory was achieved. He was without any resources, having donated all his publishing royalties to the army, and Washington made several pushes to get some funding for him, eventually succeeding in setting him up reasonably well. Paine had been working on several inventions during the war, one of which was a cast-iron bridge, which could be assembled where needed. Strangely, the States didn't care for it (being more expensive than wooden spans), but Franklin made introductions for him in Britain and France, and he headed back to Europe – thinking it was only to be for a few months, but ending up there for fifteen years.

Unfortunately, Paine's bridge did not sell any better overseas … but he did find that he had become something of a celebrity, even in Britain, where noted reformer Edmund Burke particularly lionized him. While Marrin is generally complimentary about George III, he has little patience with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette … quoting her brother, Austrian emperor Joseph II, as saying “they are a couple of awkward nincompoops”, albeit with power unrestrained by the checks of Britain's constitutional monarchy system. As France's revolution took hold, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France which challenged some key concepts of Paine's, leading him to respond with The Rights of Man, which in the following decade “sold over a million and a half copies”. This prompted bans, fines for even owning the book, and a good deal of civil unrest in Britain. With things becoming personally uncomfortable there, Paine opted to sail for France, just barely making it onto a ship (only made possible by a letter from George Washington), which left port a scant 20 minutes before a rider appeared with a warrant for his arrest. Paine was welcomed in France, made an honorary French citizen, and even elected to the National Convention. Unfortunately, his arrival in France corresponded with the start of the “reign of terror” and the noted chaos and bloodshed that that entailed. In the trial of Louis XVI, Paine, while voting that the King had committed treason, also urged that the French eliminate capital punishment, and so argued for the King's imprisonment, and eventual exile (to America). The subsequent ballot on the death penalty was decided by a single vote … leading to the execution of the King and Queen. Unluckily for Paine, his arguing for the King's life ended up putting him under suspicion by the Jacobins, and he was jailed at the end of 1793. Paine had another remarkable escape there … due to an illness he was in a cell that was intermittently kept unsealed for ventilation, with the door open on the outside of the cell … when guards came by chalking the numbers of those going to guillotine, they didn't notice that these marks were going on the inside of that door, so he and his cellmates were not dragged off to their deaths once the door had been closed. Obviously, this error would have soon been rectified, but it was in the next day or so that forces arrested Robespierre and most of his top associates, their executions (four days after Paine's scheduled one) effectively ended the Terror. James Monroe (eventually to be the 5th President) managed to have Paine freed into his custody a few months later, and Paine stayed in Monroe's Paris home (he was the Ambassador) for a year following.

This time was also when Paine composed his last great work, The Age of Reason, finishing the first part of it just hours before his arrest, and writing the second part between his time in prison and while recuperating at Monroe's home.

      Paine blamed the looming disaster not just on fanatical politicians but also on Christianity. Like all organized religions, he argued, it rested on myths, not reason. Supposedly devised by corrupt priests, it aimed at controlling people's minds so the ruling classes might easily exploit them. Thus, Paine wrote The Age of Reason to fight atheism by replacing organized religion with the “true relgion of nature”.
      His ideas were hardly original. They had been around for well over a century. Though formally still Christians, members of the European and American elite were often Deists, from the Latin deus, or “God”. Deists were simply believers in God.
The first part of that book was, largely, a broadside against Christianity in general, and the second was “a book-by-book, chapter-and-verse attack on the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments”. Needless to say, this did not make him popular with large swaths of the population. Despite this, Thomas Jefferson urged him to come back to America, and in 1802 he returned.

Paine arrived in a much different America than he'd left fifteen years earlier. There was a great deal of conflict between Founding Fathers, with Adams in the Federalist camp, and Jefferson in the Republican ranks. Adams had defeated Jefferson to become the 2nd President (Jefferson served as Vice President, and became the 3rd President), and many topics had definite lines of divide between the two sides (Jefferson's Republicans supported the French revolution, while the Federalists supported the British monarchy as a counter-point to the chaos on the continent). When Jefferson became President, he often invited Paine to visit, and Paine became a handy weapon for the Federalists to wield in their attacks.

Paine's later years were spent between his house (provided by Washington) in New Rochelle, NY in the warmer months, and in various rooming houses in New York City in the winter. He descended into an extreme alcoholic state, not bathing or changing clothes for weeks at a time, and showing signs of clinical depression. Much of his despair was in the way the country was shifting from its revolutionary ideals, a discomfort shared with many of the Founders (Marrin comes up with some rather sobering quotes to this end). He died June 8, 1809, and ended up being buried on his upstate property (as his preferred resting place wouldn't have the author of The Age of Reason), with only five people (none notable) attending.

Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty concludes with a look at how Paine's writings have inspired movements around the world in the past couple of centuries, from workers' rights movements in industrializing England, to American Socialists, and assorted freedom currents everywhere. His words are spoken by a wide array of politicians, from Eugene Debs to Ronald Reagan, and are always useful for whipping up a patriotic response. As noted up top, despite this being a “youth” book, it doesn't aim too low and is a font of very interesting material, both on Paine and the political situations he found himself in.

While I picked this up at the dollar store, it's a fairly recent release (2014) and is probably still kicking around in the retail channels. The on-line big boys have it (at this writing) at a substantial discount (58% off of the cover price), and, surprisingly, the new/used guys don't have it for cheap (you might save a buck or two). I quite enjoyed this, and learned a lot about the man and his times, and figure that anybody with an interest in liberty, history, or the American experiment will find a lot to recommend this to them as well.


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Wednesday, June 21st, 2017
4:29 pm
Bleeding on the cutting edge ...
Well, here's an interesting book that came to me via LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewers” program. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I put in my request for Brian Patrick Eha's How Money Got Free: Bitcoin and the Fight for the Future of Finance (although I'm pretty sure that I wasn't expecting it to be 500 pages long – sheesh!), but I have some online friends who are big into Bitcoin, and I guess I was hoping to get up to speed on it. I also wasn't expecting this to be a narrative of a number of the major players in the Bitcoin world, their histories, their companies, and their struggles with technology, culture, and (of course) Government. If there's a unifying arc to the book, it's the story of Charlie Shrem (certainly among dozens of others), who went from a bright kid immersed in hacker (and darkweb) culture, to becoming a legit entrepreneur (and for a while spokesman for the industry), and then being brought down in legal complications, jail time, etc.

Interestingly (to me, at least), it was Shrem that first introduced me to Bitcoin … in a presentation that he and Anthony Gallippi gave at 2013 Techweek in Chicago, entitled Bitcoin for Beginners: The Currency of Change … when he was there in the role of Vice Chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation. I wish I'd taken action on it at that point (June 29, 2013) as in the intervening four years, the value of one Bitcoin has gone up more than 28x (from $95.08 then to $2,698.60 as I'm writing this). I have some vague idea that they were giving out Bitcoins to those in attendance that day, but at a hundred bucks a pop, I'm guessing I'm misremembering this (I certainly don't recall getting a “wallet” set up for it). Needless to say, 2013 was pretty much the apex of Shrem's career.

I need to confess a few things before we delve into the book … #1, I still don't have a real solid grasp on the whole “Bitcoin thing” – I have an online acquaintance who is pushing systems for “mining” Bitcoin (of some new variety), and I really don't have a mental model on how that fits in to the over-all Bitcoin environment (it was my understanding that the requirements of “mining” – once quite popular in China and other locales – had become so processor-intense that it cost so much to put together a system as to make it unproductive, but there they are) … #2, there is so much happening in this book, that I really feel lost and in need of a “scorecard” (“can't tell the players without a …”) … and #3 (no doubt due to my fiction/teaching-story aversion), I found it difficult sorting out concrete information here – resulting in my having exactly one of my little bookmarks sticking out of this very long volume. Of course, this last point also leaves me having to cherry-pick and paraphrase rather than blocking things out for you … and, given the noted “cast of dozens”, this also means that things might get a bit disjointed and less coherent than I'd like. Sorry about that!

Anyway … Bitcoin hasn't been around that long, but, in terms of tech stuff, it's been around for a considerable while. It was first announced, by its semi-mythic creator (whose true identity, I believe, has still not been discovered – although there are several players covered here who are suggested as likely), Satoshi Nakamoto, on November 1, 2008:

When a famous cryptographer … asked him to provide a detailed explanation of the Bitcoin protocol, complete with algorithms and details of the data structures involved, Satoshi said it would take less time to simply release the first version of the software. … He didn't just want to tell them it could work. He wanted to show them it would.
So, it's been less than a decade since Bitcoin's introduction, and it has been a relatively slow growing phenomena in most settings (there are niches where it's “hot”, but I doubt if one is outside of the tech or financial fields this has had a major presence on one's radar).

This provides a decent segue to a brief digression about the author. Brian Patrick Eha is a technology reporter for the industry magazine American Banker, a contributor to the New Yorker, and was a assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com … which sort of gives you a perspective of where he was coming from on this project … and, perhaps, a clue as to how much of the nitty-gritty of this went right over my head. Now, don't get me wrong, How Money Got Free is an engaging read, intermittently entertaining and informative, but it's more like a rambling fact-based novel (with a Dune-like cast of characters) than a straight-out presentation of the facts on the emergence of Bitcoin. And, this is the work of a journalist (he's got a masters from Columbia's J-school), so it also has that “I'm reading the longest newspaper feature story ever!” vibe going for it, but is coming from within the environment of the story, as the book's Acknowledgments starts off with:

This book would not have been possible without Roger Ver, Charlie Shrem, Nic Cary, Barry Silbert, and other Bitcoin pioneers giving generously of their time during intense and stressful periods of their lives. It's not often one has the chance to document an unfolding revolution from the point of view of its leaders, and for that I'll always be grateful.
I also have to admit that I have now made three attempts to do a detailed review of this, and have simply not been able (especially lacking any of my bookmarks) to make any headway. So, I'm going to try to give you the broad strokes here, perhaps with bits that might jump out at me as I flip around the book. One thing that stands out is that Bitcoin took a very long time to get out of the shadow of the notorious Silk Road darknet marketplace that was launched by Ross Ulbricht in 2011. Seventy percent of what was being sold on Silk Road were drugs of various types, along with other unsavory transactions (supposedly murder-for-hire schemes, etc.), making it an unsurprising target for law enforcement. Silk Road was shut down in 2013, and Silk Road 2 in 2014. It could be argued that Silk Road only existed due to the availability of the Bitcoin system, with its total anonymity matching the Tor routing structure it operated in. Because of the illegality of most (if not all) of the sales on Silk Road, it tainted almost everything in the Bitcoin sphere, as any start-up operating with Bitcoin that supported Silk Road transactions could be seen as part of a criminal conspiracy.

Eha states:

… Bitcoin could actually be a better form of money than any that had previously existed, because it satisfied more than anything else out there some of the cardinal requirements of money: scarcity, portability, and divisibility. Weightless, Bitcoin could be transferred more easily than cash or coins; unregulated, it could be moved anywhere in the world frictionlessly, while dollars, pounds, and euros were subject to banking fees and delays; with its fixed and transparent growth rate, it enjoyed artificial scarcity; divisible to eight decimal places, it could be broken into tiny pieces and used for micropayments.
He later quotes Roger Ver (another major player in the story), an anarcho-capitalist libertarian with no love for governments, saying:

Bitcoin totally strips away the State's control over money … It takes away the vast majority of its power to tax, regulate, or control the economy in any way.
This introduces another key sub-theme of the book … the “rebel” drive of many of the early advocates of Bitcoin who saw it as a way to free money from the control of governmental tentacles. Of course, this was a bit of a pipe dream, as soon governments on every level started to try to control Bitcoin … in fact the book describes how several very useful services folded (or stopped doing business in the U.S.) because they were suddenly faced with different regulations in every state, along with an array of fees and other controls (some as onerous as imposed on the traditional banking industry), requiring compliance across a mind-boggling array of new laws. On the flip side of this, the book (towards its end) sketches out how Wall Street became involved, and even how many governments have looked into blockchain (the key data structure of Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies) for establishing an official cashless future.

Frankly, one of the scarier aspects of Bitcoin and its relatives is that, like cash (but less trackable), it can simply disappear, and the book goes into case after case where somebody managed to hack into one of exchanges (like Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, which in 2014 had $450,000,000.00 worth of Bitcoin go missing) and make off with vast sums. Several of these led to further investigations and accusations of assorted financial wrongdoing on the parts of those involved with various Bitcoin services. As I noted up top, I had some vague awareness of possibly having had some Bitcoin from back in 2013, but not having any record of a “wallet” – the on-line container for one's Bitcoin – it's like it never existed (which, of course, in this case is entirely possible), as opposed to, say, sticking a few hundred bucks in an envelope and then forgetting where you put it (where you could eventually find it, as it didn't cease to exist). Four hundred fifty million in cash would likely leave a transit trail, but in the case of Bitcoin, it's just gone. Needless to say, these sorts of security issues are things that will need to be addressed before blockchain-based “currencies” overtake their physical predecessors.

In any case, How Money Got Free is an interesting read. I'm humbled that I was unable to find a way to really convey the substance of it here, but it is a story featuring a constantly shifting web of characters, companies, and conflicts, and I could not find a way to do that without this review running into novella length itself.

As this just came out last month, you are likely to be able to find it in your local brick-and-mortar book stores that feature financial and or tech titles, and, of course, the online big boys have it (at this writing at a 39% discount). While I'm sure this is not “for everybody”, if you have an interest in tech, cryptography, finance, and/or libertarian concepts, I'm sure you'll find a lot of this extensive look at the story arc of Bitcoin quite fascinating.


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Saturday, June 17th, 2017
2:31 pm
The road to Machu Picchu ...
You know, I don't have a clue how I managed to have not read this book 30 years or so back. My guess is that the Inca (in particular, and South America in general) never got much on my radar when in school, and it was only after graduation that I got interested. My first trip to Peru was back in the early '80s, and I guess that most folks heading down that way were likely to have picked up a copy of Hiram Bingham's Lost City of the Incas in preparation for their journey. Despite Machu Picchu being the centerpiece of the itinerary (what had lured me in to signing up for an “Incan Shamanism” trip, aside from the opportunity to train with prominent Quechuan shamans), I hadn't dug into the literature up front … and this would have been handy to have had while wandering around the site.

Down around Machu Picchu you can hardly miss Bingham's traces … most notably, the (somewhat terrifying) switchback road from the river valley up to the level of the ruins is named for him. He was an interesting figure, having grown up in Hawaii (his father was a missionary to the Kingdom in the mid-1800's), and gotten one of the first degrees in Latin American history, earning his PhD at Harvard, with some cooperation from the faculty at Yale. He spent some time at Princeton, but ended up back at Yale teaching. One of the surprising things (in context of his discoveries in South America) was that he wasn't an archaeologist, or even particularly interested in the field other than how it informed history. It seemed that much of his interest in these expeditions was simply “adventure”, as well as a chance to climb rarely-attempted mountains. He managed to get in as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in 1908, and made some key contacts there that helped him organize the Yale Peruvian Expedition in 1911, on which he discovered the late-period Inca cities of Vitcos, and Vilcabamba, key to the post-conquest history of the escaping native rulers, prior to their destruction in 1572, as well as Machu Picchu.

The latter stands out as having never been found/despoiled by the Spanish, and so was in rather remarkable shape, despite centuries of neglect. This, and the “hidden” nature of the site, is what makes it as popular as it has been from the get-go, and when Bingham brought back the first images, he got the National Geographic Society on board to partner with Yale for three more seasons of work. National Geographic in April 1913 published a remarkable review of the ruins, including a 3-page fold-out panorama, which took the world by storm.

Bingham was a professor of both history and politics, and he eventually followed this other path, becoming Lieutenant-Governor of Connecticut in 1923, and being elected more-or-less simultaneously to both the Governorship (where he served one day) and a Senate seat (to serve out the term of a Senator who had died in office) in 1925, being re-elected for a full term in 1926. Oddly, Lost City of the Incas didn't come out until 1952, when Bingham was in his 70's, and was working on firming up his legacy. This from Hugh Thompson's introduction:

Bingham's account also needs to be appreciated within a literary as well as an archaeological context. Conan Doyle published The Lost World in the same year that Bingham excavated at Machu Picchu, and Lost City of the Incas was written with a clear sense of what the public expected from a work of adventure, right down to the similarity in titles.
The book is divided into three roughly equal Parts, “The Builders”, “The Search”, and “Machu Picchu”. I was disappointed to find that I had very few of my little bookmarks in here, and nearly all of them were pointing me to other references that I might want to check out, rather than “key bits” to drop in here. However, we might as well start off as Bingham does, with the introductory lines to the Preface:

Few people realize how much they owe to the ancient Peruvians. Very few appreciate that they gave us the white potato, many varieties of Indian corn, and such useful drugs as quinine and cocaine. Their civilization, which took thousands of years to develop, was marked by inventive genius, artistic ability, and a knowledge of agriculture which has never been surpassed. In the making of beautiful pottery and the weaving of fine textiles they equalled the best that Egypt or Greece could offer.
Frankly, I'm amazed that this came out in the 1952 book (much of the material here was drawn in part from previous publications going back 40 years), aside from the cocaine reference, some of the historical context is a bit off, according to on-going scholarship. The first section of the book is about the history of the Incas, and here too there are some anachronisms. While he cites dates for the first Inca as being c. 1200ce, and “the great Inca Pachacutec” being c. 1450ce, he does posit a much more ancient lineage (the “thousands of years” in the above), based in large part on the development of crops which were unlikely to have been wrested from their native predecessors in just a few centuries, but it could be seen to veer uncomfortably close to the timelines suggested elsewhere. The first chapter looks at the architecture, engineering, irrigation, agriculture, livestock, language, pottery, metalwork, fabrics, as well as some conjecture regarding culture and religion … giving a nice overview of those aspects of the Inca world. The second chapter attempts to make a historic assay of the development of the Incas, a very difficult thing to do accurately due to the lack of written materials (he presents an interesting theory of why they abandoned writing in favor of the knotted-cord records of the quipos … his spelling, usually quipus these days), and the defining brutality of the Spanish/Catholic destruction of conquered people's histories. More detailed is the third chapter of the first section, “The Story of the Last Four Incas”, which is able to draw on materials that did survive via journals kept by the conquistadors and their ecclesiastical accomplices. This starts with Pizarro's execution of Atahualpa, then his son Manco II, his sons Sayri Tupac, Titu Cusi (who left behind a considerable amount of letters and records), and Tupac Amaru … whose family was butchered in front of him before Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo had him decapitated and his head “placed on a pole in the great plaza at Cuzco”, thus ending the line of Incas in 1572.

The middle part of the book is more a telling of how the expedition came about, with a great deal of detail about people/places/events, from assembling his team, contacts made in various locations, materials researched in preparation, etc., and then descriptions of conditions on the trail, sites visited, procedures used, and (as seems to always be the case in travel diaries) bitching about the weather, bugs, and other inconveniences. This part is also in three chapters, one on the general project, and then one each for the pursuit of the lost cities of Vitcos and Vilcapampa. Again, there's a lot of detail here, from notes of connections made at a dinner at the Yale Club to the condition of bones excavated in assorted ruins (interspersed with descriptions of views, flora, geological formations, and locals encountered), in a running narrative that's hard to find anything pithy to extract for an example.

The last part of the book is about Machu Picchu. Frankly, the discovery of the site was about as close to being “by accident” as anything:

The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle. {The guide} shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he would show me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. But when he found that I was willing to pay him a sol (a Peruvian silver dollar, 50 cents, gold), three or four times the ordinary daily wage in this vicinity, he finally agreed to go. When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up to the top of the mountain. No one supposed that they would be particularly interesting. And no one cared go with me. … Anyhow it was my job to investigate all reports of ruins and try to find the Inca capital.
After describing the climb, they arrive at the top and are welcomed by a couple of locals who are living and farming up on the ridge (so much for actually “discovering” the site), who offer them cold water and baked sweet potato. Here again they almost don't press on along the ridge to the ruins, as:

… the view was simply enchanting. Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising 2,000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped, snow-covered mountains rose thousands of feet above us.
His note about Huayna Picchu is quite apt, as I've passed on scaling the peak (and seeing the ruins at its top) when I've been there, given that the route up is a very narrow stairway hewn out of the living rock, with a slick wall of stone on one side and a 2-3 thousand foot drop on the other. They do continue, however, now being led by a local kid, eager to show the exotic visitors (Bingham stood 6'4" and many Peruvians are under 5' tall) the area sights:

Then the little boy urged us to climb up a steep hill over what seemed to be a flight of stone steps. Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession. We came to a great stairway of large granite blocks. … Suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of the ruins of two of the finest and most interesting structures in ancient America. Made of beautiful white granite, the walls contained blocks of Cyclopean size, higher than a man. The sight held me spellbound.
There are a few chapters here that go into the clearing, exploring, and detailing of ruins, including a number of graphics of the lay-out of assorted parts of the site (and photographs – there are two inserts in the book with pictures from the original reports). There is also a chapter where Bingham tries to tie the site into his presupposition that this was “Vilcapampa the Old”, a capitol and/or home to the “Chosen Women of the Sun”, concepts that have been supplanted by the general theory that this was a “summer retreat” for the Incas, which only survived as well as it did due to its inaccessibility. I found the penultimate chapter “The Search for Inca Roads Leading to Machu Picchu” fascinating, as on my second visit to Machu Picchu we'd taken the “Inca Road” through the mountains to get there, and many of the minor sites he notes here are places that I'd been through or camped in on the way (including Runkuraqay where I nearly fell off the mountain looking for a place to relieve myself).

Now, needless to say, I probably was more enthusiastic about Lost City of the Incas, having a familiarity with much of what's described, than others might be, but it is a fascinating read, not only for the sheer adventure of Bingham's explorations, but also for the somewhat archaic setting of the age. Admittedly (as noted above), much of his vision of what these sites meant has been shown to be likely incorrect by later research, but the process of finding the ruins is a great tale.

The copy I have (yeah, I actually got this one “at retail”, or at least Amazon's discounted version thereof) is the “Centenary Edition”, which came out in 2011 (100 years after the discovery, and, obviously, not of the initial 1952 publication), and is still in print, so could well be found at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. However, the on-line big boys presently have it at very nearly half off, and you could maybe save another buck or two going with the new/used guys. Anybody with an interest in archaeology, the Incas, history, or adventure would no doubt get quite a lot out of reading this, so it's pretty much an “all and sundry” recommendation from me.


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Wednesday, June 7th, 2017
12:20 pm
Nine ways to do it ...
Ah, yes, another dollar store find … it's a good thing that I'm as omnivorous in my (non-fiction) reading tastes as I am, as there's a lot of stuff that gets into my hands that way that I probably would not have gone out to get without it sitting there on the shelf for a buck. Certainly, Daniel Roberts' Fortune Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career is among those. Now, having been looking for “my next real job” for a soul-crushing eight years at this point, my career doesn't need supercharging as much as it needs CPR … but the promise of the sub-title was enough to get it into my shopping cart.

Unfortunately, there is nearly nothing in this that deals with the reader's career, except arguably in some “monkey-see-monkey-do” sense, as it consists primarily of mini-bios of thirty-three assorted hot shots' careers (up through the book's publication date of 2013). As regular readers of these reviews know, I have a long battle going with “marketing” subtitles, and this is one of those misdirection efforts. I would have known more what I was getting into if they'd had the descriptive copy (used elsewhere) “Exclusive Insights from Fortune's 40 Under 40” as the subtitle, as that would have told the reader exactly what they were going to be presented.

If there was any supercharging of one's career here it would be in implementing the nine chapter headings under which the various folks being covered were grouped. These are the sort of things that other career/business advice books are based on, but here only serve as thematic organization for the tales of the individual paths taken by these people. I guess it might be useful to lay these out before getting into the details:

            – Challenge Goliath
            – Get In Over Your Head
            – Start A Cult
            – Follow Your First Love
            – Find A Problem
            – Do One Thing Well
            – Stand By Your Company
            – Think Of Others
            – Bounce Back

Nothing earth-shaking on that list, right? So, the meat of the book is in the stories of the individuals profiled, but given there are 33 covered in about 200 pages, none of those looks are particularly in-depth, averaging about 6 pages each. Now, those profiles are not all the material that's in here, there's an interesting Foreword by Marc Andreessen, a section “In Their Own Words” with mini-interviews with the folks profiled (in case you wanted to know what their hobbies were), and a listing of all the 40-under-40 alumni for the years 2009-2012. Oh, there are also little “How to Zoom” sidebars sprinkled through this where action points like “Quick damage control is key to bouncing back.” (OK, with additional illustrative copy – but only a few dozen words) are presented … feel supercharged yet?

Unfortunately, I also don't have a bunch of my little bookmarks in here, which would have pointed me to “choice bits” to pass along to you. In fact, there's only one, and it's in the Andreessen piece up front:

      After all, building a business is hard. Crazy hard. Things always go horribly wrong. And most companies fail. Only a very few win big. In venture capital, for instance, just 10 to 15 companies funded a year are responsible for 97% of the returns. We glorify the ones that create new products and industries, but startups are really more like sausage factories. People love eating sausage, but no one wants to watch sausage get made. Even the most glorious startups suffer crisis after crisis after crisis. The individuals profiled here aren't afraid to share that side of their stories: the mistakes, the missteps, the madness.
Needless to say, aside from the themes detailed above, there's not much of an overall “story arc” here, just the individual examples.

The first theme here is “Challenge Goliath”, and the author defines that as “Taking on Goliath means entering an industry that already has one or two dominant market leaders.” There are three figures profiled here, Kevin Plank of Under Armor, Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, and John Janick of Interscope Geffen A&M. Each of these went up against market leaders (Nike, Godiva, and the big three Universal, Warner, and Sony, respectively – although Janick's label is now part of Universal), and succeeded to various degrees. Obviously, Janick, who'd started his own label (Fueled by Ramen) when he was 17, ended up not conquering his Goliath, but job-hopping through the complex inner workings of the music biz to stake out a chunk of its territory. I wonder if Ms. Markoff's business ended up succeeding, as five years past the book's publication, I've never heard of any of her brands – although, admittedly, gourmet chocolates are not something that I interface with much, so it might be going gangbusters but just not getting onto my radar. Of these three, then, Kevin Plank's Under Armor is (to me) the most notable. However, it's somewhat hard to generalize his company's development to something applicable to businesses across the board. It started with his dislike of the undergarments that were typically used beneath the football uniform he wore at University of Maryland, and came up with an alternative that he then manufactured and talked up to other players, then other college teams, and eventually the pros … before branching out into many other sports products.

Next is “Get In Over Your Head”, where the introductory material notes: “Risk is scary and uncertain, but it's also where inspiration can come to you, and it's where, if your skill matches your ambition, you can succeed.” This looks at Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, financial iconoclast Meredith Whitney, and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk … and of the three, I was certainly familiar with Musk and Mayer, but was only vaguely aware of Whitney. I don't know how people are expected to emulate this crew, as Mayer was “the youngest chief executive of a Fortune 500 company {at 37} and the first person ever to move into the top job with a baby on the way”, Musk was a multi-billionaire by his early 40's, and Whitney was the first to call out the dire state of the banks (specifically Citigroup) in 2007, accurately forecasting the financial meltdown (before going on to found her own research firm). Pretty much the only applicable (to us mere mortals) bits here come from Mayer's profile, where it talks of how she not only strives to surround herself with very smart people, but also works at developing those beneath her on the organizational chart.

The third one here is “Start A Cult” (and don't think I haven't considered that - heh!), this is framed thusly: “happier employees can mean more productive ones … it means establishing a strong culture and engaging work environment from day one.” This section looks at Zappos' Tony Hsieh, Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Method's (a “maker of eco-friendly cleaning products” that I don't think I'd ever heard of) Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry. Now, “Cult” here might be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek spin off of “culture”, although each of these organizations does seem somewhat idiosyncratic, with Google being famed for its “idyllic and stimulating environment” (as well as being very hard to get hired there), and Zappos is notable for their offer to pay would-be hires $2,000 to quit – just to make sure they really are interested in the job. Part of the process of getting a job at Method is giving a presentation on “How will you keep Method weird?” – weird being an attribute that I wish a whole lot more companies valued! They have an interesting list of “five core values”: Collaborate, Innovate, Care, What Would MacGyver Do?, and Keep Method Weird. Again, most of what's discussed here might be hard to scale to a smaller operation, but the general outlines are probably reasonably useful to consider (especially “weird”, my career prospects would be a lot better with more appreciation of weird out there).

The fourth theme is “Follow Your First Love”, which in this context is a lot less like stalking than it initially sounds, being set up as “turning … childhood passion into a full-time career”, and suggesting that you “Put your early passion first, and let work follow.” (however, I'm not sure how many pro baseball card collectors the market would support, or how could I make a living on building model airplanes). Profiled here are chef David Chang, Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, and comedian Seth MacFarlane. Frankly, Chang's story is not much different than any number of other successful Chef/Restauranteurs, except perhaps for his going off to learn noodle making from some masters. Oddly his biggest claim to fame here seems to be having selecting a name for his places which (while being “an homage to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen”) is clearly provocative to English speaking audiences. Conversely, the story of Kevin Feige is that of one very lucky geek who went from being a comic book fan to being a production intern, to various postings on the way up the ladder to being studio head at Marvel. For the tens of thousands of superhero enthusiasts out there, only a handful will ever end up in the sort of a dream job like Feige did. MacFarlane's tale is more like Chang's, in that there are lots of routes into comedy. He went from doing student animation projects, to a gig at Hanna-Barbera, working “on Cartoon Network shows like Dexter's Laboratory, and eventually one of his side projects became the hit animated feature Family Guy. Again, not a whole lot stuff one could implement (aside, of course, from implementing the theme, if possible) in this.

Fifth on the list is “Find A Problem”, presented as “Some of the best business ideas aren't earth-shattering inventions but simply clever ways to fill a need in society … identify a gap and come up with just the right thing to fill it”. Needless to say, this is a whole lot easier said than done, and I suspect that the vast majority of failed companies were ones that had some solution that never caught on with the buying public … these are just some of the lucky ones. Covered in this are Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss of Rent the Runway; Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler of Kickstarter; and Brian Chesky of Airbnb. The first of these is a company that allows gals to rent designer dresses rather than buy them, and was seeded by Hyman visiting her sister who had just bought a $1,600 dress to attend a wedding … she had a whole closet full of similarly pricey gear, but “she had already been photographed in all of them and pictures from the wedding would go all over Facebook, and she couldn't stand to repeat an outfit” (yeah, I know: boo-hoo-hoo). The founders figured a way to make the business work (in their early 20's) and eventually got through the initial resistance from designers, and had a success on their hands. Of these three companies, I'm guessing that Kickstarter is the best known (I've been involved in a couple of these efforts over the years), but was surprised that it had started out by Chen trying to figure out how to sell event tickets to a show that might or might not happen, depending if enough tickets got sold to cover the costs. At the time the book came out only 35 projects had raised a million dollars, and 77% were for less than $10,000 … and, unlike some other platforms, one has to make one's target to get the money – meaning that there are lots that never get funded. Airbnb sort of came about by kismet (at least initially) when its founders “blew up three air mattresses and quickly set up a rudimentary website to list their apartment as a rental for visitors attending” a major conference in San Francisco. Again, it's great if it works … but not a real solid bet for most.

Next is one that gets my hackles up a bit (being a generalist/polymath), “Do One Thing Well”, the recommendation for which is: “To focus your energy and your identity, do one thing and do it well”. Featured are Jess Lee of Polyvore, Kevin Systrom of Instagram, and Evan Williams and Biz Stone of Twitter. I'd never even heard of the first of these, Polyvore (and just pulled up the site to see if it still existed) … it's described as a “website that allowed users to create sharable collages of clothing and interior designs”, and had been Ms. Lee's favorite way of spending time after her days as a Google Product manager. She'd communicated with the founders (who had been at Yahoo) with suggestions on how to improve the site, which they implemented, and one thing led to another and she was brought on board, and eventually made CEO. Nice work if you can get it. Kevin Systrom was another Google alum, and his initial project was a Foursquare-like location platform … because of the lead of the other company, his team opted to strip their product down to just the photo sharing (with filters, etc.) and go with that. As most people know, the resulting company, Instagram, was bought up by Facebook for a billion dollars (again, nice work if you can get it). Twitter, of course, is an interesting tale … Williams, Dorsey, and Stone were working on various other projects (Williams had developed Blogger, later acquired by Google), but Jack Dorsey came up with the idea of a messaging service, which was at first being used internally at Odeo (where they all worked), before being publicly launched. TechCrunch featured a story on the company, highlighting Twitter, however, the company's investors were less than enthused. Williams ended up buying out the investors, and re-focused on Twitter … which exploded as the hot introduction at 2007's South by Southwest conference.

Seventh on the list is “Stand By Your Company” (cue Tammy Wynette?), which considers the opposite of the typical 18-month bounce of so many Millennials: folks who stay with their company for the long haul. This chapter looks at Dolf van den Brink of Heineken, Rob Goldstein of BlackRock Solutions, and Aditya Mittal of ArcelorMittal. Aside from Heineken, this gets somewhat obscure … and none of these tales are particularly applicable, except in a “stay put, move up” sense of the theme … van den Brink went with the beer company (after finding that banks were not overly pleased with his second degree in philosophy) right out of college, and bounced around the globe, from St. Maarten in the Caribbean, back to the Netherlands, to the Congo, to being the head of Heineken's U.S. Operations. Goldstein also went to his company right out of college, ending up at BlackRock (which was at the time not the “money-managing behemoth it is today” … with $2.4 trillion in business), largely due to his school, SUNY Binghampton, not being a prime target for recruiting. He was a “numbers geek” in the right place and time, and moved on up over time. You may have noted the similarity of the third person profiled here with his company … as it's his father's (largest in the world) steel company. While Aditya Mittal didn't join the company right out of college (he'd done M&A work at Credit Suisse first), by age 28 he was CFO at the massive (built from a whole string of, well, mergers and acquisitions, which he was spearheading) steel manufacturer.

The penultimate section, “Think Of Others”, which gets set up with the comment “if you're truly doing good, you're not launching a charity or philanthropic division just for the PR benefit; you've baked it into the core of your business”, and features some pretty high-profile do-gooders: Scott Harrison of charity:water, Ben Rattray of change.org, and Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes (whose book I reviewed a number of years ago). The stories of these guys are interesting … Harrison was deep into the underground music scene and event promotion in NewYork, and was off on a debauch of a vacation trip to Uruguay when he had a “conversion experience” of sorts and decided to make a change in his life, with him ending up being ship photographer with an organization called Mercy Ships (which were sort of floating clinics). He did that for a couple of years before returning to New York, and eventually founding charity:water. Rattray had been a “Gordon Gekko in training” growing up, and landed as a political consultant in D.C. … he was headed to law school when he encountered Facbook, and “envisioned a way to mobilize people easily and cheaply” … he started pitching the first iteration of change.org to non-profits, and amazingly, “seventy-five of the first 90 organizations he approached signed on". TOMS (which was shortened from “Tomorrow's”) is famous for its policy of donating a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair they sell. Mycoskie had been a competitor on The Amazing Race TV show, and had encountered a particular soft canvas shoe in Argentina, the alpargatas, and adapted the design for the U.S. market.

The last themed chapter is “Bounce Back”, which looks at electronics pioneer Hosain Rahman, hedge fund whiz Boaz Weinstein, and, oddly, LeBron James, all of whom “rose quickly, took a spectacular fall, and handled it with grace and skill”. Rahman was one of the designers of the UP band by Jawbone (a “wearable technology” company), which shipped in time for Black Friday in 2011, selling out right away … unfortunately, a large number of the units quickly died in use. Realizing that it was going to take a very long time to figure out definitively what had gone wrong with the device, he took the rather dramatic (expensive) step of offering a full refund to all users. Remarkably almost all of the company's investors supported him and “customer messages went from vitriolic to gushing”, putting a halt to the potential disastrous PR situation. They eventually did find out the problem, fixed it, did extreme additional stress-testing on the new units, and had these ready to go by the 2012 holiday season. The financial melt-down of 2008 was Boaz Weinstein's fall, having “lost billions of dollars at Deutsche Bank”, and much of the profile here deals with his arc to being in that job, and some fairly technical financial stuff about the things he developed after the crash … which is how he “came back”. As for LeBron, his stumble was the ill-conceived “Decision” presentation when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami (and a championship), and the profile deals with his career up to that point and his eventual rehabilitation (the book came out before his return to Cleveland and successes there).

The rest of Fortune Zoom is a section of quotes by the profilees, a “where are they now” section, and a listing of all the folks who'd appeared on the “40 under 40” list up to the book's publication. As I noted, there is very little material here that would “supercharge your career”, so is guilty of that “subtitle bait-and-switch”, but the book is quite interesting reading if you're open to getting examples of the various “themes” involved.

This is apparently still in print, with the on-line big boys presently having it at a whopping 76% off of cover price. Oddly, given that it's floated into the dollar store channel, the new/used guys don't have this at a price point that would make getting it from them (with the $3.99 shipping) much better than ordering it. Again, this hardly is what it promised to be, but is a worthwhile read nonetheless … you might like it. I'm just glad I got my copy for a buck.


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Sunday, June 4th, 2017
4:18 pm
Toil and trouble ...
This was another dollar store find, so was picked up without a lot of context or expectation. However, Robert D. Kaplan's Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific is an impressive volume, with its author being on Foreign Policy magazine's “Top 100 Global Thinkers” list, and the book itself being named “one of the best books of the year” (2014) by the Financial Times. Needless to say, a book so highly thought of, and of sufficiently recent vintage, is also a shining example of how that dollar store channel works … as it had no doubt been sitting on a Walmart shelf a few weeks before I found it, but had gone past its “rotate out” date there. A sure win for me!

Again, I had no idea (well, except for the general concept that is suggested by the book's title/subtitle) what I was getting into when I decided that this would be a good add to my active reading mix. I wish I had more of my little bookmarks in here to string together some pithy quotes to give you a sense of the book, but the few I have in there aren't “speaking to me” at the moment (probably things that were significant in context), and I can't even fall back on a chapter listing here, as while most deal with a single country bordering the South China Sea, they're more “evocatively” named, and not really descriptive. Sooo … I guess I'm going to be walking you through a more general description of this on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

Of course, a book dealing with the South China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and geopolitics means there's a lot of focus on naval issues, and that's sort of the unifying thread here … how China (am I giving away too much?) is presently the “800lb gorilla” in the area, and will eventually be fielding a bigger navy than the U.S. – and one that will only be interested in controlling its neighboring waters, and not the whole globe's like the U.S. (and Britain before it). Now, as much as I regret the fact, I realize that most folks out there (not the ones who read these reviews, certainly) are pretty geographically illiterate (I once worked with a person who could not understand why we had two files for Virginia, Carolina, and Dakota … and why we didn't have separate files for the “old” states), and might have a challenge picking out the South China Sea on a globe (despite it having as much a mystery about it as when the Fourth of July appears on the calendar), so I was very happy to find that there was an online version of this fascinating map, which I was constantly referring back to while going through the book (and, frankly, this version is a bit more useful, having the assorted different claim lines in color). Another useful map in the book is one that covers more of Asia in general, and here's similar map which puts the area in wider context.

The book starts out (in the Prologue) with the author visiting museums in Vietnam, and considering the remnants of the Champa culture which had been to Vietnam what the Khmer culture was to Cambodia. This serves to set up one of the variables in the region … the Cham had been in place for nearly two thousand years, and were in conflict with China for much of that time … while several of the other players in the region were largely cobbled together from the detritus of European colonial entities. The main text (in Ch.1 - “The Humanist Dilemma”, which mainly sets up the geopolitical setting for the rest of the book) starts out with a great quote:

Europe is a landscape; East Asia is a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
While Kaplan notes that “the South China Sea is so important … that it is on the way to becoming the most contested body of water in the world” he also points out that “… the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business.” and “There are no philosophical questions to ponder in this new and somewhat sterile landscape of the twenty-first century. It is all about power; the balance of power mainly.” To put China in context he offers:

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China's leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. {which he contrasts to the “decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world”}
Kaplan sets up an interesting historical parallel between China's intents in the region and the U.S.'s own road to global influence:

China's position vis-à-vis the South China Sea is akin to America's position vis-à-vis the Caribbean Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region, nevertheless. … Moreover, it was domination of the Greater Caribbean Basin that gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which, in turn, allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere.
In the chapter specifically dealing with the implications of these similarities, the author presents fairly detailed looks at the Chinese military, with obvious focus on naval operations, and compares that with what the U.S. can extend into the region, and points out that China only spends around 2% of their GDP on defense, while we spend nearly 5% of ours on the military, clearly suggesting that “China is in better shape to keep increasing its military budgets”.

The first country that the book looks at is Vietnam. Again, I had no idea that there was such a long tradition of an independent state there, and it's pointed out that despite the war (and the sorry demographic details of same are sketched out here), the Vietnamese didn't have the psychic scars over it that we do, quoting a journalist's report that “schoolchildren studied it {the war} as only a brief page in their country's 2,500-year history”. Where America has been marginal to the Vietnamese past, China has been a constant … having invaded the country seventeen times, regarding which a Vietnamese diplomat is quoted as comparing how China is viewed in Vietnam to the U.S.'s relationships with Canada and Mexico … “think of how touchy {they} are about America, now imagine if America had repeatedly sent troops {across the border}”. The author goes into an overview of cultural, political, and economic realities in Vietnam, and the comes up with a great line (especially combined with the surprising move to open old U.S. Naval bases to the U.S. Navy again): “Nothing better illustrates the Vietnamese desire to be a major player in the region than their purchase of six state-of-the-art Kilo-class submarines from Russia.” despite having the ability to train crews and maintain these weapons being “a generational undertaking”.

The next country considered is Malaysia, starting with Kuala Lumpur, which, despite the majority Muslim population, offers malls that “raise consumerism to the status of an ideology”. The country is quite mixed, with about 60% being Muslim, 23% Chinese, and 9% Tamils from southeastern India. The political and economic growth of both China and India is welcomed by those demographics, which, in turn, appears to be pushing the Muslim population towards identifying with Islamic globalism. Kaplan posits a “diffuse, unfocused sense of national identity” in Malaysia, which he notes “was not united even under the British”. Among the historical background presented, there is a fairly detailed look at Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was prime minister from 1981 to 2003, and who the author credits with being the driving force behind the “economic and technological dynamism” of modern Malaysia. However:

Mahathir's rise in politics is ascribed to his ability to capture Malay resentment toward the other, more advantaged ethnic groups. Unlike the Chinese and the Indians, who had vast homelands to which to return, the Malays had nowhere else to go, and yet {they} felt dispossessed in their own land …
And, the author, discussing the work of another writer, notes that with Mahathir “the sharp dichotomy between 'democracy' and 'authoritarianism' does not seem to apply”, where his regime became at once “more repressive and more responsive” to people's needs, solving problems even as it clamped down on dissent. His model is much studied in the Middle East, as a way of creating a modern thriving country while still being heavily Islamic. However, because of the cultural/racial issues, Malaysia is a solid U.S. ally against China, and gets visits from our navy as often as fifty times a year (up from six in 2003).

At several points in the Malaysia chapter it's mentioned that their military is frequently trying to keep up with Singapore … which seems odd, given the relative sizes of the two. Here's a description from the start of the chapter on Singapore, that I think sort of give the “broad strokes” of the nature of the place:

Pragmatism carried to the furthest degree may not inspire the Western humanist mind, but it has been the only way for Singapore to survive as a physical speck of a city-state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula … Singapore occupies a natural, deep-water port at the narrowest point of the funnel that is the Strait of Malacca – the most important maritime choke point in the world … It was thrown out of a Malay-dominated federation in the 1960's because Singapore's leaders insisted on a multiethnic meritocracy.
Singapore, in some ways modeling on Israel, depends on a formidable military. With only 3.3 million citizens, it has an air force the same size as Australia's, plus an impressive naval presence. Obviously, they aren't interested in sliding backwards to the way things were: “in three decades, Singapore has gone from a malarial hellhole of overpowering smells and polluted, life-threatening monsoon drains to a global economic dynamo”. This chapter is entitled “The Good Autocrat”, and the person in that role is introduced here:

In the early 1960s, Singapore was as poor as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa; by the 1990s, this city-state, one fifth the size of Rhode Island, had a standard of living higher than Australia's. Credit for the miracle went to one man: an English-educated ethnic Chinese barrister, Harry Lee {who later changed his name back to the non-Anglicized Lee Kuan Yew}
Lee tempered the Japanese fascist penchant for order with the lawful rule of the British to achieve a developmental miracle on this small island that comprises 214 square miles at low tide.
Kaplan highly recommends Lee's memoirs, The Singapore Story, which is something that I'll need to check out. He obviously is a fan, and notes that he's constantly asked “influential figures in the Arab and ex-communist worlds”, as well as a who's who of heads of state, what person they felt was greatest second-tier (not a Churchill or Roosevelt) leader, and Lee's name came up again and again, with many, frankly, holding him in awe (Lady Thatcher had read all of his speeches).

In looking at the changes that Lee brought to Singapore, Kaplan pulls in a lot of threads, from geopolitics to Machiavelli, to quotes from John Stewart Mill on Marcus Aurelius. While the specifics of the laws of the land there seem bizarre out of context (being arrested for chewing gum), they're part of a matrix, some elements of which we'd be well to emulate: “Corruption would not be a problem as in other Third World countries. Lee would attack it by simplifying procedures, establishing clear and precise guidelines in business, and making living beyond one's means corroborative evidence in court for taking bribes.” … when one thinks of all the bureaucrats in D.C. who have, on low six-figure salaries, amassed tens of millions of dollars in inexplicable wealth, this sounds like a good plan for “draining the swamp”! Perhaps more than anywhere else in here, the philosophical questions are addressed, with the South Asian autocrats like Lee being compared with regimes elsewhere, especially in the Arab world (the likes of Assad, etc.), but also looking at how the geography of a place like Singapore lends itself to “control”, as opposed to a sprawling entity like China.

The next place dealt with is the Philippines, in a chapter titled “America's Colonial Burden”. I found the following quite telling about the underlying issues:

… the Philippines are not only burdened with hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, which, with its heavy, pre-Reformation Roman Catholic overtones, brought less dynamism than the British, Dutch, and Japanese varieties experienced elsewhere in the First Island Chain, but they are doubly burdened by the imprint of Mexican colonizers, who represented even a lower standard of modern institutional consciousness than those of Spain.
Kaplan follows this with a rendition of the gleaming, soaring, and “buzzing” capitals of the other countries discussed up to this point in the book, and saying that “the cityscape of … Manila is, by comparison, one of aesthetic and material devastation”, as well as being “somnolent and purposeless”, and quotes an economist as saying that “this is still a bad Latin American economy”, and cites a number of things (down to the details like how private security guard uniforms look) which remind him of Mexico. Of course, the U.S. has been in the Philippines since 1898, and won control of it in the Spanish American War. Many leading lights of the American military over the past century got their skills there, from the obvious of Douglas MacArthur, to the surprising (to me) of Dwight Eisenhower … and its location is extremely important for maintaining American influence in the area.

And yet, despite a century's worth of vast annual outlays of American aid, the Philippines has remained among the most corrupt, dysfunctional, intractable, and poverty-stricken societies in maritime Asia, with Africa-like slums and Latin America-style fatalism and class divides.
Of course, the name Ferdinand Marcos comes up immediately when looking at the condition of his country … the author says that Marcos “manifestly represents the inverse of Lee Kuan Yew”, and (in comparison with the other leaders discussed who “left behind functioning states with largely clean institutions”) “left behind bribery, cronyism, and ruin”. The comparisons of what went right elsewhere and what went wrong here are delved into quite a bit in this chapter, plus a bit more about the military (given the U.S.'s large presence) and territorial conflicts in the region (see the map referenced up top).

The penultimate chapter is tantalizingly named “Asia's Berlin”, and deals with Taiwan. What's probably most fascinating in this is the fight for every tiny bit of coral sticking up out of the ocean (which come with oil and gas reserves on the sea floor), and territorial claims that go back thousands of years. Kaplan writes of a visit to the tiny Pratas island, on which Taiwan maintains a runway, a tour of which took under an hour … leading to his comment that land claims such as this are largely “nationalistic posturing”. Of course, in the case of Taiwan vis-à-vis the PRC, this is no small matter … the author describes Taiwan as “that stubborn, inconvenient fact disturbing the peace of Asia” … with both countries' governments claiming to be the legitimate government of all of China, and both (to differing ends) being steeped in many centuries of common history. The figure of Chiang Kai-shek is looked into in detail, of course, with assorted historians' views of the man, and notes on the wartime realities that led to the formation of Taiwan. A bit of military theorizing is thrown out there, with questions on how Taiwan could or couldn't be taken by China … with some Taiwanese officials insisting that the narrow (yet 5x the width of the English Channel) Taiwan Strait would serve as a very effective barrier, both to “Finlandization” (in that there's no land border) and outright invasion (the example of island battles like Iwo Jima is raised). There's also a thought put forward that these days the leading cities in China look more like Taipei than communism, and there's a sense that the longer they can maintain the status quo, the less likely things will get to a war setting.

The final chapter takes a look at China itself, with the complexities involved in running such a large and populous (and diverse despite the “central control”) country. The sense here is that they've given up the economic concept of communism, but not the control aspects, and the author describes meetings with various entities in assorted levels of government, some of which he has enthusiasm for, some less so. I found one bit here amusing: “Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn't ratified it.”, such, I suppose, is international politics. This, of course, is a key issue in the South China Sea (again, note that map), with claims from all parties being all over the place. There's more “philosophy” gone into here, some military projections, and a look at some reasonably recent negotiations … generally, much of this sums up other elements presented earlier in the book.

Asia's Cauldron closes with an Epilogue looking at Borneo … where Kaplan pulls together many of the threads of the book. There's not much of a “conclusion”, however “because different futures are possible, all that I have written is a mere period piece: I have focused on the central drama of the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, that of China's military rise in the area where the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean intersect”.

Despite my finding it at the dollar store this is certainly still available, in hardcover, paperback, ebook, audio format, etc., with the online big boys offering both the print versions at nearly 60% off. Oddly, even with the dollar store channel being in play, the new/used guys don't have this for particularly cheap, with prices (combined with shipping) not being much less than the discount price. Given the accolades this has had, it should likely still be easy enough to find at the brick-and-mortar vendors as well.

Will you like this? Hard to say … it's one of those that if you're into particular genres, you'll love it, but if you're not, it is likely to be less attractive. It hit a lot of my interests, so I quite enjoyed it.


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Thursday, June 1st, 2017
12:15 pm
Let the images in ...
Here's another title that found its way to me via the “Early Reviewer” program over at LibraryThing.com … and it is one of the rarer books (as regular readers will know from my frequent bitching) from LTER in that it did not disappoint at all … which is good because I ended up requesting it four months in a row (I guess the publisher kept making it available), before “winning” it. That said, Damion Searls' The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing is a bit of an odd mix of genres, as it's both a biography of Rorschach and a survey of the history of the inkblots within the larger psychology/psychiatry context, plus a look at their legacy in popular culture.

On this latter point, I'm guessing that nearly everybody has some familiarity with – if only by name – the “Rorschach test”, as the phrase has filtered into the language as generally denoting something open to individual interpretation. Of course, there may be some who only know “Rorschach” as a character from the “Watchmen” comics and movie, whose mask is a constantly shifting pattern that recalls the symmetric figures on the test cards.

The test itself has an interesting historical arc … while still being used (with a fairly recent system for interpretation of responses which seems to greatly improve analytic value), it has largely fallen out of favor based on over-extension and applications that were ill-suited for its dynamics. The core set of 10 9x6” cards are key to the effective use of the test, and there have been alternate sets put out by other therapists which have not proved as useful as the originals developed by Rorschach. As well known as the test bearing his name has been, Hermann Rorschach himself is far less known, certainly in comparison to the likes of Freud and Jung … something quite likely due to his untimely death at age 37 in 1922. Additionally, the shift from intensively working with a highly-trained therapist (the Freudian model, for instance) and into the realms of psychopharmacology (where a psychiatrist might see a patient for 5-10 minutes to check on how their meds are working) made the classic Rorschach Test expensive, as it's designed to involve a therapist interacting in real time with a patient in a fairly open-ended session with the cards.

I feel like I need to apologize in advance if this review is a bit rambling … while I quite enjoyed the book, and have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it, I'm finding that most are highlighting “I did not know that!” factoids rather that particularly to-the-point blocks of exposition that lend themselves to quoting here … so I think this is going to be long on the paraphrasing short on definitive block quotes.

A prime example of this is at the very start of the text, where a story is presented of a candidate for a somewhat sensitive position, who is being given a battery of assorted psychological tests, including the MMPI and TAT, which had come back reasonably normal, and the Rorschach test was the next one up. In the following I'll be pulling out the personal references and the “context” (the specific job) and trying to let this stand as a description of the nature of the test:

{the therapist} asked {the subject} to move from the desk to a low chair near the couch in her office. She pulled her chair in front of his, took out a yellow legal pad and a thick folder, and handed him, one by one, a series of ten cardboard cards from the folder, each with a symmetrical blot on it. As she handed him each card, she said: “What might this be?” or “What do you see?”.
      Five of the cards were in black and white, two also had red shapes, and three were multicolored. Here
{the subject} was asked not to tell a story, not to say what he felt, but simply to state what he saw. No time limit, no instructions about how many responses he should give. {The therapist} stayed out of the picture as much as possible, letting {the subject} reveal not just what he saw in the inkblots but how he approached the task. …

     
{the subject's} answers were shocking {deeply inappropriate responses in relation to the position he was being considered for}. … She systematically assigned {the subject's} responses the various codes of the standard method and categorized his answers as typical or unusual using the long lists in the manual. She then calculated the formulas that would turn all those scores into psychological judgment: dominant personality style, Egocentricity Index, Flexibility of Thinking, the Suicide Constellation. As {the therapist} expected, her calculations showed {the subject's} scores to as extreme as his answers.
      If nothing else, the Rorschach had prompted
{the subject} to show a side of himself he didn't otherwise let show. He was perfectly aware that he was undergoing an evaluation, for a job he wanted. He knew how he wanted to come across in interviews and what kind of harmless answers to give on other tests. On the Rorschach, his persona broke down. Even more revealing than the specific things he had seen in the inkblots was the fact that he had felt free to say them.
      This is why
{the therapist} used the Rorschach. It's a strange and open-ended task, where it is not at all clear what the inkblots are supposed to be or how you're expected to respond to them. Crucially, it's a visual task, so it gets around your defenses and conscious strategies of self-presentation. ...
Obviously, the test is not an inexpensive option – as it requires full involvement from the therapist for as long as it takes to get through the cards (often in multiple passes) plus the assessment process – which is likely why it has fallen out of favor, despite (as later noted):

When somebody is faking health or sickness, or intentionally or unintentionally suppressing other sides of their personality, the Rorschach might be the only assessment to raise a red flag.
As famous and familiar as the cards are, the author opted to only reproduce two of the ten images in the book. There is still a belief that knowing the images before taking the test weakens the response. Needless to say, there's a spectrum of usages, from the “classic” mode as described in the above to the “Group Rorschach Technique” (which was developed for the OSS in WW2) where auditoriums of hundreds were shown slides of the inkblots and asked to put in their closest take on them on a 10-item multiple-choice list for each, to versions (a further simplification of this) you can find on the internet. Searls does note that his reserve in putting out the images is something of a moot point, as the inkblot pictures can easily be found on the web, and you can get a set of the cards (if non-standard in size, thickness, and background color) on-line.

Hermann Rorschach was from Zurich, Switzerland, his father was a very talented artist (some of his sketch work is shown in the book), and art was a constant feature in his early upbringing. As one might get from the second part of the subtitle, “The Power of Seeing”, the visual sense was quite important to Rorschach, and there are significant parts of the book which deal with these modes of perception. While he did not come up with the inkblot method, it was something he was very interested in from an early age. There was a thing called Klecksography which had become popular in some art circles which was based on the method of dripping ink on a page and then folding it over to create a mirrored image. The young Rorschach evidently was enthusiastic enough about this process that his school nickname was “Klex”. Oddly, he was not the first to suggest the use of these images in psychology, but the first to substantially attempt to systematize the approach.

As this is primarily a biography of Hermann Rorschach, there's quite a lot of detail of the who/what/where of his life, from things about his family to friends he had at various points in time (like some of the Russians he hung out with in Dijon, France, one of whom he eventually wrote to Leo Tolstoy – who had been a mentor to his friend – to re-connect with some years after losing touch). Russia is a significant influence in his life … he was much enamored with (pre-Revolution) Russia, and ended up marrying a Russian lady, Olga Stempelin, and for a while lived there … the book notes that the Futurists, among other cultural groups in Russia, “showed him how closely psychological explorations could be tied to art”. There's a thread here which was a constant challenge to the Rorschachs, his getting appropriate approval/licensing to practice in a full role at various postings (this had been an issue in Russia), and most of these seemed to be less-than-ideal situations that were “settled on”. It's also remarkable that his inkblot test got as widely known as it did, as his book, Psychodiagnostics only came out a few months prior to his death, and was “not only preliminary but already a year out of date” (Rorschach having advanced some of the systems – anticipating some recent revisions – in the year or so since the book had started in the publishing process). In the late days of March, 1922, Rorschach was ill with severe stomach pains; Olga was of the opinion that it was simply a return of nicotine poisoning (Rorschach smoked constantly), and told everybody that “it was nothing”, and Rorschach was avoiding the medical staff. On April 1, he died “of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix”. The material on his life takes things up to about half-way into the book. The rest is a fairly convoluted tale of how his test spread around the world.

Obviously, without Rorschach around to steer his test's development and implementation, it almost immediately got assorted “flavors”, as different psychologists/psychiatrists began using it in according to their own views. One interesting thing was that a number tried to develop alternate sets of cards, but found Rorschach's ten inkblots far more predictive … evidently, the work that he put into finding key images was significant in sorting down to a usable test. As noted in the large block quote up top, there is a vast lot of data that has been amassed on the results of tests, and this has led to a handful of approaches that have sought to systematize the analysis of the subject responses. Notable of these is Dr. John E. Exner, whose scoring system (based partially on earlier work done by Bruno Klopfer – whose 1942 manual had been “taken up as the Bible of psychological testers” in the war years and beyond - and S. J. Beck) was published in 1969. However, due to issues with his estate, this was unable to be changed (much like, I suppose, Rorschach's 10 inkblots), and a new system, the Rorschach performance assessment system (R-PAS), was developed.

The Rorschach test is used at different levels in different countries, and there is notable variation how people from assorted cultures react to the images. In 1997 the R-PAS was normatized across an international data set, making it more diagnostically useful in this later manifestation, despite being less utilized than it had been from the 40's through the 80's (what the author describes as “the free-for-all of midcentury uses and abuses of the inkblots”). There's also some interesting data presented on how much it is applied in different countries, and in various contexts. Again, there's a lot of historical info here, from the use of the test for military/industrial manpower screening to one researcher from the Rorschach Institute (Douglas Kelly, who'd co-authored Klopfer's manual) that served as the “prison psychiatrist” for the Nuremberg Trials, having full access to the prisoners (along with “morale officer” Gustave Gilbert who assisted in the tests). This has some fascinating bits (especially for those interested in military history) looking at the analysis that Kelly and Gilbert provided about the Nazi leaders, especially focused on Hermann Göring.

Obviously, the book primarily looks at Rorschach's life and ideas, and how the inkblot test developed over time, but there is quite a bit of material (as noted up top) in the “I did not know that!” zone. Rather than leaving that as a tease, I figured I'd close out with one of these ...

      It is pretty shocking to realize that empathy is barely a hundred years old, about the same age as X-rays and lie-detector tests. Talk of an “empathy gene” feels exciting because of the friction between timeless aspects of the human condition and cutting-edge science, but in fact, “empathy” is the newfangled part of the term: genes were discovered first. What the word empathy described was not new, of course, and the ideas of “sympathy” and “sensibility” had long and closely related histories, but “empathy” recast the relationship between self and world in a new way. It also comes as a surprise that the term was invented, not to talk about altruism of acts of kindness, but to explain how we can enjoy a sonata or a sunset. ...
Much of this sort of thing is within context of other research than Rorschach's (although there's a good bit of his own synesthetic perceptions offered up), but it provided a lot of places for me to pop in my little bookmarks, if on passages that wouldn't be exactly to the point in this review.

Anyway, The Inkblots just came out in February, so you have a pretty good shot of getting a copy at the better-stocked brick-and-mortar book vendors. The on-line big boys, however, at this writing are offering the hardcover for nearly half-off, making it quite reasonable. The new/used guys do have copies, but not at any super deals.

I really liked this book, as it combined a lot of things that I have interest in. As noted, it's a bit of a mixed bag, with half being a biography of the man and the other half sort of being a biography of the test, both of which come with a rich mix of related materials fascinating in their own right. Needless to say, you'd need to have at least a general interest in psychology to really be enthused by this, but it might be touching enough bases that it would hold the interest of “all and sundry”.


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Wednesday, May 10th, 2017
11:27 am
A special relationship with what?
This was a book I got via the LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program … which is almost always a bit of a “pig in a poke” situation in that one puts in requests for books based on a paragraph or so of copy from the publisher, and pretty much have to go with “sounds good” or not. Frankly, I had anticipated a more “general” or “global” look at the subject. However, Rabbi Donniel Hartman's Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself stays fairly tightly bound to a Jewish context, making it far more parochial than I expected (and/or hoped). Once again, I suspect that what “faked me out” was a subtitle foisted on the book by the marketing department, a complaint that regular readers of this space are all too familiar with my airing when the book I wanted to read was what the subtitle promised.

This starts out well enough, early in the introduction (“Religion's Autoimmune Disease”, which takes up 10% of the pagecount) Hartman namechecks (if in a context of arguments that are unlikely “to move the person of faith”) Dawkins' The God Delusion and Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which also appear as 2 of the 16 listed reference works he cites), and comes up with some pretty solid salvos at religion, such as:

… As these religions entered the world stage, alongside their charge to love God and love humanity, they began to wage war with those who preceded or followed them. Wherever monotheism developed, it was accompanied by the belief that the one God could be truly represented or correctly understood by only one faith community. Love of God, or more accurately being loved by God, was perceived to be a zero-sum game – the more one was loved, the less another could be.
      And so, together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of those who disagreed. Monotheism became a mixed blessing and a double-edged sword.
I have to admit that three of the key concepts that the author posits in the book sort of flew by me … while they're defined in the text, they just didn't have enough connection (to my mind) to really serve as useful models. The first of these is that “autoimmune disease” from the introduction's title. While he specifically addresses this a paragraph or two on (in terms of individual believers), I think the following is better at summing up this idea:

The central argument of this book is that religion's (and religions') spotty moral track record cannot be written off to either a core corruption in human nature or an inherently corrupt scripture. Rather it is my contention that a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses. These impulses, given free rein to flourish under the cloak of religious piety, undermine the ultimate moral agendas of religions and the types of communities and societies they aspire to build.
The other two are “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … which I'll get to in a bit. None of these three coinages of the author particularly grabbed me as solid representations of the related concepts (especially when the book delves deeply into Jewish extra-biblical sources), and suggest that he'd come up with them, thought they'd be popular/useful, and tried to make them fit the details. As is often the case, this may “just be me”, but it's my review, and you're getting my take on things.

Again, I wish they'd have been more upfront about the angle of the book … as this isn't a book about or advocating non-belief (which, obviously, was what I was hoping I was getting into), and it is firmly embedded in the deep and ancient traditions of the Jewish faith. Hartman proposes Judaism as an “ideal patient” to study his posited “autoimmune disease”, and gives his rational for this (which would have been helpful in the promotional material in LTER) here:

… my choice of Judaism as a case study does not stem merely from proficiency therein, nor from my belief that traditions are best critiqued by their insiders. I chose Judaism because as a member of this faith, I have a personal investment in exposing its shortcomings for the sake of attempting to heal them – offering a narrative of what my tradition can and ought to stand for. In truth, I am trying to save my own religion from itself.
Now, as a religion major, I certainly found the journey through the texts here interesting, but, honestly, taking Judaism as the “model patient” for the failings of the major monotheisms (à la this) is sort of like studying the Dalai Lama when what you're really addressing is the sort of Asian head of state like Pol Pot or Hirohito. While the Palestinians may disagree, the Jews are by far the least aggressive of the monotheistic faiths … at least in the post-biblical millennia (there is, of course, a great deal of bloodshed and carnage in the Old Testament, and the author presents a long litany of these at one point – but I'm sparing you the blockquote).

The problem here is that most of the book is dealing with the finer details of Jewish faith/philosophy, with only a general gesture to making the arguments framed in those texts and traditions applicable to the far more prone-to-violence religions. On the positive side, there is a lot of material here that I found fascinating … assorted rules that have long centuries of debate and adjustments, plus tales of some the leading lights of Jewish thought over the ages … and there are some fascinating personal reminiscences from the author's life – including being a religious student in Israel and serving as a tank commander in the IDF. I'd love to spew out a bunch of this stuff here, but it doesn't seem much to the point (given the narrow scope), so I'm going to focus on what got a bookmark while reading this, and trying to covey those key points noted above.

I really had to dig to get even reasonably straight-forward definitions of Hartman's “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … he has chapters in this which give a vague description and then launch into examples from the tradition or his experiences, which is probably why these seem so hazy to me. However, there are two chapters that deal with “theological remedies” for these, and their introductory paragraphs have about as concise looks at these concepts as I was able to find …

God Intoxication, as we have learned, distorts monotheistic religion by defining religious piety exclusively in terms of immersion in God-centered ritual and consciousness. This consuming focus on a God who demands exclusive attention at all times and at all costs extracts a heavy price in the sphere of the ethical. God Intoxication devalues the human enterprise and consequently the significance of human ethical responsibility.
In terms of a “global” focus, this next bit certainly is the theme of way too many headlines these days … if more to-the-point for Christianity and Islam than Judaism:

… a primary cause of the spiritual autoimmune disease that can plague monotheistic religions comes directly from the potential for God and religion to be manipulated in a way that quiets the voices of moral conscience, draping self-interest in a cloak of pious devotion and stripping those defined as “other” of moral status. God Manipulation, the condition that sanctions such self-interest with the stamp of divine and religious approval, has proven a pervasive and perilous symptom of monotheism throughout the history of human social life. To protect humanity from this perversion of God's image, and immunize religion from itself, is an existential need of the utmost urgency.
As noted, there is a goodly amount of text/tradition support for the various aspects of these … but not presented in a way that lends itself to easy extraction here. There is one piece that I do want to pass on, and it's discussed in the delightfully titled chapter “When Scripture Is the Problem”, although more fully detailed in an earlier chapter. This deals with Hillel the Elder (who taught in the first century BCE), who was approached by a person who wished to convert, but only if he can be converted “while standing on one foot” – that is, in a short period of time. Hillel consents and comes up with one of the great phrasings in all of religious history:

      Judaism's hundreds of biblical commandments and thousands of rabbinic interpretations result in a sea of rules and norms in which it is easy for core religious priorities and goals to get lost. From this perspective, the convert's question reflects a legitimate spiritual desire to know the essential principles and values informing and animating the intricate structures of religious life. For without this essence, religion is just that, a set of empty structures devoid of any underlying meaning or truth.
      Hillel's answer, in any event, provides the potential convert, and all subsequent rabbinic tradition, with an encapsulation of Judaism's core values. “What is hateful to you,” Hillel states, “do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary [upon this principle]; go and learn it.”
Needless to say, Hillel's encapsulation is an excellent place to start for finding a religious expression which is not dependent on all the vileness exhibited by religion in general, and the major monotheisms in particular (be that expressed in Christians trying to ban contraceptives or “gay cakes”, or Muslims cutting off heads on video or burning children alive). And, of course, I would have liked to have much more of that “post religion” thinking (heck, like this) than the in-tradition navel-gazing.

To reiterate, I was (among other things) a comparative religion major, so the trek through the philosophical history of Judaism (and if nothing else, this could be seen as an easy introduction to all of that) was no doubt more engaging for me than it would have been for many others (especially if they came to this thinking it was going to be an anti-religion broadside). While being frustrated that Putting God Second wasn't the book I thought it was when putting in the request for an LTER review copy, I found it interesting in its own right. As far recommending it, this is deep into that “your mileage may vary” territory … it certainly would be more useful for “believers” than the agnostic/atheist crowd!

This just came out a few months ago, so should be available generally (if possibly needing to be ordered in by the brick-and-mortar book vendors), and the online big boys presently have it at about a third off of cover price. If questions of religion (and the Jewish tradition in particular) are of interest to you, this will be a nice addition to your library.


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Sunday, May 7th, 2017
9:29 am
"A compass, skis, and a shotgun."
This is another example of a dollar store find, but in this case for a book that I would have been very unlikely to have picked up at another price point. While I'm not into reading fiction, I will, from time to time, read humor, and I'd been a bit of a fan of Chelsea Handler (she would have been the sort of person I'd love to have hung out with back in my drinking days!), so when I saw her Uganda Be Kidding Me staring at me from the dollar store shelf, it was an easy one to toss into the shopping cart (plus it promised to be a quick, light read to stick in between a couple of heavy titles). However, it's also something that does not lend itself particularly to my style of reviewing … not being exactly filled with fascinating factoids or concepts.

Ms. Handler is a “hot mess” and she seems to at least be aware of that fact. It appears that she's been successful enough in her career that she's used to having money, and the “people” that money can buy, and so has retreated into a state that is almost infantile on one level, while being clearly adolescent on others … with the obvious over-lay of being old enough to indulge in whatever mind/mood altering items, legal or illegal, she gets a hankering for.

And, she's always looking for a drink.

The book is about a jaunt to Africa (and some other places) that she drags a motley crew of her friends off to. There's Shelly, her “lesbian lawyer” friend, her 26-year-old cousin Molly, her “newly divorced” sister Simone, her “oldest friend from L.A.” Hannah, and her co-executive producer Sue, who she describes as “a female Hunter S. Thompson”.

Oh, and Chelsea had just had ACL surgery three weeks prior to this trip to repair damage to a knee messed up in a skiing accident in Switzerland (the story of which is later on in the book). Aside from this meaning that she was going to be hobbling and complaining and stuff like that, she also had scrips for pain killers. What could go wrong?

I wish I'd stuck more of my little bookmarks in here (there are a few, but all up front in the first third of the book), and here's one of these (skipping over a couple of paragraphs in the middle):

There's a very fine line in the African sand between being an asshole and being an American. So we drew it. “Rex, I apologize,” Sue told him. “We are not as obnoxious as we seem; we are just very happy to be off the plane and are blown away by this place. We knew we were coming on safari, but we didn't know this is what it would be like.” …
It didn't take long for Rex to glean that although we were assholes with a hankering for libations – and lip balm – we were all genuinely interested in the adventure we were about to embark upon. He took a long hard look at us, spit on the ground, and surrendered. “All right [which he pronounced 'al-raht'], let's go see some wildebeest ['vilde-be-ast'].”
This Rex was the safari guide who immediately caught Chelsea's eye, and she spends much of the trip attempting to achieve some “penetration”.

Oh, one thing to note all the way through this … it starts with vulgar and goes downhill from there. Aside from the basic commentary, Ms. Handler seems to be a total bitch to her friends (which I guess one might consider acceptable behavior if one is paying for everybody's trip), pretty much non-stop. To get a sense of what a nice jaunt with Ms. Handler is like, here's a choice paragraph:

      This was only our second day of safari and our drinking had taken a turn none of us had expected or been prepared for. We would start off with Bloody Marys, work our way through mimosas, and then move to champagne midafternoon, until we came back to our lodges for what turned into group massages where I would end up with one eye glued shut while the baboons raped each other outside our villas and then stole my Ace bandages.
She quotes Rex as saying that they were perhaps the first functioning alcoholic women he'd ever met.

Did I mention “hot mess”? Yes, well. One wonders how long these assorted establishments ended up talking about this group coming through …

That night we had dinner in a circular wine cellar and were separated from the rest of the guests. … Simone attributed our isolation to our behavior in general, and Hannah attributed it to the camp having to keep me from sexually assaulting Rex.

There was enough food to feed sixty-five people, and none of it was worth taking a second bite of. Multiple dishes consisted of multiple unidentifiable meats on multiple sticks. ….
“It's safe to assume they think we eat as much as we drink,” Simone commented.
Sort of makes you feel bad for the other guests who were there for a trip of a lifetime rather than a drunken romp with the girls. Speaking of which, I guess this is as good a place as any to note that the book, if not lavishly illustrated with photography (color, no less), is full of “vacation snaps” (several dozen), with quite a few featuring Chelsea relieving herself in various settings, including hanging her bottom over the edge of a Jeep.

Once they leave the resort where Rex is employed, they go in relatively quick succession to three other stops in Africa. Since it's all about the boozing, etc., the setting only really provides stuff for Chelsea and her gals to bitch about. Conveniently (or not), Rex was due for some time off and is convinced to tag along, although he rejects Ms. Handler's amorous approaches (she's later quite apologetic in a communication to his long-time lady friend).

On one hand, there is just enough description of the places they were staying to get a sense of these travel options (plus some photos), and the animals involved … as I suspect that I'm never going to end up going on a safari myself, that's handy … on the other hand, a lot of the “details” are complaints about how hard it is to get a decent pitcher of Margaritas in Africa. I'm just going to leave out the other places, and the minutia about lions and giraffes (and how long her dog would had survived if he'd come along on the trip), and move on.

The second half of the book is about other trips she took with varying sets of friends, associates, and even presumed penetration units. These are to the Bahamas, Montenegro, the Swiss Alps (where she blows out her knee), Telluride (she's fond of skiing), Yellowstone National Park, and adventures back home in Bel Air. The stories she tells on herself are so over-the-top, that I found myself wondering how much of this was real and how much made up … it seemed to me that nobody could be so clueless and willful as the character she presents here … and she's constantly getting herself into horribly embarrassing (having an explosive bowel movement while walking on the beach), idiotic (not bringing her passport on the way to the Balkans, where she was convinced she was on a train heading off to a concentration camp), quite dangerous (“skiing down a double black diamond at about forty-five miles an hour”), or bizarrely inexplicable (her home life in L.A.) situations. I suppose if one has “people who handle that” (such as rushing her passport out to the airport for her), one can be as dysfunctional as she describes her life … but, again, I wonder if a lot of this was wildly exaggerated.

Anyway, Uganda Be Kidding Me is a silly, crude, and strange read. If you like Chelsea Handler's shtick (and I do), this will be pleasingly familiar in tone. If, however, you're unfamiliar with her genre, and are picking this up as a travel book, you might be put off (heck, for a lot of folks, I can pretty much guarantee it) by the general vulgarity of the narration. Also, if you're sensitive to descriptions of substance abuse, this could be “triggering” as that's a major theme here. One might also find oneself jealous at reading how “the moneyed people travel” in this as well (I know I got a bit green-eyed at some of the spend involved), but that may just be from my being as broke as I've been for as long as I've been (cue the tiny violins).

This is still in print … in hardcover, paperback, e-book, audio book, etc. … so I guess I just lucked out at having it cycle through the dollar store while I was looking. The online big boys having it at a deep discount (67% off) at the moment, and the new/used guys could save you a bit beyond that – so you have options were this something that you'd be interested in picking up. Again, this is a fun (if you're on Chelsea's wavelength), light read with enough interesting stuff from the places she's ending up (and the characters she interacts with) that the reader is unlikely to get bored.


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Saturday, May 6th, 2017
2:46 pm
Walk with the Egyptians ...
This is a perfect example of the delightful serendipity of the dollar store … a nice hardcover book, in a very recent edition (the updated American edition, which just came out in 2014) on an interesting topic … for a buck, what's not to like? Of course, I'm sure that this channel is way less popular with the authors and their publishers, as if they're getting anything, it's likely to be pennies (would Walmart pay on “cut out” copies going to the dollar stores? dunno).

Anyway, this is how Ahdaf Soueif's Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed got into my hands. The author is best known as a novelist, as well as being a translator, and a political/cultural commentator. Although Egyptian, she's very involved with Palestinian issues, and has founded festivals for Palestinian writers. She grew up between Egypt and the U.K., married a British author, and still maintains homes in both countries.

The book initially came out in early 2012, with a different subtitle, and largely traced events over an 18-day period which was the “revolution” portion of the Egyptian “Arab Spring” in January and February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. The American edition includes another two sections (and about another half as many pages as the original), one from 2012, and one from 2013, updating events.

I really wish that I had more of my little bookmarks in this, but I only have one, and at this point I have no idea what I thought was notable there when reading it (she's mainly bitching about having a cold). Because the book is a narrative of events pretty much as they happened, there's a lot of flow and very few “set pieces” that would be good for grabbing to illustrate this review. It does make the reading quite engaging, as things are unfolding hour to hour, and there's no “telegraphing” what the next thing's going to be (an issue I have with fiction). However, this also means that stuff's running by with little context (or context that one would have from distant parts of the book) … I'm going to see if I can flip through and maybe find some “choice bits” to drop in here, but be forewarned.

I did have a couple of gripes with this that I'm also going to throw in here as caveats. Ms. Soueif is a big supporter of the “Palestinian cause”, which generally translates to being anti-Israel, and by extension anti-U.S. … and this can be felt in the wording of numerous portions of the book. I'm willing to admit that my views on these subjects are likely to have their own anti-Islamic spin to them, and so a lot of the chafing I was doing with those aspects could well be originating from this side of the page … but it's something that would have been useful to know going in to reading this. The other (and, perhaps, related) thing that drove me nuts here is the use of numbers in the middle of words to represent various Arabic pronunciations rather than “standard” transliterations. This system she credits to “Arab bloggers” as a simplification of notations for a “glottal stop” or “soft vibration in the back of the throat”, but it feels like a way to poke at American readers (they could have easily “fixed” this for the U.S. Edition) causing repeated WTF??? moments and scurrying off to the note page with the details to figure what the word was (such as “wa7ed” where the 7 stands in for a “heavy h”).

As noted, this is something of a diary of things happening around the revolution, or revolutions. The book is divided into three sections, Revolution I – in 2011, Revolution II – in 2012, and Revolution III – in 2013. The first is set up in three chapters, “Eighteen Days” which is from January 24 through February 11, 2011; “An Interruption” which is “eight months later, October 2011”, and “The Eighteen Day Resumed” which covers February 1 – February 12, 2011. The telling is, obviously, broken up into these various time periods, and is also broken up with different phases and shifts in the political realities.

When the activities begin, the author is in India, and is dropping everything to get back to Egypt. She notes at one point that she's the third generation of “activists” and she “wanted more to act the revolution than to write it”. As I mentioned, the writing is very “in the moment”, but here's a bit from the “Friday, 28 January, 10:00 P.M.” section that at least frames the action, without it requiring explaining names and locations:

      In neighborhoods across the country, through the night of this Friday that will become known as the Friday of Wrath, the regime kills hundreds of Egypt's young. Police and Security men drive cars and trucks into groups of protesters. Snipers shoot young men and women from the rooftops of the Ramses Hilton, the American University, the Egyptian Museum, and the Dakhleyya. Troops fire on them with shotguns and rifles and automatics, and the thug militias, the baltagis, burn them with Molotov cocktails and batter them with stones, ceramics, and marble.
The narrative slips in and out of the “now”, and drifts off into stories of her family, descriptions of neighborhoods and landmarks as they usually had been, and analysis of various political (and religious) factions.

The first chapter actually stops on February 1st, not on the 11th, with the “Interruption” chapter taking a look at a lot of the maneuvering following the deposing of Mubarak. Frankly, the phrase “this isn't going to end well” sort of hovers over the book. The author and most of her allies appear to be fairly non-religious, and “socialist” in orientation (the “Liberals”), and seem to have some sort of belief that if “the people” rose up to get rid of Mubarak, there'd be a miraculous renaissance with everybody singing some Arabic translation of Kumbaya in the streets and a fully-formed responsive and responsible government would be effortlessly in place. Instead, they had the SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) “betraying” them and instituting military rule until a new constitution could be put in place (and there was extensive disagreement if they had to have that first, or have new elections first), with every little detail being fought over by multiple factions. And, of course, the hard-line Islamists had been working to be ready for the chaos, and have a “ground game” of organized political parties, which it seems the Liberals never thought to bother with. So, as things move forward, without the old regime keeping the various factions under control, the ballot box becomes the club that the Islamists use to take over most of the elected positions

A quarter of the book later, the narrative picks up back in the “18 days” of the revolution. Much of this is waiting for Mubarak to actually step down. He does eventually, and the military steps in. Elections are held, and the Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis) win over 70% of the seats … Soueif notes:

The Liberal parties had been too busy campaigning for elections to be postponed until after the Constitution was written to organize or acquire a presence on the street. The Left – while very high profile in the campaigns and initiatives and struggles that fed the revolution – was disorganized and had absolutely no funding but scrambled at the last minute to field young candidates under the slogan “The Revolution Continues”.
She then, after noting the percentages of the vote, adds the one positive she can identify:

The heartening surprise was that not a single candidate believed to have a connection with the Mubarak regime was returned.
The military, once having been thought by the revolution as being “on their side”, turned things ugly … lots of bloodshed … and the old security forces were back in play again. Run the clock forward to May, 2012 and there's finally Presidential elections … the initial voting ends up in a run-off between Muhammad Morsi “the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in general” and Ahmad Shafiq “the candidate of the Mubarak regime remnants and the military”, who had each gotten about a quarter of the votes, with only about 1% separating them.

For the non-Islamist revolutionaries confronted once more with the ballot box, the choices were terrible. You could either vote for Muhammad Morsi, or you could spoil your ballot. And if you spoiled your ballot – or boycotted – and Ahmad Shafiq won, how would you live with yourself? After everything we'd done, after our friends had been killed and maimed, after so many lives had been ruined – and also after the freedoms and the gains and the new spirit we had achieved – we would have allowed the regime to come back.
Morsi won by a few percentage points, but by July of 2013 “he'd been deposed by the armed forces by popular demand”. Once again the military stepped in, this time with a great deal of support of the people, and the former head of Military Intelligence (!), General Sisi, took the reins of power, and is still incumbent today.

Because of the narrative nature of Cairo, I'm no doubt not doing it justice, having opted to simply skip all the “personal stories” (of friends, relatives, associates, etc. – many of whom were jailed, crippled, or killed), or much of the blow-by-blow details of what/where in the telling. It is a fascinating tale, however, and gripping in its immediacy.

This seems to still be in print in both hardcover and paperback, with the on-line big boys offering the hardcover for a whopping 69% off of cover price at this writing. The new/used guys have copies too, but at price points (with shipping) that aren't much better than that deal.

If you have an interest in politics, the middle east, or mass movements, you'll no doubt find this quite appealing.


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Friday, May 5th, 2017
3:32 pm
Awaking from the dream ...
I guess I must be generally disconnected from any “community” of my interests … I'll find out about concerts long after they've happened, and will often only find out about new books by authors that I've enjoyed many years after they've come out. Although feeling that I'm fairly clued in to Shamanic books, I was late to the party with the “Toltec” books of the father-and-son team of Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz. I quite liked the famous first Ruiz book and was raving about its follow-up (when I got to it – in both cases I didn't discover them until they'd been out for a half decade or so!), and I'd ordered this one along with the latter, assuming it was of a reasonably recent vintage in that it had never made it onto my mental radar screens … nope, this came out 13 years ago.

Anyway, Don Miguel Ruiz' The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace finally worked its way to the upper reaches of my to-be-read piles, and I got into it … still somewhat expecting that it was a later expression of the materials I'd already read. Now, while it was from a few years after The Four Agreements, it certainly preceded the later book … “my bad”, I guess. This is something of an autobiography, with a “shamanic tale” unfolding along the personal arc of the author's life … weaving in and out of teaching stories and mythic elements, hooked into that somewhat odd core element of “how to recover the silent voice of our integrity and find inner peace”. The essence of the Ruiz's model is, to the Western mind, quite counter-intuitive, casting knowledge as the enemy, in favor of some preliterate (or, perhaps, post-literate?) state:

As little children, we are completely authentic. Our actions are guided by instinct and emotions, we listen to the silent voice of our integrity. Once we learn a language, the people around us hook our attention and program us with knowledge. But that knowledge is contaminated with lies.
Much of this is sort of “out there” (especially for folks not grounded in Shamanic materials – especially the Castaneda books, whose internal “Toltec” mythologies set up, or at least parallel, much of what Ruiz is presenting), but one structural element here I really appreciate. At the end of each chapter, there is a “Points to Ponder” section which presents “discussion topics”, much different in tone from the main text, which are sort of like having a follow-up to a lecture in a class setting – which might be the origin of these from Ruiz's workshops.

The book starts out in the Garden of Eden, and I found the following (slightly condensed for focus) quite interesting:

According to the story, the Prince of Lies was living in the Tree of Knowledge, and the fruit of that tree, which was knowledge, was contaminated with lies. We went to that tree, and we had the most incredible conversation with the Prince of Lies. ….
That fallen angel talked and talked and talked, and we listened and listened and listened. … We learn, and it's very seductive; we want to know more. … we were seduced by the lies.
Again, this feeds into an autobiographical story line, and Ruiz writes of when he was a small child and is told he has to work hard to become somebody, a message that comes through as “I am not good enough.” because he's not perfect, “and in that moment, like most of us, I start searching for perfection”. This then leads to not being oneself, and pretending to be what one is not. Next the child is trying to be something to meet every demand, his parents, his extended family, his community, and of course, ongoing, his teachers … “With enough practice, I even begin to believe what I pretend.”

In the “A Night In The Desert” chapter, he gets into a bit of cosmology, and how we process the reality of the world around us:

Once I interpret, qualify, or judge what I perceive, it is no longer real; it is a virtual world. This is what the Toltec call dreaming. … The Toltec believe that humans are living in a dream. The dream is a world of illusion …
He gets into the concept of “art”, as in making our own realities: “You live in your own world, and that world is so private. Nobody knows what you have in your world. … Your world is your creation, and it's a masterpiece of art.” This then leads into how each person not only has their own individual dream regarding themselves, but will “create an image for every secondary character who lives in my story”, which means that for every person out there, there are dozens, hundreds, of images being held by people for whom the person is a “secondary character”. Ruiz circles back to the second of the Four Agreements in this (“Don't take anything personally.”) with the following:

      Once I discovered that people are creating and living in their own story, how could I judge them any longer? How could I take anything personally when I know that I am only a secondary character in their story? I know that when they talk to me they are really talking to the secondary character in their story. And whatever people say about me is just a projection of their image of me.
Needless to say, this is pretty heady stuff, if drifting off in the direction of classic Solipsism, and is the sort of thing that I find makes Don Ruiz's work so attractive … it's not standard issue Newage woo-woo, but a lot deeper and makes a very enticing bridge between shamanic work and deep-end philosophy. Of course, the flip side of this is that it becomes quite challenging to try to summarize the details of what's presented in a book like this, as it's filled with fascinating twists of what most people would hold to be reality, all of which are supported internally, but though pages of material (that I'm not going to re-type as blockquotes).

One piece in the “Emotions Are Real” chapter (a concept that had me being quite reactive) stood out to me, it's a quote from Ruiz's grandfather when he was a youth: “Miguel, you will know that you are free when you no longer have to be you.” … in the sense that he no longer had to comply to others' views of him, or even follow the dictates of his own lies of who he should be.

In the “Common Sense and Blind Faith” chapter there is a very telling passage. In the book, “knowledge” is pretty much equated with lies, but:

      Common sense is wisdom, and wisdom is different from knowledge. You are wise when you no longer act against yourself. You are wise when you live in harmony with yourself, with your own kind, with all of creation.
This almost sounds like the Native American concept of the “Beauty Way”, although in this context drawing a lot on how emotions conflict with “knowledge”, and end up with us all “acting against ourselves”. Interestingly, there is a place here where the Fifth Agreement (“Be skeptical, but learn to listen.”) is foreshadowed the better part of a decade before that book appeared, in the context of introducing Ruiz's Four Agreements:

If you want to know the truth, if you are ready to take your faith out of the lies, then remember: Don't believe yourself, and don't believe anybody else. This will give you clarity about many things. …
The best moments of your life are when you are authentic, when you are being yourself. When you are in your creation and doing what you love to do, you become what you really are again. You are not thinking in that moment; you are expressing.
The book ends up in the outer reaches of this all. Ruiz describes the moment that the whole “dreaming” thing became real to him – at the time of a near-fatal (or fatal, but he “came back”) car crash, when his consciousness was hovering outside of his body, looking down on his physical form. This leads him to reconsider pretty much all of reality, and bringing his questions to his grandfather and his mother (his was a family of healers, and obviously of practicing shamans). His mother tells him: “The only way for you to experience that reality is to master dreaming. To do this, you have to completely detach from what you believe you are; you have to let go of the story of your life.” To help him with this, she does something very Castaneda-esque – assembling a working group of 21 people to train, who met every Sunday for three years to go “into dreaming for eight to twelve hours”. His subsequent stories of attempting to maintain that state full-time while working as a medical doctor are fascinating. He describes normal experience like being bats echolocating, we form words to define things, but those are just sounds, and when we awake from the dream, we “see” a world of color and beauty that is beyond the grasp of words.

As you might expect, the paperback of The Voice of Knowledge is still in print, and could probably be had at your local book vendor. The cover price on it is quite reasonable, which is good, because the on-line big boys don't have it at much of a discount, and, oddly, the new/used guys don't have it for particularly cheap either.

To reiterate, I have a substantial background in similar material to this, so I probably connected with it on a more expansive level than most readers might. I'm also, of course, a cynical old coot, so I didn't have the “ooooh, this is so wonderful!” reaction that the patchouli crowd could be suspected of exhibiting. I do, however, recommend this for the wisdom it offers … if the whole package being a bit hard to swallow – definitely a “your mileage may vary” nod, as this may well be too “out there” for many.


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Thursday, May 4th, 2017
11:05 pm
Roles you need around you ...
This was one of those books that I sought out after it being noted/recommended/referenced in another book I was reading/reviewing. While this happens from time to time, it isn't a given that I'll “pull the trigger” on ordering, and it's even less frequent that I really like the title in question. It turns out that what was recommending this book in the one that referenced it is that this is the summarization of the research done by the Gallup Organization on the question (and proposed matrix of relationships) of friendship. Tom Rath's Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without is based on eight million interviews, assorted experiments, and a deep delving into the existing literature. At one point in here, the author notes:

As much as I love numbers and statistics, I could easily spend a couple hundred pages discussing the findings from our research, but that would cause most of you to close this book for good.
... and this is sort of reflected in the organization and flow of the book. There is clearly a sense that there is a mass of data behind the reasonably breezy writing, but the nuggets of data only come out in bits and pieces, rather than in a more wide-reaching context.

The book is also divided up somewhat oddly, with four “parts”: Friends In Life, Friends At Work, Developing Vital Friendships, and Building Vital Friendships At Work … plus the last quarter of the book being taken up by several Appendixes. The core bit on the “Vital Friends” doesn't come in until Chapter 11, following six chapters in the “Life” section, and three in the “Work” part. Most of these are based on “stories” about various people the author had interviewed or studied, ranging from a homeless man (whose life had spiraled down from a very stable and successful point, largely due to his losing his friend-based support system at work) to the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill. One of the factoids presented here grabbed my attention:

During our teenage years we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time spent with friends is less than 10%.
The “Life” section especially deals with ways that friends influence us, from our diets (we're 5x as likely to have, for example, a healthy diet, if our “best friend” has one), to our surviving disease (in one study, subjects that had fewer than four friends were more than twice as likely to die than those with four or more … although the effect plateaued at four, having more didn't increase the survival benefit).

One of the concepts that keeps coming up here is that of a “best friend”, which appears to have a special influence in one's satisfaction (or “engagement”) with work. Rath points out:

You might notice that we used the term “best friend” in our interviews. We did so because our early research indicated that having a “best friend” at work – rather than just a “friend” or even a “good friend” – was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes. Apparently, the word “friend” by itself has lost most of its exclusivity.
... this perhaps anticipating the effects of the terminology of social media where one might have thousands of “friends” without really knowing any but a handful of them. The effects of having a “best friend” at work are pretty dramatic:

Overall, just 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. If you are fortunate enough to be in this group, you are seven times as likely to be engaged in your job. Our results also suggest that people without a best friend at work all but eliminate their chances of being engaged during the workday.
Despite this, many companies actively disapprove of outside-of-work socialization of employees … with a third of the 80,000 managers surveyed opposing these friendships, and only 18% of organizations encouraging employee fraternization … and some going so far as to have anonymous 1-800 numbers set up to report on fellow employees seen socializing outside of work!

And, while having one “best friend” at work improves job engagement by 12x:

People with at least three close friends at work were 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life.
... that's a pretty amazing stat – but its based on their research cross-referencing questions about how many close friends the respondents had, how many of those were at work, and questions about general life satisfaction. Still, a majority of companies are ambivalent to opposed to employee friendships.

This brings us to the “Vital Friends” of the title, and Rath kindly defines what he means by this: 1. Someone who measurably improves your life. 2. a person at work or in your personal life who you can't afford to life without. … although he does go into a bit more depth on it. One thing that he describes as “the big 'aha!' for our research team” is the assorted study respondents describing friends who were very good at a few things, which led to the conceptualizing of the “eight Vital Roles”. I wish the author had put in a concise one-line description for each of these, rather than the (admittedly, more nuanced) paragraph that each section starts with. However, I'm going to grab the intro sentence of each just to give you the broad strokes of what these entail:

            Builder – great motivators, always pushing you toward the finish line
            Champion – stands up for you and what you believe in
            Collaborator – a friend with similar interests – the basis for many great friendships
            Companion – is always there for you, whatever the circumstances
            Connector – a bridge builder who helps you get what you want
            Energizer – your “fun friends” who always give you a boost
            Mind Opener – the friends who expand your horizons and encourage you to embrace new ideas, opportunities, cultures, and people
            Navigator – the friends who give you advice and keep you headed in the right direction

In each of these there are repeating parts, the defining paragraph, “(role)s In Action” which has quotes from respondents referring to this sort of friend in their life, a bunch of blank lines where you are supposed to list “Who Are Your (role)s?”, some action points suggesting how you could be “Strengthening Your (role)s”, similar bits for “Creating New (role)s In Your Life”, and things to do “If You Are A (role)”.

So, you're asking yourself, how the heck am I supposed to know who's what with this?, well, there is a web site at vitalfriends.com which has apparently been simplified since this book came out (in 2006), which is good in that it no longer requires a number from the book jacket to access it, but is, I take it, much less comprehensive than what's mentioned in the text. It does, however, let you take a friend, and walk through a battery of questions, which end up with an analysis of your relation to that friend in terms of these “vital roles”, which you can print at the end. Obviously, the intent here is that you will plug in some sub-set of your Rolodex and come up with a list to work with.

I found the transition back to the fourth “Building Vital Friendships At Work” part of the book somewhat bizarre, especially as its four chapters barely take up 20 pages, but I guess this does sort of reveal the focus that Gallup has for this – as a kind of “workplace guide to friendship” or the like. As noted, the book has a substantial portion of its page count dedicated to appendixes, with the first one being a reasonably useful “Your Questions”, where the author addresses 12 of the most common inquiries he'd received. Next there's a case study that starts out with a factoid that just 17% of employees feel their organization's leadership encourages friendships. Here he looks at the automobile industry, from the heavy-handed management style of Henry Ford, through the classic years of the “Big Three”, and into more recent efforts (often by foreign manufacturers opening plants in the U.S.) to change the “us vs. them” tone. This is followed by a “Technical Report” on the research, which is filled with tables, and sections like “Factor Analyses” and “Criterion Relatedness” (cue eyes glazing over). Finally there's the “Gallup Research On Friendships” which goes into the who/how/what stuff that was tapped for the book … oddly, back here is the only place with some fancy “data visualization”, a graphic with three 3D pie charts showing degrees of work engagement in three different employee “friend states” – the book would have been greatly improved had they included this sort of thing at several places in the text!

Anyway, as mentioned, Vital Friends is a bit long in the tooth at this point (a decade or more old), but I don't suppose the core issues addressed here are likely to have shifted significantly in the intervening years. It is, no doubt, the reason there wasn't a comment regarding social media in relation to the note that the word “friend” by itself has lost most of its exclusivity, as in 2006, this was hardly a factor, and certainly not as ubiquitous as today.

This does appear to still be in print, so you could probably get a copy via your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor, however, there are used copies of this out there for under a buck, and amazingly, the on-line big boys (as of this writing) have new copies going at a 72% discount … such a deal!

To sum up, this is a quite accessible book dealing with a big research project … which, as the author is quoted up top admitting, could have been a thick mass of the sort of stuff that is here limited to Appendix C. It's an interesting read, and just on the volume of data involved, makes a reasonably persuasive case for the suggested definitions and dynamics of the assorted “vital roles”.


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Tuesday, April 4th, 2017
12:38 pm
"Breaking apart empty space"
Sometimes I have little bookmarks pointing out things that I'd like to use in these reviews, sometimes I have ones pointing to on-line resources, and sometimes I have them noting books that I want to check out. This one got into my hands due to the latter scenario, as it had been mentioned several times in a book I recently read on Korean Zen. I was, however, somewhat surprised when I got into J.C. Cleary's (a well-known translator of Zen texts) A Buddha from Korea: The Zen Teachings of T'aego, as I was anticipating a collection of the writings of the 14th Century Korean Zen Master T'aego, possibly with some contextifying commentary, but that's not what this book is. This is pretty much two books, the first being an extensive essay on T'aego, Korea in his era, the history of Buddhism, Zen, and other traditions in Eastern Asia, what was happening in the geopolitical world at the time, etc., and the second being the translation of 131 bits and pieces penned by T'aego.

While the initial essay (which takes up half the book) is interesting, it only got one of my bookmarks, perhaps reflecting that I'd picked up the book to delve deeper into the teachings of T'aego, and not into 14th Century Korean culture/politics, etc. I would have likewise preferred it if the material in the second half was presented with commentary. The following is the one thing I marked in the front part of the book, and it has more to do with my interest in books than anything about T'aego:

Many East Asian Buddhists made the long hazardous journey to Central Asia and India to bring back authentic texts. Temples collected copies of scriptures, and rulers sponsored vast compendium editions by paying for the printing blocks and arranging for copies to be printed and distributed to major temples. The first printed books were Buddhist sutras.
While I can appreciate that doing a walk-through of the material dilutes the immediacy of the Zen teaching, so much of this is so lacking in context (specific to the particular texts), that it leaves things remarkably vague, where some clarity would be easy enough to provide, if at least in the form of defining mentioned characters, or noting where things would have been “common knowledge” at the time. For an example, here's a bit for text 6. The Supreme Truth:

… Old Shakyamuni said, “The enlightenment of all the buddhas is far beyond all the words and talk.” So how could the work in our supreme school's vehicle use doings or words? Contrived doings are playing with the spirit. Words are the dregs. As for the true correct way of showing [reality], all the buddhas of past, present and future “hang their mouths on the wall” and all the generations of enlightened teachers hide their bodies in the weeds. Linji shouted when they entered the gate; Deshan hit them: what child's play!
      Knowing early on that it is like this, I was forced to take my empty hands and wander like a cloud over the world seeking teachers and inquiring after the Path. It was like putting a head on top of a head. It also attracted suspicion from people. Looking back on it coldly, it embarrasses me to death. In the past in my native land I hid myself in the mountain valleys and did not sell the Buddha Dharma cheap to worldly people, or bury the wind of Zen [in worldly concerns]. I have just gone on this way, totally at ease, expansive and free, independent, happy, alive.
There are some parts of these which do set up where/when/who for the quotes, which appear to be in the originals, if converted into current forms (such as noting “the fifteenth day of the first month of 1357”). However, this isn't defined as such, and there are various parts which are 3rd person reports of T'aego's activities. Also, a lot of the pieces are focused on the rulers of the time, with copious praise being ladled out, and official business being conducted within the text. Here's one that starts there, but then gets “very Zen”:

      When the rescript had been read aloud, T'aego picked up the whisk and said: “Is there anyone who is truly worthy of the vehicle of the school that has come down from antiquity? All the scriptures of the twelve-part canon of the five teachings and three vehicles are just piss left behind by an old barbarian. The buddhas and patriarchs were just guys talking about a dream in a dream. If you discuss them by making up reasons, you bury the vehicle of the school If you discuss them in terms of conventional truth, you are turning your back on the former sages. This way won't do, otherwise won't do, 'won't do' also won't do. If you are a legitimate patchrobed monk, you can see it beyond all the permutations of affirmation and denial.”
Needless to say, this is getting into that “don't know” territory … I keep waiting for him to say (like some of his current-day dharma descendants) “I hit you with stick!”. There are various “classic” Zen elements in here, and I'm not sure which ones preceded T'aego, and which came from him. The following is from a piece that was a teaching requested by the King, requiring T'aego to present the “essence” of Zen. This is just a small bit, but I thought it was worth passing along:

      At this moment you should look carefully at your original face before your father and mother were born. As soon as it is brought up, you awaken to it: then, like a person drinking water, you know yourself whether it is cool or warm. It cannot be described or explained to anyone else. It's just a luminous awareness covering heaven and earth.
This next one is from a letter sent to a layman student that starts out with the classic “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” the answer being “No.”, but:

… This word No is not the No of existence and one existence. It is not the No of true nothingness. Ultimately, what is it?
      When you arrive here, you must abandon all with your whole body, and not doing anything, not doing not-doing-anything. Go straight to the empty and free and vast, with no pondering what to think. The previous thought is already extinct, the following thought does not arise, the present thought is itself empty. You do not hold to emptiness, and you forget you are holding on. You do not reify this forgetting: you escape from not reifying and the escape too is not kept. When you reach such a time, there's just a spiritual light that's clearly aware and totally still, appearing as a lofty presence.
While, as these Zen things go, this passage is reasonably straight forward {note: that "one existence" is in the text, yet I'm guessing it's a transcription error for "non-existence", but, obviously, I could be wrong}, I still feel that a paragraph or two of explanatory copy would be quite useful for most of these. The reader is not sitting at the feet of the Master and getting full-on transmission, so some wordless gesture is unlikely to manifest indicating sudden enlightenment ... I, at least, would appreciate having bits of this predigested somewhat by framing them in how they've played out over the centuries of pedagogical use. A few of these pieces are long-ish (at 3-4 pages), and many hover around a page, but about half of them are simply 4-line "poems" (there's no indication if the original Korean had a rhyme structure, and Cleary certainly doesn't attempt to impose one on them) which are frequently just "word pictures" of things in and around T'aego's mountain retreat. I figured I'd toss in one of these (albeit more "philosophical" than descriptive) for illustration:

86. "THE PATH OF EMPTINESS"

This emptiness is not empty emptiness
This Path is not a path that can be considered a path
Where peaceful extinction is totally extinct
Perfect illumination is complete and final
Anyway, while I got quite a lot out of reading A Buddha from Korea, it wasn't exactly what I went into it looking for. Will you like it? Well, "don't know" ... just keep in mind the "two books" idea here, with the broad strokes of T'aego's world in 14th Century Korea up front, and the writings simply presented by themselves following. This is still in print (probably as a text book?), so you might well be able to get it via your local brick-and-mortar, which considering the online big boys have it going for full cover price (and I appear to have snagged the last cheap used one!), might be your best bet.


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Monday, April 3rd, 2017
3:47 pm
It really was more of a civil war than a revolution ...
As those who follow along at home appreciate, I get my books from a number of different sources, some of which throw a significant bit of serendipity in my reading stream. One of these, of course, is the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, in which LT members get to request any number of the titles being made available to LTER (I think I average 4) each month, and a computer program, “The Almighty Algorithm”, determines who gets what, based on compatibility factors of the title info the publishers have provided, and the content of the users' libraries. Now, what's offered each month is heavily skewed to fiction, which I typically don't read, so the pool of plausible books is small to start, and it's a rare thing where I'm really interested in getting a book, so my filter is largely “I might be interested in reading that” rather that “ooh, ooh, pick ME, pick ME!”.

Holger Hoock's Scars of Independence: America's Violent Birth is an example of this dynamic. While, over the decades, I've read enough military history that my library looks like a good match, it's not a subject that I have any burning current interest in … and within that genre, the American Revolution has only been a minor player. So, I approached this fairly lengthy (at ≈ 550 pages) volume with a certain trepidation, seeing it more as a “chore” than anything else.

Fortunately, the book is quite engaging, and for the most part avoids drifting into dry “textbook” writing. It also covers in its spread a lot of information about the U.S.'s founding conflict that I had (to my present recall) never heard of. Seriously, the scope of the war was far broader and geographically more far flung than had ever crossed my mind. For somebody hailing from D.A.R. ancestors, one would think I'd have had a better grasp on at least the broad strokes, but I was constantly hitting data points here that frankly amazed me (such as elements of the war that happened in the South, while I'd always had a mental image of the whole thing being pretty much in the Boston-to-Washington zone).

The author hails from Germany, and was educated at Cambridge and Oxford, so certainly can be supposed to be bringing an “enemy” perspective to this work, and that context seems to be what gives birth to the whole project, in being a look at the conflict that's not the “standard American” take on things. I assume that there have been numerous books over the last couple of centuries that have presented the British version of the war, and 240 years down the road is a long time to wait to re-frame things, but even if that was conceptually the genesis of this, the author does not set the book up in that mode, but more takes a hard look at how ugly it all was.

As opposed to the simplified “Colonists vs. British” dynamic that got instilled in my head, what Hoock presents here is really the tale of a civil war, with there being sizable numbers of “Loyalist” Americans (half of my ancestry ended up in Canada for a while due to this) that the Crown was at least nominally devoted to protecting, obviously along with the land holdings and tax base that the colonies represented. For such a lengthy (and interesting) book, I was surprised to find that I had only stuck in two of my little bookmarks to point me to choice bits to use in the review … here's one of them:

Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America's first civil war than is commonly acknowledged. What is often celebrated as the Patriots' groundbreaking infrastructure of revolution – and community, district, and colonial-level committees do indeed represent a significant achievement of political mobilization – was, for Loyalists an apparatus of oppression and terror.
There are fairly horrific stories of violence on both sides of the conflict, from having Loyalists tarred-and-feathered to having British forces indulging in “no quarter” attacks on Patriot troops (leaving behind savagely dismembered corpses). One of the binds that the British were in was that they were unwilling to deal with the Colonists in terms of “rules of war”, as that would imply that the Americans were, in fact, a government per se, and not just traitors to the Crown. The American side is presented as being remarkably modern in how it played all the reports of excesses of the British to the press of the day … no doubt part of that “infrastructure of revolution” mentioned in the above quote … building up the moral cause.

While the book does move through the timeline of the Revolution, it's not a specifically linear look at the war, but jumps around from one type of unpleasantry to the next, and, given the length of the book, there is quite a lot of material on all of this. Given that I don't have a bunch of quotes good to go, I thought it might be most useful to highlight a lot of the factoids that I found surprising, as I'm guessing (unless one is a Revolution fanatic, one is likely to have the same “mythologized” image of the war as I did) that these will give you a sense of how disturbingly illuminating the book is.

First of all, I had no idea that for the entire duration of the war, the British held New York City, with it essentially being their capitol during the conflict. Heck, I lived in NYC when I was a kid, and this didn't register with me at all. I also sort of had the impression that the British officer corps were somewhat untested, but many were veterans of the Seven Years' War, and, institutionally, the British military had been hardened by putting down the Jacobite rebellions (especially in Scotland) earlier in the century. Another element, on both sides, was the dreadful conditions under which a lot of prisoners were held, with the Colonists using mines and the British using “prison ships” anchored in the New York harbor … both of these were really awful places, and the death rate (especially on the prison ships) was shocking.

As alluded to above, I really had very little concept that the war extended into the Southern states, but these were very important to Britain's shipping and commerce, involving both American cotton and sugar from the Caribbean colonies. The other bookmark I have in here deals with this part of the war:

… wide swaths of the American lower South presented a scary scene – a virtually permanent little war of raiding and plundering between Patriot and Loyalist militias, prisoner abuse, even outright murder. In addition, armed gangs unaffiliated with any real military units operated in the semi-lawless wasteland between the lines. To put the levels of violence in perspective, it is worth recalling that South Carolina in 1780 and 1781 saw nearly one-fifth of all battlefield deaths of the entire American war, and nearly one-third of all battlefield wounded. Strikingly, the majority of these casualties resulted from American-on-American violence.
Which sounds like it was a tune-up for the “real” Civil War in later years. In fact, slavery was a hot topic at the time, with raids happening on both sides to steal slaves, and slaves being used in the militaries of each side, sometimes as spies, sometimes as soldiers, and sometimes, with small-pox infections, as biological weapons. Of course, “not wanting a good crisis to go to waste”, a lot of slaves took the opportunity to escape from their plantations during the chaos. The British even attempted a ploy of emancipation, but this was highly unpopular with not only the Loyalist slave owners, but was seen as a dangerous precedent in many of their other colonies around the globe. And, once Benjamin Franklin managed to arrange an alliance with France, the scope of the war pretty much de facto expanded to being a global conflict, as Britain's traditional foes began to strike at other parts of the empire, requiring reassignment of troops and supplies.

Another part of the war which hadn't really gotten on my radar was the Colonial forces going up against the “Six Nations” of the Iroquois Confederation, one of which, the Oneida, sided with the Americans, but the rest, the Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora, being in alliance with the British and the Canadian provinces. There had been a good deal of conflict with the Native American tribes and the fledgling USA as the latter started to push at its western borders, and the Iroquois tribes felt they'd be better served by throwing in with the British Crown. Frankly, from the descriptions here, the level of “scorched earth” attacks that the Colonists resorted to does sound a bit like a planned destruction of the Natives, essentially clearing out an impediment to further expansion after the war.

Again, there is so much material in Scars of Independence that I'd never heard of, that it really becomes an amazing, if sobering, read. The white-washed “popular” view of the Revolution was deliberately constructed to calm the populace after the horrors of the war, but the reality of the struggle begins to sound more like the Balkans than the tidy grade-school version that at least I recall. As much as we've “kissed and made up” with the British in the past century, it's disturbing to see just how brutal things were at one point.

This isn't officially out yet (it has a May 9 release date), but you can pre-order it through the on-line big boys, who are currently offering about half off of cover (if you don't want to wait for it to show up at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor). If you're into history, global politics, military stuff, or the Revolutionary period, you'll probably really like this. All others should consider how much they want their national fairy tales disturbed … it's quite revealing, but not in a way that makes anybody look particularly noble.


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Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
12:34 pm
Wondering if there IS such a thing ...
Oh, dear … it's happened again. I get a book by somebody I know, and “have issues” with it, which makes me very uncomfortable writing the review. To be perfectly honest (and I'm not proud to say it), I'm going to tip-toe through some things here that I would have been all over if this wasn't by a local acquaintance. Mind you, most of what I would have been casting a negative light on here is on the layout and editing … and the author, in the Introduction, specifically says: “But if you find typos, funky formatting or otherwise unacceptable communication in this book – please spare me the negative reviews on those grounds alone”. What's ironic is that she's constantly through the book encouraging readers to hire folks to do what you can't … and I know of a guy (ahem) who spent 10 years running a publishing company who she could have tapped for some editorial assistance. Especially given that this is a CreateSpace (Amazon's print-on-demand publishing service) book. I recently found an egregious typo (that had escaped my editorial eyeballing in perhaps a dozen read-throughs) in one of my review collections, and it was fixed, with the corrected version available globally, within 18 hours. The cycle would, obviously, be a bit longer for a book with numerous things “in need of fixing”, but within a couple of days a nice tidy new version would be out there. Pity. {and, for one plainly snarky comment: I contacted the author 2-3 times, basically asking whether she'd be interested in my keeping a running notation on what needed attention, and got no response}

Anyway, all that being said (or, more specifically, not said/detailed), Julia Kline's The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sleaze-Free Selling: The 3-Step Sales Formula for Growing Your Business ... Without Being Obnoxious, Pushy or Rude is a pretty good book, and it looks like I have something like a dozen of my bookmarks in it (although some of these are pointing me back to some resources she outlines at various points). I've known Julia for quite a while, she having been active in assorted marketing groups in town (and heck, she lives just a few blocks away), and I've heard her speak at a couple of events. In fact, it was when she was recently doing a presentation at a Chicago Freelancers Union event that I got this book, having lucked out in a drawing for a copy. She has an interesting bio, having gone from direct selling, to real estate, to her current coaching gig (which has a sort of “new age” over-lay, from doing “mind-set coaching” to the name of her website, http://IntuitiveBusinessWoman.com/).

Needless to say, to title a book “sleaze-free”, implies that there is the sleazy alternative out there, and sales certainly fits the bill in most folks' perceptions. I guess I need to throw in another caveat … most of what she's got in here (and the examples she uses) aren't for everybody's business. I've spent a lot of time trying to fit her “method” to anything that I'm currently doing and much of it just doesn't fit. In most of the coaching stories she goes into, her clients are in “high touch” businesses, where client/customer contact is essential … from a Tantra trainer to a motorcycle salesman to a heating/air-conditioning contractor to a mortgage broker, etc. … hardly “add to cart” territory.

One of the more attractive elements of the book are the “action plan” sections at the end of each chapter, which frame the information preceding it into step-by-step tasks to get the reader (or at least the readers with the right type of business) moving along in the process. By the way, the “3-step formula” is pretty direct: 1 – Convince the prospect that they have a Big Problem. 2 – Convince the prospect that you are the best option for solving that. 3 – Make them think that taking the next step with you is “simple, painless, and easy”. Oddly, these three steps are very similar to what she has blocked out as the “sleazy” approach, just with slightly different spins to each. Frankly, one piece she had in here was very “triggering” for me (having PTSD over financial stuff), which reminded me of people who would not take “no” for an answer that I've had to deal with in the past, or, for that matter, “coaching” I had back when trying to do network marketing:

If you think customers don't buy from you because they can't afford it, I'm here to tell you that's complete and utter hogwash. People always find the money for the products and services they really want. Always.
This is the non-sleazy approach?

One of the clues that this book is really for “high touch” operations is the (fairly central) concept of finding one's “Ideal Customer” … which she says is best determined by “carefully analyze who has already bought from you in the past”, which, again, is kind of hard if one's business model involves driving “add to cart” clicks on various web sites. She coaches the reader to learn to say “no” to some – non-ideal – customers … “you can only get to say 'yes' to all of those Ideal Customers by saying no to the less than ideal ones”.

In the chapter on customers she has little exercises (one question per) following each of the case studies, asking the reader to determine what's their customer's desired outcome, what their “Big Problem” is, how you might represent the Ideal Customer, how you should profile your customers, and how to segment your efforts if you have two (but not more than two) sets of Ideal Customers; and all of this leading into the “action plan” which goes into these concepts in a bit more detail. She also presents strategies for helping your customers “overcome their own doubt, hopelessness and fear” – which I guess is the “non-sleazy” way of saying “overcoming their objections”.

Part Two of the book starts out looking at ways of getting more customers. Frankly, I had sort of anticipated that there would be more clearly evident differences between sleazy selling and non-sleazy selling, but it's probably my distaste for sales tactics (on either side of the table), that even the “non” sounds iffy to me in a lot of these. Kline does have a good “litmus test” for deciding on which side of the line a pitch falls:

The way you avoid sounding like a sleaze-ball in your lead gen is to always imagine that you're talking to your customer face-to-face. Live, and in person. If you feel no queasiness about delivering your message when you're looking your customer in the eye, then you know you're delivering a message that's authentic and heart-felt.
She follows this with a list of questions to ask oneself when launching into lead generation:

            1. Do you know for certain this person has the problem that you solve?
            2. Are you truly offering a solution to that problem?
            3. Is your solution better than any other one they could choose?

She says: “If your answer to any of those questions is no, then it's likely that you're not serving he person by talking to them.”, which I find bizarre … it may be the Libra in me, but I've never been able to bring that level of certainty to anything, which is probably why I've always sucked at sales. And, of course, this is where that line between “sleazy” and not starts to look mighty hazy and grey, as, to me anybody who is presenting themselves as all three of those would seem VERY suspect! Anyway …

This then moves into strategies for lead generation, including “Networking”, “Word of Mouth” (which has four “tactics” which manage to include referral programs and affiliate marketing, for which she also includes a pitch to those who might want to be featured in subsequent books – and there are numerous links here pointing off to “resources” on her web site), “Sharing what you do with an interested audience” (which has another four tactics, from speaking on stage to doing “telesummits”, with a half dozen plugs for businesses offering these services), “Interruption Marketing” which most folks know as advertising (again, another four “tactics”: Pay-Per-Click, Facebook, Radio, and Direct Mail, each with links to providers), finally, there's “Discovery Marketing”, which she defines as “what's happening when a consumer has a problem, so they go looking for a solution – typically online.”, this has eight “tactics”, ranging from “Be An Author” (which is the most extensive thing in this section, looking at various options, from traditional to self-publishing, and a lot of info on Kindle – including the very interesting way of being able to build a list of your Kindle buyers through offering a free download within the book, which will let you capture their info) to Twitter efforts, and even the old P.R. stand-by of Press Releases … all with various links (I've actually begun to wonder if Kline had released this book first on Kindle and only later had it ported over to print via CreateSpace, as there's a whole lot of can't-click-it-because-it's-paper action going on).

The next chapter is about “the ask”, “How to talk to a potential customer about buying …”, and she makes the rather good point that “there's nothing sleazy about being paid for what you do … there is also nothing sleazy about asking to be paid for what you do”. She recommends creating a 2-step offer, the first step being an “initial” offer which is low-cost or even free, but “makes it easy for a potential customer to say 'yes' to continuing the conversation with you”, and the second being your “big” offer, “the thing you were trying to sell in the first place”. She goes into quite a lot of detail here, looking at various aspects of what makes a good initial offer, from how to conceptualize it in relation to the big offer, to specifics of how to “package” various types of initial offers. Kline frames some very interesting approaches in this, saying that “your initial offer should always be something that sets you up to present your Big Offer”, and that it “must address your customer's Big Problem” (although not actually solving anything), plus

… it must give you a chance to shine … it should let you do the thing you're absolutely best at doing – and thereby demonstrate that you would be great at solving their Big Problem …
The last chapter is titled “Never again allow even a single sale to slip through your fingers.”, which is a pretty big promise. This basically walks the reader through the whole process up to this point, and then launches into a pitch for “systematized marketing”, looking at email, phone, direct mail, texting, and social media follow up. She devotes a fairly sizable appendix to detailing a suggested email program, including discussion and examples of a sequence of 10 emails to go out over a 3-week stretch.

One thing I found interesting here was her insistence that in every communication you send out to prospects you should include “the details of the product you have to sell, how much it costs, and what they need to do next in order to buy it”, and gives an example of somebody who was marketing to her, but had no specifics in the initial email … the sender being so locked into the “flow” of information she'd crafted, that:

She replied, “Yes, but I wanted to send out my full sequence of informational emails before I tell you what it is.” Doh! I couldn't believe it. I wanted to buy right then! But she wouldn't let me.
… and by the time the next four emails showed up, Kline was too busy to read them. There's a nice section header here: “Non-Persistent Followup Means Failure” … which sets up the Systematized followup material. One thing stood out particularly here, and that was: if one has defined your Ideal Customers, and what their Big Problem is, you don't have to customize any of your materials … they'll all respond to the same Initial Offer, they initially rejected (or not) the Big Offer “for the same handful of reasons”, and those objections can be overcome by the same sequence of followup marketing.

Again … I have a very low tolerance for the “sales cycle” in any form (other than basic stuff like Amazon or Walgreens – just don't “get in my face” with anything), so there was a lot of stuff in The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sleaze-Free Selling that still seemed at least “grey area” sleazy … but that's no doubt another of those frequent “Brendan is not like the other kids” moments and not an outright failing on the part of the book. As noted in the above, this seems to be very much targeted to certain types of business, primarily (aside from the motorcycle dealer examples) high-ticket consulting, coaching, or contracting services that require a lot of interpersonal rapport. That being said, there are certainly bits and pieces here which can be translated to other sorts of businesses that are more dependent on generating shopping cart clicks than relationships (and some of those dozens of affiliate links might have some useful stuff too … although I've not investigated any of them yet).

As is often the case with CreateSpace titles, there's not much of discount out there, but the book has a very reasonable cover price. Also, while CreateSpace books are available to brick & mortar booksellers, the odds of any given title being on the shelves is pretty slim unless the author has done a lot of pushing (at which point a regular publisher would have picked it up), so you could try jumping through those hoops, but it would be easiest, if this sounds like something you'd find useful, to simply order it on-line.


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Monday, February 20th, 2017
1:34 pm
A classic ...
It's hard to be a conservative in the U.S. and not at least have a general awareness of Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, but this never seriously got on my radar until I read Wayne Allyn Root's The Conscience of a Libertarian, for which this was not only (as one might suspect) an inspiration, but something that Root claims to carry around with him constantly. As W.A.R. and I tend to agree on most things political, I figured I should get a copy.

Now, this is somewhat “vintage” at this point (Root's book was his effort at a 50th anniversary update to Goldwater's original), having come out in 1960, and many things (especially the dollar figures noted) seem laughably quaint today … although the basic philosophical points around conservative principles still ring true. The book is reasonably slim, at about 125 pages, and, as much as I hate to say it, the last chapter, representing 30% of that, is easily skippable (although it is, by 2-3x, the longest chapter in the book), dealing as it does with The Soviet Menace (unless, of course, one edits in “progressive” for “Soviet”, at which point much of it would also ring true … although the odds of progressive forces advancing into Poland do seem pretty low). Frankly, I wish I'd gotten into this either right before or right after reading Pure Goldwater, as it would have been a great addition to the massive amount of material in that collection.

The book is set up thematically, with Goldwater addressing various issues of the day and placing these within a Conservative context. Of course, the world in 1960 was a very different place from the one we see in 2017, both to the bad and the good. A sense that one can get from that other Goldwater book noted above is how ...well, it's probably the wrong word to use in this context, but … “progressive” Goldwater was for a man of his era, free of nearly all the cultural prejudices that one might stereotypically assign. However, he was no fan of the sort of coddling that has become the doctrine of government, media, academia, and the arts, and there are various warnings he has here that accurately predict the sort of “delicate snowflake” society America has devolved into.

I have a half-dozen or so of my little bookmarks in here for what I felt were the “good parts”, and I think I'll mainly let these speak for Sen. Goldwater, rather than making a ham-handed attempt to paraphrase what he's getting at. These two bits are from the initial chapter (sharing a title with the book), which sets up the author's view on what is meant by “conservative” (these are separated by a few paragraphs, but I think flow well together):

We have heard much in our time about “the common man.” It is a concept that pays little attention to the history of a nation that grew great through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men. The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery.

and …

      With this view of the nature of man, it is understandable that the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order. The Conservative is the first to understand that the practice of freedom requires the establishment of order: it is impossible for one man to be free if another is able to deny him the exercise of his freedom. But the Conservative also recognizes that the political power on which order is based is a self-aggrandizing force; that its appetite grows with eating. He knows that the utmost vigilance and care are required to keep political power within its proper bounds.
As I mentioned, this is to a large extent a book of political philosophy, generally avoiding the nitty-gritty of specific issues of the day (which would certainly have made this read as quite dated), although a number of bills are discussed, and a few names (most now largely forgotten) bandied about. While I felt the extensive “Soviet” chapter is superfluous to this, there are bits of geopolitical thinking detailed there as well that do fit the tone of the rest, if disjointed from the eventual history.

In the “Perils of Power” chapter, Goldwater takes a hard look at the nature of government and those who would and do govern. This is long-ish, at two paragraphs, but I thought worthwhile to share:

      Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man's liberty. Government represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men. And power, as Lord Acton said, corrupts men. “Absolute power,” he added, “corrupts absolutely.”
      State power, considered in the abstract, need not restrict freedom: but absolute state power always does. The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods – the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends – that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom. And note, secondly, that the “can” quickly becomes “will” the moment the holders of government power are left to their own devices. This is because of the corrupting influence of power, the natural tendency of men who possess some power to take unto themselves more power – whether in the hands of one or many makes little difference to the freedom of those left on the outside.
One can only imagine what a nightmare the previous Alinsky-inspired administration would have been to Mr. Goldwater … almost a worst case scenario situation (especially with how the outgoing POTUS has been trying to sabotage the transition to Mr. Trump). Of course, by any measure, the cause of “smaller government” has suffered many defeats over the past 2/3rds of a century. Consider that the author was descrying the over-reach of government in 1960, a time when the Federal machinery was tiny compared to the Leviathan that it has become today. One of the topics that was, evidently, still “in play” back when this was written (but has since become anathematized by the big-government Left) is that of “states rights” which is the subject of the chapter from which the following comes from:

      The trouble with this argument {that “if the States fail to do their duty, they have only themselves to blame when the federal government intervenes”} is that it treats the Constitution of the United States as a kind of handbook in political theory, to be heeded or ignored depending on how it fits the plans of contemporary federal officials. The Tenth Amendment is not a “general assumption,” but a prohibitory rule of law. The Tenth Amendment recognizes the States' jurisdiction in certain areas. States' Rights means that the States have a right to act or not to act, as they see fit, in the areas reserved to them. The States may have duties corresponding to these rights, but the duties are owed to the people of the States, not to the federal government. Therefore, the recourse lies not with the federal government, which is not sovereign, but with the people who are, and who have full power to take disciplinary action. If the people are unhappy with {a particular program of their State}, they can bring pressure to bear on their state officials and, if that fails, they can elect a new set of officials. … The Constitution, I repeat, draws a sharp and clear line between federal jurisdiction and state jurisdiction. The federal government's failure to recognize that line has been a crushing blow to the principle of limited government.
This is a banner that Root took up in his book, advocating a return to a rule by the States and a severe lessening of the federal monstrosity. In the chapter on “civil rights” Goldwater expresses views that could have been penned any time in the past few years, when “legislating from the bench” has become a popular work-around for the Left whose agenda was otherwise stymied by popular rejection. The following is somewhat pulled from its context, but I think expresses the author's gut reaction to this sort of deliberate anti-Constitutional maneuvering:

The Constitution is what its authors intended it to be and said it was – not what the Supreme Court says it is. If we condone the practice of substituting our own intentions for those of the Constitution's framers, we reject, in effect, the principle of Constitutional Government: we endorse a rule of men, not of laws. …. I have great respect for the the Supreme Court as an institution, but I cannot believe that I display that respect by submitting abjectly to abuses of power by the Court, and by condoning its unconstitutional trespass into the legislative sphere of government.
Of course, over the intervening half century and more, the Statist forces have not only indulged in endless “unconstitutional trespass” but have solidified and institutionalized many of these transgressions so that those with no grasp of history (i.e. those educated by the government – how convenient) would assume that these “entitlements”, programs, and even governmental departments were how things “were supposed to be” and not perversions of the intent of the framers. In Goldwater's chapter on “the welfare state” he starts out with a look at how Marxism had failed in its frontal assault in the west, and was evolving a less direct approach (à la the Cloward-Piven Strategy) to achieve the same goals. I wonder if Goldwater knew of the likes of Saul Alinsky and the Frankfurt School, because this paragraph pretty much sums up that whole scheme:

      The current favored instrument of collectivization is the Welfare State. The collectivists have not abandoned their ultimate goal – to subordinate the individual to the State – but their strategy has changed. They have learned that Socialism can be achieved through Welfarism quite as well as through Nationalization. They understand that private property can be confiscated as effectively by taxation as by expropriating it. They understand that the individual can be put at the mercy of the State – not only by making the State his employer – but by divesting him of the means to provide for his personal needs and by giving the State the responsibility of caring for those needs from cradle to grave. Moreover, they have discovered – and here is the critical point – that Welfarism is much more compatible with the political processes of a democratic society. Nationalization ran into popular opposition, but the collectivists feel sure the Welfare State can be erected by the simple expedient of buying votes with promises of “free” federal benefits – “free” housing, “free” school aid, “free” hospitalization, “free” retirement pay and so on … The correctness of this estimate can be seen from the portion of the federal budget that is now allocated to welfare, an amount second only to the cost of national defense.
Of course, the Left loves “buying votes” (with “other people's money”), and the decades of this can be seen in the destruction of once-thriving communities that have succumbed to the social engineering of program after program after program that had no purpose other than institutionalizing Statist political control. Again, I think Goldwater would be horrified with how this played out over the years … and it will probably take a substantial re-visioning of how the government works (such as what Root proposes in his Libertarian book) to “stop the insanity”. The last little booknote I have in here is in the chapter on “education”, and, while the author goes into the unconstitutional incursion of the federal government into the control and direction of education (which, needless to say, was minuscule in his day compared to the current situation), what caught my eye here was his look at taxation. Mind you, this is written by a prominent long-time Senator, who has a very clear view of how this works. This is about as damning as you can get while still addressing the specifics:

      The truth, of course, is that the federal government has no funds except those it extracts from the taxpayers who reside in the various States. The money that the federal government pays to State X for education has been taken from the citizens of State X in federal taxes and comes back to them, minus the Washington brokerage fee. The less wealthy States, to be sure, receive slightly more than they give, just as the more wealthy States receive somewhat less. But the differences are negligible. For the most part, federal aid simply substitutes the tax-collecting facilities of the federal government for those of the local governments. This fact cannot be stressed often enough; for stripped of the idea that federal money is free money, federal aid to education is exposed as an act of naked compulsion – a decision by the federal government to force the people of the States to spend more money than they choose to spend for this purpose voluntarily.
Yes, that's part of the reason that Barry Goldwater is such a saint to the Libertarian movement … here's a man who is at the upper reaches of the government who is not afraid to accuse that government of unconstitutional “force” and “naked compulsion”!

Needless to say, I was quite impressed with The Conscience of a Conservative (with the caveats noted), and would recommend it to all and sundry … despite realizing that the Left/Liberal/Socialist/Statist (and whatever associated less-complimentary appellations might come to mind) folks out there will no doubt hate the message here. I'd actually recommend reading Pure Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative, and The Conscience of a Libertarian in that order, as the first of those will give you a solid background on Goldwater and this thought, this will walk you through his philosophy of Conservatism, and Root's book will update the spirit of this for the current century.

Picking up a copy of this should be no challenge, as it appears to be still in print in a couple of editions, including this paperback, which will set you back less than six bucks (and it's available in a Kindle edition for under a buck), so you might even want to go irritate the snowflakes at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, and order it through them!


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Saturday, February 11th, 2017
11:34 am
All we are saying ...
As those following along at home will no doubt have a pretty good sense of, I tend towards the depressed side of the bummed-happy gauge, and have been informed (generally in the wake of an infrequent ha-ha outburst) that I almost never laugh, generally going months with the most outwardly expressed levity being a wry chuckle. I bring this up because twice while reading this book I quite literally Laughed Out Loud … and to elicit an LOL event from me is something of a momentous achievement.

Of course, P.J. O'Rourke's Give War a Chance: Eyewitness Accounts of Mankind's Struggle Against Tyranny, Injustice and Alcohol-Free Beer is a collection of humorous articles that he wrote over a period of time, largely from less-than-funny settings where people were shooting at each other, and one would hope that he'd be spinning these tales in a way that wasn't as grim as they could be. Also, Mr. O'Rourke is “on my side of things” politically, and this book seemed to me to be even “more agreeable” on that level than the other books of his that I've read over the years.

Oh, and speaking of years … this is sort of “vintage” at this point, the book having come out in 1992, containing material that he'd written from 1988-1991 … so we're looking at stories that are at least a quarter-century old here. Given that I'm edging into “cranky old guy” territory, and so pretty clearly remember the stuff he's writing about, there is the constant danger that when he's mocking some public figure, said figure may well be long dead at this reading, and in some cases reasonably much forgotten. Fortunately, this is not much of a factor here (well, except in one part savaging the Carters, but they're an evergreen target for mockery) … although a 20-something hitting this might need to Google the hell out of it just to keep up. Why, you may ask, am I just now getting to a book that's been out for 25 years? Well, somewhat predictably, it's a find from this summer's Newberry Library Book Fair, a famed annual event, which is largely stocked by the contents of the libraries of many people who have died in the Chicago area over the previous year … so this is likely to be one of those “dead people's books” that I scored for a buck on NLBF's half-priced Sunday.

Well, on to the book … the pieces here initially appeared in a fairly wide assortment of media, with most being done for Rolling Stone where he is (and here's the first LOL instance) “the 'Foreign Affairs Desk Chief,” a title given to me because 'Middle-Aged Drunk' didn't look good on business cards”, and American Spectator … he does note, however, that ABC Radio ended up sending him to Saudi Arabia (solving his visa issues), where he filed what he admits were less-than-stellar audio bits. Others appeared in (or were commissioned by) such titles as New Republic, Playboy, Inquiry, Vanity Fair, and even Car & Driver and House & Garden. The book is broken into four generally thematic sections, the first, “The Birth, and Some of the Afterbirth, of Freedom”, dealing with the decline of Communism in various parts of the world, next “Second Thoughts”, which takes a look at a number of topics, from cars to drugs to our meddlings around the world, thirdly “A Call for a New McCarthyism”, which has fairly nasty things to say about the Carters, the Kennedys, and Lee Iacocca; and, finally, the titular “Give War a Chance”, with his boots-on-the-ground descriptions of the (first) Gulf War. Needless to say, with 27 pieces, and no unifying narrative arc (well, aside from what he suggests in the introduction), I'm going to be cherry-picking “the good parts” that got me sticking in bookmarks (or actually laughing) as I was reading this.

I did mention the political sympatico, right? Well, this gets off to a roaring start at the very first page, where he's defining the book:

      Anyway, it's a book about evil – evil ends, evil means, evil effects and causes. In a compilation of modern journalism there's nothing surprising about that. What does surprise me, on rereading these articles, is how much of the evil was authored or abetted by liberals. … every iniquity in this book is traceable to bad thinking or bad government. And liberals have been vigorous cheerleaders for both.
Talk about “preaching to the choir” and getting me involved early on! This is followed by a couple of pages picking apart liberalism in barbed detail, and, while I had a bookmark pointing to it, I'm thinking that anything that I'd snag from there would end up being longer than it ought to be here (Amazon's “look inside” feature unfortunately skips p.xx, where the choicest bits are, but does have p.xxi and p.xxii which at least give you a look at this).

One piece that sort of stands out as being somewhat out-of-place amid the other “geopolitical” tales is a May 1988 trip to Ulster to consider “the troubles” from his American Irish viewpoint. Perhaps it's, me, but I can't recall much of anything about Ireland being in the news, except for its burgeoning entrepreneurial and tech sectors … so maybe this was a last gasp for the worst of that conflict. The section that I marked in this was more for the age of the piece than for anything else:

Tony and I spent out last day in Northern Ireland with the police, who are much like the police anywhere in the world – apprehending shoplifters, tracing stolen VCRs, quieting domestic tiffs – except they perform these duties wearing flak vests, carrying submachine guns and riding in armored cars.
Uh, tracing VCRs? I remember (a long time ago) when a perfectly functional VCR could be had a Walgreens for under sixty bucks, so this is a look back into a dim and distant past when that video deck was a serious piece of technological equipment. Just sayin'. Oh, and while we're in the random look-at-that mode, in the intro to the “Second Thoughts” section, called “A Serious Problem”, there is a bon mot that I've already foisted on Facebook … “Seriousness is stupidity sent to college.” … sweet!

Now, sometimes my little bookmarks are hard to figure out when I get around to cranking out these reviews, and there's one sitting right up front in “Second Thoughts About the 1960's”, which I can not figure out what was choice enough to get it placed there. Not, mind you, that those two pages, with “What I Believed in the Sixties” (which starts out with “Everything. You name it and I believed it.”, and the launches into a long litany of specifics), and “What Caused Me to Have Second Thoughts” (with the rather delicious intro of “One distinct incident sent me scuttling back to Brooks Brothers.”), don't have fascinating tidbits, but I couldn't identify something to present to you. The main story of this chapter is about a “counterculture” newspaper that he worked on in Baltimore back in the day, but it then spins out from the “adolescent behavior” aspects of the 60's and into similar sorts of stupidity in assorted unpleasant places around the globe where the third worlders are acting towards Western Culture in general (and, of course, the U.S. in particular) the way a 16-year-old in the 60's acted towards their parents. The payoff on this marker is at the end, but I'm going to type up the whole scenario so that it comes with the right baggage:

In Ulundi, in Zululand, I talked to a young man who, as usual, blamed apartheid on the United States. However, he had just visited the U.S. with a church group and told me, 'Everything is so wonderful there. The race relations are so good. And everyone is rich.' Just what part of America had he visited, I asked. 'The South Side of Chicago,' he said.”
The next thing I marked was also about Africa, but about the delusional approaches that most bleeding-heart types have been trying in an effort to help. The start here is his reflections on the USA for Africa, Band Aid, Live Aid, and similar celebrity ego-jerks, the perpetrators of which “did have that self-satisfied look of toddlers on a pot.” … O'Rourke makes the Voltaire-like connection that:

      A mob, even an eleemosynary {yeah, I had to look it up too} mob, is an ugly thing to see. No good ever came of mass emotion. The audience that's easily moved to tears is as easily moved to sadistic dementia. People are not thinking under such circumstances. And poor, dreadful Africa is something which surely needs thought.
Later in the same piece, he goes into more details on just how bad most “aid” programs have been to Africa (be they originated by the governments there or by carpetbagging NGOs), and makes this rather arch note:

      Getting people to give vast amounts of money when there's no firm idea what that money will do is like throwing maidens down a well. It's an appeal to magic. And the results are likely to be as stupid and disappointing as the results of magic usually are.
Oh, I almost missed one of the best lines here (my bookmark must have dropped out), from his 1989 visit to Berlin, right after the fall of the Berlin wall:

      I had been in East Berlin three years before. And I had been standing on a corner of a perfectly empty Karl-Marx-Alee waiting for the light to change. All Germans are good about obeying traffic signals, but pre-1989 East Germans were religious. If a bulb burned out they'd wait there until the state withered away and true communism arrived. ...
I've gotten shrugs from that line when sharing it with family, but I though it was brilliant, and it's a pretty good intro into the next thing here, his pining for a new “Blacklist for the 1990s”. I'm truncating this a bit to make it more temporally general, but thought the following was pretty great:

God knows the problem is not a lack of Commies. There are more fuzzy-minded one-worlders, pasty-faced peace creeps and bleeding-heart bedwetters in America now than there ever were in 1954. … Academia … is a veritable compost heap of Bolshie brain mulch. Beardo the Weirdo may have been laughed out of real life in the 1970s, but he found a home in our nation's colleges, where he whiles away the wait for Woodstock Nation II by pestering undergraduates with cultural diversity and collectivist twaddle … And fellow travelers in the State Department? Jeeze, the situation is so bad at Foggy Bottom that we'd better hope it's caused by spies. If it's stupidity, we're really in trouble.
There's another bookmark that I'm not sure exactly what I was pointing to (I should, but won't, star the key phrases with a pencil while reading) in a rather odd chapter dealing with his interviewing Dr. Ruth Westheimer (remember her?). The only thing I could figure was this quite delightful observation:

      It can be hard for those of us with SAT scores exceeding our golf handicap to remember that ignorance is a renewable resource. Dr. Westheimer has tapped into vast proven reserves of it. Whatever she tells these people is bound to be an improvement on what they think now.
One of the things I found interesting in here was that he'd done some book reviews, including one of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's Everything To Gain in which he details five fun party games using the book. While these are hilarious (and cruel), it would be far too detailed for me to try to convey the essence of them … but the sense is that the book is so horrid that organized mockery is the only logical response … oh, and he even recommends a sixth game involving it – fetch with the dog. And, as much contempt as he has for the Carters, it's hardly even nasty in relation to the bile he saves for the Kennedys … but I'll leave that for your own discovery as well.

The last ten chapters of the book are all from the Gulf War, and are all, to a certain extent, more “straightforward” than much of the rest, as O'Rourke is actually in a situation where he's being asked to do some reporting rather than just framing stuff in snark. Having very clear recollections of that conflict (it was widely televised), I didn't need so much of the set-up, and appreciated his descriptions. However, it's hard to sift out the quotables from the more general material here … there is, after all (in 10 chapters), quite a lot of it. However, I did have a few places with bookmarks, and – without context of who/what/where – I'm just going to throw these at you. The following struck me as being particularly notable, due to its cynicism towards government spending habits:

We are sending 250,000 troops, six hundred fighter planes, three naval carrier groups and twenty-six B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf, a little late to save Kuwait, maybe but just in time to rescue the U.S. defense budget. One well-placed ICBM and Saddam Hussein would get the message, but that wouldn't prevent Congress from taking all our Stealth Bomber money and giving it to naked NEA performance artists to rub on their bodies while denouncing male taxpayers.
Ouch. He goes on to discuss the concept of our being “the world's policeman”, but says:“America is the World's policeman, all right – a big, dumb mick flatfoot in the middle of the one thing cops dread most, a 'domestic disturbance'.”, which, if you think of it, most of the middle-eastern conflicts do resemble. Elsewhere, he has “a good one” with:“… Aqaba, Jordan's only port and a would-be Red Sea tourist resort that looks like a Bulgarian's idea of Fort Lauderdale”, I seem to recall that the Bulgarians get blamed for a lot of bad architecture in the book. There is an interesting story about how he almost gets himself blown up by a box of RPGs that he discovered (and opened) when moving bricks from some fortifications the Iraqis had slapped together on the hotel roof (he was helping get some broadcast equipment set up), which he later heard from a Special Forces guy (who was unaware that O'Rourke had previously encountered it) that they had found one booby trap – a box of RPGs (right where he'd been), that had a hand-grenade with the pin out – and said “man, if anybody had jiggled that box ...”. One more politically engaging comment (although he doesn't actually mention the decades of Democratic Party management in these locales) is this lovely reflection:

If we want to demoralize the population of Iraq and sap their will to fight, we ought to show them videotapes of the South Bronx, Detroit City, and the West Side of Chicago. Take a look, you Iraqis – this is what we do to our own cities in peacetime. Just think about what we're going to do to yours in a war.
This 1992 hardback of Give War A Chance is long out of print, but there is a 2003 paperback edition which is still available. The new/used guys do have “like new” copies, however, for the magic 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) price, were you interested in checking this out. As noted, for as old as this is (and being in the “topical humor” niche), O'Rourke's writing has aged remarkably well. Aside from some noted anachronisms like VCRs and mentions of “who was that?” people like Tammy Faye Bakker (who appears in one of the Carter “games”), most of this (especially broadsides at the Left) are as pertinent now as they were then. I enjoyed it, and, unless you're a progressive snowflake, I suspect you will too.


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Thursday, February 9th, 2017
6:43 am
cultivating relational health ...
I have a very deep ambivalence about this one. On one hand, I actually bought it (OK, used) from Amazon, having seen it recommended highly in some other book I was reading (forgot which), so it wasn't a “serendipitous” addition to my to-be-read piles coming from a chance encounter on the shelves of dollar or discount stores. On the other hand, having read through some of the reviews/promo material on-line, I was a bit nervous about it. As regular readers of this space no doubt appreciate, I'm fairly antitheistic, and am cynical (at best) towards the “major monotheisms” … so when I saw that the author was an “Executive Pastor” at a evangelical church, and had run an evangelical outreach “community”, and there were comments about how this was written “with the gospel in mind” or that it was required reading in a seminary course … I was concerned that this was going to be one of those books where the writer, fearing being damned to Hell for all eternity, feels the need to make a “profession of faith” every 3-4 paragraphs. Needless to say, that would have been something which I'd be unlikely to opt to interface with. One review, however, brought up the question “Is it Biblical?”, which had me scratching my head over how people with enough capacity to operate a computer and compose a coherent sentence could demand that not only they, but everybody else, live their lives according to the fire-side musings of bronze-age goat herders. I figured that if the extreme fundies were finding fault with this, maybe there might be some actual thought in play.

I was pleased to find that Steve Saccone's Relational Intelligence: How Leaders Can Expand Their Influence Through a New Way of Being Smart at least limited the preachy bits. These were certainly still there, but not so much that it would have me throwing it across the room at regular intervals (and there have been books I've read which have elicited that response) … with a considerable number of them being involved in the author's personal stories, which, naturally enough, were in churchy settings with churchy people doing churchy things. I did, however, wish that somebody had taken a “Jefferson Bible” X-Acto knife to this and just cut out the others, because the book that would be left behind (heh!) after such an edit would be quite a respectable positing of this “RI” thing.

Perhaps telling of how worthwhile the “book within the book” would be is that, even as it stands (at the pulpit?), I have about a dozen of my little bookmarks pointing to the stuff that stood out to me in here. The first of these pretty much “cuts to the chase” where Saccone offers up a working definition of the book's topic: “Relational intelligence is the ability to learn, understand, and comprehend knowledge as it relates to interpersonal dynamics.” … which he follows up with a further clarification (also used in a sidebar): “Relational intelligence is a hybrid of developing social skills and cultivating relational health.”. He uses abbreviations throughout the book, with RI being the obvious one, and early on he introduces the concept of RQ, or Relational Quotient, which “measures not just your knowledge of relationships but how well you understand and engage in relational dynamics”. How in the world, you're no doubt asking, can I figure out what this “RQ” thing is for me? Well, there's bad news and there's good-ish news on this. The bad news is that the book is several years old at this point, and the link that is provided for “the online assessment tool” now just re-directs to Saccone's business site, where I wasn't seeing any such resource. The good-ish news is that the wonderful Archive.org has cached copies of the intended site that appear to at least have all the questions involved (and the rather clever sliders for putting in one's responses), but (and I've not dedicated a lot of time on this) it does not appear to be functional so as to generate a response. It is possible that there's another source for this out there (perhaps at the Mosaic organization that Saccone was involved with when he wrote this), but after some poking around, I only found dead pages or “different” approaches than what had been on the original site. Such is the web.

Another abbreviation he uses is MSS, which is not “manuscripts”, but the “Michael Scott Syndrome”. As I have never seen the TV show “The Office”, the concept of a syndrome based on the Steve Carell character was sort of vague. Since one probably has to know this character to really appreciate what Saccone's getting to with this, I'm just going to throw in a couple of sidebar quotes here which apply: “Our inability to see our own limitations will stifle our ability to build and establish smart relationships.” and “Our inherent challenge is that we're acutely attuned to dysfunction when we see it in others, but significantly slower to recognize it in ourselves.”. There's a bit of swerving into God/Jesus “commercial message” territory, and then a very interesting bit on a Stanford business school study, which came up with “self awareness” as the single most important capability for leaders to develop. “If we want to gain an accurate view of ourselves, we must constantly invest in our internal growth potential, not just in our external success.”. Spinning off this “self-awareness” concept, he presents “three life habits” that will help “cure the condition of MSS that we all have”. These are:

            Habit One: Learn to Access the Perceptions of Those Around You
            Habit Two: Learn to Activate the Reflective Mind Within You
            Habit Three: Write Clarifying Statements

There's quite a bit involved in these (some preachy, some not), and I've tried to pull out a sentence or so for each … for Habit One: “In choosing whom we bring into personal and honest conversation, we need to look for people who are willing to be honest enough with us to say difficult things that might be hard to hear.” … for Habit Two: “I try to walk away from every leadership team meeting I lead reflecting on what I could have done differently.” … and, for Habit Three: “If we want to increase our relational intelligence, we must learn how to identify our blind spots clearly and specifically, while also paying attention to how they affect out leadership and relationships. Naming our specific blind spots can help us know which specific prescription or treatment is needed.”

The second part (and 3/4ths) of the book is taking a look at the “Six Defining Roles of a Relational Genius”, each being the subject of a chapter. These roles are not exhaustive, but

“are essential to the quest to increase your relational intelligence and develop a new kind of genius. Some traits may not be what you expect, but they all have a profound impact on your leadership effectiveness and your ongoing interpersonal world.
These roles are:

            The Story Collector
            The Energy Carrier
            The Compelling Relator
            The Conversational Futurist
            The Likeable Hero
            The Disproportionate Investor

I found “The Story Collector” particularly interesting as I've been a “moody loner” all my life with more than a little sociopathy underlying that, so I have a hard time caring enough about other people to ever get around to asking them questions. Here (again, from another sidebar, which are proving quite handy), Saccone notes: “When it comes to being interested in people the goal is not to be interested in every detail of their lives, but rather to discover what is interesting abut them and draw it out.”. He compares the diamond industry's “four C's” (cut, color, clarity, and carats), with a list of three categories that a story collector needs to draw out from those they're interrogating chatting with: “dreams, life history, and personhood”. Each of these is looked at in detail, with an eye to “the art of good question asking” – which I found to be quite informative, and potentially useful, given the baseline level of misanthropy that I operate with! This includes sample questions, both “generic” and “open ended”, which can be extrapolated to templates to use in one's own interactions.

I didn't have any bookmarks in “The Energy Carrier” chapter, but there are a number of very interesting ideas here. Again, I'm using the author's own highlighting here (via the sidebars),with a couple that I thought were worth sharing: “The energy we carry within, and the force of its strength, is determined by how alert we are internally.” and “If you wonder how to gauge your own internal alertness, one sign is revealed in your forgetfulness.” He notes two “Energy Killers”: The Appearance of Alertness (with those quotes), and Distraction; plus two “Energy Catalysts”: Externalizing Your Internal Energy, and Capitalize on the Moment. These are fleshed out with some stories of people he's worked with, but, obviously, I wasn't making much of a connection with this part.

The next role is “The Compelling Relator” (which I have to admit I was constantly reading as realtor, which would no doubt be a big selling book in that niche), which has the somewhat surprising “hook” of boredom, and initial data about stuff like web site visits, how many navigational clicks people will use, and even the likelihood of a URL being typed in due to length. He posits an “epidemic of boredom” and references it in the first of these sidebar quotes: “Maybe there's not just an epidemic of boredom out there, but an epidemic of 'boring'.” which is followed by the reasonably inspiring: “The simple truth is this: the more interesting we are as people, the more compelling we become as leaders.” … and name-checks Seth Godin's Tribes. There are quite a few “stories” here, including one in the fascinatingly titled section “Refuse to be Irrelevant” which features that J. guy from the Bible. One bit that I found worthwhile bringing to you was set in relation to that “faith community” the author was involved in (hence the “protégés”):

      One foundational element that we emphasize with protégés is for them to stop assuming what most people assume in conversations: that people inherently want to listen. Too often speakers don't work hard to capture an audience's attention because they presume they have it. Just because someone shows up to a team meeting, an event, a one-on-one conversation, a class, or even a church, doesn't mean she or he inherently wants to listen to what we have to say, regardless of our position or status.
Saccone goes on to point out how much information we all are bombarded with on a daily basis, and how it tends to be the “interesting person” whose message actually gets across … and how these people typically are the ones with the most passion.

Next is “The Conversational Futurist”, and I didn't have any bookmarks in this chapter either. The author wasn't much reaching me with this, but that's no doubt due to my own conversational deficits. One of those sidebar quotes says: “To become conversational futurists, we must learn to listen to the questions people are asking even it they aren't being spoken in question form.”. This has a bunch of stories (including referencing Bible quotes), but most of them sort of blew by me – one of the issues that I was seeing in the book was that to do what the author's talking about, you probably have to be somewhat of a “people person” at the outset to have much of this seem plausible.

The following chapter is “The Likeable Hero”, and it starts out with a quote from another book about how it takes work to be likeable, and has a sidebar bit that says: “Likeability is a fundamental characteristic of relational intelligence, and we tend to underestimate its effect in our leadership endeavors and everyday lives.”. Fairly early on he jumps into the objection that the “mission” is more important than the “leader”, but without the leader's likeability, the odds of the message getting through are substantially reduced. He maps out “Five Signs of Likeability”, which are:

            1. Approachability
            2. Stickiness
            3. Rapid trust formation
            4. Friendliness
            5. Flexible optimism

Oh, and #2 up there isn't in the sense that a 4-year-old is likely to be “sticky”, but being able to maintain long-term relationships. Interestingly, he uses the example of Zappos creator Tony Hsieh for #1, which seems to me like it would have been better served as an umbrella for all five, with different aspects of that operation. He brings in comic books (as well as stories about people he's worked with) in #2, a mentor he had in college (and beyond) for #3, how they have “headhunters” at these big recruiting parties for that “faith community” that are specifically tasked with seeking out and being extra friendly to vulnerable newcomers as the illustration of #4. Number 5, flexible optimism, is more technical, and involves “identifying when a pessimistic inquisition is required” within a generally optimistic outlook … this because overly optimistic leaders tend to lose the respect of those they lead if that optimism isn't tempered by a strong dose of reality.

Finally “The Disproportionate Investor” looks not at financial investment but that of the time and effort required to lead people. This is broken down in the following:

People are relationally unintelligent, even foolish, when they don't choose how to spend their time in a discerning manner. They fail to consider the future implications of their choice of whom they invest in, and they end up wasting their time on consumers who take, rather than spending their time on investors who give.
He divvies up people as either consumers or investors, and details some examples from when he mistakenly spent a year trying to develop a fellow he had hoped to have been a future leader, who took up a lot of his time, and ended up being “only in it for himself”. There are also, of course, a bunch of Bible stories (after all, you don't want to get into something as “coldblooded” as this math without having that sort of back-up), and a list of characteristics (which he notes are extracted from the Gospels) that he looks for “in assessing who is a true investor”: Generative, Grateful, Teachable, Missional, Strategic, and Resilient.

Again, I might not have ordered Relational Intelligence if I'd known going in how much “preachy” stuff there was in here … however, despite my serious dislike for the Bible-thumping, there is quite a lot of quality theory going on here (although I'm sure I would have much preferred reading the “secular humanist” version of it!), which makes it a worthwhile read. I suspect that most folks out there are unlikely to share my deep antipathy for the evangelical spin here, so won't have the level of negative reaction that I kept coming up with.

If you'd be interested in picking up a copy, it's still in print in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, although you're not going to be saving much on cover price on-line on these (maybe because it's evidently a seminary textbook), but used copies can be had for about 1/3rd of what you'd be paying at a brick-and-mortar book vendor. As noted up top, for all the reasons detailed, I'm quite ambivalent on this one … the theory's good, but it's stuck in a fundie matrix that's hard to ignore.


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