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Sunday, July 24th, 2016
6:23 pm
Why religion?
As I noted in a review a few weeks back, I recently decided to get caught up on several “atheist” books that I'd gotten in a number of years ago, and so Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon got out of the “to be read” limbo and into my active reading mix. This is one that I pretty much ordered “by reputation”, without having a lot of particular info (and, hence, expectations) about it. I guess Dennett was quoted enough in other books that I figured that I should get around to reading this one as well.

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

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

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

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

Dennett puts forward a rather convincing call for the study of religion:
We have particularly compelling reasons for investigating the biological bases of religion now. Sometimes – rarely – religions go bad, veering into something like group insanity or hysteria, and causing great harm. Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum; a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight. We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire. What is religion composed of? How do the parts fit together? How do they mesh? Which effects depend on which causes? Which features, if any, invariably occur together? Which exclude each other? What constitutes the health and pathology of religious phenomena?
He does suggest caution, however, referring to the knee-jerk move to low-fat dietary guidelines (driven by politics, of course), where “the demands of the public for simple advice – run up against the confusing ambiguity of real science”. He goes on to say:
Good intentions are not enough. This is the sort of misguided campaign that we want to avoid when we try to correct what we take to be the toxic excesses of religion.
Again, much of the book is involved in delving into specific philosophical questions dealing with belief, with historical indications of how modern cultures arose, with brain function, with cultural insularity, etc., etc. etc. This is presented in a very accessible format, with humor and reference to a wide array of cognitive frames. Unfortunately, none of that makes for quick-and-handy quotes or summaries. Here, however, is one section that did sort of stand out:
Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lore about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman. … {he references Dawkin's famous line: “... modern theists might acknowledge that … We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”} The trouble is that, since this advice won't be heeded, discussions of the existence of God tend to take place in a pious fog of indeterminate boundaries. If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone “on their side”, theists typically decline to do this. … This double standard is enabled if not actually licensed by a logical confusion that continues to defy resolution by philosophers who have worked on it: the problem of intentional objects … the things somebody can think about.
The start of that, “belief in belief in God” is featured through this quite a bit, which eventually gets contrasted with various scientific theorems …
Do you believe that E=mc2? I do. We all know that this is Einstein's great equation, and the heart, somehow, of his theory of relativity, and many of us know what the E and m and c stand for, and could even work out the basic algebraic relationships and detect obvious errors in interpreting it. But only a tiny fraction of those who know “E=mc2 is a fundamental truth of physics actually understand it in any substantive way.
He goes on to quote from Richard Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, where in a lecture that great mind said:
It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does … It's a problem that physicists have learned to deal with ...
Lots of other threads are woven through here: anthropological studies of obscure cultures, “teaching stories” from various traditions, atrocities committed in the name of various religions (Kosovo, the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, etc.) – with the comment “This is the great danger of symbols – they can become too sacred”, with a look at how religion has been historically studied in the West.

In the “Morality and Religion” section there is an interesting discussion of a key element that appears to be preventing Islam from evolving into something less medieval:
It is equally unknown how many Muslims truly believe that all infidels and especially kafirs (apostates from Islam) deserve death , which is what the Koran (4:89) undeniably says. … of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam stands alone in its inability to renounce this barbaric doctrine convincingly. The Koran does not explicitly commend killing apostates, but the hadith literature (the narrations of the life of the Prophet) certainly does. Most Muslims, I would guess, are sincere in their insistence that the hadith injunction that apostates are to be killed is to be disregarded, but it's disconcerting, to say the least, that fear of being regarded as an apostate is apparently a major motivation in the Islamic world. … Even Muslims “on the inside” really don't know what Muslims think about apostasy – they mostly aren't prepared to bet their lives on it ...
Reflecting back to the science example, Dennett talks about “division of labor”, where there are “experts” in various areas, and he suggests that this is frequently what drives most bodies into the pews, and despite quoting H.L. Mencken's “For every complex problem, there is a simple answer – and it is wrong.” he notes:
... if you decide, after conscientious consideration, that your moral decision is to delegate further moral decision in your life to a trusted expert, then you have made your own moral decision. Your have decided to take advantage of the division of labor that civilization makes possible and get the help of expert specialists.
Of course, this hinges on the “conscientious consideration” part … people thinking it through (which I suspect is a sucker bet every time) … with the problem coming with those who “have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem”. Dennett defines these (probably the majority of believers) as “taking a personally immoral stand”, which he suspects is the “most shocking implication” of his studies in this area.

The book closes out with a chapter “Now What Do We Do?”, where he summarizes much of the material, while still introducing some new elements. I liked this piece in the early parts of this chapter, where's he sort of setting up his “closing arguments”:
Religion provides some people with a motivated organization for doing great things – working for social justice, education, political action, economic reform, and so forth. For others the memes of religion are more toxic, exploiting less savory aspects of their psychology, playing on guilt, loneliness, the longing for self-esteem and importance. Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future.
Dennett does eventually get around to “politics”, and he gets into some territory sure to irritate the Left (which, needless to say, got my attention), including a discussion comparing dangerous religious believers to dangerous political believers, and here's a bit of that:
There were Marxists working very hard to bring about the revolution, and it was comforting for them to believe that their success was guaranteed in the long run. {according to the doctrine that “the revolution of the proletariat was inevitable”} And some of them, the only ones that were really dangerous, believed so firmly in the rightness of their cause that they believed it was permissible to lie and deceive in order to further it. They even taught this to their children from infancy. These are the “red-diaper babies,” children of hardline members of the Communist Party of America, and some of them can still be found infecting the atmosphere of political action in left-wing circles ...
Heck, one of them regrettably managed to “infect” the White House!

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

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

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Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
8:50 am
You really should read this one ...
I don't think that Wayne Allyn Root is the type of guy who gets embarrassed much, but I suspect he's somewhat so when it comes to this book. Root made his name in sports prognostication, and then turned to being a political commentator. Back in 2008, he was a hopeful for the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidacy, and was in third place with as much as 26.7% of the vote through five rounds of balloting at their national convention. The top two contenders, former GOP Congressman Bob Barr, and LP “true believer” Mary Ruwart, were locked in a virtual tie on each of these, and following the fifth ballot, Root reached out to Barr to offer his support, in exchange for a spot on the ticket. This was enough to give Barr the nomination, and landed Root in the VP slot. That was, of course, when everybody was expecting Hillary to roll to the White House, and the LP was seeing this as a great opportunity to get some exposure with a wider swath of the voting public. Of course, instead of the “abysmal” Hillary winning, it was the “horrific” current POTUS, which changed the game … the threat of the abuses of the current administration (which has been every bit as monstrous as anticipated, with even more anti-Americanism than anybody could have thought possible) made “standing on principle” a sucker bet.

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

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

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

I also have a somewhat unusual problem with this review – I have over two dozen bookmarks stuck in here for “good parts” that I wanted to share. Root and I have a very similar view of government – that it is the enemy most of the time, so there's a “preaching to the choir” aspect here. Things like:
… government entitlement and welfare programs have never been about helping the poor. They've always been about giving more power and control to politicians and government.
are such a relief to see expressed by somebody other than myself (when swearing at my computer monitor).

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

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

As is often the case when I find myself with a “forest” of bookmarks in a book I'm reviewing, I can find myself being unsure exactly what it was on those pages that I was wanting to use (although enough of them were in the above-noted chapter that I decided to contact the author to simply bring that whole thing to you). One bit that I found illuminating, however, is in the “God and Government” chapter where Root (who grew up Jewish but converted to some evangelical Christian sect in order to marry his fundy wife, as I noted in my review of his Relentless book) discusses religious matters, he writes:
... my religious views should not allow me to use government as a hammer to smash those views down your throat. I want to explain to Christians who support all my fiscal views of smaller government, less government spending, lower entitlements, lower taxes, and more freedom, that asking for government to enforce our religious and moral values is in fact big government. And it's also a big mistake.
Given that I first came to the Libertarian Party because its “religion neutral” positioning (in the face of having Armageddon-desiring fundy Dan Quayle being “a heartbeat away from the Presidency” in Bush I's administration), I find Root's stance on belief reassuring.

One of Root's most dramatic propositions here comes in the “Eliminating Federal Taxes and the IRS” chapter … which, in the briefest setting is:
      We propose eliminating the income tax and all other sources of federal tax revenues, including payroll taxes (FICA), excise taxes, and import duties, and replacing it with only one tax: a tax on each state in proportion to its population, with each state deciding for itself how to raise its share of the money. … With no other source of revenue to the U.S. government, the balance of power would be forever dramatically reversed back to the states (just as our Founding Fathers envisioned).
He goes on to quote Jefferson in support of a number of points, including the remarkable:
“The true theory of our constitution is that states are independent as to everything within themselves ...” and even went so far as to recognize the right of states to nullify federal laws within their own borders, describing federal intrusion into state matters as “interference by a foreign government”.
In the chapter “Eradicating Capital Gains”, Root, the serial entrepreneur, gets on his soapbox (yeah, I'm cheering him on), about risk and reward, and how “Capital gains are the only ticket out of poverty. Capital gains are the only ticket to success and upward mobility.” He goes on to show what the Left is leading us to:
What do you get when you turn off that {investment} faucet? Cuba. Before Fidel Castro, Cuba was a prosperous country. A huge class of professionals and business owners lived a wonderful life. Then Castro decided that capitalism was bad and socialism was good for the people. Now the country is frozen in time. Homes, cars, roads, government buildings – they are all dilapidated and broken down, frozen in time because without motivation, no one has invested in anything since 1959 (the year of Castro's revolution). … Cuba is the country that time forgot. Liberals whine all day about “fairness”. Life is completely fair in communist and socialist countries. In liberal utopias like that, taxes are so high that everybody lives in poverty and misery.
Since we're on the subject of liberals … here's another great bit (which dovetails back to the damned union deals):
      Why do liberals want to spend ever-higher amounts of your money? So they can buy the votes of people too ignorant to understand that the very policies that they are voting for are keeping them poor, helpless, hopeless, aimless, and clueless.
It's almost like Root was forecasting the whole BLM thuggery that the current administration has encouraged over the past year or two!

Root also has some very interesting suggestions about reforming Congress. It turns out that his home state, Nevada, has a “part time” legislature, which manages to run the state just fine. In the chapter “The Magnificent Seven (Times Two)” he features two 7-item lists. I was hoping to find a source to point you to on these (rather than listing them all out), but one of the highlights of this is to significantly expand the number of representatives by having each Congressperson represent only 100,000 citizens (versus the average of nearly 700,000 each now), making it not only a far more responsive office, but also making campaigns much less expensive. He also suggests, instead of unlimited 2-year terms, making each term for six years, and only allowing two terms. Another feature of this much larger Congress:
Today a lobbyist needs to buy a majority of the 435-member House in order to get the appropriation they desire, or the special favor they are seeking. That's downright cheap. It becomes almost 10 times as expensive for any corporation or lobbyist to accomplish this with a 3,000-member House.
Among the other items Root puts forward here is:
No proposed bill should be enacted into law unless it has been read out loud in its amended form in the presence of a quorum in Congress, and then posted to the Internet at least one week prior to a scheduled vote.
This will not only discourage massive bills with layer upon layer of “hidden” pork, but it would ensure that never again will some cretinous psychopath like Nancy Pelosi be able to pontificate that the public can't see the bill (that's tens of thousands of pages long) until it's passed.

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

Another section that should get anybody's blood boiling is the “Nanny State” chapter where Root lists case after case of callous elitist politicians destroying “the little people” because they can. He has a great rant in the middle of this that I'm 100% behind:
Never trust government. Never trust politicians or government bureaucrats. Never trust moral crusaders. Never let others define morality for you. Because the people doing the crusading and defining and prosecuting often have an agenda, and out-of-control ego, and an outsized sense of entitlement. They certainly do not have your best interests in mind.
Gotta love that. He follows later with a campaign-like call to action:
It's time to put candidates in office whose goal is to give the power back to the people. Whose goal is limit the size, power, and scope of government. Our wise Founding Fathers wrote about power of the people, by the people, for the people. They did not write about putting power in the hands of morally corrupt, power-hungry, ego-driven, hypocritical politicians and government bureaucrats.
Speaking of the Founding Fathers, he opens one chapter with an awesome quote from George Washington, which should be always remembered: “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force.” … after all, every “give away” from the government is based on money being forcibly taken (or at least under the threat of force – if you're not Al Sharpton and don't pay your taxes, somebody's eventually going to show up at your door with guns to take you to jail) from somebody else.

Root hits a lot of hot buttons here … “third rail” topics like Education, “affirmative action”, and global cooling warming climate change … and he's right pretty much across the board (although I have issues with his particular favorite cause of on-line poker). He certainly strikes the right chord late in the book with this call for economic sanity:
We cannot possibly continue to spend at the same levels as when things were going good, now that things are going bad. There just isn't enough tax revenue coming in to keep spending at the same baseline. We can't keep spending far more than we take in, while at the same time the national debt from decades past keeps piling up unpaid. We are so broke, we can't pay last year's bills, let alone the new bills from this year.
Frankly, I think that Conscience of a Libertarian is a very important book (which everybody should read), and it's unfortunate that the situations around this (Root returning to the GOP to help in the fight against the continued usurpation of the Executive Branch by enemies of America) have scuttled its primary context. As noted above, I would have loved to see a Root run for the Presidency … it would be “popcorn ready” from start to finish!

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

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Friday, July 22nd, 2016
11:49 pm
Well, that's nice ...
For a while there, I was using Swarm a lot ... I was "mayor" of several places (both in the neighborhood and elsewhere around town), and enjoyed "doing photography" with checking in as an excuse.

Then, as of Monday, April 4 ... I could no longer check in (I had one on 4/3) ... the app update they pushed through at that point (I eventually learned, after a dozen or so messages back-and-forth with their help desk) would not work with my iPhone4s ... giving me the error screen over there ===> (click for bigger) every time I tried to use the app. Needless to say, I was PISSED ... I was pissed that the f'n thing wouldn't work, and I was pissed that I kept feeling I was getting this attitude that I was some sort of moron for not having a later version of the iPhone.

EXCUSE ME??? I've been out of f'n work for SEVEN F'N YEARS, OK??? Do YOU, Mr./Ms. Swarm Help Desk Person want to BUY me a new phone??? I didn't think so. There's no way I can afford to throw $700+ on a new f'n phone ... hell, I can't afford to throw $300 at new (refurb) desktop computer at this point (which I really need to get pretty soon as I'm pretty sure my current system is showing those "I'm fixing to up and die on you" signs of late - BSOD every couple of weeks, etc.)

So, what's "nice", you ask?

Well, in the past couple of days, Apple pushed out new IOS version for the phone, and miraculously, Swarm is working again. Obviously Apple found a fix for whatever it was that Swarm was using that wasn't working on the older phones (I'm assuming that this is more systemic than that, having to do with the location stuff, etc., and not just for the one app), and sent it along. THAT'S "nice".

I was actually looking on eBay for cheap "newer" (albeit fairly beat up) iPhones, and it's nice that I don't have to mess with that. Although my 4s is old, slow and with very little memory (it only came with 8g, and rarely has any more than 400mb free), it also isn't f'n COSTING me anything.

It's nice to have one small thing in this otherwise horrible soul-crushing existence go right ...

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Thursday, July 21st, 2016
11:02 pm
And ...
So, 5 AA meetings in 5 days ...

Today I hit a noon meeting over across from the Hancock ... and it was HUGE - over 50 people.

They had to switch speakers because the gal who was scheduled to talk is in a wheelchair and the elevator was out of service, so they got a last-minute replacement of a long-time member. This ended up being fortuitous, as one thing that he mentioned in his "lead" fired up a series of "lightbulb moments" for me.

What got my attention was his describing his "intake interview" when he was first going into an addiction program ... they asked him why he drank and he said he didn't know.

Now, that might not seem momentous, but I ALWAYS knew why I drank. Always.

I drank to:

        - Numb the existential ache.
        - Tamp down the rage.
        - Throw the "off" switch to all emotions.

I wanted to find oblivion, to (as another speaker a different night said) kill myself without actually dying.

The flip-side of which, of course, was to simply MAKE THE WORLD GO AWAY ... to kill it.

Booze was a buffer against a world that never had a place for me ... never accepted me ... always seemed (seems) to find a way to destroy whatever I might try to build. It was a wall that kept it "over there" and me hunkered down "over here".

And, when booze went away, OVER THIRTY-ONE YEARS AGO, my defense against that world was GONE. I have been an open wound, with screaming exposed nerves and dripping bile, ever since. NOTHING has ever come in to make me whole.

I have had, since quitting drinking, a progressively smaller and smaller social circle, and, with being unemployed for as long as I have been, I don't even have a WORK circle ... just me and the family that I HAVE FAILED FINANCIALLY. No "friends" other than a handful of people that I see at networking events every now and again, nobody that I could comfortably pick up the phone to call, nobody who would be much put out if I did jump under a passing El train. No support system of any kind.

I was envisioning my funeral the other day, and figured it would have my wife, my daughters, my brother, and maybe my wife's sister ... I can't imagine anybody else showing up. This is colored somewhat by my experience with a dear friend's funeral up in Minneapolis a number of years ago ... I made it up there by taking the over-night MegaBus and walking 3 miles or so to get to the church. Long-time friends didn't show up - even those in Minneapolis. I was aghast that none of these others seemed to care enough about Kathy (who was much beloved) to make the effort ... and I'm pretty sure that I'm WAY down on the list of "giving a shit about" for most people who know me.

Given that I've gone 31 years without a drink, AA isn't exactly addressing my main issue ... but I guess I'm desperate enough to be grabbing for that "fellowship" stuff, even if I have to be pestered about the 12-steps and "the god crap" (the theme today was the 3rd step). I went to a meeting at noon today, because I was going to the DBSA meeting tonight, and I'm going to one at crack of dawn tomorrow to give me a chance to go out and write tomorrow night. I just wish there was something more "on theme" (for me) than AA ... but ever since the Process/Foundation disappeared, there's no place where I really fit in.

Sucks to be me.

I hope I don't turn this journal over to this sort of crap ... I'm embarrassed to even hit "post" ...

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Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
10:40 pm
Damn it.

UPS just notified us that they sent back a package that they were trying to deliver.

Now, we live in a 52-storey apartment building (it's not like the address is hard to find), and I've been here for thirtyfive years, so something that comes in even vaguely addressed to me SHOULD find its way to me.

But, nooooooo ... even though (on the email receipt I have form the shipper) my address is exactly right - it got sent back.

And, these were Daughter #2's birthday/xmas gift of LOLAPALOOZA TICKETS ... which starts NEXT F'N WEEK!

I swear, I am going to KILL some motherfucker if this doesn't get fixed.

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Tuesday, July 19th, 2016
11:57 pm
Meetings ...
So, on Sunday, I was pretty much feeling like a coin-flip between going to some sort of a meeting or jumping in front of the subway.

I almost went up to the Krsna temple, but by the time I figured out when their big weekly event was, it was already going on and I was good hour away. So, I ended up at the Mustard Seed ... an AA location that's been in the area since the early 60's.

Now, as regular readers know, I've not had a drink in over 31 years ... but used to be an enthusiastic drunk. And I've sort of "done this" without the benefit of AA ... which makes it odd (to me at least) that I find myself running off to Meetings when I get particularly down, since I'm not so much in danger of having a drink as I am of variously offing myself.

I have, as of this writing, now been to three Meetings in three days.

I've been mulling over this strange turn of events, and thought I'd foist this on you (assuming that anybody is bothering to read these posts here anymore). To start, I thought I'd do a bit of a history ...

My dad died when I was two, so I don't have any first-hand stories about him ... but one of the tidbits that came down to me was that he used to claim that my amniotic fluid in the womb was "Wrigley Building martinis", as my mom, who was a PR/ad exec with J. Walter Thompson back in the day (and this would be the late-50's) was in said building, and the proverbial "3-martini lunch" was an actual thing back then ... and, of course, this is before they got all paranoid about mothers drinking while pregnant.

This could be the reason that the first time I tasted Gin, it felt "like going home" ... I liked it from the first sip, which was probably at 13 or so. Of course, in the intervening years (the 60's) we lived in New York, in the advertising industry, which means that I pretty much grew up in the world of "Mad Men".

During my teenage years, I drank as much as I could get away with, and later ended up with a brief dalliance with weed (like with most things, I pretty much only liked getting massively, non-functioningly stoned ... none of that "buzz" stuff for me, thanks). By the time I got to college, I was drinking a lot ... even going to class with a half-pint of Gin in the breast pocket of my jean jacket. I was a budding "booze scientist", figuring out how to function as well as possible while staying as drunk as possible ... if I had to get up for a morning class (I pretty much massaged my schedule to have most things post-lunch), I'd mix up a couple of stiff Gin Gimlets, cover them with coasters, and set a secondary alarm for a half-hour before I needed to get up, so I could pound those down, go back to sleep, and wake up groggy, but FAR less hung-over than should have been the case. Frankly, I only managed to graduate (I was triple-majoring and taking at 1-2 class "overload" every term, making it very hard for me to triage the time to ever finish the P.E. classes I'd start - and we needed to complete three units of "gym" to get out) due to there being bowling at 7:30am (I'd stay up), which involved loading onto a school bus and running into town to a bowling alley, which, this being Wisconsin and all, had pitchers of beer available at that hour ... I managed to get two units of bowling to go with the one unit of tennis I completed my first term to get that requirement out of the way!

All the time I was in college, I'd be working every vacation day at my mom's PR firm ... and while I had wanted to go into Radio and/or TV (I triple-majored at Lawrence in Religion, English, and Art, and completed the basics of another major - in Radio/TV/Film - at Northwestern over two summers), I was getting zero traction on that, so ended up going on full-time with the agency the fall after I graduated. Of course, going into PR was an ideal gig for a heavy drinker ... those clichés don't come from nothing!

While it's a bit of a stretch, I generally say I "lived on Gin and amphetamines" most of my 20's ... allowing me to be functional at work, and still out at the bars (and Punk clubs) pretty much all night. I was not, however "a happy camper" (ooh, maybe I'll use that icon for this), and was pretty depressed when I made contact with my emotional status. Part of this was due to my never having really aspired to being "a suit" ... but I was quite aware that writing poetry was NOT a route to a comfortable lifestyle.

One summer I'd fallen in stupid love with a barmaid who barely knew I existed (resulting in one of my most powerful poems - the dramatic close to my Into The Dark collection), and found, to my horror that I could NOT drink her off my mind. Given that I was at that point pretty much going through a litre of Gin a day (I also used to work out 2 hours a night, hydrating with Gin Gimlets!), this was a problem ... I was pretty much at the maximum I could drink, and it suddenly "wasn't working".

I was trying to get connected with a psychiatrist, but got hoodwinked into showing up for an interview (admittedly, with a psychiatrist) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's "Chemical Dependence" unit. Again, being the "booze scientist" that I was, I had figured out a vitamin regimen that was better than what they would have put me on, and they decided that I could/should do the outpatient program.

Now, at this time, drinking was very much my life, aside from the drinking itself, it also provided all my social contact, and it was my hobby, my avocation ... I loved finding obscure liquors, getting classic bar books (I have a signed first edition of the Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink!), exotic mixers, etc. ... heck, I bought my blender specifically so I could make "tropical" cocktails. So, what was I doing agreeing to go into the Chemical Dependence program?

Well (aside from the "can't drink her off my mind" problem), it was the single most perverse thing I could think of doing at the time. Nothing else came close to being a big "fuck you" to the universe. After all, I was the guy "most likely to die before 30" ... and I was sure that there was a pool out there with the "smart money" on my offing myself somehow. Stopping drinking was the absolute largest amount of damage that I could do to my world.

And, so, after being out at the bars on Sunday, June 30, 1985 ... I was in "the program" on Monday July 1, 1985. And I've not had a drink since. Now, the outpatient chemical dependence program was several hours in the evening (I forget the specifics, but I think it was from 6-9pm), Monday through Friday, with the week starting with a Narcotics Anonymous meeting first thing on Monday evening, and ending with an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting last thing on Friday. Folks went into the program for four weeks, with optional additional weeks ... I didn't feel that I was "getting it" after four, so re-upped for two more weeks.

Six weeks, six AA meetings.

And, until last year (when I was also in a real bad way) I had never set foot in another meeting for 30 years. I doubt (even with having been in 3 meetings over the past 3 days) that I've logged much more than a dozen meetings all told ... so I'm hardly an AA "true believer".

However, at the meeting at Mustard Seed on Sunday night, I ran into a guy who was just about my age, with a similar "chemical background", and we chatted for a while after the meeting. One of the things he noted is that "it's the fellowship" that keeps up the support function ... and I've spent a hell of a long time with ZERO emotional support structure - there being NOBODY that I can really go to express what I'm going through {NOTE: Aren't you glad that I'm not using this for that sort of emotional ooze!}. He also noted that my neighborhood is FULL of AA meetings, with some places (all within 6 blocks or so) having multiple meetings every day. So, I went to the one he was speaking at last night, and went to one where a high-school classmate goes tonight, and am going to yet another one tomorrow. It didn't hurt that he suggested that I might end up "networking" my way into a job - something that might have gotten a start today with another attendee at the meeting I was at being in the "career counseling" biz.

Obviously, I'd gotten to a place where I didn't see very many options, and was grabbing for whatever jetsam looked like it could keep me afloat ... and the AA meetings are at least something. While I'm open to trying to do a "daily meeting", I'm still cranky, bitter, and cynical, and past the first of the 12 Steps, I've not changed in reading those pretty much as "bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit ... etc."

Part of me is always worried that I'm going to end up as a "persona non grata" at AA because I have stayed off of booze for decades without them, and they're so doctrinally locked into that whole 12-step thing. How have I? My best guess is that, off in some OCD corner of my mind, if I were to drink again, it would be a "win" for the universe ... and I'm too bull-headed to let that happen. It's kind of like when, following the demise of Eschaton back in 2003-4, I tried to get some psychiatric help for the stress/depression/anxiety I was enmired in, but every drug they prescribed was worse than the last, and I eventually decided that I'd rather be miserable, but reasonably functional, than be "numbed" but useless. However, so far (and, admittedly, I'm working on a fairly small sample size at this point) I've had nothing but welcoming. But, I imagine, for those who are less than two weeks sober (for example), the idea of me being there with 31 years of "non-program" sobriety under my belt will eventually be the cause of some sort of hostility.

Anyway, that's sort of my "drinking story" (without any of the "interesting" parts, of course) ... I figured I'd get it set out, as I'm probably going to be referring to it a lot if I try to keep doing meetings.

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Sunday, July 17th, 2016
3:57 pm
Re. previous post ...
You know ... there are a LOT of things of late that I'm wondering if it's the last ...

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3:36 pm
Getting sort of "meta" ...
{Posted this over on FB, but figured it was sort of a continuation of the last post, so decided to re-post it here, even though it's in danger of creating some strange loop in time, referring back to a post here from May, 2007 ...}

Wow ... I wonder if this was the last poem I wrote ...

I've been working on finishing up the big spreadsheet of my book reviews (which I need to get done before each yearly collection), and as I "back up" though the posts on my main blog (obviously, the book review blog is just all reviews), I keep running into interesting stuff, including this post.

One thing that I took note of is this is from 2007 ... since the latest of my poetry collections just goes up to 2001 ... it means that there are SIX YEARS of "missing" poems (hopefully sitting on a floppy hear somewhere and not deeply buried in an old, and/or "bricked", HD).

Another thing I don't seem to have a trace of is the audio files that I was doing in the latter years ... the hosting service I had them on went out of business a long time ago ... so if you click for that you'll get an error ...


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Saturday, July 16th, 2016
5:25 pm
Amazing ...
So, I'm still in this project where I'm going back through my old book reviews and updating them with new code (since Amazon's dust-up with Illinois, etc., a few years back the old links don't work for the new affiliate program, plus most of the stuff in my sig was 404 - the link for the graphic pointing to a long-gone hosting service, and the link for "my homepage" going off to my old Ning site) ... on both THIS blog and the book review blog. While this is pretty straight forward on the latter, being it's just the reviews there, it involves a lot of "backing up through" the posts here ... resulting in a lot of weird emotional baggage, and other strange stuff.

Among that category is a site (that I mentioned in a post from June 2007) that shows the "The latest 50 images posted to Live Journal" ... I thought for sure that this wouldn't be something that would still be functioning, but when I clicked, I got images. Amazing that something like that is still working almost a decade later!

Oh, and speaking of the Amazon affiliate program ... before anybody gets their panties in a knot over my having affiliate links in my reviews ... I have made a whopping $2.38 over the past year from that. Which makes the massive effort I'm doing to update the damn links seem pretty idiotic, but I wanted to have working links to go into the book review books, and I'm OCD like that.

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Thursday, July 14th, 2016
1:44 pm
Well, this was interesting ...
So, LJ used to be the land of memes and quizzes, but all that seems to live over on FB these days. I ran into a post about a quiz on "I Side With" (http://www.isidewith.com/), and figured I'd go have a look. Obviously, I was pretty sure how this would end up looking, but was somewhat surprised in the details. Now, there is a LOT of data generated over there (plus, if you feel like it, you can go deeper into questions than the basic set in various categories when taking the quiz), and I cut-and-pasted a bit to feature the main parts here:

{click on the image for full size}

While I was fully expecting to have Trump and Johnson at the top of the list (although I would have guessed their rankings would have been reversed), I was quite surprised to see how far separated I was from support of Hitlery! According to this, I'm like 2.5x more likely to vote for Bernie "Let's make America just like Venezuela!" Sanders than her, and over 3x more likely to go with the Green Party!

I included the "map" here because it's very close (with a whole different set of questions) to my typical results with the famed World's Smallest Political Quiz (although I just took that again and got an 80/80, putting me dead center in the Libertarian quadrant) ... and "right-wing libertarian" is pretty much what I'd come up with if asked to describe my political stance.

I saw that there was also a thing to look at how one matched up to the various political parties and got this:

{click on the image for full size}

No wonder I think the Democrats are brain-dead! Honestly, I would have anticipated the number being higher than 4%, but I guess the lunatics have taken over that asylum, and there's nothing there which would have me agreeing with them. I was surprised to see the Constitution Party on this list (and right at the top), as I'd not heard much about it since Pat Buchanan was playing footsie with them (trying to leverage Dole into naming a "pro-life" VP candidate) back in 1996 ... and, given my antitheistic proclivities (as the CP is pretty much a Dominionist front), somewhat disturbing. I'm guessing that there really weren't any questions on the "fundy/atheist axis" in the quiz, or their ranking would have dropped fast!

Anyway ... thought I'd share these. Because most of my political ranting any more is done via the "share" button over on FB, you get spared a lot of my venom in this space ... lucky you ... but I figured this was too good to just leave lingering over there.

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Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
12:14 pm
When the going gets weird ...
This is one of those books that has been lurking in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. I got it as a throw-in on another order about five years ago (it apparently was on some sort of special, as the packing slip, still stuck in the back of the book, lists a price that should be in the “used” category – less than 1/5th of cover price – but as part of a regular order … go figure! … perhaps I ordered it just because it was so cheap) but only got around to reading it now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
9:35 am
"Souls of Poets dead and gone ..."
As regular readers of this space will no doubt recall from my previous blitherings, I've been a big fan of the Dover Thrift Editions for a long time. For many years (before I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime and its free shipping), I relied on these as a way to nudge an order up over the free-shipping threshold, which then also gave me an excuse to “fill holes” in my otherwise excellent liberal arts education.

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

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

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

So, I'm just going to do some re-typing of bits that stood out to me to give you a bit of the flavor here (although sparing you some of the noted “groaners”) …
from Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil – A story from Boccacio

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, July 9th, 2016
12:20 pm
Hmm ...
I wonder how many kitties out there are named "scan" ...
Thursday, July 7th, 2016
10:01 am
Managing emotions within negotiations ...
I've had this one sitting around for quite a while. I'd attended parts of the Ayn Rand Institute's conference down at the Hyatt Regency a few years back (it could have been as long ago as 2010, can't remember or dig up an identifiable reference for it), and at one of the receptions I was chatting with a guy who was highly recommending this book. I jotted down a note on it, and ended up ordering a used copy, which sat in my to-be-read piles for years. As is frequently the case in my selections of what I'm going to read next, this sort of suggested itself as being sufficiently different from what I'd been reading (and the other options in those piles) that it got picked.

This goes to point out that I didn't have any particular expectation or agenda going into Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro's Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, which was probably a good thing, as when I took a look at the Amazon reviews (yeah, I know, “bad form!”), a lot of people in the actual target audience for this were sort of dismissing it as too basic, or not presenting anything new. As I wasn't in the audience for this (which I take to be people who are frequently in situations where they're having to do high-stakes negotiations), and so didn't have much background information with which to contrast it, I found it fairly interesting. At the end of the first chapter there's a section which pretty much sets up the book:
This book offers negotiators – and that means everyone – a powerful framework for dealing with emotions. Whether or not you acknowledge emotions, they will have an impact on your negotiation. As the following chapters suggest, you can avoid reacting to scores of constantly changing emotions and turn your attention to five core concerns that are responsible for many, if not most, emotions in a negotiation. These core concerns lie at the heart of many emotional challenges when you negotiate. Rather than feeling powerless in the face of emotions, you will be able to stimulate positive emotions and overcome negative ones.
Do you think they mentioned negotiation enough times in that paragraph? Yeah, me too … which is sort of the downside here, rather that presenting what would have been a somewhat more interesting (OK, to me at least) over-all survey of the “Five Core Concerns” structure (which is the really valuable part of this), they're constantly re-focusing this as a “serious business book” … which, I suppose, is a minor quibble for what is, obviously, intending to be a serious business book, but, still … it's like they're verging on the “doth protest too much” territory with that.

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

  • Affiliation

  • Autonomy

  • Status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book (almost) ends with an odd, but interesting piece written by the former President of Ecuador, Jamil Mahuad, dealing with his negotiations with Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori over a border dispute that had been simmering (and occasionally flaring into open conflict) for over 50 years. Mahuad had taken negotiation courses with the authors and used the approaches outlined in the book to help work out a mutually acceptable solution. Following this there is a 2-page “section” of a Conclusion, followed by another section called “End Matter”, which includes a re-stating of the “Seven Elements of Negotiation”, a brief “Glossary” (more re-framing of the key elements), and a very interesting “Works Consulted” piece, which, rather than just listing a bibliography, is a walk through various concepts involved in the book, and other resources that relate to them … including this bit (in discussing The Handbook of Cognition and Emotion and the work of Paul Ekman):
… in Beyond Reason, we have chosen to focus on five core concerns. One need not analyze which of the various emotions the other person is feeling, nor their causes, in order to use the core concerns to enlist positive emotions. Rather than focusing on dozens of emotions, a negotiator can take action with five core concerns.
Beyond Reason is still in print in the paperback edition, and so should be obtainable from your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but the on-line big boys predictably have it at a fairly substantial discount, and “very good” copies of the hardcover (which is what I have) can be had for a penny (plus $3.99 shipping), if you want to go that way.

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

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
1:02 pm
An excellent introduction ...
This was another LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” selection that the “Almighty Algorithm” matched up with my collection over there. At first I was sharing some of the other reviewers' consternation that this book originated out of a children's program at a Hawaiian Zen temple, “based on {the author's} experience as a Zen priest and an elementary school teacher”, a data point not suggested at all in its descriptive paragraph in the LTER listings. However, if one takes a step back from that genesis, one is faced with a really very good “introductory” book about Buddhism (albeit primarily from a Zen perspective).

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

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

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

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

In the chapter introducing the “Three Poisons” (greed, anger, and ignorance, although the particular chapter here is mainly about greed), one of the “Reflecting” questions is “Where does your happiness come from?”, which points the reader back to this bit:
      We understand the truth about life, and we realize that our happiness, sense of well-being and worth, and our joy come from inside our own hearts and minds. No one can give them to us. No one can take them away from us. Our own hearts and minds are the most joyful and happy when we are loving, kind, caring, peaceful, and giving.
Again, the message is applicable to anybody, but how great would it be if more kids got those messages when they were kids? Similarly, introducing children to these concepts (in the chapter discussing “impermanence”, or annica, the “Buddha's First Mark of Existence”) early on would be awesome:
      I said that you should not believe anything I or anybody else says until you have explored it for yourself. You must make every truth you own. Take a look at the truth of impermanence. See if anybody or anything in your life stays around forever, without ever changing. Buddhists call this fact the true nature of reality.
A few chapters later he adds:
      Buddha observed that our thoughts, a Fourth Mark of Existence, become words. Our words become actions. Our actions become habits. Our habits harden into character. ...
He then leads into a consideration of attachment to mental formations with:
      A thought appears in a flash. It disappears just as quickly and completely. A thought cleanly completes its cycle unless we attach to it. … Once we grab a thought and hold on, like clutching the mane of a bucking stallion, confusion, contortion, and regret ensue. Caught in a stream of consciousness, we manufacture more thoughts. We form our captured thoughts into ideas, beliefs, opinions, and personal philosophies. We believe these fabricated formations of thought. They become our identity, which we take as our past and our life story. ...
Admittedly, this is pretty “deep stuff” for the kids … which serves as an additional example of how the book speaks to both children and adults. As mentioned above, Living in Blue Sky Mind is only 162 pages (and “really” is considerably shorter than that, as there's a lot of white space involved in those 80 chapter breaks), so it's a quick read … and possibly reasonably appealing to older kids. However, I don't think this is something you'd just hand to a 10-year-old to read, but could well be used to have “weekly Zen sessions” when you read one chapter with your kid and then discuss the “Reflecting” questions. Alternately, this is something that could be a quick, easy, and uniquely informative “first contact” for those unexposed to Buddhist thought … I would certainly contemplate suggesting this to anybody in that state.

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

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Tuesday, July 5th, 2016
11:45 pm
Hmmm ...
I had a bit of a "lightbulb moment" this past week while reading the really excellent biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist. One of the repeating points in the book was how HST didn't really practice traditional journalism - going out and writing the story of an event - but wrote a "Gonzo" version where what the piece ended up being about him going out to cover the story (and the misadventures involved therewith).

Upon reflection, that has a certain resonance with what makes my book reviews "different from the other kids'" reviews - they are filled with a lot of stuff about where I got the book, why I was reading it when I was, how stuff in the book related to other stuff I've read or done, and how the reader can get the book as cost-effectively as possible.

While I'd certainly not want to compare myself to HST (after all, I left behind the "substance abuse" thing decades ago), and I never intentionally went looking for a "Gonzo" style of writing ... it's there, to a certain extent.

And I'm wondering if there's any way to market my reviews this way, without sounding like an idiot.

I realize that a lot of people get away with a lot of really obnoxious stuff in terms of "branding" themselves (to the extent of having a theme element tattooed on their chest, or always wearing bright orange shoes, or sporting goofy glasses, etc., etc., etc.) ... and I'm usually quite uncomfortable with how "fake" that always seems to me. However, as the classic line goes (interestingly, this was actually in criticism of P.T. Barnum, not by him!), "There's a sucker born every minute!", and people tend to be ovine in their search for ways to not actually have to think about stuff, resulting in being perfectly happy to take whatever caricature is offered as a short-hand symbology. So, how could I (without doing a blatant rip-off of the whole "Gonzo" thing) make that connection?

I doubt I could get Ralph Steadman (at age 80) to do a portrait (or be able to afford it if that were possible) ... but it seems like some sort of "mirroring" of Thompson's image would work for my writing ... and I'd love to be actually selling some of those books!

Oh, and as a P.S. ... the new versions of the review books, featuring the added alpha-by-author and alpha-by-title indexes are now up on the Create Space site and ready to roll ... not sure if the new versions have propagated over to Amazon, etc., yet, though.

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Monday, July 4th, 2016
2:26 pm
Oh, and then there's this ...
{Howdy ... I initially scrawled this over on the FB side of the 'net, but figured it would engender equal disinterest over here ...}

Whew! That ended up being a bigger project than I expected. I just got new versions of all six volumes (done so far) of my book review books up on Create Space ... and they will hopefully be back to being available by Wednesday.

A few weeks ago I was at an event with an author whose book I'd reviewed, and she'd somehow missed my email about the review when it went up on my site. I had my books with me, and I was trying to FIND the review of her book to show her ... and discovered that this was not the easiest process.

I have the books organized in chronological order of the reviews going live (a perfectly logical approach to creating a "hard copy" version of my book review blog), so there was no way, short of reading through the contents listing up front looking for a particular book or author, to find such in any of the books. OOPS!

So, what I did was to set up "by author" and "by title" listings for each of the six books (with subsequent volumes, I'll have this in the FIRST version), and added those to the end of the books.

One of the nicest things about print-on-demand publishing, is that you CAN change things as needed ... so I worked up new interior files, and re-did all the book covers (this added 8-12 pages in each, requiring the spine to be larger, making the whole cover graphic need to be wider) over the weekend, and went through the upload process (lots of waiting as Create Space saved things at various points) this morning.

It's was all a considerable PITA in retrospect, and it's shaving off 10-15¢ on what I'm making on each copy, but I think these additional indexes will make the books FAR more "user friendly".

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Sunday, July 3rd, 2016
2:53 pm
Ah, missed it again ...
Friday was my 31st anniversary of quitting drinking.

It used to be a "big thing" around here ... but any more it just ticks off, unnoticed.

The past couple of years I've been so damned depressed that I've even considered going back to drinking (causing me to show up at AA meetings for the first time in decades). Not that it would be any sort of a solution, but sweet boozy oblivion sure sounds like a nice place to be in rather than the morass of frustration, anger, guilt, fear, and anguish that is my typical daily emotional state.

Obviously, I've been fighting the latter for a LONG time, as drinking "until I couldn't remember WHY I was drinking" was my typical pattern before I quit. My target was to drink enough that I couldn't FEEL anything - totally numb emotionally. That state still sounds like something to hope for.


Yep, in all its permutations. I'm so sick of trying to DO something in this damned world, and being served up failure after failure after disaster after betrayal. I have lost the ability to believe that it will ever get better.

But, hey, I'm sober, so I can feel every damned scintillation of agony, angst, and anger ... every f'n minute of every f'n day ... hope the whole world's glad to be rid of the fun, happy(-ish), DRUNK Brendan.

Sucks to be me.

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Thursday, June 30th, 2016
10:17 pm
Unless It Comes with a Comfy Chair …
This is another of those LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program books. As I've noted previously, these typically have a only a paragraph or two on the site describing them, so users have to put in their “requests” for the offered books based on fairly sketchy information … so while a book may sound like it would be “interesting”, it's rare that one really knows what one's getting into until it actually shows up. I was sort of expecting that “a world-famous theoretical physicist with hundreds of scientific articles and several books of popular science to his credit” would have been producing a more “sciency” book, but Marcelo Gleiser's The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything is a somewhat muddled combination of science discussions, autobiographical sketch, travelogue, and an enthusiast's paean to fly fishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The section on Brazil continues with the “belief” theme. He's back in his home country for a promotional tour for a novel he'd published, and was lured to a book fair in the far-southern city of Porto Alegre with the promise of actual Brazilian fly-fishing. His talk centered around “changing views”, scientific, religious, and, at their intersection, cosmological. He spins off of this into a discussion of atheism (which he practices), and how that concept has developed through history. One bit that I marked to illustrate this is:
I find it quite ironic to see {a religious fundamentalist} happily using a GPS, talking on a cell phone, or, when illness comes, taking antibiotics or going for radiation therapy. How is it that the technological offspring of quantum and relativistic physics may be conveniently used as needed but not the revolutionary worldview they brought forth? The same science used to build these gadgets is used to date fossils, Earth's age, and life's evolutionary trajectory from bacteria to people. It's mind-boggling. And yet, this eyes-tightly-shut perspective is the only option for an alarmingly large number of people, not just religious extremists.
And, it's not just the assorted flavors of “fundies” that get his derision, he also notes that “some in the New Age movement … ground their beliefs in a science pulled completely out of context … using concepts like ‘energy’, ‘quantum’, or ‘field’, in ways that have very little to do with their physics counterparts”. The bits on fishing are somewhat more expansive here, veering off into a contemplation of our urge to take the biggest/strongest fish (or any hunted species), which ultimately weakens the gene pool. He also muses on returning to places … he avoids his old neighborhood “to hold on to the little of my past that my memory can preserve” … and our “place” in the world.

The Italy section is centered on a conference of the International Astrobiology Society, taking place in Florence. On this trip, he starts with the fishing, then returns to Florence for the conference. Here his guide introduces him to fishing in the dark … which led to dreams of his younger self and his mother. Most of this section (the shortest of the four) is taken up with discussions of general cosmological theories, from the gas composition of the primordial universe, to the life-cycles of stars, leading up to the formation of our solar system, and the origin of Earth. Gleiser goes on to trace the development of terrestrial life, and what that might imply for life elsewhere. He has an interesting view on what makes humanity stand out:
Humans have an urge to explore the unknown, what lies beyond their immediate reach. This may be our species' most distinguishable trait. Animals want to be safe, living within familiar boundaries that don't expose them to any extra risk. They keep to their tried, well-adapted behavioral patterns, a recipe that allows them to thrive. … Humans, on the other hand, have a need to lunge into the unknown, to expose themselves to what is uncomfortable, even threatening. We take risks as individuals and as a species, continually pushing ourselves beyond established limits. We like our boundaries elastic, safe but expandable.
He finishes this section with a look at the “is anybody out there?” question, and isn't particularly optimistic of there being any, despite the large numbers of likely habitable planets that both should be out there statistically, and are almost daily being identified by our space-based telescopes.

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

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

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

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Wednesday, June 29th, 2016
11:20 am
Fun stuff ...
Every now and again I like taking a look at the "clouds" over on LibraryThing.com ... one of the fun "data crunching" features over there. They have three of these, one's authors, one's tags, and a "tag mirror", which shows how the books in one's collection are tagged by others. Since the primary tags I use over there are just for when I finished reading a book, and where it's located in my library, MY tag cloud is pretty boring, but I find it interesting looking at how the books are categorized generally.

Here's my "author cloud" (conveniently cut-and-pasted into a single graphic - click for full-size):

As you might guess, the type sizing and bolding is indicative of number of books by the author in my library (and, given that I currently have 26 titles by me in there, my name pretty much sets the bar for the rest). Similarly, in the "tag mirror" cloud, the size and bolding is based on how frequently that tag is used on the books in my library ... leading to a pretty good sense of what I read (again, click for a larger image):

Anyway ... was just messing with this for my own shits & giggles this morning, but figured I'd share!

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