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Below are 20 journal entries, after skipping by the 40 most recent ones recorded in btripp_books' LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, February 8th, 2017
11:10 am
Being great again?
A few months back, I was over at Barnes & Noble and found a couple of things on a 75%-off clearance table, this being one of them. It's a pity that I have so far not found a platform (that I've been able/willing to afford) for reading e-books, as this, due to its vintage, is available free in various digital formats (heck, there are collections of all nine of the author's books in Kindle editions on Amazon for their minimum 99¢ charge), but I have yet to encounter an e-book that wasn't an uncomfortable slog to get through, generally taking 10x the time of reading a “dead tree” book … so it was nice to pick up this slim volume for under two bucks.

Wallace D. Wattles is one of the “sources” for the whole “The Secret” / “Law of Attraction” genre. He lived from 1860-1911, and wrote his most influential books in his last years. This one, The Science of Being Great, says it was originally published in 1911, although Wikipedia has it coming out (with the other books in the “Science of” trilogy … one of which I reviewed a number of years ago) in 1910.

To be honest, my number one take-away from this book was what a remarkably different world Wattles lived in to what we do more than a century later. The basic assumptions of the author's world view are almost as alien as those of Marcus Aurelius, writing nearly two millennia previously. The America that Wattles writes about (and bases a lot of his philosophy on) is nearly unrecognizable today … this was a country that had yet to churn through two world wars, a time when automobiles were still a novelty (largely due to there being very few paved roads until the 1920's) and where the airplane had only recently been shown as a possibility by the Wright brothers … and an America that was vastly more homogeneous, with the Black migration from the slave states just beginning (in 1910, Blacks only made up 2% of the population of Chicago, only a third of the current Asian population of the city!).

Now, I'll admit that much of my resistance to what Wattles has in here could be based on my general curmudgeonly bitter cynicism (and the whole “God thing” he's pitching), but I really feel that he's writing for a world that is lamentably dead and gone. However, there are quite a lot of things here which are less context-dependent than the rest, and I'll be focusing on these. This is from the first (short – most are only a few pages, given that the book's brief 73 pages are broken into 22 chapters) chapter:

      Nothing was ever in any man that is not in you; no man ever had more spiritual or mental power than you can attain, or did greater things than you can accomplish. You can become what you want to be.
As bad as I feel about resorting to this, I think the current book might be one of those where my readers would benefit from my typing up the chapter listings … since the material here is not in a particular “narrative arc” this would serve as at least a matrix for me to introduce cherry-picked quotations (there being quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in here). So …

            Any Person May Become Great
            Heredity and Opportunity
            The Source of Power
            The Mind of God
            The Social Point of View
            The Individual Point of View
            Hurry and Habit
            Action at Home
            Action Abroad
            Some Further Explanations
            More About Thought
            Jesus' Idea of Greatness
            A View of Evolution
            Serving God
            A Mental Exercise
            A Summary of the Science of Being Great

One of the downsides of a book being over a century old when I get my hands on it (as noted in other reviews) is that people mentioned in the text – which the author evidently assumes are known to his readers – are only understandable at the end of a Google search … in the “Heredity and Opportunity” chapter Wattles has a long paragraph naming folks who rose from disadvantaged beginnings to achieve great things, but the only one described there that was immediately recognizable was Abraham Lincoln … in any event he notes:“In each of these cases we see a Principle of Power in the man that lifts him above all opposition and adversity.”. Although not mentioned in this context, I found it interesting that Napoleon Bonaparte is frequently cited both here and similar books of the era, despite having died nearly a century before. Obviously, the cultural memory of Napoleon has not faded, but the influence of the man as a “type” seems to have drained away.

One of the key concepts in this is that everything is perfect as it is, within the context of the stage of its development. I would like to use Wattles own words here, but the section that I'm considering would require block-quoting over a page, which in a 73-page book seems to be pushing the limits of “fair use”. He, however, preceding this section, has a point that is in all-caps as its own paragraph, which seems to be the only item so emphasized, so I'm guessing it's worth passing along (if without the full capitalization):

      This must be your point of view: That the world and all it contains is perfect, though not completed.
He goes on to explain the idea of things being a “partial expression”, thus incomplete, and in doing so compares J.P. Morgan to “strange animals of the age of reptiles”, and thereby “perfect after his kind” (Wattles was an early Socialist, so no doubt had opinions not kindly towards the “robber barons”). He then starts to address what he expects to be objections to this “perfection”, including child labor and “exploitation of men and women in filthy and unsanitary factories” … saying that those workers “only want more of the things that make for animal enjoyment, and so industry remains in the savage, brutal, animal stage” he seems to believe that the workers will eventually “desire more in the way of a higher, purer, more harmonious life” which will result in industry being raised above that plane …

But it is perfect now upon its plane; behold it is all very good.
He goes on to recommend how one needs to see the facts of reality from “the highest viewpoint” (although this might be the source of the “no soup for you” aspect of The Secret):

“All's right with the world. Nothing can possibly be wrong but my personal attitude, and I will make that right.”
For somebody who keeps getting into the Jesus stuff, he does have some fairly, uh, heretical statements cropping up at times, I especially liked this one: “Do not give your time and strength to the support of obsolete institutions, religious or otherwise; do not be bound by creeds in which you do not believe. Be free.” … which is nearly Crowley-esque in its sentiments (and I do hate the idea that A.C. might have been cribbing from Wattles, but the timings make that at least a possibility). While differing in attitude, the following, part of how the author is defining his concept of “consecration”, might also have come from Thelema:

You cannot be ruled from below if you are to be great; you must rule from above. Therefore you cannot be governed by physical impulses; you must bring your body into subjection to the mind; but your mind, without principle, may lead you into selfishness and immoral ways; you must put the mind into subjection to the soul, and your soul is limited by the boundaries of your knowledge; you must put it into subjection to that Oversoul which needs no searching of the understanding but before whose eyes all things are spread. That constitutes consecration.
This sort of seeds the “Realization” chapter, which has recommendations based on that last level of subjection, where one is “learning to read the thoughts of God”, frankly (and no doubt this is the cynical me reacting here), I found much in this section simply a recommendation to solipsism and credulity (he says if you “feel” something is going to be happening, follow that “with perfect faith” “no matter how unlikely it may seem” – which could be taken to be the full recipe for the “new age” movement!).

He gets into some, what seems to me to be “technical”, stuff regarding thought, at first going into (at the end of the “habit” chapter) how to use mental exercises to repeat certain thoughts until they are “the only way you think of yourself”. In the “thought” chapter he says:

      Thinking is the hardest and most exhausting of all labor: and hence many people shrink from it. God has so formed us that we are continuously impelled to thought; we must either think or engage in some activity to escape thought. The headlong, continuous chase for pleasure in which most people spend all their leisure time is only an effort to escape thought. If they are alone, or if they have nothing amusing to take their attention, as a novel to read or a show to see, they must think; and to escape from thinking they resort to novels, shows, and all the endless devices of the purveyors of amusement; Most people spend the greater part of their leisure time running away from thought, hence they are where they are. We never move forward until we begin to think.
And, mind you, this was written in the very early days of film, and well before commercial radio, TV, the Internet, or the smartphone – one can only imagine how little thinking gets done these days!

Needless to say, I'm skipping out on a lot of the details here, to at least be able to convey the conceptual broad strokes. The following are from a couple of paragraphs in the “Action Abroad” chapter, which I thought hung together well, so I'm skipping about a page between them:

Do not try to do great things until you are ready to go about them in a great way. If you undertake to deal with great matters in a small way – that is, from a low viewpoint or with incomplete consecration and wavering faith and courage – you will fail. Do not be in a hurry to get to the great things. Doing great things will not make you great, but becoming great will certainly lead you to the doing of great things.

Do not go hunting for big things to do. Live a great life where you are, and in the daily work you have to do, and greater works will surely find you out. Big things will come to you, asking to be done.
That is, of course, all well and good, but a few lines later Wattles is off into: “Every man and woman is perfect. Let your manner be that of a god addressing other gods.” … and even into some things deeper down that hole. He then offers a bit to reinforce the “perfect” idea, saying that “mistaken religious teachers” have promulgated a view that the world is bad, and getting worse, with discords and inharmoniousness intensifying towards an ending, while he insists that the world is good, and getting better, with those negative elements (in a comparison to a steamer ship) simply being “incidental to our own imperfect steering”. He closes out the book with a bit of “covering bases”, bringing in a half-dozen or so others' quotes on thinking, going into a thing on Jesus, and on evolution (I guess those camps were already in conflict back then), a program for doing mental exercises, and then closing up with reprinting an essay by Emerson on “the Oversoul”.

While there was enough stuff in The Science of Being Great to keep my attention, it was (as noted up top) full of things that had me muttering “yeah, maybe in your world”, but I'm crotchety like that, and somebody less cranky about positivity would likely not be bothered in the least by the stuff that I was finding irritating. Again, this is available in digital forms for nothing to very little, and new copies of this slim volume can be had for a penny plus $3.99 shipping. It's an interesting enough read, with material that is certainly echoed in later philosophies/fads, and might even stand on its own as a “process” … but this is definitely a “your mileage may vary” nod.

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Sunday, January 29th, 2017
3:52 pm
Digging it ...
This is a book that I picked up at a “discount outlet” a few months back, when a friend let me know that the store was doing a special book sale (5 hardcovers or 10 paperbacks for a dollar), and I hopped on the El and got over there (actually, that might be very well be where I got a book, previously reviewed, for which I could not recall the source), only to find the pickings rather slim. This, however, is quite a gem!

I have a number of books by Michael D. Coe in my library, natural due to my long-time fascination with the Maya (his area of expertise), so finding his Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past in that setting was somewhat serendipitous. Needless to say, this is quite different from his other books, as this is his autobiography, sort of summing up his life (although he's still extant), which came out a decade ago (a note on the book itself: it doesn't have any signs, other than the slightest wear to the corners of the dust jacket, of having been read or even handled much, so would certainly be in the “like new” category). As I've been finding is the case in a lot of autobiographies of figures I thought “I knew”, I had a bit of a surprise here – I have another volume, a guide book to Tikal, by another Coe that had come out in the 60's, which significantly preceded most of the titles by Michael D. Coe in my library, and I'd always assumed that that was his father, and that Michael D. had grown up in the archaeology biz (possibly in the 50's). While the name of that Coe was the same as Coe's father, it was actually his brother, who, as it turns out, was also an archaeologist (and, oddly, gets only scant mentions here).

And, rather than growing up with a trowel in his hand, it would be closer to say it was a silver spoon in his mouth, his family having benefited from the “robber baron” era (I believe it was his grandfather who actually managed to profit on the Depression), and by the time Michael D. Coe arrived, they had houses and estates in various parts of the country, and he hobnobbed with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt in his childhood.

To be perfectly honest, I spent much of this book gripped by pure, naked envy, both of his wealth and resources, and his career in archaeology. There's not much I could have done about the former (although I got a whiff of that from my Mother's close friendship with one of the Rockefeller granddaughters in my early years), but had very much wished for the latter. It's interesting how those sorts of things seem to be at the whims of fate, as in this book he muses what might have happened if a particular teacher had not been on leave, resulting in him getting into a different class that led him into anthropological studies, and my having assorted events happen that channeled me away from a life digging in ruins.

Because of my misconception of his biography, I was somewhat surprised to find that he was born in 1929 – so much of his youth was spent in what is very much “another world” just in basic culture, even without the upper-crust aspects. He, at an early age, was sent off to boarding school. He notes that he had pretty much taught himself to read, having paid attention as his mother was teaching his brother (3 years his senior) to read – there appears to have been a significant amount of sibling rivalry in this relationship. But, I'm getting ahead of myself somewhat here.

His family did not have “old money”, as his great-grandfather had brought over his young family, coming out of a situation that appears to have been the upper level of servants in an “Upstairs Downstairs” sort of environment in England. The initial chapters dig around in his forebearers' past, including a photo of a church graveyard on the upper reaches of the Thames in Bisham, Berskshire where a couple of generations are laid to rest. There's quite a bit on how his family got established here, resulting in substantial estates by the time of his grandfather (although much of the money came by marriage to a daughter of H.H. “Hell Hound” Rogers, a competitor with the likes of J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller). As one might expect, Coe was shuttled off to the most exclusive schools of the time … of which he has mixed recall … with some aspects being positive, and some not so much. Interestingly, it was winning an annual prize in the “Sacred Studies” program (the school was very “churchy”) that started him down his eventual path – the award was a book which featured some bible verse translated into over 1,000 languages, but also included “a thumb-nail sketch of each tribe or people who spoke that language, and in the native orthography”. This led him into questioning a lot of things, and eventually getting his hands on Sir James Fraser's famed Golden Bough which:

argued that all of my cherished beliefs about Christmas, Easter, and even the death and resurrection of Christ could all be explained as cultural responses to universal concerns, that Christianity was not fundamentally different from any other religious system, such as those of Classical times and even so-called primitive peoples.
He continues …

Taking Fraser in conjunction with the Darwinism that I had absorbed in biology, by the time I graduated SPS, I had become a complete agnostic and skeptic, and have remained so throughout my life.
He ended up going to Harvard, initially to get a “gentleman's C” in English literature, and was well on his way to coasting through when his family went on a vacation to the Yucatan, staying at the famed (and still-operating) Mayaland Lodge at Chichen Itza.

To me it was a revelation to roam the Castillo, the great Toltec-Maya pyramid; the round Caracol, Chichen's observatory; the Sacred Cenote; the so-called Nunnery with its mysterious inscriptions; and all the other buildings and reliefs. I knew little or nothing about the ancient Maya, but I burned to find out about them. When I returned to Harvard, I would … major in Maya archaeology!
Unfortunately, there wasn't such a major available, but he was guided into anthropology, and had to really apply himself his last two years to get caught up with that major and get his grades up enough to look plausible for moving into an advance degree.

Coe and his brother returned to the Yucatan in the summer between his junior and senior years to work on an excavation (and have some rather bizarre experiences with the locals and assorted resident expats), giving him some initial experience in the field. He ended up having what was likely (given that he was still scrambling to get his GPA up to snuff) a stroke of luck, as a major course that he had in his senior year was being taught by a visiting professor from University of Chicago, and – in something otherwise unheard of at Harvard – was giving an “open book” exam. Coe and a study partner, taking the prof at his word on this (with much of the rest of the class not believing in the possibility), bought comprehensive notes with them, and received A's (while many of their classmates ended up with C's).

Having graduated with honors, he was able to skip the graduation ceremony and head off on a European vacation, staying with his Uncle, and going on a driving trip with him and the writer Evelyn Waugh. I found the following of interest (geopolitically, at least):

It was 25 June, 1950, and we were sitting in a Stornoway pub quietly sipping our pints when the news came over the radio above the bar: the North Korean army had just invaded South Korea across the 38th Parallel. Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung had gambled that the U.S. and its allies would do nothing about it. As I found out later from persons in a position to know, if President Truman had not committed American ground troops four days later, Stalin had fully intended to invade Western Europe. Mao already had all of China except Taiwan and some nondescript offshore islands on his hands.
Coe had been young enough to miss WW2, but was heading to graduate school when this hit. His father, who had spent some time at Annapolis, encouraged him to join the Navy, but a medical issue led to his failing the physical. However, soon after, he was tapped (as was frequently the case in top universities in that era) for a job in intelligence. Coe is nothing but positive about his time with the CIA (which had him stationed in Taiwan and some of those “nondescript islands” off the Chinese coast). Most of what he did seemed to be assessing and funneling information as it leaked out of the mainland, but what I found most interesting here was the way “secrecy” was obsessively maintained, both state-side, when he was being trained (there were whole government offices that were nothing but fronts for this), and the supposed import-export business he was working for in Asia. There were some fascinating “fly on the wall” bits of formal dinners with local notables (including General Chiang Kai-shek, as well as Mme. Chiang, who was instrumental in the intelligence program), but, aside from his connecting with some famed archaeologists who had escaped to Taiwan, not a lot that bears on his eventual career. After three years in “the Agency”, he eventually heads home, but takes a leisurely path through southeast Asia, which includes a visit to Angkor Wat … which enchants him, and leads him to eventually returning and producing a book on the site (ironically, in his 1954 visit he was within ear-shot of guerrilla action on the outskirts of the region, and when he returned in 1993 similar fighting could be heard as the UN-supported government was still dealing with hard-core remnants of the Khmer Rouge). On his return trip he also spends time in India and in Rome, the latter totally engaging him. He has some interesting stories of his family (an Aunt had married an Italian diplomat some decades before the war), and how they only barely survived the conflict (among other things, his Norse surname of “Coe” was frequently misconstrued as being a variant on “Cohen”, resulting in being sometimes targeted with official or casual antisemitism).

Almost immediately upon his return to Harvard, he is introduced to his eventual wife (whom, as a “blonde, blue-eyed Radcliffe student”, he was instantly smitten with), Sophie Dobzhansky, daughter of famed evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who had escaped Stalin's USSR to settle in at Columbia University. They seem to be an ideal couple, and her Russian roots come in quite handy at a number of points, especially in their 1989 visit to Leningrad to meet with noted linguist Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, who had spent decades being dismissed by the archaeological orthodoxy for his “decoding” of the Mayan hieroglyphics (to which Coe devotes a book).

The bulk of the rest of Final Report is on assorted reminiscences of his career … which, while interesting in the full sweep of it, is general enough (or, perhaps from too personal a stance) to not have a lot of individual things screaming to get highlighted here. There were a few things that did catch my eye a bit, however. One was an early position at the University of Tennessee following his digging at the La Victoria site on Guatemala's Pacific coast (which he spent years in follow-up research on the materials obtained there). While he welcomed the Tennessee job (as it allowed for said work), he also got assigned to do “archaeological salvage” in the Cumberland Basin, soon to be flooded behind a new dam. There were thousands of Native American sites through the region, plus post-colonial ruins, and very little time to access these. Plus, the local environment was very much (a fact that he specifically notes) like what was encountered in the movie Deliverance. As an archaeologist who was very systematic on setting out dig grids, etc. in his other work, Coe was dismayed to find himself sometimes having to resort to bulldozing a later site to get down to an earlier cultural level.

Coe eventually gets a position at Yale, and is able to return to Guatemala (in Ocós, on the Mexican border), and eventually to San Lorenzo Teochtitlan (between Veracruz and Tabasco on Mexico's gulf coast) to do more work on the Olmec. While the narrative here is very engaging to “an armchair archaeologist” such as myself, it is very much on the nitty-gritty of dealing with locals, with the government, with logistics (especially notable in terms of the food – some weird stuff got served up to them!), the weather, etc., and I can well imagine that this would be just so much blah-blah-blah to many. Oh, and speaking of "weird stuff", at two separate points in the narrative (I don't recall which sites were involved), he all but makes a "UFO report", one featuring a daylight sighting, and one of a very strange light encountered at night … not exactly what I was expecting in the general flow of this!

However, one has to remember that this is an autobiography and so is about the author's life experience rather than particularly about the elements that are encountered in the course of living that life. This especially comes into play in a chapter pretty much dedicated to the author's family finding a “country house”, which could have been, I suspect, effectively covered from the reader's perspective in a few paragraphs. The book puts a magnifying glass on things that are of personal concern for Coe, and, perhaps, glosses over things that the antiquities fan might be specifically looking for.

The penultimate story here is of the above-noted trip to Russia, and the author's involvement with the whole debate over the Maya glyphs/language. Having previously read Coe's book on the subject, I found this quite illuminating (there had been significant shifts towards Knorosov's work in the 14 years separating that publication and this). It then deals with his retirement (and Sophie's death, and his efforts to finish the book that she had been working on), his return to Angkor Wat, and a number of other bits and pieces. Given that Final Report is 10 years old at this point (and Coe is still alive), I'm sure there's quite a bit that's happened that's not covered here (perhaps there will be a second edition at some point).

As I admitted to up top, there is quite a bit here that had me simmering with envy … as Coe's life has many elements that I wished for mine … which also means that I was approaching the material here with a lot more focused interest than others might be bringing to it. Did I like it? Yes! Will you like it? Well, that's something for you to gauge, I guess. Oddly (for a book that came out a decade ago), this is going for full-price via the on-line big boys, which leads me to think that it might still be available in the brick-and-mortar bookstores. Also, the new/used guys, while having copies, don't have them for particularly cheap, which makes me wonder if this has slipped into the “textbook” channel, although I have a hard time figuring what sort of a class would use this for a main book. Anyway, I liked it, if you have an interest in archaeology (or the Gilded Age) you might too, and it's out there to be had if this sounds like something you might want to read.

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Saturday, January 28th, 2017
2:38 pm
Holy Bubble-Blowing Black Holes, Batman!
This was a relatively recent dollar store find (about six weeks back), but I was sort of looking for a science book to get into, and that category has gotten somewhat lean in my to-be-read piles, so this leapt to the front of the line. While being a “popular” science book, Caleb Scharf's Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos is not exactly a light read (OMG, I came very close to making an inadvertent black hole joke there), as it is filled with a whole lot of fairly complex information on cosmological discoveries, much of which was at least reasonably new to me (this came out in 2012, so the material should be fairly up-to-date – as much as one can expect from any technology book).

I don't know if this is a compliment or a fault, but when I picked this up to do the review, I was having a hard time “off the top of my head” recalling the specifics. The “broad strokes” I got, but the book, in my mind, sort of existed as a unified whole. This, on one hand, means that everything in here “hung together” well, but it might also mean that this got sufficiently technical to have lost me on the details. Fortunately, I do have a few of my little bookmarks scattered through it to point me back to what I felt were the notable parts.

Now, this is full of very complicated concepts that Scharf attempts to present in terms that will make sense to “the average reader” … one of the images he uses is of a sack containing “a representative portion” of the universe. This not only lets him introduce the idea of generalizing from “a fair sample” of data points, but allows him to talk about stuff “streaming out of” said sack. A significant amount of this are photons …

They come in all flavors, from extremely low-frequency radio waves, where a single crest-to-crest distance may span kilometers, to microwaves, infrared, visible, and ultraviolet frequencies, and on to the realm of X-rays and gamma rays. One of the most pervasive types of photons is the kind that originated in the very young universe ...
This serves to introduce the “cosmic microwave background” photons – which are present in our local neck of the universe at about 410 per cubic centimeter, meaning that the immediate (within one light-year of the Sun) neighborhood has about 1057 (more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion, and that's a lot) of them zipping around at any given time. That leads him to discussing neutrinos, which react so little with normal matter that you might have a collision between a neutrino and a sub-atomic particle comprising some part of your body maybe only once or twice in your lifetime – despite there being somewhere around 65 billion of them streaming out of the sun and passing through “every square centimeter of your skin” every second.

From here he discusses other matter, then briefly touches on Dark Matter (somewhat “in passing”, since we currently know next to nothing about it), and on to gravity, and how things seem to be structured in the universe in general. Now, I have to confess that I have no bookmarks through most of the middle of the text, so I'm going to be flipping through to give you a sense of what's in there. I do want to stress, however, that this wasn't due to it being boring or uninformative, but possibly being “too much” data flow for me to be able to say “oh, hey, let's highlight this”, or the like. One thing that did catch my attention was his “borrowing” of some of Doug Adams' imagery (in the form of a falling whale to illustrate tidal forces, and a likewise fatally descending bowl of petunias) which he only obliquely cites in an endnote. This opens up discussion of Einstein's “field equation”, and Karl Schwarzschild's solution to that (and the resulting concept of the “Schwarzschild Radius” of a given spherical mass and the idea of the “event horizon”), which then leads into a look at gravitational contexts, including an interesting chart showing the relations of mass, size, and speed (or “terminal velocity”), where an object hitting the Sun will achieve 0.2% of the speed of light, but a black hole of the same mass would have objects coming in at the speed of light. Oh, and how the gurgling of water going down a drain has its equivalent in emissions from a black hole … yes, he explains how that works, but I can't even begin to relate that here.

Scharf goes into the history of x-ray research, from its earliest forms through programs of increasing complexity, leading up to the current generation of x-ray imaging satellites. It seems that x-rays are the preferred means to look at the environs of black holes, and especially phenomena that are hugely distant (and hence vastly old) and visible in ridiculously small areas of the sky. There are some fascinating images of objects remarkably far away (one at a 600,000,000 light-years remove), imaged in x-ray, microwave, radio, and occasionally visible light … although I think these would be improved had there been more “comparative” images (Scharf often describes what the visible light image would look like, but its up to the reader to fill in the picture around the “inner elements” exposed by x-ray, etc., capture).

The author also goes into a good deal of the sub-atomic particle physics that comes into play in some of the reactions posited for these most violent areas of the universe. Given that the stresses, speeds, temperatures, etc., etc., etc., can reach their utmost extremes in these zones, the behavior of all forms of matter are taken to their ultimate limits, and produce extraordinary effects. Again, there is such a “firehose” of material here, it's pretty useless for me to try to excerpt it, as it might take pages of blockquotes to get to where I feel I'm making it clear (which is, I guess what this book is for!).

The early history of the universe is contemplated, with surmises presented as to early galaxy formation, as well as outlines of the basic types of galaxies, the massive number of stars involved in these, their assorted sizes, etc. At most points the author tries to offer up examples that can help the reader “wrap their head around” these difficult concepts (like comparing the fluid dynamics of water coming out of a garden hose to how jets of material can shoot out hundreds of light-years from celestial objects), while (kindly?) skipping most of the math. He is constantly trying to put these things in terms that at least suggest to the reader how they relate to “knowable” stuff, such as:

While a supermassive black hole can occupy a volume similar to that encompassed by the orbit of Neptune, a big cluster of galaxies can occupy a region some 30 million light-years across. The black hole is only 0.00000000001 times the size of the cluster. That's the size of the period at the end of this sentence compared to one-third of the distance to the Moon.
Frankly, one of the main take-aways for me with the whole book was the extreme nature of all this … the hugeness, the distances, the time involved, the masses (a supermassive black hole can have a mass 12 billion times that of the Sun), the warping of space-time (which can be twisted into something akin to a tornado in some settings), etc. ...which is really difficult to fully appreciate or even effectively contemplate!

Of course, one of the factors here is that so much of this is based on “best guesses”, it's amazing that we're able to get the data that the scientists are working with, but they're having to have some of the most expensive technology ever invented by man devoting hours and hours and hours of readings to just get enough photons on a chip to be able to suggest what's going on (as most of these targets are incredibly distant and fill the most infinitesimally small portion of the sky). An example of this is here:

The most distant quasars exist in a very young universe, barely a billion years old. As we've seen, quasars are products of the appetite of the biggest and best-provisioned black holes. Surrounded by accreting matter, they pump out a prodigious amount of energy. But the age of these systems raises a fundamental question. These supermassive black holes must have formed contemporaneously with the first generations of stars in the universe. This is a great puzzle, because the way we think black holes form in today's universe is from the catastrophic collapse of massive stellar remains. Once the mass of a spent stellar core or an object like a neutron star exceeds a certain threshold, there is only one way for it to go: down and in. There is no known pressure force that can resist the shrinking of such an object to inside its event horizon. But this produces a baby black hole only a few times the mass of our Sun. Even if it eats matter at the rate required to power something like a quasar, that amounts to only a few Sun's worth of material a year. With a continual food supply, it would still take hundreds of millions of years to reach supermassive scales. So where could those first giant chasms have possibly come from? {he does offer up a few possibilities here}
One thing, on a more human scale, that I don't believe that I'd previously heard of was the “Galaxy Zoo” project which used “crowdsourcing” to help categorize 500 million astrophysical objects detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This site (https://www.galaxyzoo.org) started about a decade ago, and at the time of this book's writing (in 2012), over 150,000 people had helped classify 50 million of those objects (each of which was getting 20 different classification hits to assure accuracy).

There's so much stuff in here … things like the most massive black holes in spiral galaxies are about the same size as the least massive black holes in elliptical galaxies … or that our galaxy, the spiral Milky Way, is quite large for its type and is termed a “green valley” galaxy which is in the middle zone between the “red” of the ellipticals and the “blue” of some other spirals (plus having very “active” black holes at their centers) … which leads the author to speculate on some “anthropic” concepts in relation of our existing where we do,

Anyway, Gravity's Engines is a fascinating read … and if you have an interest in cosmology, astronomy, physics, etc., you should definitely consider picking up a copy. As I noted at the top, I got the hardcover of this at the dollar store, and it looks like it was one of those “right store on the right day” finds (with the books coming in from their likely source of Walmart clearing their shelves), as it's still available as a hardcover, paperback, and ebook from the on-line big boys (so is likely to be able to be found a your local brick & mortar that handles science books). And, even having hit the after-market, it's still going for a few bucks in the new/used channel. If you like science, you'll probably like this one a lot.

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Sunday, January 22nd, 2017
9:34 am
a pervasive phenomenon ...
This one had a “meant to get into my hands” vibe for its route into my library. A month or so back, the author was being featured as a speaker at the DBSA meeting I attend down here, and he'd brought a few books with him, which he handed out to those of us who had gotten there early. I sort of connected with the author, as he grew up in a family business, had been in publishing (in fact, his family's business was publishing – the educational publishers Follett), and had struggled with depression. Naturally, Mark Litzsinger's Out of the Shadows: A Journey of Recovery From Depression is a look at that struggle. One of the things that he focused on in his presentation, which was only a small component of the book, was that, after various go-rounds with psychopharmacology and working with some of the top doctors at Rush and related hospitals, he ended up getting “cured” though ECT – electroshock. This therapy still has that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest” vibe to it in popular culture … but it appears that it's having (in its current, much less destructive mode) a significant resurgence, and the author had a really remarkable set of results which he claims had him operating on cognitively higher levels than he'd ever experienced before:

Within a year of starting ECT treatments, I was operating on a different, better level. Not only was I well, but I was thinking more clearly and interested in many more things. My mind was questioning, I could synthesize information very quickly, and come to deductions about personal and business decisions like never before. … After the treatments, I broadened my learning and interests to encompass new areas in life, including politics, world affairs, travel, culture, and entrepreneurship.
… which rather uncomfortably reminded me of John Travolta's character in the film Phenomenon! Speaking of pop culture connections, I was very surprised (given his obvious enthusiasm for the procedure) that Litzsinger had never even heard of The Ramones' song Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, which is the only other 100% positive look at ECT that I've encountered.

The author is, clearly not (nor does he represent himself as such) an expert on mental health, but he's published this as something of a “public service” (including having all proceeds from it go to Rush's Psychiatry department) … he notes:

One of the goals of this book is to make depression seem normal. That might sound strange if you have depression, but I want to normalize the disease in a way that people – those who have it, those with family members who have it, and the public at large – view it as a relatively “normal” disease, one that can be beaten like cancer.
… and, elsewhere:

– increasing your knowledge and understanding of how depression impacts patients and family members, how the past has shaped current treatment methods, and what the future holds for those who suffer from this disease will provide a firm foundation from which to go forward. The goal of this book is to do just that – to give patients, family members, doctors, and others who wish to learn more a blueprint of the disease's history and treatments, as well as offer hope for a future in recovery.
I go into this here to provide some context for the caveats I'm going to throw out in following. I really wish that I liked this book better than I did. I get the sense that Litzsinger set himself a goal of doing a lot of research, and then brought in a writer (the co-credited Sarah Hamaker) to make a book out of it. There is certainly a lot of material cited (there are nearly 250 end notes for about 140 pages of text), but the book is structured very much like my college research papers … quote after quote strung together with just enough contextifying copy to keep it moving in the right direction. While this certainly lends a sense of “authority” to the material, it inherently creates a situation of very uneven tone in the text, with quoted elements showing up in the middle of paragraphs, or even in the midst of sentences. Of course, given the typical format of my reviews, this is something of “the pot calling the kettle black”, and the book would certainly be a choppy mess if all of those quoted passages showed up as blockquotes, but it makes the reading a less coherent experience than if these cobbled-together parts had been paraphrased and integrated into the narrative flow. Just sayin' …

I only had a handful of bookmarks in here, and most of those were pointing me at sections of the book to refer back to … one bit, however, stood out in the early parts of this, and that's:

… Depression affects the personal identity and social communication of the person suffering from it, which in turn can create difficulties in getting help, contribute to social isolation, and lead to distress. “It can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety, and is a pervasive phenomenon …”
As someone who deals with depression, that quote is certainly on-target. This comes from the section on the stigma of the disease. I suppose it would be useful to take a look at the structure of the book … it is in four Parts, “The Disease”, “The Doctors”, “The Treatment”, and “The Recovery”, with “Disease” having four chapters, a history of depression, the chapter on its stigma, and a chapter each on its impact on patients and their families, and the “Doctors” having three chapters, one each on doctors, patients, and their families in relation to doctors and depression. The main part of the book is Part III, on treatment, with nine chapters: treatments in the 20th century, treatments in the 21st century, shock therapy, talk therapy, animal therapy, exercise, nutrition, and chapters on patients and families. The last Part looks again at patients and families, but in relation to recovery. The book wraps up with some very helpful bits, a resources section (including further reading suggestions), and a bibliography (which, admittedly, is mostly research papers).

Needless to say, the above represents quite a lot of material, which is to a greater or lesser extent interwoven with the author's own story, making it somewhat challenging to cherry-pick examples. One thing that I do think was very well done here is a feature of the “families” sections, which presents lists of action points (and paragraphs explaining them) this is from the “Families and Depression Treatment” chapter:

                  Realize depression is serious.
                  Know it's not personal.
                  Recognize the symptoms.
                  Encourage treatment.
                  Accept your limitations.
                  Get screened yourself.
                  Have patience.
                  Don't ignore suicide threats.
                  Keep the person involved.

A similar (albeit “wordier”) list is in the “Families and Recovery” chapter, which has at least one item that I felt was very important:

Remember that hopelessness, disinterest, anxiety, and anger are all depression symptoms.
Given that this sounds like my typical day … it would be great if everybody could keep in mind that the depressed person is not necessarily trying to be a pain in their backsides, or a major drag to the common mood!

The book wraps up with a “Conclusion” chapter that has some very interesting statistics (although the first two seem to be at odds), most shockingly are the figures of “suicide deaths related to depression” in 2013 – 41,149, and the “estimated yearly cost of depression in the United States due to health care and lost productivity at work” - eighty billion dollars (admittedly, this latter figure is from an article in the Huffington Post rather than from the CDC, like the suicide stat).

As noted, I had issues with Out of the Shadows, most as detailed above, although some might be due to my having read a decent amount in this field, and I might have been having a “yeah, yeah, yeah, tell me something that I don't know” curmudgeon reaction that others (approaching this stuff less data-burdened) wouldn't experience. The author is certainly targeting a wide audience (“the public at large”) with this, but I really feel that the optimal reader is a family member of somebody suffering from depression, as this would give them a substantial chunk of information, crafted to “normalize” the perception of the disease.

This is less than a year old at this point, so one might expect it to be available through your local book vendor … except that it doesn't have “a publisher”, with Litzsinger being listed as the publisher with no contact information … it doesn't seem to be a CreateSpace production (which would have bookstore sales available), so I guess the author must have tapped his family contacts to have this printed. It is available from Amazon (although not through BN.com), and that looks like it might be the only way to get your hands on it, should this be something you'd find of interest.

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Saturday, January 21st, 2017
11:53 pm
Secrets, yes ... not so much eavesdropping, though ...
This is another of those culinary-themed books that I lucked into at the Dollar Store down by my daughter's college in Urbana. As I've noted before (and, I suppose, it's just part of the mystery of books coming into that particular after-market), I have no idea why there were a half a dozen appealing food-industry books there on that day, but there they were, and I was not going to pass up walking out of there with something around $150 worth of reading for a measly five bucks!

Aside from the cookbooks obtained in that haul, this was the last of these that I've gotten around to reading … not that I was avoiding it or anything (this ain't G.E.B. for instance), it just took a bit longer to “fit into” what was appealing for me to read. Frankly, this may have gotten moved up the to-be-read queue due to a slight oddity that I found over on Amazon regarding it. I will, on occasion, take a peek at the ratings over there to see what I might be getting myself into (after all, the purchase decision process at the Dollar Store is a very basic “does this look like it's worth a buck?”). Typically, there will be something of a consensus, at least as to what end of the five star scale a book ends up, but this … this was different. At first glance, it looks like the 96 people who had rated it fell evenly across the star options … and even in specifics, it's pretty close, ranging from a low of 17% giving it 2 stars, to a high of 23% giving it 5. I have been known to go to a movie “just to see what a Tribune 5-star rating looks like” (as they rarely grant more than 3), and I was fascinated to see what might have created this very odd even distribution of ratings.

That said, Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter was a quite enjoyable read. I don't typically do star ratings on books (as, in non-fiction, there are so many variables … a book might be highly informative but written horribly, or be engaging yet poorly designed, etc., etc., etc. … that it makes it difficult for me to come up with a single number), but I'd guess I'd be pretty much like the Tribune's movie reviews – unless it has totally blown me away, it's not getting five stars – so I'm guessing this would have been in my rankings somewhere in the 3-4 star range.

The longer I'm exposed to the publishing biz, the more I'm aware of how the title/subtitle of a work is more likely in the hands of the marketing department than the author/editors … which goes a long way to explaining how aggravated I often get in expecting one thing from a book, yet ending up with something, in the words of Monty Python, “completely different” {kindly indulge me in a bit of a more wandering aside than I'm given to … I recently had feedback from an author, whose book – which I'd complained about not reading for years because of its title – had originally been called "Propinquity" (the name I'd have given it), but had been re-titled with a 20-word title/subtitle which had “sales in the title for SEO reasons” … sheesh!}. Frankly, in that spread of star ratings over on Amazon (yes, I peeked at some of the reviews), many of the folks giving it lower ratings were evidently really anticipating some juicy “Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter” as promised in the subtitle.

Honestly, aside from some a handful of restaurant reviewers, chefs, and restaurateurs, I don't recall any name-dropping here, which seems to have been a deliberate choice, as she notes that she only “altered a few names and incriminating details” amid “the truth according to my memory”, so this is hardly a “plate and tell” (to possibly coin a phrase) tale. The book is both more mundane, and ultimately informative than that … it is a none-too-uncommon tale of somebody coming out of school with an English major and looking for a means of surviving in the world. Damrosch admits:

I suppose I could have found a job in publishing like a good English major, but as far as I was concerned, offices were dusty, stagnant, and badly lit.
She had several jobs, including an awesome-sounding one as a nanny for a very wealthy family, but wasn't inspired to stay with any of them for an extended length of time. When out of a job at one point, her ex-boyfriend suggested she apply at the small neighborhood cafe where he worked … which she did, initially for a busboy position, but quickly (she goes into details on the ethnic sorting of restaurant staff), as a college-educated white female, ended up in other places on the organizational chart.

I don't have many of my little bookmarks in here, but two are up front in her description of her early years in food service, which I felt stood out as bright red flags pointing out that “this is an English major's story”, this describing a co-worker:

This guy was a rare case: an actor who loved the restaurant business and was taking a break from performing to devote himself to waiting tables. Unfortunately, you can take the actor out of the performance, but you can't take the performance out of the actor, and watching this guy explain the menu as if he were Henry V on St. Crispin's Day sent me fleeing from the dining room on many an occasion.
Trust me, if you're an English major (or theater junky) that's hilarious. Equally so, in a bit about her trying to do some highly complicated recipes out of her eventual employer's cookbook (The French Laundry Cookbook by Chef Thomas Keller, creator of The French Laundry restaurant in California, and Per Se in New York), there's this:

The book recommends working on the open door of your oven, to keep the batter warm enough to work with. So I knelt before the open oven, realizing that despite years of English classes, I could not recall a single poem by Sylvia Plath.
It does seem to be something of a stroke of luck that the author managed to land a gig as part of the pre-launch staff for Keller's new Per Se, as it sounds that this was “well beyond her pay grade” in terms of her experience. She had, however, developed a fixation on Chef Keller and his cuisine, and had, at a restaurant she'd worked at after a return from France (yes, I am skipping quite a bit of detail), waited on him at one point, only to have been flummoxed by the query of one of the party as to what kind of persimmons were being featured in one dish on the menu … Keller was very driven to have quite specifically sourced ingredients, and it probably helped to have Damrosch aware of that when she boned up for he interview (a process which included getting, and poring over, the aforementioned cookbook, which came in handy when she was able to recite details about the Chef's California flagship).

The meat of the book, however, is the intimate details of the operation of a four-star top-tier restaurant … from the “rules” (of which there were dozens, with such minutia covered as #4 - “no scented products” or #20 “guide guests to the washrooms”) … an interesting aspect here is that many of these are reproduced as blockquotes throughout the text. Another design element that I found engaging was the “A TIP” sections that come at the ends of chapters, which basically address the dining public with suggestions of what to do or not do at a restaurant … one of these got a bookmark from me: “If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider choosing something else.”,, which just screams arising from much frustration. Of course, this material comes from the function of Per Se, which had dinner checks that were in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, which is certainly not “everywhere” … but the details, and attention to detail are pretty remarkable. What's also remarkable, is that they end up with that maximum review right off the bat.

One of the sub-themes here (there are several that I'm not going into, including an on-going relationship with one of the author's co-workers, and the emotional complications involved in that) is the process of getting that rating from The New York Times and their new restaurant critic, Frank Bruni. It is amazing how important those stars are for these upper echelon eateries, and so the whole cat-and-mouse game (the reviewers really want to be as anonymous as possible to be able to get a “fair reading” of the dining experience – with some going to great, and sometimes ridiculous, lengths to avoid being recognized) is very much a “blood sport” in the industry.

I had really hoped to have peppered this review with snippets of the details, but there is so much in here (both in terms of the workings of a super-deluxe restaurant and on the food stories interwoven through the book, from the specifics of some of the suppliers to the meals had by the author in other contexts) that I found it impractical. Also, as mentioned, I've skipped a lot of the “personal” story with the author's background, and relationships. This is not an inconsequential aspect to the book (which ends with the telling of a dinner that she and her beau “André” had at Per Se some time after both of them had left there to pursue other opportunities, including four pages of the menus that each of them had on that occasion).

Again, I was quite engaged with Service Included, but I'm a “foodie” who was fortunate in the early years of my career to be in a position where I got to eat in places like Per Se (although it came along much later), so it was a fascinated look “behind the curtain”. Needless to say, if you are uninterested in food, and the upper reaches of the culinary world particularly, this is likely to be less an entertaining read for you. Without the “food porn” (or “voyeuristic” peeks into the restaurant) aspects, this does devolve into a fairly mundane story: “English major works as waiter in New York”, so if you're not viscerally responsive to the description of dishes with a hundred bucks of truffles in them, you might not get as much enjoyment out of reading this as I did.

This is still in print in a paperback edition, so could be obtained from your local brick & mortar book vendor. As noted, I got a copy of the hardcover in the Dollar Store (not terribly long ago, so it is possible that some copies might still be kicking around that channel), but the on-line big boys have “like new” used copies for as little as a penny plus shipping … if you're into the high-end restaurant world (even if just vicariously), you'll probably like this.

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Sunday, January 8th, 2017
1:57 pm
Pardon my ...
Here's another book that came my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … and in this case, it's actually early, with a publication date still a couple of weeks off at this writing. This was a pretty classic case of my requesting a book (the process of the LTER program is that each month there's a list of books that publishers have made available, and you “request” ones you think you'd like to read/review … I typically have 3-5 “requests” in each month, and it's up to the “Almighty Algorithm” – picture a Deep Thought for books – to make the best match for a title to a user's LT collection) that “looked interesting” but I didn't have a burning desire to read. It's a bit more focused than the serendipity of the dollar store, but not much. I go into the preceding to sort of plead my case on not really interfacing with Andy Molinsky, Ph.D.'s Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence particularly well. I have one lonely little slip of paper in this, and, frankly, when I dragged it out for reviewing, I had nearly zero recall of anything from it. Flipping through the book did bring bits back to mind, but also suggested to me why this didn't particularly stick with me … it's heavy on the “people stories” (à la: “Annie knew that if she wanted to succeed at her job – especially in a male-dominated industry like finance, she had to learn to stand up for herself.”), which are rarely the way to get information into my head. However, there is quite a lot of valuable (and once it's dredged out of the “story” context, actionable) material here, so I'm going to try to flog that out for you in the following.

Now, my first thought for doing this would be to simply reproduce the Part, Chapter, and section headings from the book, which would provide a pretty cogent walk-through of what's in here – but that would sort of just be reverse-engineering Molinsky's book outline … which seems like not making a sufficient effort to convey the essence of the book. The author sets things up in the introduction:

In an ideal world, no one would have to reach beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. …
But unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Conflict-avoidant managers often need to embrace conflict – or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves and their ideas … introverts need to network … self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches … and people pleasers need to deliver bad news. You get the idea.
{ellipses in the second paragraph in the original}
As one might suspect, those descriptions are based on people profiled in the book (whether or not they're “real” people – the stories are heavy on personal reaction and low on detail), which didn't really work for me, as I found the more “abstract” or theoretical material here far more useful, such as:

We often feel overwhelmed – sometimes even hopeless – when having to act outside our comfort zones. But the reality is that we face a set of very predictable and identifiable set of challenges – and we can overcome these challenges … This book will explain why it's so hard to act outside your comfort zone and help you develop the courage and ability to flex your behavior with success.
He identifies these challenges as The Authenticity Challenge, “which occurs when acting outside your comfort zone feels fake, foreign, and false” or “the feeling "This isn't me at all" and the distress that results from that feeling”, The Likeability Challenge, which “occurs when, as a result of the behavioral stretch you have to make, you fear others won't like you” or “the sense that doing this will "make people not like me," and the worry that results from that perception”, The Competence Challenge, which “occurs when you feel you don't actually have the skills or knowledge to perform the new task successfully” or “the feeling of "I'm not good at this behavior and it's obvious to others," along with corresponding feelings of embarrassment and, perhaps, shame”, The Resentment Challenge, which “happens when you feel frustrated and annoyed that you have to adapt behavior in the first place” or “the strong sense that you "shouldn't be doing this behavior" in the first place, and the frustration and anger that results from that feeling”, and The Morality Challenge, “the feeling – logical or illogical – that when stretching your behavior, you will feel inappropriate or perhaps even unethical” or “the feeling that the behavior isn't something you "should be doing," and the anxiety and guilt that can result from that sense”. There is a section for each of these with stories about people facing the various challenges in business settings, and then a part where he goes over the emotions involved (this is a real good example of an author doing the “tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them” template).

The second chapter is “Our Amazing Capacity to Avoid”, which sketches out four typical “tactics” of avoidance: Tactic #1: Full-On Avoidance, Tactic #2: Do the Task, but Only Partway – and Not So Well, Tactic #3: Procrastinate, and Tactic #4: Pass the Buck … which lead into what he calls “A Vicious Cycle of Avoidance”. This is sketched out with a “story” of being afraid of snakes, but not something I'm going to be able to extract a coherent statement on, short of scanning the snake-less flow chart.

This brings us to Part II – How to Successfully Reach Outside Your Comfort Zone, which presents “three critical resources for behavior flexing”. These are: “Conviction: The Critical Importance of Having a Deep Sense of Purpose”, “Customization: Finding Your Own Personal Way of Performing the Task” (which includes “customize the words you use”, “customize your body language”, “customize the timing”, “use props”, and “customize the context”), and “Clarity: The Power of Honest Perspective”. Interestingly, this latter chapter has a great deal of very direct and applicable material – it also largely “steps away” (that's one of the sections, heh) from having the information totally embedded in the “people stories”. This is the place which got my bookmark, in the section “Refer to Yourself in the Third Person”, which reports on research that indicates:

When we engage in "self-talk," especially in stressful and difficult situations, we gain confidence and clarity simply from the slight psychological detachment of referring to ourselves in the third person.
The effect of “these slight changes in perspective and language” goes right down to the brainwave … with test subjects who used the 3rd person having brain scans more like control cases than those using “first-person personal pronouns”.

The rest of Part II is sort of rah-rah stuff on “The Surprising Benefits of Taking a Leap”, with a couple of “discoveries” leading into a “positive cycle” that mirrors the flow chart of the earlier “vicious cycle”. Again, the info here is all interwoven in these stories, to the extent that I find it hard to even begin to extract it (do you want pages of trying to explain who the characters are, what their situations are, what they're feeling, yadda, yadda, yadda? If so, I guess you should read the book).

Part III is “How to Make Your New Behavior Stick”, and the first chapter is “Building Resilience”. This has three “Resources” #1: A Thoughtful and Effective Practice Routine (with three sections of interesting ideas, unfortunately buried in “stories”), #2: A Mind-set That Supports Learning and Experimentation (with two sub-sections), and #3: A Healthy Support System. The second chapter here is “The Myths and Realities” which addresses five “myths” and counters them with what the author holds are “realities”.

The book gets somewhat redeemed in Part IV, “Practical Tools”, which has assessments and forms to pull out your own particulars related to the various elements in the book. Obviously, I would have vastly preferred a book that had plainly laid out the concepts involved and then moved into this “Applying Reach to Your Own Life” part than having to go through the endless “who cares?” reactions that I was having while plowing through all the “Lily did this, Lucy did that, Linda felt this other stuff” bulk of the book. But, admittedly, I'm a curmudgeonly misanthrope with a tin ear for “teaching stories”, and I suspect that at least 90% of other potential readers would find this substantially less frustrating than I did.

As mentioned, Reach isn't out quite yet, so if this sounds like something you'd be amenable to (hey, some people actually enjoy reading fiction, and this half way there – “takes all types to fill the freeway”, I guess), you could either order from the on-line big boys, or show up at your local brick & mortar book vendor looking for this when it's due on 1/24. For me, it had a lot of interesting concepts that were being totally obscured by the “stories about people whom I couldn't care less about” format … a real shame, as a straight-forward book about this topic could be both fascinating and more useful that this one.

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Saturday, January 7th, 2017
4:43 pm
In some other world ...
This book came to me via the Early Reviewer program over at LibaryThing.com … whose “Almighty Algorithm” determined (fairly predictably) that my library was a good match for it. Frankly, this is something that I'm surprised that I hadn't picked up at some time previously, as I've read a number of the author's books over the years. However, I was a bit perplexed at how/why this ended up in the LTER program, which is theoretically targeted to allow publishers to get some pre-release buzz for upcoming titles. Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation was written in 1975, the current translation dates to 1987, and it's still in print in a 1996 hardcover and 1999 paperback. This, however, is bring marketed as a “gift edition”, although it's not got any of the enhancements (deckled edges, bookmark ribbon, deluxe binding, etc.) that such designation brings to mind. According to the flap on the dustcover (it is a hardcover) “This gift edition features Thich Nhat Hanh's inspiring calligraphy, photographs from his travels around the world, and a revised afterword.”, so I guess that's it. I feel a bit churlish being somewhat underwhelmed by the 8 pages of B&W photos and the “fortune cookie” calligraphy (example: “breathe you are alive”) that precedes each chapter here, but when I read “gift edition” I was expecting something more (oh, something like this), and I have to wonder what the thinking was on releasing a second hardcover edition (at the same cover price as the existing one) of this. I mean, it would be one thing if this was, say, the 50th anniversary of its initial publication or something, but, apparently, no. This, of course, has nothing substantive to do with the book itself … and it's certainly a nice little book, that I'm happy to have a copy of in my collection!

If I had one notable “take-away” from reading The Miracle of Mindfulness it was something of an “aha!” moment with one of the things the author presents here … something which I'd recently encountered in my DBT work which has exercises about manifesting a “half-smile” (and which, honestly, I thought was total B.S.), the details of which are almost lifted word-for-word from this book. Given that this initially came out over a decade before DBT was evolved out of CBT, it's pretty obvious to me that that was blatantly cribbed from Thich Nhat Hanh … and it certainly makes more sense in a book that includes such hard-to-get-into-a-real-schedule items as a “slow motion bath” than it does (at least to my thinking) in a therapy situation. Interestingly (to me), all my little bookmarks show up in the sections before the introduction of the half-smile (and bath) stuff … I guess the author sort of lost me there.

I suppose a secondary take-away relates to some of the above … a lot of what is covered/suggested here would be a lot easier or practical for those living at a retreat center. While there are certainly elements that could be wedged into a busy Western urban day, a lot of whats in here just sound “pie in the sky, by and by” to me … but I've never been the “peaceful reflection” kind of guy, and, unless I'm really being diligent with my inner “monkey mind”, I find most attempts at meditation (although not those in an organized setting, where they are the activity, and not something delaying anticipated activities) very difficult to fully engage with. That, I suppose, is a caveat to keep in mind when I'm kvetching about stuff in this!

The book starts out oddly, with the author talking about visiting with friends, and asking about their children, etc., then relating stories about other associates and things they'd done. Now, as any regular readers of these reviews will appreciate – I simply do not get “teaching stories” – whatever mental circuitry that's necessary to extract meaningful stuff out of those, I'm evidently lacking ... so I'll cede the possibility that there might be some significant material being imparted in these tales, but I don't see it. Fortunately, the author does frequently “cut to the chase” rather than leaving the reader to infer his intent. One place I marked here was in the middle of an story about traveling with a guy by the name of Jim, who had volunteered to do the dishes, TNH challenges him on if he knows how to wash dishes – which Jim, predictably, bristles at. TNH tells him:

“There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”
He goes on to say that if we are thinking of the cup of tea that we'll be having after finishing up the dishes, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes”, and he further suggests that we'll not be present for the tea either, thinking of other things. He goes on to chastise Jim for not being mindful in eating a tangerine, and is obviously not a fan of mentally multi-tasking (and obviously has all the time in the world – as his instructions for eating that tangerine would likely make a 2-minute “feeding project” into a half-hour of “thoughtful chewing”). I hate to be so bitchy about this (and I'm obviously being “reactive” about the mindfulness stuff – which is why I need to read things like this), but when TNH tells students that an hour of meditation a day is “nowhere near enough”, and I have a hard time getting organized to be able to try to sit for 5-10 minutes, there's obviously a disconnect between my universe and his.

I had another marker in the section where he starts addressing the breath, this starts with an odd parable then gets into a technical spiel that also kind of lost me:

Our breath is the bridge from our body to our mind, the element which reconciles our body and mind and which makes possible the one-ness of body and mind. Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm.
He does move from this into discussing how breath is simply a tool of mindfulness, and then returns again to the dishes:

When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you're drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you're using the toilet {yes, seriously}, let that be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising the cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. ...
He goes from here into a couple of chapters discussing practical (in a retreat center setting) issues around meditation practice, that managed to avoid getting any bookmarks from me, and then turns to more philosophical topics:

      While you sit in meditation, after having taken hold of your mind, you can direct your concentration to contemplate on the interdependent nature of certain objects. This meditation is not a discursive reflection on a philosophy of interdependence. It is a penetration of mind into mind itself, using one's concentrative power to reveal the real nature of the object being contemplated.
      Recall a simple and ancient truth: the subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. … When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge. The practitioner meditates on mind and, by so doing, is able to see the interdependence of the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. ...
I found the next bit quite fascinating, as these are very close to what I'd come up with for “labeling” (and dismissing) mental traffic in those infrequent (and brief) times when I've been able to get myself to sit for meditation … these are what TNH presents as the “five aggregates”:

      Every object of the mind is itself mind. In Buddhism, we call the objects of the mind the dharmas. Dharmas are usually grouped into five categories:
                  1. bodily and physical forms
                  2. feelings
                  3. perceptions
                  4. mental functionings
                  5. consciousness
He goes from this into looking at some classic Buddhist concepts around “suffering”, birth and death, etc. These are followed up by some classic stories that then dove-tail into material about “service” (which is a theme for a lot of the material about his various travels and associates), and into a long section of “Exercises in Mindfulness” (where the half-smile stuff is). The last third of the book is a piece about Thich Nhat Hanh, which I'm guessing is by the dish-washing and tangerine-eating “Jim” (Jim Forest), followed by a number of Buddhist Sutras (relating to mindfulness), followed by a fairly detailed timeline of TNH's life.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't interface with The Miracle of Mindfulness in a more constructive manner, but that's no doubt on my current “work on myself” creating a lot of points where I was “reactive” (if not “Mr. Crankypants”). I'm guessing that most folks (or at least most folks who are interested in delving into a Buddhist meditative tradition) will find this quite a pleasant and informative read. As noted up top, this is available variously, with this “gift edition” just coming out a couple of months back, and other editions still in print. Oddly, given that this has been kicking around for a long time in a number of forms, there don't seem to be any particularly cheap options out there (well, the on-line big boys currently have the paperback at 44% off, which makes it competitive with the used guys) … so you're on your own on that. And, again, I probably enjoyed reading this more than my digging into it sounds like!

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Saturday, December 31st, 2016
2:06 pm
"everyday is silent and grey"
I'm not exactly sure how Morrissey's Autobiography got on my radar … it evidently took a few years (this came out in 2013, and I only ordered it this past fall), but somewhere I read something that was singing its praises, and, being a fairly long-term Morrissey fan (and having recently indulged in another rock autobiography by a guy of similar vintage, which I enjoyed), I snagged a copy. While this is a remarkable book, it could well be three (or four) books, and might benefit by at least being internally divided (this runs on for 450 pages with only a rare extra space between paragraphs, let alone any chapters or clearly delineated sections) along those lines.

When I started in on this, I was blown away. Morrissey was sort of “channeling James Joyce” and producing prose of richness, complexity, art and wit that had me raving about it and thinking that this was going to be featured on English departments' curriculums in the very near future. The first couple of hundred pages takes the story from his family's roots, his childhood, on through the early years of The Smiths and are an enchanting piece of writing. Tellingly, all the little bookmarks I put in here are from that part of the book. To give you a sense of what was so appealing here, the following is the very start of the book, a small part of a paragraph that runs four and half pages:

My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway, or highway. Somewhere beyond hides the treat of the countryside, for hour-less days when rains and reins life, permitting us to be amongst people who live surrounded by space and are irked by our faces. Until then we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies where ever it was left over one hundred years ago. The safe streets are dimly lit, the others not lit at all, but both represent a danger that you're asking for should you find yourself out there once the curtains have closed for tea. ...
While telling the story of his youth and school years, it is generally like this … perhaps having the task of recreating the past being an opening for literary flourish. Part of me wishes this went for the rest of the book. However, when the story turns to the demise of The Smiths, and into a vastly ugly court case where former band members are trying (ultimately, successfully) to essentially re-write the agreements of many years previous, the tone of the writing also changes, and those are very difficult parts to read. The last part of the book is also less lyrical, with a long wander through shows here, shows there, places Morrissey lived, people Morrissey hung out with, and random details on the reception of his solo albums. Now, I suppose that hard-core Morrissey fans would eat up the latter part, but it, and the claustrophobic, panic-inducing, press of the industry/court phases, makes one wish those first couple of hundred pages were a thing unto themselves.

Speaking of fan info … I'm guessing that others knew this before it got in here, but I was surprised to read the origin of Morrissey's nickname “Moz” … which I had sort of assumed had been something that had “organically” arose out of The Smiths' fandom or the press, but it's a bit different:

... My own name is by now synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johnny {Marr} putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at ‘misery mozzery’, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. ...
As I only have a small smattering of my bookmarks pointing back to particular sections, and they're all up front, I guess I'll deal with them now, and get into the rest of the book after. Now, another “comment” here (not really intended as a criticism), the flow of his early years, while having random contextifying data, are not particularly linear, or anchored to ages, dates, or events, so it's often fairly hard to pin down how old he was in things he's covering. In a section discussing various acts and albums of which he's enamored, he mentions “It is considered odd that a boy so young should care so much.”, which leads into the following:

... Here and there my eyes and ears are caught only by the solo singers; town-crying to all people at all times, television troubadours minus jingle-jangled nodding musicians. The song bears witness, the body weaves, and there are no camera cuts to blandly smiling session-players when all we want to see is the sculpted singer – alone, carrying all, sub-plot and sub-text, the physical autobiography; simultaneously, subjectively and objectively at the same time. There is no way out for the solo singer; introduction, statement, conclusion, quick death – all conveyed in the pop sonnet, with no winking glance over to guitarists in order to ease the setting. There are visions of divine things … I still don't know what it's all about, but like the science of signs, I am called to, because the song is the art of using language as persuasion, and with that allowance and hope, I want to cry. I am caught and I am devoted to a fault. Snobbery jumps in. If I can sing, I am free, and no legislation can stop me. ...
The next section is easier to pin down, as he cites the date of his first concert (T.Rex in 1972, when he would have been 13), and this bit relates to a number of acts and songs he's discussing:

It seemed to me that it was only within British pop music that almost anything could happen. Every other mode of expression seemed fixed and predictable and slow. … Marc Bolan's lyrics are steeped in the quietly insane world of the gothic English novel, and are too deeply eccentric to survive any explanation. On earlier records, Bolan sounds as if singing in Olde English – incomprehensible to the modern ear. Yes, but the Bible speaks of ‘a whole earth of one language’, and this is something that only pop singers can manage. …
At one point he gets into discussing the poetry of a number of writers (possibly idiosyncratically English, as I only recognized a few of the names), and drifts into this rather florid exposition (which is presented leading up to the purchase of an instrument … albeit a drum kit):

… The will surrenders to the resolve and dignity of the written word, and I, the gentle self, step forward, pattering up the ramp, one half of an incomplete person, knowing with certainty that I cannot live – yet wondering if I could possibly write? Slight and weary and full of angularity, my heart is never unbroken, but I am unable to call out. I have a sudden urge to write something down, but this time they are words that must take a lead. Unless I an combine poetry with recorded noise, have I any right to be? Yet, let it begin, for who is to say what you should or shouldn't do? In fact, everyone tries to knot your desires lest your success highlight their own failure. Better, it is thought, that we all swill in the same bucket, just making do. But I have no intention of surviving for eighteen years in order that I might be strangled to death in my nineteenth. I will never be lacking if the clash of sounds collide, with refinement and logic bursting from a cone of manful blast. Here, from the weeds, the situation worsens since each abiding art-form lacks one essential ingredient – and that ingredient is the small and bowed passionate I. Since there is no living being as recipient of my whispers, and since there are no certainties that one shall ever appear, then the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling must edge into the un-cooperative world somehow.
A somebody who has written a vast lot of poetry in certain phases of my life, Morrissey's phrase: “the off-balance distortion of my everyday feeling” certainly echoes in my core. Given the length of the above quote, I am hesitant to add another, but one of the questions that arose while reading the descriptions of the music business, and especially as it related to The Smiths, was “why is it that all bands seem to end up getting screwed?”, and Morrissey has a scathing dissection of this (long after the fact, of course), which runs from page 170 to 172 … far too long for this space, so let me dust off some more ellipses and at least dole out the high points:

We signed virtually anything without looking. … The specifics of finance and the gluttonous snakes-and-ladders legalities were deliberately complicated snares that all pop artists are expected to understand immediately. … The basic rule, though, is to keep the musician in the dark at all costs, so that the musician might call upon the lawyer repeatedly. … A vast industry of music lawyers and managers and accountants therefore flourish unchecked due to the musician's lack of business grasp. … pop stars come and go with lightning speed, while the fraternity of managers and lawyers remain in place forevermore ...
Etc., etc., etc. … it is quite a rant, and somewhat reminiscent of a song he penned regarding the later court case. This takes me both to the last of my bookmarks, and the point where the tone changes. The Smiths were classically clueless on the business angles, and basically got ripped off at every point, including when they got lured away from their initial record company. One interesting thing in here was the later near-remorse (perhaps just bitterness) of Factory Records (home of Joy Division, etc.) head Anthony H. Wilson who seemed to rather hate The Smiths for his having not signed them early on, with at least one letter from him to Morrissey reproduced in its entirety. Unfortunately, communications with The Smiths' original label, Rough Trade, and its head Geoff Travis, were rarely much more civil, and many of these missives are quoted here.

These are hard to read, because, despite the band making some iconic albums at the time, they are evidently being bled at every turn. Plus, they seem (at least in Morrissey's telling) to be much hated in the press, and faced with radio programmers who seemingly outright refused to play their records (despite having reasonably robust sales). I guess if Morrissey wasn't depressed before all this, one can't fault him for being morose because of it all. However, worse stuff was on the horizon. One of the initial band members, drummer Michael Joyce, had attempted (through “an array of legal firms”, most of whom soon dropped his case) to try to retroactively increase his stake in the band, now nearly a decade past its end. He eventually managed to get a trial and a very sympathetic judge and prosecutor (or, perhaps, just ones hostile to Morrissey). Now, I have no information on this trial outside of what Morrissey writes, so it's his version, and he is certainly painting himself as the victim of a fraudulent claim pushed through an incompetent court, but who knows. The tale told in this part of the book (which was hardly a pleasant read), suggests that Joyce' claim had no backing, that “corporately” the band was Morrissey and Marr (the latter was only peripherally involved in the trial – although one assumes he had the same financial stake in it – lending credence to the idea that this was an effort to “get” Morrissey), and that the other band members had been operating under an agreement which were paid them a 10% cut with no interest in any additional monies. The judge invoked some rulings from 1890, and agreed that Joyce, although having no documentation, a long string of legal firms that opted out of representing him, and a story that changed repeatedly, had been an “equal partner” in The Smiths, and so due 25% of those (long-gone) funds. On top of how the deck was stacked against Morrissey, his lawyers faded off and passed the case down to less-seasoned (and informed) representation at the last minute. The details presented in this part of the book are horrific (if what Morrissey is writing is, indeed, correct – and I have no grounds to doubt him – any sane person would have thrown Joyce's case out with even a cursory look at the specifics), and the writing is far less poetic, and seethes with the author's justified frustration.

I guess later success, however, is its best revenge, and once he gets past the trial, most of the remainder of the book deals with his solo career. While this was still not smooth sailing, it has obviously been a lot more lucrative than The Smiths ended up being. While interesting in a music-magazine sort of mode, this is full of way more information than I really needed to know: concerts, tours, festivals, events, and the famous people he interacted with. Needless to say, this latter element is in full swing when he moved to Los Angeles, even featuring a picture of Nancy Sinatra posing with a Morrissey poster (why?). I hate to say it, but that last section is more “Tiger Beat” than Dubliners, but that, I suspect, is “just me”, and that the sort of detail in there is likely to appeal to a lot of people.

Again, I was disappointed that the whole of Autobiography wasn't the literary delight of the first third, but it's Morrissey going through his life experiences, and the icky bits with the industry, with the media, with the lawsuits, and the rest are part of that. While the writing isn't as special in the latter parts of the book, it never devolves down into the “newspaper reporting” voice that frequently shows up in biographies. If the whole was like the start, I'd be telling you that you absolutely had to get a copy, but as it is, I'd suggest that you should at least consider it. Needless to say, it would help if you were a Smiths/Morrissey fan.

It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point (although you can get “new” copies from the new/used guys for as little as the assorted grades of “used”), but there's a paperback available, which has a good likelihood of being on the shelf at your local surviving brick-and-mortar book store. This is an interesting read throughout, with parts of it being brilliant … so it could well be worth your while to make the effort (it is 450 pages) to give it a read!

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Friday, December 30th, 2016
11:28 pm
"not mandatory"
Well, that's interesting … I just took a peek at my collection over on LibraryThing.com and discovered that I'd only previously read one of Bill O'Reilly's books … I was under the impression I'd been through more (probably it's my familiarity with him via TV that was suggesting that). I went looking because I was trying to dig up something serve as a basis form some “compare & contrast” cogitation with his 2013 release (and fairly recent dollar store find) that I just finished, Keep It Pithy: Useful Observations in a Tough World. The reason I was looking for some context is that, by the time I got done reading this, I couldn't figure out why this book existed. Honestly, the general impression I took away from this was that it was the text equivalent of one of those “contractual obligation” releases that bands sometimes spew out to expedite moving from one label to another. There was no indication here that O'Reilly is in the process of switching publishers, but this had that sort of “mailing it in” vibe that albums tend to have in those situations.

In the introduction, the author sort of sets the book up (and he notes “this book is not mandatory”, and that it is something of “a literary highlight reel”) with the following:

      Over the past twenty years, I have written millions of words. “Bloviating” doesn't even begin to cover it. Eleven bestsellers, thousands of newspaper columns, a daily talking points memo on television, and so on. On my tombstone I want these words inscribed: “He finally stopped talking.”
      Many publishers have asked me to simply reprint my past stuff. I've always said no. That's because some of what I've written is obsolete. Dated. Not relevant to anything anymore. That happens because life passes quickly and season change, to say the least. What was fascinating five years ago may be very boring right now. … But some of what I've put down on paper is worth another look ...
That gives you the basic sense of what's going on here … he (or his publishing aide, Charles Flowers) cherry picked bits and pieces out of his writings (generally a paragraph or so, sometimes a couple of pages), which he then intermittently comments on (and typically only a sentence or two when he does. The book starts out with material from his book Culture Warrior from 2006, which he considers “prophetic” on a lot of levels in sketching out what befell this country under Obama (who was a “vote present” do-nothing Senator embarrassing the state of Illinois {don't blame me, I voted for “the black guy”, Alan Keyes, for that seat!} at the time), with a “told ya so!” overtone. Of course, giving the timing of the book, much of what's in here focuses on the Klinton years, and the media/left dog pack that hounded the Bush administration.

The book attempts at some organization … it's in three sections, with 3-5 chapters each, “State of the Union”, “State of Yourself”, and “Keeping it Pithy” … but even with the chapters focusing on a particular group of topics, the over-all feel here is of random bits pulled together simply to get a book out (O'Reilly mentions that they'd “selected some of my best stuff and have presented it in a way that is designed to help your life”, and that latter point seems to be the purpose here, O'Reilly magnanimously seeking to “impart some guidance” to his readers … although I don't quite see who would be particularly enlightened by the mish-mash of material here).

Some of the topics covered (flipping through the contents listing) are the “progressive agenda”, “European socialism”, minority issues, “religion under attack”, terror, materialism, Hollywood, liberal control of education, activist judges, media and leftist movements in cahoots, traditional values, his interactions with the “rich and powerful”, and assorted other hot buttons.

I was somewhat surprised to find that I had inserted zero of my little bookmarks in this, indicating that there wasn't anything that jumped out at me as being particularly, well, “pithy”, which is sadly somewhat damning in a collection that purports to be his “best stuff”. Frankly, this book would be ideal if I were setting up a Social Media program for O'Reilly, as it's chock-full of little snippets that would make swell Twitter or Facebook posts … a walk through this, and I'd have two years worth of an “editorial calendar” good-to-go (if being somewhat “dated” – one could always sprinkle in “opinion of the day” as it came up to keep things fresh). However, that's the sort of challenge I feel that I'm facing in trying to summarize the book in a way that would produce a satisfactory “review” … it's all so random (if amassed into “themed” sections), and none of it stood out as something that was sufficiently notable to yank out as a blockquote. Well, with at least one exception … in the final chapter he gets into some details of his “No Spin Zone” concept, and briefly presents it as a “philosophy” of sorts. I hate to indulge in a four-paragraph grab here, but since I'm not sharing anything else, I figured that we'll all (you, me, and O'Reilly) be OK with it:

      A personal No Spin Zone will save you time, money, and frustration. It will allow you to make value judgements base upon hard facts and evidence. And – provided that you keep an open mind and examine all credible data – you'll be comfortable with your conclusions on most matters.
      Here's the key that unlocks the Zone: the ability to be rigorous with yourself in always challenging your initial thoughts and conclusions. The Zone is no place for zealots, lemmings, or weak-minded followers. It is a state of mind that demands the discipline of clear thinking and the flexibility to change that thinking should the evidence dictate. Summing up, the No Spin Zone is not an easy place to be.
      Why? Because it's far easier to let others form your opinions. You then don't have to exercise your brain cells and the crowd will readily accept you. Politicians, commentators, and others vying to fill your head space are eager to supply you with particular points of view. And increasingly, many Americans are buying into viewpoints that crush independent thinking. Why think when media talking heads and newspaper columnists will do that for you? After all, aren't these people “experts”?
      Well, no, they are not. At least most of them aren't. There are no experts when it comes to making personal decisions. That's your own private domain. Sure, nobody is right all the time and you won't be either. We are all occasionally defeated on the field of logic. But take your shot at forming your own personal philosophy. It's actually fun and satisfying to develop a code of behavior and clear thinking pattern. Don't let pinheads, even smart pinheads, do your thinking for you.
Speaking of a “code of behavior”, O'Reilly presents what seems to be his (it's just in there as its own section) early on in the book:

            1. Work hard.
            2. Keep a clear head. …
            3. Don't compromise when you know you're right.
            4. Give most people the benefit of the doubt.
            5. Don't fear authority.
            6. And definitely have a good time.

… not a bad list when you think about it. One thing that I do have a significant problem with in the book is his use of “S-P” as shorthand for the people he opposes, which stands for Secular-Progressive. As anybody who has read my blogging over the past decade and a half will know, I strongly identify with the label “Secular”, and feel that most religion-driven people, movements, and organizations (they're all ISIS to some degree!) are as dangerous to the great enlightenment experiment that is the United States as are the Communist/Socialist/“Progressive” forces that are plainly seeking to destroy it. It is one of my great frustrations in life that folks that I would wholeheartedly agree with on most points (O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, etc.) end up at some point going completely off the rails and start getting their marching orders from “the fairies in the back of the garden” (or some Bronze Age middle-eastern sheep herders' equivalent delusions).

Anyway, I guess I'd be hard-pressed to give Keep It Pithy much of a recommendation. I suppose if you were looking for an “O'Reilly sampler”, this might be of use to you, but it's pretty much just that. This does appear to still be in print, despite it drifting into the dollar store channel, and the online big boys are currently offering the hardcover at 39% off of the cover price … but you can snag a “like new” copy from the new/used guys for as little as a penny plus shipping, so if you don't stumble over this on the dollar store shelves, that would be your best bet for picking this up, were you to be so inclined.

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Thursday, December 29th, 2016
4:43 pm
Awesome book ...
As folks who have been reading my reviews over the past dozen or so years will recall, I spent a chunk of the 80's and 90's studying shamanism in various cultural settings, and so have a bunch of “filters” for books on the subject that tend to lead me to somewhat caustic assessments of way too many of these. So, it's a real pleasure when I run into titles which I can wholeheartedly recommend (see this and this for examples), and the current book is one of this sort. Heck (and those keeping track of how many books these days come my way via the dollar store will realize how extreme this is), I actually bought a second copy at retail (well, Amazon's discounted retail) to give to a shaman friend who I felt had to read this. Frankly, I'm amazed this took six years to get on my radar (it came out in 2010), but I'm glad it did.

Of course, I was quite positive about this book's predecessor, so I was predisposed to be open to Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz' The Fifth Agreement: A Practical Guide to Self-Mastery. Interestingly, this is co-authored by Jose, the son of Miguel who has been pioneering the “Toltec Wisdom” niche, and I wonder how much of this book emerges from that influence. It certainly is different in a lot of ways from The Four Agreements, the concepts of which are re-framed in the first half of this book. Here are a couple of bits setting up both the initial four and the fifth:

... the Four Agreements slowly help you to recover your authentic self. With practice, these four simple agreements take you to what you really are, not what you pretend to be, and this is exactly where you want to be: what you really are. … The fifth agreement is ultimately about seeing your whole reality with they eyes of truth without words. The result of practicing the fifth agreement is the complete acceptance of yourself just the way you are, and the complete acceptance of everybody else just the way they are.
At this point I need to indulge in some mental churning … bear with me. The comment I want to make about this volume is that it reminds me quite a bit of “Fourth Way” (Gurdjieff/Ouspensky/Bennett/etc.) material – which is a compliment – but this, somewhat ironically, brings to mind a bit of snark I'd read about Castaneda's writing (which seems to be the origin point of a lot of the “Toltec” concepts), that it was just “Gurdjieff in a serape”. Obviously, Castaneda was presenting his vision in the context of fictionalized narratives, and not as “systems” per se (although there is a very good book which attempts to extract something of a system out of Castaneda's various writings), so wasn't so much a similar thing, but dynamically frequently walked the same pathways. The Fifth Agreement, as opposed to Castaneda, does seem to be intended to be a “system”, building from the first four, and moving into some really advanced ground.

I suppose here would be as good a place as any to “cut to the chase” as far as what the 5th is … and this is likely to be a shocker to anyone used to “fluff bunny” new age twaddle … it reads: “Be Skeptical, But Learn To Listen”, with the further commentary:

Don't believe yourself or anybody else. Use the power of doubt to question everything you hear: Is it really the truth? Listen to the intent behind words, and you will understand the real message.
The book gets into some deep stuff … talking about awareness and language in a way that drives all the way back to the womb, and how our perception of reality is really a perception of our words for reality and not reality itself. At one point the authors state: Toltec is a Nahuatl word meaning artist.” … I have no way to judge the veracity of that claim (within the scope of effort I'm willing to devote to getting this review done), but it feeds into another over-arching conception here:

All humans are artists, all of us. Every symbol, every word, is a little piece of art. … thanks to our programming, our greatest masterpiece of art is the use of a language to create an entire virtual reality within our mind. The virtual reality we create could be a clear reflection of the truth, or it could be completely distorted. Either way, it's art. Our creation could be our personal heaven, or it could be our personal hell. It doesn't matter; it's art.
This is interesting, but it gets more intense:

Humans are born with awareness; we are born to perceive the truth, but we accumulate knowledge, and we learn to deny what we perceive. We practice not being aware, and we master not being aware. The word is pure magic, and we learn to use our magic against ourselves, against creation, against our own kind.
And then it gets a bit more technical:

If we can understand what the human mind is, and what the human mind does, we can begin to separate reality from virtual reality, or pure perception, which is truth, from symbology, which is art. Self-mastery is all about awareness, and it begins with self-awareness. First to be aware of what is real, and then to be aware of what is virtual, which means what we believe about what is real.
… and all that heavy content is sketched out in the first 25 pages!

The rest of the first half of the book (which is split into two sections, Part I – The Power of Symbols, and Part II – The Power of Doubt), then walks the reader through the original Four Agreements (plus an additional chapter), re-stated to set in the new context. I don't want to delve too deeply into this material, but figured it might be useful to at least note the chapter titles (especially if you don't recall the Four Agreements): “The Story of You – The First Agreement: Be Impeccable with Your Word”, “Every Mind Is a World – The Second Agreement: Don't Take Anything Personally”, “Truth or Fiction: The Third Agreement: Don't Make Assumptions”, (the extra chapter, “The Power of Belief – The Symbol of Santa Claus”), and “Practice Makes the Master – The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best”. Those headings give you a general idea of how the re-framing goes in relation to the first book. There are a number of terms familiar from the Castaneda material, like form and dream, along with more general terms like “belief” and “faith” that are used in specific ways here. I was really tempted to grab a few paragraphs of this (notably from pages 76-77 from the “Belief” chapter), but everything sort of builds on the surrounding info, and it would have had to have been a big honking blockquote to get across what I would have hoped to convey, so this is one point where I'm just going to say “buy the book already!”.

The second half of the book was what really blew me away. It starts with the introduction of the Fifth Agreement (which is, as noted above: “Be Skeptical, But Learn To Listen”) which extends the preceding material into direct action, à la:

Once you realize that hardly anything you know through symbols is true, then be skeptical has a much bigger meaning. Be skeptical is masterful because it uses the power of doubt to discern the truth. Whenever you hear a message from yourself, or from another artist, simply ask: Is it truth, or is it not truth? Is it reality or is it a virtual reality? The doubt takes you behind the symbols, and makes you responsible for every message you deliver and receive. … if faith is believing without a doubt, and doubt is not believing, be skeptical. Don't believe.
This is all pretty heady … and then the book makes a total jump. One of those Castaneda concepts is “attention” (I have contemplated writing a book on the various, and sometimes interpenetrating, concepts of “attention”, from the “Toltec” to the “Fourth Way” to the “attention economy” contexts … hey, in Judy Tenuta's line: “it could happen”), and it suddenly is the “payoff” of the book, with three progressively more “advanced” chapters, featuring “The Dream of the {First/Second/Third} Attention”. This starts off in the Eden myth:

The Tree of Knowledge is just a reflection of the Tree of Life. We already know that knowledge is created with symbols, and that symbols aren't real. When we eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the symbols become a virtual reality that talks to us as the voice of knowledge, and we live in that reality believing that it's real, which means without awareness, of course.
      It's obvious that humans ate the fruit of the Tree of Death. … there are billions of humans walking around in this world who are dead, but they don't know they are dead. Yes, their bodies are alive, but they are dreaming without any awareness that they are dreaming, and this is what the Toltec call the dream of the first attention
This chapter continues to pretty much take apart all religious belief as “all the lies that come with the whole Tree of Knowledge” … which moves to belief in general:

The symbols are competing for control of our attention, and in one way or another they're changing all the time; they're taking turns possessing us. There are thousands of symbols that want to take their place in our head and control us … those symbols are alive, and that life comes from us because we believe.
The way to get out of being “dead” (or be “resurrected”)? Awareness … “When you recover awareness, you resurrect and come back to life.” … which leads on to the dream of the second attention. Another familiar Castaneda term comes in here, integrity, which is the drive that launches “the war of the gods”:

It's a war between the authentic self and what we call the tyrant, the big judge, the book of law, the belief system. It's a war between ideas, between opinions, between beliefs. … We give our power to these symbols, we take them to the realm of the gods and we sacrifice our lives in the name of these gods.
The authors talk of “human sacrifice” here, which they define as originating “because we believe in so many superstitions and distortions in our knowledge”, with the actual war happening inside our heads, that expresses itself outside ourselves in various lethal conflicts … even in conflict with ourselves in endless self-punishment of past failings. The chapter goes into detail of how to use the five agreements as tools to win that war:

Once you recover awareness of what you are, the war in your head is over. It's obvious that you are the one who creates all the symbols. … The war is over because your faith is not invested in lies. Even though lies still exist, you no longer believe.
The next chapter, on the dream of the third attention (or that of the masters) is a bit esoteric, but the basis is:

In the dream of the third attention, you finally have the awareness of what you are, but not with words. … The highest point you can reach is when you go beyond symbols and become one with life …
Some concepts come in here, “presence” and intent ...

Look at your own hand. Move your fingers. The force that moves your fingers is what the Toltec call intent … Intent is the only living being that exists, and it's that force that is moving everything. You are not the fingers. You are the force that is moving them.
This gets pretty far out there (arguably in an Atman/Brahman mode), connecting the individual with all motion, with light, universes within universes, and on to soul. Again, this is pretty extreme stuff here, and I'd probably not be doing it or you a service to try to summarize it. Also, the following chapters, being based on these “dreams”, will likewise be hard to convey … but they are “Becoming a Seer”, and “The Three Languages” (which are “1-2-3”, “A-B-C”, and “Do-Re-Mi”) which has a key question: “What kind of messenger are you?”. This all may seem, in my outlining it, so much “woo-woo”, but I assure you (especially from the standpoint of having studied this stuff a long time) it all works together into a very congruent whole … and I highly recommend it.

In fact, The Fifth Agreement is likely to get another behavior out of me that almost never happens with any book … I intend to block out some time to re-read it, and I suspect that I may even re-re-read it at some later date. I don't know when the last time I was so taken by a book (maybe Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous), so that's high praise indeed.

Of course, there is a certain caveat lurking in all the above … I've read all the Castaneda books, I've read almost all the “Fourth Way” books, I've read a lot of Shamanic material, and have been boots-on-the-ground (entheogens in the head?) working with assorted Shamanic teachers … so MY context on this book is very likely to not be shared with many, and I can see where somebody without that background, coming to this cold, might be very tempted to reject it out of hand. I do think this is something that ought to be read by “all and sundry”, however.

This is sufficiently popular that it will no doubt be available at your local book store, at its quite reasonable cover price … the online big boys, however, have it at a substantial discount which makes getting it via that channel pretty much a wash with what used copies (when shipping's added) would set you back. This isn't just a bit of New Age fluff, but a coherent system based on a very convincing philosophical approach. Good stuff … go get a copy!

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
11:52 pm
Complicated Abe ...
This was one of those fortuitous dollar store finds from a few months back. I almost didn't pick it up, because, as amenable to reading history books as I am, I am not one of those with a particular interest in the Civil War, or Mr. Lincoln. However, when I noted that Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream--and How We Can Do It Again was penned by Rich Lowry (editor of the late, great William F. Buckley's National Review), I figured that I'd at least get some rah-rahs out of it. This just came out in 2013, so I wasn't greatly surprised to see that it's still in print, and was just lucking out from one of those Walmart shelf dumps that (thankfully) feed the dollar store channel.

Towards the end of the book, Lowry notes: “Lincoln himself is so revered that nearly everyone wants to make a claim on him. And his tradition is capacious enough that nearly everybody can.” This, to a certain extent, points to the raison d'être of the book … something of a reclaiming, or re-centering, Lincoln into the mainstream of the Republican Party. On one hand, the Statists hold Lincoln up as a justification of their incessant power grabs and extra-Constitutional pen-and-phone dictates, while on the other front (and I've read a good deal of this online), hard-core Libertarians hold Lincoln up as an example of how easily “tyranny” can establish itself here (decrying the very things the Left lauds him for). A lot of books are out there that drag Mr. Lincoln left, right, and even into zombie hunting … in his book, Rich Lowry seems to be trying to return this great President to his legitimate historical setting.

While I generally enjoyed reading this, I was somewhat disappointed to find that I had dropped in only a couple of my little bookmarks pointing me to the “good stuff” to put in this review, and both of those come in the last chapter. This, of course, means that you're going to be seeing more “broad strokes” here than otherwise. One of these, though, I felt was quite good at summing up the over-all theme of the book, so forgive the multiple-paragraph quote:

      It is altogether proper that we celebrate Lincoln the war leader and the emancipator. He transfixes us, and always will. The events stretching from Secession Winter in 1860-61 to the assassination at Ford's Theater constitute the greatest drama in American history this side of the Revolution. But they aren't all there is to Lincoln. Long before any shots were fired, he was committed to a vision that would create the predicate for modern America.
      Lincoln believed in a dynamic capitalism that dissolved old ways of life. He thought all men were created equal and deserved the opportunity to make the most of themselves. He urged them to make the effort to do so. He found in America's constitutional system and its free institutions the best possible platform for the realization of this vision. This is the Lincoln that is too often lost – and must be found – to truly understand him and, really, to understand who we are as a people.
While nominally structured as a biography, with a narrative arc tracking through his history, much of the descriptive material (of which there quite a lot that I'd not previously encountered, some of which was fascinating) serves as a jumping-off point for discussions of what could be called Lincoln's philosophy, or as Lowry puts it at one point, not the “how” or “what”, but the “why”.

In the opening pages of Lincoln Unbound, the author introduces a theme that works its way throughout the book … that Lincoln was no fan of his modest origins, and constantly strove to create conditions where his fellow citizens wouldn't be chained to rural subsistence for their survival:

We might romanticize his background, the log cabins and all the rest of it. Lincoln didn't. He didn't want to be poor; he wanted to be respectable. … From his first stirrings as a politician, Lincoln committed himself to policies to enhance opportunity. He wanted to build canals and railroads to knit together the nation's markets. He wanted to encourage industry. He wanted to modernize banking. He hated isolation, backwardness, and any obstacles to the development of a cash economy of maximal openness and change. He thrilled to steam power and iron, to invention and technology, to the beneficent upward spiral of a commercial economy.
Of course, much of the flow of the book is quite familiar to anybody paying attention in school … the many jobs the young Lincoln held, his work with the Whig Party, his early attempts at public service and political office, and these are certainly all here, albeit in a lot more detail than the basic grade school (or high school) text – which on occasion floated into that TMI zone where I found myself not really caring about the details of so-and-so and his store, or such-and-such campaign, etc. … although I suppose their inclusion adds to the richness of the tale. I was interested in reading of the books that the young Lincoln felt to be fundamental to his learning, and to the relation of instances where he expressed a nearly Jain-like (certainly very extreme for the time and culture) consideration for animals. Everybody knows of Lincoln's penchant for reading, but it is amusing to see all the quotes strewn through here of employers, associates, and relatives accusing him of being lazy for the large amounts of time he spent “reading & thinking” … evidently also not generally approved of in his early environment.

As one might expect, a great deal of the book traces Lincoln's political career … but here this is presented in a level of detail which digs deep into the structures of political parties at the time (and how the Whigs more-or-less transmuted into the Republican Party), how various parts of government operated (banking is a recurring issue in relation to this), and, as things moved forward to the advent of the Civil War, how the North and South differed (one factoid presented stood out to me: “if the South were a country in 1860 … it would have been the fourth richest in the world”). A lot of space is dedicated to the on-going Lincoln-Douglass debates (Lincoln essentially following along behind the well-funded and “deluxe” Douglas campaign and making his speeches following – having “traveled coach” on standard commercial rail transport. In regards to Lincoln's rhetoric Lowry notes:

His truest blow against his opponents in the 1850s and 1860s were those he struck while wielding the Declaration of Independence. The purposes he identified in the Founders and their handiwork are continually relevant. … He believed that they drew us back into the deepest principles of our republic in the Declaration. And they gave us, of course, our foundational law in the Constitution.
Somewhat oddly, the war is only peripheral to the story arc here … while it and Lincoln's assassination “hang over” the history, they are largely only referenced in relation to other, more philosophical elements. Again, the focus here is on Lincoln's “whys” throughout his life, which led up to the Civil War, and he was dead within a week of the Confederacy's surrender – not leaving much room for any “summing up” of his thoughts on the subject.

I rather enjoyed Lincoln Unbound, but I do need to make a note that I am politically rather in sync with its author … and I noticed that among the generally quite positive Amazon reviews/ratings (82% 4-5 stars), the ones which were not positive tended to feature Statists/Leftists throwing hissy fits about the underlying framing involved here. So, if you're the type who has ever worn a Che t-shirt, you'll probably not like this nearly as much as I did … although I suspect if those types could side-step their indoctrination, the charms of this telling might still engage them.

As I noted up top, this is still available at retail (despite copies floating off to the dollar stores), with the online big boys offering it for a considerable discount (41% off of cover as of this writing) … so there is a decent chance of it being on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. However, no doubt due to it having hit the dollar stores, “very good” copies can be had online for a penny plus shipping … making it pretty reasonable should you think this would be something you'd like to venture into!

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Sunday, December 4th, 2016
9:47 am
So many scammers ...
I picked this one up at a clearance table at B&N some months back … the one by me, at least, has had very little clearance action the past couple of years, which is sad, as I used to get a number of books from them. This has the “look & feel” of one of those B&N-published books, but it doesn't have any copy to that end … but what's really strange is that this hardcover had a $7.98 (pre-clearance) cover price, while the still-available paperback is going for $24.95! I'm sure there's some “story” behind this, bit it's odd having the paperback going for 3x the hardcover's price.

It is possible that there might have been international rights involved in that situation, as Beggars, Cheats, & Forgers: a History of Frauds Through the Ages' author, David Thomas, is the former Director of Technology at Britain's National Archives, and many of the characters (although hardly all) covered in the book are in the U.K. The book does have that “hobbyist” air to it, and might have been a “retirement project” for Mr. Thomas. This is not to demean the book, but it does sort of lack a “point”, and has that feel of somebody organizing a bunch of information that he's been dithering with for quite a while.

As one could surmise from the title, this deals with assorted lowlifes and scammers ...which the author points out were active long before the internet, although many of the noted scams on the web are very much based in much older schemes. It is something to think, however, that the same things worked when communication was via very slow postal channels, versus more recent fax, email, and other electronic vehicles. The book is broken up into five main thematic sections, “The Greatest Con Men”, “The Document Forgers”, “Begging Letter Writers”, “The Spanish Prisoner”, and “Sturdy Beggars”, with a time span going back as far as the medieval era, and as recently as Bernie Maddof (who was certainly the king of the rackets, having scammed billions of dollars).

While I found the book reasonably engaging, I ended up with none of my little bookmarks in it flagging places that I wanted to return to (primarily for doing this review), so I'm going to be having to cherry-pick at random here. Part of the problem is that these stories are frequently intertwined, with 20th century names coming before and after those operating, for instance, in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine in the late 1840's … and frequently filled with details (how much who paid for what, where money was borrowed from, courts that heard cases, etc., etc., etc.) that would be interest to an enthusiast for these subjects, but not adding much for the general reader. From my perspective, it also doesn't help that the author mixes in fictional characters with the historical ones (although he does note that in some cases, many of the latter figures have a lot of fictional over-lay to their stories). In the “Con Men” chapter, one thing I found interesting were the details of the schemes of Charles Ponzi … for someone whose name became synonymous with a particular type of fraud, his main run of it was remarkably brief (a couple of years at most – although when he got out of prison he started up some other illegal operations), and hardly original, with the author detailing similar frauds that preceded it. The book picks though how that worked, how it broke down, and how other scams (including Madoff's) resembled it.

The chapter on Forgers is somewhat murky, as the author brings in a lot of activities under that umbrella, from artists making fake works of old masters, to producing ephemera that would be only of interest to specific markets, even to the suggestion in H.P. Lovecraft that there existed an actual Neconomicon book (although you can hardly accuse HPL of forging that, as it's more of a literary conceit than anything) … which is set in a discussion of other (more famous, even) works which purported to be histories rather than pieces of fiction (and even dips a toe into the “who wrote Shakespeare” morass). Regrettably, some of the forgers were in positions to be able to pass judgment on the authenticity of pieces, creating some lingering question marks in several institutions (one of these forged papers at the famed Tate Gallery to provide background for faked paintings being produced by an accomplice). There is a figure detailed here who “specialized” in creating (“discovering”?) Mormon -related documents, that he knew that LDS churchmen would have a hunger for (and if you're accepting the canonical Mormon materials, it's hardly a leap to be taken in by convincing forgeries that seem to have a plausible provenance). Another of these forgers had an interesting method of “discovering” materials that he'd originated … sneaking them into otherwise-reputable antiquarian stores that had large collections of miscellanea, where he'd subsequently "find" the item and buy it from them, thus having a purchase receipt from a legitimate source.

The book delves into some technical discussion on forensics, and techniques for creating convincing “old” documents. Also covered are ways that these forgeries are discovered … such as a letter between two scientists which was dated when one of them would have been only 12 (the forger later tried to “back fill” the story with a forged note supposedly from the prodigy's tutor), or significantly wrong forms of address, or even pencil marks on the materials. The psychological implications are also dealt with, as many librarians, archivists, art collectors, etc., are quite unwilling to accept that their hard-obtained finds are not real. In many cases the forgers and their co-conspirators are strenuously defended by those who they'd scammed, because the pallor it would cast on the collections if they were proven guilty.

The “Begging Letters” is pretty much what it sounds like, sending off letters asking for money (or other things – Charles Dickens had requests for a 12-15 pound wheel of cheese and a donkey come in), and was such a problem that an organization “the Mendicity Society” was formed to fight this (subscribers were able to have the writers investigated). The author notes:

The 1840's appear to have been the peak time for begging letter writers. The means was provided because of growing literacy – from 1833 central government began to fund schools for the poorer children. The opportunity was provided by the introduction of a nationwide penny post in 1840. Suddenly, posting a letter became affordable for almost anyone and many people, including the criminally inclined, took full advantage.
I was at first confused, and then fascinated, with one of the punishments doled out to these miscreants … one of them is noted as having been “sentenced to transportation for life”, which sounded odd (frankly, my first thought was The M.T.A. Song, although that wouldn't have been a possible punishment for a century or more), but I eventually figured out that “transportation” involved being sent off to The Colonies, to the Americas prior to 1776, and to Australia thereafter. While this letter-writing practice still continues, in recent times the targets are often Lottery winners, who names are published in the papers … creating easy marks. The author notes that a new-tech version of this are the “fake charity” web sites that crop up after every disaster and purport to be some fund to aid the survivors, but with nearly no money ever finding its way to the stated beneficiaries.

The next section, on “The Spanish Prisoner” scam, is the direct ancestor of the Nigerian/419 scams that flood in-boxes world-wide. The author says the earliest example he's been able to find dates to 1797, where a fellow (later to found France's Sûreté Nationale) who had been imprisoned for a while in his youth, noticed that other prisoners were making money via letters while incarcerated:

The letters were sent to wealthy people and were allegedly from the valet of a marquis who had escaped from the dangers of the French Revolution carrying a cask filled with gold and diamonds. The marquis and his valet had found themselves pursued by revolutionaries and had been forced to throw the cask into a deep ditch. They eventually escaped abroad and the valet had come back to recover the the treasure. Unfortunately, the valet had been arrested and was in prison; he was so short of money that he would have to sell a trunk which contained a plan showing the location of the treasure-cask. However, if the recipient could send some money the valet would send him the plan and they could share the treasure. By a strange coincidence the recipients of these letters always lived close to the place where the money was hidden. … The scam was hugely successful, about 20 per cent of the letters were answered and many people came to the prison and were supplied with treasure maps.
By the 1870's the organized form of this scam had settled primarily into Spain (hence the “Spanish Prisoner”), and the gang operating in Barcelona was estimated to be netting, in the 1890's, what today would be 29 million dollars a year. For decades, efforts were made to entrap these scammers, but it appears that their money reached deep into the Spanish postal system and courts, leading to very few being arrested. Needless to say, the Nigerian descendants of this scam operate within a similar “friendly” governmental matrix … but it is amazing that, a couple of hundred years later, folks are still falling for these scams, some in a big way.

The author introduces the “Sturdy Beggars” chapter with this definition: “people who, though capable of working, choose a life of idleness and begging and develop elaborate techniques for persuading passers-by to give them money”. One might expect that this was a more realistic “career path” in earlier times, but I just found an article where it estimates that one can bring in around $15/hr doing this today. Here Thomas does a fairly detailed over-view of these folks in Britain, going as far back as 1531, with a look at the “hobo”-like subcultures that arose in various times and places. He also discusses “Rogue Literature”, which likewise dates from the mid-1500's, “describing the lives of criminals and beggars and allegedly revealing the secrets of the underworld”. Again, much of the story line here is based in the U.K., with idiosyncrasies that seem to spring straight out of a Dickens novel. Oddly, the book has an appendix dealing with street performers, although they figure in some of the material on beggars. I suppose one could argue that there's just a matter of degree between “busking” and “begging”, the former requiring at least a modicum of competency in a skill beyond psychological manipulation of the crowd.

Anyway, Beggars, Cheats, & Forgers is an interesting enough read, if for a mixed history of the less-savory types in society. As noted, this probably makes more connections with U.K. readers, as a significant portion of it deals with settings over there (the American portions are also more recent, from Ponzi in the 1920's to Madoff in the 2000's). It's a fairly brief book, running only 150 pages, so I would not recommend getting the higher-priced paperback. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover for as little as a penny (plus shipping), and that's probably right about where this ought to be for most folks (unless you have a passion for the subject equivalent to the author's).

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Saturday, December 3rd, 2016
12:24 pm
Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?
Every once in a while I'll hit a book where I have no clue how it got into my to-be-read piles, and this is one of those. It doesn't have any of the typical marks or stickers that would indicate that it came from the dollar store, or some clearance table, but I really think I would have recalled ordering this, or getting it as a review copy from the publisher … but I got nuthin' ... it was just there and it looked to fit what I felt like reading a month or so back.

Jonathan Stevenson's Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror is a tough one to get a fix on … the dust jacket claims that it “traces the recent evolution of constructive apocalyptic thinking from its zenith in the early nuclear era”, and more-or-less on up to its 2008 release date … but it's fairly narrowly focused on a class of think-tank and related elements than would be of significant interest to most readers. The author is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, and it's tempting to chalk this up to being something of a text book for classes in that context, but it's not really structured that way.

The book starts with a question: “What was it about the strategic thinking of the Cold War that worked? How did we manage not to incinerate ourselves with nuclear weapons?” and goes into a rather grisly, if brief, run-down of the military horrors of the past century … such as:

the British firebombing of Hamburg in 1943 … resulted in a fireball two kilometers high that imploded the oxygen in the air and raised windstorms strong enough to uproot trees; household sugar boiled, glass melted, and bubbling asphalt sucked people into the streets; in one night forty-five thousand civilians were killed
… along with the “feel good” sentiments of Joseph Stalin who famously remarked: “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic”. Despite being less deadly than their pre-atomic predecessor technologies, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a decided shift in military thinking. Using the A-bomb on Japan (and bluffing that we had a stockpile of 'em), prevented a long and massively deadly ground/air/sea war on their home islands … “the reaction of most of the men who would become leading nuclear strategists was profound relief” … and the author quotes later nuclear abolitionist Freeman Dyson (then with the RAF) as saying “it was a fantastic relief that the killing was going to stop.

Books discussing the new realities of nuclear weapons started appearing as early as 1946, and things only got more complicated with the development of the H-bomb in 1952. Of course, the tenor of the discussion/debate was in the context of a “titanic struggle between Western capitalism and Soviet communism” which pushed out other considerations of conflict (which made later situations such as Vietnam and non-state terrorist actors so difficult to merge into existing frameworks). The first parts of the book look, in fairly expansive detail, at how the Truman and Eisenhower administration addressed this, the committee/commission reports generated, and the major players emerging from the various universities, government departments, and military organizations.

Of course, one of the key elements was Project RAND (which was simply R&D written differently), whose

first hirees were mathematicians, engineers, statisticians, and physicists. By 1947 it became clear that RAND needed to be a broader church, and political scientists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and economists were brought on.
Most notable of that crew in terms of nuclear strategy was Albert Wohlstetter, a key figure in the book, along with Thomas C. Schelling, Herman Khan, Bernard Brodie, William Kaufmann, and Henry Kissinger.

I need to make a bit of a snarky comment at this point. I read a lot. I have an excellent education. So, I want to ask who is Stevenson writing for when he uses words like “eviscerating”, “escalatory”, “lugubrious”, and “hortatory” … in a single paragraph? It's rare for me to have to look up two words out of a dozen books, so it sort of stands out here. Again, what audience is familiar with those last two? Students at the Naval War College (we could only hope)? Anyway …

One of the profiles which stood out for me in the book was that of Herman Kahn, whose book Thinking About the Unthinkable was obviously the inspiration for this book's title. The author notes:

One of Kahn's essential convictions was that an apocalyptic war could be won, and it stemmed from his refusal to divorce human fallibility from strategic calculations. For him, the scenarios that governed policy had to take account of the irrationality of people and their subsequent unpredictability.
When being accused of “icy rationality”, Kahn responded “Would you prefer a warm, human error? Do you feel better with a nice emotional mistake? We cannot expect good discussion of security problems if we are going to label every attempt at detachment as callous, every attempt at objectivity as immoral.”

The book progresses from the 40's to the 50's and into the 60's, primarily focused on the Cold War nuclear stalemate, but other conflicts were on the horizon … unfortunately “Nuclear strategists in general were not inclined to grapple with the vicissitudes and complexities of nationalism, religion, and ideologies other than those falling under the broad contours of communism and democracy.”, and Stevenson quotes one as saying “Vietnam crept up on me like everyone else.”

A figure that surfaces here is the somewhat notorious Daniel Ellsberg, who was with RAND from 1959 to 1970.

He embodies both thesis and antithesis of RAND's underperformance in the area of conventional war, having evolved from a hard-nosed strategic thinker, to in-country Pentagon adviser in Vietnam, to antiwar activist and revealer, in 1971, of the Pentagon Papers.
The debacle of Vietnam “tainted RAND and the community of civilian strategists and knocked them from the perch to which they had ascended on the strength of the contributions to nuclear strategy” … and “Over the course of the Vietnam war, RAND, on balance, promoted U.S. policy in Vietnam without informing or challenging it much.” This allowed another old RAND hand to move to the forefront of strategic thought, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger steered the Nixon administration through decoupling from the Vietnam conflict, and building detente with the Soviets.

The rise of the “neo-cons” was largely in reaction to the “cautious” Kissinger-era moves, and this was coupled with a strong anti-Western “Orientalism” emerging from the Islamic world. The Vietnam conflict had driven a wedge between camps in the U.S., and “The absence of synergy between government and academia on strategic matters involving Islam also failed to spur the U.S. government to enhance its collective understanding of Middle East political, ethnic, and religious dynamics.” … while “Arab paperback apocalyptics had conjured visions of devastating attacks on New York and visiting mass destruction on the United States.”

Obviously, these are just the broad strokes. Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable has a great deal of detail on the figures, the stances, the challenges, etc. I was somewhat surprised that it was as “Cold War” heavy (given that “to the Age of Terror” in its subtitle) as it is, but the logical arc of the telling makes sense by the time it gets to where it's going (in the last year of the GWB administration), albeit with less detail for the Vietnam, and post-Vietnam eras. I have to admit that this was a bit of a chore to read, and again I'm left wondering what the target audience is for the book. Needless to say, if one is a fan of military/political strategy, this will be in your wheelhouse, but it's otherwise pretty much a look at fairly rarefied zones of what could be called “cultural philosophy”, and might not be particularly appealing to many. I did learn quite a lot about many things in reading it, so I think that was worth the effort … but “your mileage may vary”. This does appear to be currently out of print (suggesting that it's not a textbook), and it seems to have never had a paperback edition; but you can get “very good” copies from the online big boys' new/used vendors for as little as $4.00 (1¢ plus $3.99 shipping), so it's not going to set you back much if you want to have a go at it.

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Wednesday, November 30th, 2016
10:32 am
Calls you out by name ...
This past summer I was very excited to have gotten a ticket to see Bob Mould in concert. As much as I'd gone out to see bands “back in the day”, there are some glaring gaps in acts that I really liked that I'd never gotten to experience live (and none of us are getting any younger). Bob Mould was one of these, as I'd never caught Hüsker Dü when they were together and had “just missed” Mould several times over the years. It also didn't help that I had long since disconnected from any media that would let me know about upcoming shows (one year I only found out about a new years eve gig in town the week after it happened). Oddly, I'd caught his old bandmate, Grant Hart, a number of times when he was through town, but never Bob. Fortunately, things conspired to get the info in front of me in time to score a ticket (I think I bought it four months in advance!), and I got to cross that off my “bucket list”. I mention this stuff here as I ended up buying Bob Mould's See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody in the run-up to that show, and eventually got around to reading it about a month back.

Now, I'd been a fan for, quite literally, decades, but was surprised to find that a lot that I thought I “knew” about Mould was skewed at best. I am, of course, assuming that the timeline and events put out in this book are accurate, and my take on this was off … but I was somewhat chagrined to find that my mental data on him and his bands was so substantially erroneous. I've been trying to wrap my mind around this diverging, and can only come up with the fact I wasn't plugged into much “rock media” for the past couple of decades, and so what I “knew” came from bits and pieces here and there, notes on albums (I have nearly all of Mould's discography at this point), and “rumor mill” stuff (like the wife of an old drinking buddy who had supposedly lived in the same dorm as Hüsker Dü at one point).

As mentioned above, I finished reading this a month or so back (I've not been able to triage any time for getting out to write reviews for quite a while), so the details have gotten a little hazy for me, and, unfortunately, there are only a couple of little bookmarks in here, one of which flags a place where I have no clue what I was wanting to go back to. Bummer. This means you're only going to be getting the broad strokes here … although with an autobiography like this, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Frankly, Mould sorts of sets it up for this approach in his approach to the book. In the Preface he writes (following noting “how integrated my personal and professional lives had finally become”):

... writing this book was an emotionally taxing process. Even though my life and work have been on public display for many years, I have always been a very private person. My desire for privacy has often bordered on secrecy. The thought of revealing certain aspects of my personal life was hard to reconcile. As time progressed, I found myself losing track of certain memories. It felt like it was time to assemble the key pieces into a narrative. Instead of telling individual anecdotes (the typical memoir), I'm telling my story in order – and by doing so, I can see the patterns. In a way, I'm finally making sense of my life.
One wonders how much of what the finished book is comes via the efforts of Mould's co-author, Michael Azerrad, a music journalist with a couple of other well-regarded books out there … and what sort of process was involved in the three years it took for this to get done (coming out in 2011). Speaking of “coming out” (nice segue, eh?), one of the more surprising (to me) parts of this is “the gay stuff” … of which there is quite a lot. One of the things he had been keeping secret for a long time was his sexual orientation … this based on both the somewhat homophobic vibe of the early punk scene, and having grown up in a very hostile environment for gays (he tells the story of a guy he knew who had returned to their old home town and ended up being gruesomely murdered). I had recalled that he had been “outed” by a magazine at some point (in the early 1990's), but had always heard that it was a “political” outing that caught Mould by surprise, but in reading this that doesn't seem to be exactly the case (and it was in Spin, rather than in the gay press, as I'd previously thought). He notes that he was very focused on writing gender-neutral lyrics for most of his albums, to not have this become an issue for some listeners. He certainly got over that by 2009, when his Life and Times solo album featured some songs which are fairly clearly written from a gay context.

Frankly, not being much familiar with gay subjects, it was fascinating (if in a somewhat voyeuristic mode) looking in on his various relationships, and his coming to grips with being a gay public figure. In the course of the telling, he does take the reader into a lot of places that they might not ever have had occasion to go (such as the clothing-optional resort where he and his boyfriend are getting thrown out of in the opening story).

The other thing which was surprising (and this I had no inkling of), was his time with WCW – the wrestling operation. Mould had grown up a big wrestling fan, and was somewhat involved in it in his teens (some of Hüsker Dü's tour managers were from that world). Somewhat out of the blue, he got hired as a “creative consultant” in the fall of 1999, and was pretty much 24/7 with that (traveling constantly) until the spring of 2000, when the team he was part of got replaced by the WCW management. He called this his “dream job” … which is interesting for a rock star (whose regular job is the “dream job” of many) to say.

Another thread throughout the book is the subject of “substances”. Hüsker Dü had dissolved in a booze-and-drug-induced haze, and eventually Mould got cleaned up … primarily on his own. As I managed to get 30+ years of sobriety without A.A. (where I have since ended up trying to go for the “sanity” part that I sort of missed back when I got physically sober), I found his story on this of interest … especially as it had some remarkably direct parallels with my own experience … here's a key bit of this, about when he stopped drinking in 1986:

It was a vivid and sudden realization: I had to catch myself and stop this addiction before it escalated any further. I was twenty-five years old and I said to myself, I've had a drink every day for twelve years. If I keep this up, I will not make it to thirty. I was a high-functioning alcoholic. I had scotch in my desk drawer, started drinking straight from the bottle at 2 PM, and could still complete a full day's work. It's great to be a high-functioning alcoholic – I could drink a fifth of scotch and drive just fine. It didn't interfere with my work, so why wouldn't I do it? No one ever pointed out the problem to me. … There was no program, no AA, no handbook … I did no twelve-step program and had no counseling. It was an act of sheer will-power, a testament to my ability to scare myself straight. … That was it. I haven't had a drink since.
This is not a popular theme around the 12-step crowd, as it's a rare individual who can get and stay sober without the structure and support of a program, and I've even had AA folks question if I were really an alcoholic for getting sober without them, despite a rather indicative history (and I'm guessing they'd ask the same about Mould).

Anyway, aside from these themes, most of the book is what you'd expect … tales from the road, tales from the recording studio, drama within bands, despicable “industry” folks, and a good deal of name-checking. Needless to say, this could have gotten quite ugly about the break-up of Hüsker Dü, but I think Mould deliberately pulled his punches there. He describes Grant Hart's descent into heroin addiction, and Greg Norton's fading interest in the music (and how he and Grant ended up re-recording Norton's bass parts on several songs on 1987's Warehouse: Songs And Stories), as well as issues with the label. If anything, the music parts reflect that “telling my story in order” idea here – which, while essentially structuring the book, somewhat makes the telling dry – with scenario after scenario being looked at, but without any point other than recording the facts. This is not to say that the writing is particularly “dry”, as there are some great descriptions of places and processes involved, like this bit on the recording of one of my favorites of Mould's albums, 1990's Black Sheets of Rain, at The Power Station in NYC:

I piled on so many layers of electric guitars that it felt almost claustrophobic. Then in the final mix stage, Steve Boyer and I enhanced the drums – already thick and huge from recording in Studio A, a cavernous wooden room with a churchlike peaked ceiling – with samples that made them sound colossal. Every part of the sound spectrum was saturated to maximum capacity.
While not being a substantial part of the book, in places here and there lyrics are quoted and discussed, which is probably more interesting to a long-time fan such as myself than to the casual reader. Another aspect here is how Mould acted as business manager in several phases of his career, and that is also an interesting look at dynamics of the music business that don't often get a strong light shined on them (especially when he'd hired a manager, who ended up screwing him out of his publishing rights for a couple of albums, exchanged for tour-support money from the label).

Is See A Little Light a read for the non-fan? I don't know. Bob Mould's music has been “significant” in my life for over thirty years, so it's somewhat integral to who I am … making it hard to look at this with an uninvolved eye. It is, as noted above, a window into a lot of areas that one might not be otherwise privy to, from the gay lifestyle, to the wrestling business, to the music industry details. These are all interesting, and could provide enough hook for somebody who wasn't as familiar with the author's music to enjoy the book anyway.

The hardcover edition that I have has been out since 2011, with the paperback appearing a couple of years later (I don't know if there was any update between those). It appears that the hardcover is currently out of print, so is only available in the aftermarket, but you can get a “very good” copy for under two bucks (plus shipping). The on-line big boys have the paperback at only 10% off of cover, which suggests that its still selling fairly well, so you might be able to find it at your local brick-and-mortar, if you wanted to go that route. Again, this is a great read for the right fan base, but might be too narrowly-focused for the “general reader” … but I suspect you'll know which side of that line you fall!

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Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
10:39 am
Saling away ...
Sometimes I'm not sure how a book got into my to-be-read piles, especially it it's been lingering in there for quite a while. This is one of those. Frankly, I'd thought, when encountering this when looking for the “next” book, that it was something that I'd picked up at an author event a few years back, but when I got into it, I noticed a barcode sticker over the actual barcode on the back, indicating that it was likely a dollar store find instead. Oh, well.

Needless to say, Philip Delves Broughton's The Art of the Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life had been in that not-being-read purgatory for as long as it had for that whole “sales” thing … I've never been good at sales, not having the sort of psyche needed to take endless rejection, so when I have read “sales books”, it's been sort of a latter-day “cod liver oil” for me, something to take because I need it, not that I really want it.

However, it turns out that this is a delightful book … sort of a string of mini-biographies of a wide array of people who sell, and how these examples illustrate core truths about selling. I realize that this sounds counter-intuitive, given my antipathy toward “teaching stories”, but these aren't “dancing around the subject”, just addressing it from real-world examples. I have to admit that I took a peek at the Amazon reviews before launching into this and there were quite a number of people who were being bitchy about this not being “sales manual” – which is, basically, what I was dreading getting into.

The genesis of this book was the author's previous (about his mid-life attending Harvard's business school) ... and how he was shocked to find there was nothing about sales in most MBA programs, and how his professors suggested he “take a two-week evening program somewhere” if he wanted to study sales (oddly, I got a similar response when I wanted to study typography as part of my art major in college). He notes that there are two general schools of thought on sales, on one hand the “Dale Carnegie” side which sees sales as a path to success open to all, and the “Death of a Salesman” side which holds sales to be a soul-crushing hell. The stories here don't end up on either extreme, but float around in the real-life zone between.

The book starts with a memory of the author (who was born to English ex-pats) at age 12 in Morocco where his parents went shopping for rugs in the bazaar. Unlike many, his family was up to the process, and he fondly recalls the event. This sets up the tale of his visiting a Moroccan named Majid, who has become famous … “He is known to interior decorators, collectors, and antiques dealers the world over, and yet he started out a street hawker.” … Majid grew up in a family of traders and artisans, and he learned how to size up buyers and sellers early on. There's a bit in here of him selling a carpet to a Texan, who wanted “the very best”, which Majid understood meant “the most expensive” – had he interpreted that as “the finest” he would have wasted his time selling the wrong rug. The initial take-away the author presents here is: “Accurately perceiving the motivations of a customer then, is just as important as understanding what product they want.” … before going into a discussion of some research on “declarative knowledge” in sales.

The next chapter starts with a look at Tony Sullivan, a TV infomercial host, known for his pitches for the Smart Mop, among many other products. As a child, his father placed gambling machines in pubs, etc., and would sometimes send Sullivan out to do collections … then one summer he was helping to sell t-shirts at a festival, and encountered a guy that was selling something called a “Washmatic”, and moving unit after unit with a highly animated pitch. Sullivan was fascinated, and after a while convinced the other fellow to let him learn the business. He apparently was a natural, and began selling all sorts of products at various events around the U.K., eventually making a break into TV by moving to the U.S., and selling the Smart Mop to and then on the Home Shopping Network. Interestingly, for coming from a “hucksterism” environment, he is very adamant on only selling stuff he, essentially, believes in, saying “if a product doesn't work, or people don't think they're getting value, they can destroy your reputation online”. He also isn't “always on”, noting that he needs to take a product home, use it, think about it, and take a considerable amount of time to come up with a pitch. Broughton says:

Stories serve two purposes in sales. They enable a salesperson to sell to a customer, and they enable salespeople to sell themselves on the value of their work. A good story works in three stages, which resemble those of the sales process itself. … These are the same stages Aristotle prescribed for tragedy in the Poetics: an inciting incident, a climactic struggle, and, finally, a resolution.
The chapter then switches over to discussing Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn, who was highly impressed with another hotel's efforts to provide over-the-top service for his family while on vacation. His enthusiasm about this, told to the other hotel chain's chairman, started his outreach to Wynn employees with a system called “storytelling” that encourages staff to create service that's worthy of being told as a story. This then moves to a bit about P.T. Barnum, and then a look at an anonymous jewelry salesman who had gone to work at Cartier (getting the job after having spent nearly all his savings on Cartier products that he subtly produced at the interview), and developed into “a keen reader of people's underlying fears and wants”, much like the skills exhibited by Majid.

The next chapter starts off with a look at the nature of sales, from the general elements true across all settings (“At its most basic and technical, selling is about understanding a customer's needs and delivering a product to meet them.”), then into various types of sales, and some research that showed how fundamentally different the aspects of the sale (motivation, aptitude, etc.) were in the different sorts of settings. This is followed by the work of Robert McMurry, who “helped establish a unique position for the study of sales, somewhere between economics and psychology”, and listed various “levels” of sales, from the simple to the very complex, and characteristics of successful salespersons, but with the “single most important trait” being “the wooing instinct”, which is found in those with “a compulsive need to win and hold the affection of others” … whose behaviors are unsettling close to the dynamics found in psychopaths. He then shifts to a consideration of the insurance industry, but focusing on this in Japan, and a woman (rare in the upper echelons of Japanese business), Mrs. Shibata, who is the top salesperson at Dai-ichi Life, having worked her way up from nothing. This looks at the dynamics of that industry, then flips back into some more research on the psychology of sales, then into some more examples of insurance salespeople, and thence to skipping through car sales, pharmaceutical sales (whose sales force is largely staffed by ex-cheerleaders), and funeral service sales. The chapter ends with a bit of a profile of the legendary Ron Popeil (one of whose daughters was a classmate of mine in high school) which introduces a bit on “ethical questions”.

Speaking of which, the book now moves to a look at “cultish” sales environments, starting with Apple, whose devotees' blind allegiance has always irritated me (especially for grossly over-priced products), this then goes to a look at some books comparing sales and religion, a look at “utopian groups” which then leads to the world of network marketing. This then shifts to a more philosophical stance, looking at optimism and pessimism and confidence and fear … ending up with a recommendation of a stance of “cheerful realism”. There are a vast number of figures name-checked here, generally with a story that then either sets up or illustrates some piece of research, making it hard to cherry-pick items for the review.

The next chapter is “Leveling”, about how sales allow people to rise up from nothing if they have the right mix of dedication and skills. The first story here is of a black lady, Madam C.J. Walker, who made a fortune in hair care products … which leads into looks at Estée Lauder and Mary Kay Ash. There was a particularly arch bit in here, discussing the prejudices many have against salespeople:

Managers are dependent on them, but fear their power, which seems an uncontrollable, Dionysian force, overwhelming to those in the neater world of financial spreadsheets and strategic plans.
The chapter concludes with an extensive description of a Mexican contractor called “Memo” who has an interesting quote: “once you have built something from scratch, you know you can do it anywhere, anytime again”.

What follows is a relatively brief chapter on the Art world, with several figures in assorted levels of that arena (which involves a whole other set of dynamics, skills, and psychology). Subsequent chapters relate illustrations from the author's experiences around preparing for his marriage, software and technology sales, and the business of selling jet liners. Again, there are a lot of names, companies, products, and the contexts in which those operate … all interesting enough, but not as notable as the longer looks at key figures. Another bit, returning to the genesis of the author's look at sales, stood out here:

If nothing else, selling is an endless confrontation with truth, the truth about yourself and about others. It is raw and uncomfortable and personally exposing in a way other business functions rarely are. This hard truth may help explain why business schools, which prefer to paint a less brutal vision of business life, are so loath to teach it.
As noted up top, I quite enjoyed reading The Art of the Sale, although parts of it were decidedly uncomfortable for me (I'm totally the wrong personality type to succeed at this – reflected in how much I related to the line “If they felt lost or purposeless they could not sell”). It's not a “sales manual”, but it is has a plethora of information that would help anybody “wrap their head around” the world of sales.

The paperback of this is still in print (as one might hope as it's only been out a couple of years), but the hardcover (which I guess I found at the dollar store), can be had in “like new” condition from the new/used guys online for as little as a penny plus shipping. While this won't be of interest to everybody, if you've ever wondered about sales, thought about sales, or been faced with the necessity of actually doing sales, you're likely to find something worthwhile in this. If nothing else, it's quite an enjoyable read … especially for a “business book”!

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Monday, November 14th, 2016
10:22 pm
Mission Implausible ...
I had, obviously, lost track of Dick Hoagland quite a while back. I'd been following his EnterpriseMission.com web site through the 90's, but even when I reviewed his Monuments of Mars six and half years ago, I was wondering “what happened” to him, and he'd sort of dropped off my radar. I'd picked up Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA by him and Mike Bara a few years back, but only got around to reading it last month (it kept getting passed over due to being nearly 600 pages). If you're unfamiliar with Hoagland, he's the guy who glommed onto “the face on Mars” and ran with it. I don't really want to re-hash a lot of the stuff from my previous review, however, but there's a lot about this book which has pretty much the same issues I had with the earlier one.

Getting ready to write this, I popped over to his site, and was surprised to find that he's updated it over the past couple of years (it had been static for so long, I never got over there unless I was looking to background something on “hyperdimensional physics”), plus having developed a new radio show. One interesting thing there was coverage of China's lunar lander program, which I'd, frankly, missed when it happened a couple of years back.

Now, Hoagland is “an acquired taste”, and is easy for most folks to brush off as an obsessed eccentric. Honestly, he brings this on himself, “leading with his chin”, as it were, with picture after picture after picture of extremely ambiguous stuff on the Moon or Mars which he claims “clearly” shows artificiality. I have been following this guy's material for what at this point is decades, and I have yet to see a picture from, for instance, the Moon where the “structures” he insists are self-evident in these grainy, digitally processed images, are even vaguely suggested. Not a single shot of the “lunar domes”, which take up a lot of this (and are the focus of his info on the Chinese mission on his site) looks to me as anything other than random “noise”. And, like Fox Mulder, I do “want to believe”, but time after time what he's pitching as being in these pictures are less convincing than seeing Jimmy Durante in a cloud formation. Oh, and as an editorial note, a lot of Dark Mission is set up as a 3rd person presentation with Hoagland being a character in the telling, rather than being the “speaker”, and those “Hoagland found ...” bits get irritating fast – unless, of course, Mike Bara was the primary author of this.

However …

I really hate that this evidently arose from his measurements of angles of stuff in the “Cydonia” area on Mars. There are a couple of numbers that come out of this which keep appearing (especially the latitude of 19.5°) in various energetic phenomena across the solar system. This led him to develop/uncover a “hyperdimensional/torsion physics” which is both the subject of quite a lot of Russian research, and goes (according to this book) back to James Clerk Maxwell's original equations, which reflect his argument that “the only way to solve certain problems in physics was to account for some phenomena as 3D 'reflections' of objects existing in higher spatial dimensions”, but this “scalar” component was, after Maxwell's death, stripped out of his original equations by Oliver Heaviside, resulting with the “normal space” classic Maxwell equations which underlie much of modern physics. I have found this material fascinating, and I suspect that Hoagland has stumbled onto something that is quite important, but he goes back to it so frequently, it's like finding “hidden Mickeys” at Disney World … albeit even more so.

As one might guess, a nearly-600-page book (set in fairly small type), has a massive amount of detail crammed in, and I'd love to go on-and-on about the physics stuff, but it would take way too much space to give it justice in even the broad strokes, so I'm just going to note my enthusiasm for that material, and suggest that if it sounds like something you might find of equal interest (check out the bits on his site to get a sense of it), pick up the books … you can focus on those parts without having to swallow the rest.

And the rest is a lot to swallow. As should not be surprising given the sub-title, this book is largely a history of NASA … but not so much in the mundane, this mission did this, that mission did that, mode, but a “way over the edge” version which tracks the space program back to the early days. Now, pretty much everybody knows that the US and USSR were in a race to see how many German rocket scientists they could sweep up in the final days of the Third Reich, and that we ended up with Wernher von Braun (and some of his assistants) who was the leading light of NASA in the post-war years. Hoagland puts forth information that suggests that not only was von Braun an enthusiastic Nazi (in contact with the top echelons the Reich), but he was somewhat of an unrepentant Nazi, even after being mainstreamed in the US. There was also a very strong Masonic element involved. Now, I've never quite understood the paranoia around the Masons … while I've never been personally involved, both my maternal grandfather and my father-in-law were 33rd Degree Masons, and I never saw anything creepy in either family related to that (well, unless you count the very large and garish “logo” flower arrangement that the Eastern Star organization sent to my mother-in-law's funeral). Hoagland, however, does the cable-ready “oooh – Secret Society!” thing here, and notes how many NASA administrators and astronauts were quite active Masons (and, I will admit, some of the material here – astronauts posing in official photos symbolically exhibiting their Masonic rings, and having Masonic organizational flags being included in their personal effects brought with them to the Moon ... which is sort of suggested by the obviously photoshopped cover image – is awfully suggestive of more than just individual expressions of "Masonic pride"). And, of course there is Jack Parsons, a devotee of Aleister Crowley, and O.T.O. member, whose work with Theodore von Karman in developing rockets, is used by Hoagland to paint the senior scientist with the same occult brush (although I was unable to dig up anything more than just the JPL connection).

So, Hoagland feels that there is a Nazi/Mason/Occult (he even presents an “organizational chart” for this) theme to NASA, and constantly returns to “ritual timing” of various elements in the program. I would normally dismiss this, but the timing/orientation of key events (at least as Hoagland describes them) does seem to hew to a very specific line … a line that seems to be rooted in ancient Egyptian religion. This goes down a rather convoluted rabbit-hole, but, like much in Hoagland's world, there's just enough “real stuff” that keeps one from totally saying he's simply nuts. In this case, there is a lot of “symbolic” elements in the naming, iconography, etc. of NASA programs that relate to the Osiris/Isis/Horus deity matrix, and Hoagland keeps pointing to “ritual alignments” time/location-wise that are quite suggestive that this sort of thing could be happening. He even identifies a key Egyptian scientist who was brought in for the Apollo program, and suggests that he is the one setting out the plans for those enactments. Again, there is a lot here that sounds like so much hooey, especially the “lion”/sphinx stuff (mainly on Mars), as well as the rather convoluted “evidence” of Sirius or some star of Orion's belt being above/below/on a horizon at a particular time. There's a lot in the genre of “more ancient cultures than generally accepted” that I totally believe (like the Giza Sphinx aligning to an event that happened several thousand years prior to when Zahi Hawass and the like would hold to be possible), but deciding, when less-obvious pictures of “the face” came in, that it was “half-lion, half-man” (which Hoagland enthusiastically does here) is more than a bit “out there”.

The other main theme here is the “conspiracy to hide stuff” which, while certainly plausible given the track record that Hoagland outlines of endless promises of releases, only to be followed by evidently intentionally degraded images, or no images at all (or even, at one point, an order to destroy all existing images from a program). Why would NASA do this? I guess it goes back to the notorious “Brookings report”, which noted that much turmoil could be expected were the public to hear that we had contacted or found evidence of extraterrestrial cultures/races, which included quotes such as “How might such information, under what circumstances be presented to or withheld from the public for what ends?” and:

While face-to-face meetings with it will not occur within the next twenty years (unless its technology is more advanced than ours, qualifying it to visit Earth), artifacts left at some point in time by these life forms might possibly be discovered through our space activities on the Moon, Mars, or Venus.
Hoagland, perhaps more than anybody, believes that we have evidence of these sorts of artifacts (and, again, as much as I might like to see indisputable proof of this, the vast majority of the photos require a very active imagination to “see” what Hoagland and his associates “see” in them). However, the concept that the overriding “model” for both NASA and other space programs is that were evidence of ETs made public, that human society would break down into chaos, is at least a point to explain a lot of what Hoagland notes would otherwise have to be due to massive incompetence in the handling of space imaging.

As noted, Dark Mission is a very long book in fairly small type, and ends up a quite a slog through a lot of theorizing that isn't necessarily all that “evidence based” – but that's my call on the evidence, the authors here certainly seem to have a much lower bar for what's “convincing proof”. There is also a good deal of paranoia exhibited in these pages, again, perhaps not erroneous, as Hoagland has certainly made himself a target of at least ridicule by the “mundane explanation” forces, and if even a third of what he's raising here is true, there must be a substantial conspiracy to keep the “official line” being the only one that gets serious consideration (but, as we've seen in the 2016 election cycle, the press is perfectly capable of defending an orthodoxy in the face of overwhelming evidence against it, if stonewalling against that evidence suits their agenda).

Can I recommend this book? Probably not. I'd suggest you dig through the EnterpriseMission.com web site first to get a sense of where Hoagland is coming from, and if you want to delve deeply into the more paranoid and conspiratorially-inclined aspects of that, then this book's for you. If not, you've been spared a very long strange read. I really wish that Hoagland (or somebody) would do a solid look at the hyperdimensional/tetrahedral/torsion physics that was separate from all the “oh, look, it's a pyramid … oh, look, it's a robot head … oh, look, it's a city!” stuff and put that out as a sane, serious book. Needless to say, despite having some very interesting material covered, this is not that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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