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

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2015
11:09 pm
Freak Think ...
I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking I was getting into when I ordered Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, sure, I'd read the authors' Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics, but this was supposedly something different, something offering to “retrain” my brain … how fun would that be? I was even thinking this might be in the same territory as Chris Brogan's The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, if, perhaps, not so much focused on the entrepreneurial crowd. However, although it was an entertaining, interesting read, it really didn't significantly engage me … I ended up with a paltry 3 little slips of paper pointing me to “the good parts” in this, and all those in the first half … a good indication that I'd “given up” trying to extract info and just opted to enjoy the book. Not a bad thing, but it sucks as the basis of a useful review.

One thing that did stand out a bit, and that this was a bit self-referential. I don't recall from their earlier books if they wrote as much about themselves, but there are significant stories here based on their own experiences, at least a couple catching my attention. Since I flagged so few things to mention, I'm just going to wing it, and fall back on the crutch of listing the chapter headings to give you a sense of whatever arc the book has:
  1. What Does It Mean to Think Like a Freak?

  2. The Three Hardest Words in the English Language

  3. What's Your Problem?

  4. Like a Bad Dye Job, the Truth is in the Roots

  5. Think Like a Child

  6. Like Giving Candy to a Baby

  7. What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have in Common?

  8. How to Persuade People Who Don't Want to Be Persuaded

  9. The Upside of Quitting

The book starts off with a little bit of snark, which I think is one of most telling points they cover … it's a follow-up question to a previous subject (they get a lot of mail, it seems): “Whatever happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic?” – their answer was “Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it” – which is something to keep in mind whenever you see a “talking head” yakking about something … odds are very good that they're trying to score points with their particular “in group” and aren't “reporting” anything close to the “truth”! They point out that they can't possibly answer all the questions they get, so they opted to “write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak” (although, as suggested above, I'm not sure that this achieves that goal).

The first extensive “story” in here deals with soccer … which I know and appreciate slightly less than paint drying. The particular focus of this is something called a “penalty kick” (no, I don't care enough to Google that, really I don't) which I guess is a major factor in soccer. They note that roughly 75% of these are successful in scoring a goal (which I take it needs a few dozen extra “o”s in it to express the excitement of there actually being a score in the match). They also note that the strategy is generally to kick towards one of the upper corners of the goal, causing the “keeper” to have to decide where to make the big leap – left or right – with leaping to the kicker's left 57% of the time, and to the right 41% of the time. Given that 57+41=98, it suggests that soccer “keeper” vacates the center of the goal in all but 2% of penalty kicks. No doubt due to this math, a full 17% of kicks are aimed at the center, but one would expect that more would (at least initially), as it would be increasing a 75% rate of scoring to 98% … however, if your kick ended up as one of the 2%, you'd be in big trouble with the soccer-crazed fans/countries that watch this stuff (the authors suggest that you'd have to “move your family abroad to avoid assassination” … lovely people, these soccer fans). This is where the subject of incentives – the main theme here, and in the other books – comes up. If the kicker does the expected – aiming towards a corner – and is blocked, it's a great play by the keeper, but no shame (assuming the kick isn't wide of the goal) for the kicker. However, if the kicker opts for the higher odds of actually scoring – the “greater good”, he's risking a lot … and in 83% of the cases the kicker will go with the private benefit instead of the interest of team and/or country.

This is followed by a summation of the key concepts of the previous books:
  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.

  • Knowing what to measure, and how to measure it, can make a complicated world less so.

  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

  • Correlation does not equal causality.

They point out that the biggest blocks to “thinking like a Freak” is not questioning one's own assorted biases, and “running with the herd” (see my comment about the MSM above). They draw on George Bernard Shaw when suggesting that most people really don't think much at all, so never get around to thinking about their and/or their associates' biases and reality assumptions. He's quoted as saying: “Few people think more than two or three times a year … I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” The implication (given that the authors claim to try to think once or twice a week), is that most of the fascinating stuff in the previous books was simply due to having thought about it .. be it the data showing that children's car seats are a waste of time and money or that violent crime was reduced by making abortion easily available to inner-city women.

One of the personal stories here deals with a meeting of the cabinet of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron (following the release of SuperFreakonomics). A cabinet minister made an announcement that he classified as “a matter of the highest moral obligation”:
This made our ears prick up. One thing we've learned is that when people, especially politicians, start making decisions based on a reading of their moral compass, facts tend to be among the first casualties.
In a later chapter they expand on this:
When you are consumed with the rightness or wrongness of a given issue … it's easy to lose track of what the issue actually is. A moral compass can convince you that all the answers are obvious (even when they're not); that there is a bright line between right and wrong (when often there isn't); and, worst, that you are certain you already know everything you need to know about a subject so you stop trying to learn more.
There are some “tasty” stories here too … like the advertising one about a company that was certain that they knew that their TV ads produced sales at 4x the rate of print ads – but the only ran the ads on days like “black friday”, so the sales boost could well have been coming from “ambient” sales. This was compared to another story, about a company that buys newspaper ads in Sunday supplements every week in every market for the past 20 years, except for one market over one summer, when an intern screwed up placing the ads. What happened in that market, with no ads over those months? Well, first, nobody had ever bothered to check, and when they ran the numbers, it turned out that there had been no change, that the sales that came through came through equally when there were no ads as when the company was spending large sums on advertising. Did the company change? Nope. The corporate “common knowledge” trumped the actual numbers, and they're still throwing away that money today. This leads into “the three hardest words in the English language”, which are I don't know. If you think you know the answer, you're unlikely to bother to try an experiment … since you're sure you know.

Another “tasty” story here is based on wine snobbery. First a young member of an academic group set up an experiment to see how the expensive wines fared without them being in the context of being the expensive wines. He threw in a ringer, as he put one expensive wine in twice – same wine, just different decanters – and it came in both first and fourth, bracketing another expensive wine and a cheap wine. This, when revealed, created quite a stir. Inspired by this, one wine critic decided to run a series of experiments, culminating on a test with a major wine publication, for which he created a fake restaurant (with a very convincing web site), and a “reserve” wine list which featured bottles specifically chosen from the publication's own ratings – but only wines earning a “not recommended” rating. The result – the magazine presented him (or his fake restaurant) with an Award of Excellence … prompting him to opine: “My hypothesis was that the $250 fee was really the functional part of the application.”

There are lots of interesting tales told here, from looking at “competitive eating” to how a $15 pair of glasses could increase the learning ability of kids by as much as 50%, to how a scientist self-experimented to prove that bacteria cause ulcers, to a comparison of David Lee Roth's notorious “no brown M&Ms” rider to King Solomon's baby-splitting solution.

Speaking of M&Ms, one of the other “personal” stories here hinges on them. The daughter of one of the authors was having potty-training issues, and her father decided to make an offer, that if she went to the toilet, he'd give her a bag of M&Ms (I'm assuming that's one of the Halloween hand-out mini bags and not a full-size bag!). Here's how that ended up playing out, with a summation:
      How powerful are the right incentives? Within four days, a little girl went from potty-challenged to having the most finely tuned bladder in history. She simply figured out what it made sense to do given the incentives she faced. There was no fine print, no two-bag limit, not time-interval caveat. There was just a girl, a bag of candy, and a toilet.
      If there is one mantra a Freak lives by, it is this: people respond to incentives. As utterly obvious as this point may seem, we are amazed at how frequently people forget it, and it often leads to their undoing. Understanding the incentives of all the players in a given scenario is a fundamental step in solving any problem.
The last chapter is about “quitting” (which made me feel less guilty about trying to find stuff in the book as I went along), although they eventually fudge a bit on the definition to frame it as “letting go” … but with it still being “at the very core of thinking like a Freak”:
Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limis that hold us back – and of the fear of admitting that we don't know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.
Think Like A Freak has only been out a year and a half at this point, but has moved into the used channels (I got an ex-library copy of the deckle-edge hardcover). Given the popularity of the authors' “Freak” books, I'd expect that this would be available in the real-world bookstores, and it appears to still be in print in both hardcover and paperback (and e- and audio- editions). The online big boys have these at over a third off of cover, if you want to go with “new” (the used guys have “very good” copies – which I believe is what I got – for just over a buck, before shipping). I enjoyed the read, found the info of interest, but never quite synced with the book … again, I'm not sure what sort of brain retraining I was expecting, but this – as useful as its various points might be – wasn't it. I would, nonetheless recommend it for being a “fun read”.

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Sunday, November 22nd, 2015
10:45 pm
Building wealth, starting from zero ...
I have been “sitting” on this one for quite a while. As those of you out there “stalking” me across my social media platforms no doubt know, I have recently started a new project with a division of Transamerica which is set up to provide “financial education”, and I had gotten into studying the assorted materials related to that just before I ran across this book at the dollar store. Because of that sequence of events, I was thrilled to find that Bernard Kelly's Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions: A Guide to Financial Freedom Whether You Have Your Dream Job, Own Your Own Business, or Just Started Your First Job was focused very much on the same sorts of approaches. As a matter of fact, I was so enthused that I spent a day trekking off to five of the six Dollar Tree locations that I can get to via public transportation in Chicago, hoping to stock up on a bunch of copies of this to give out to folks (frustratingly, the only one which had any copies was my regular one where I'd found this in the first place, and they only had another 5 copies in stock).

I'm somewhat surprised that this book hasn't become an instant classic, as it's a combination of an inspirational personal story, and a step-by-step process for creating wealth – especially in the hands of a young person. The author himself is pretty young … 30 years old at the time of writing in 2011 … but he had built a net worth of around a half a million dollars by working at McDonald's. He didn't (like my girlfriend from college) start as a manager – he came out of high school (where he found himself “failing class after class”, in fact he claimed that he graduated not being able to read) at 17 and got a job at McDonald's making fries … then doing the titular flipping burgers.

Needless to say, this is about a low on the wealth ladder as one can start, but if there was one thing that sets the author apart from others in his position, is that he “became fascinated with all things McDonald's”, and after encountering a group of McDonald's executives who came through on a store tour he decided:
“I could do what they do. I could be good at what they do. This is something I can really succeed at.”
Which he follows up with the observation:
The day you can say to yourself, “This is my thing,” is a great day.
Again, the author stands out by his willingness to apply himself to the opportunities presenting themselves to him (in contrast to the mobs demanding a $15/hr wage for flipping burgers), and taught himself to read (!) and immersed himself in the “people, systems, and processes that make up the McDonald's world”. Further:
It wasn't long before my passion was recognized. Passion stands out in any environment, but the more mundane the environment or job, the more passion stands out. I worked hard and produced measurable results. I was promoted over and over again. By the time I was twenty-five, I was a store manager, and throughout the process the McDonald's Corporation was educating me. I attended every course that was offered. I was hungry to learn everything I could about this business, and to grow as a person.
Obviously, Bernard Kelly, despite having been a massive failure in school (to the extent of coming out unable to read), was able to see something in his situation that the semi-sentient slugs so often in the same positions were either incapable or unwilling to consider. He has a fascinating list of prominent people whose first jobs were at McDonald's, including Amazon's zillionaire founder Jeff Bezos. However, Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions isn't really about McDonald's (although it is an obvious anchor of the author's story), but a look at how anybody (especially somebody just getting started) can build wealth, even if starting from nothing. Kelly notes:
Money and the creation of wealth are not that difficult to understand. You save some money, invest it, and it multiplies. Save a little bit, often enough, for long enough, and it will become an enormous fortune. The problem is that most people cannot think beyond today and what they want to spend their money on right now. They do not have a vision for their life ten years from now, or twenty years from now, and nobody saves money for a future that they have not yet imagined.
Aside from the cultural factors, generally speaking we don't teach kids about money management (the level of “financial illiteracy” is stunning), the author points out (regarding “the unchanging laws of money”):
We don't teach it in high school, we don't teach it in college, and we don't teach it in the business world. … In the corporate world I am amazed at how often we put people in charge of million-dollar budgets who cannot manage their own personal budget.
Again, this book is full of really awesome quotes, here's one that I found particularly notable (comparing regular investment with a dripping faucet eventually wearing a hole in a rock slab):
A little bit of pressure – saving and investing – consistently applied over time can create an incredible fortune. … For example, if a person saved $1 a day for her entire life and invested it with a return of 10 percent, she would retire at sixty-five years of age with $2,404,853. One dollar a day is just like that dripping faucet. … It is difficult, but it is not impossible. What makes it difficult is not that it requires some extraordinary set of skills, but that it requires the discipline of consistency in a world dominated by erratic impulse.
Kelly defines four stages of one's financial life: Right Now – Quality of Life – Retirement – Legacy … and devotes a chapter each to these, walking the reader through strategies to maximize one's wealth building in each, including multiple options (“good, better, and best”) for achieving different levels.

For a relatively slim book (a mere 160 pages) this is remarkably comprehensive in terms of scope. Before it moves into the four stages of life, the author presents a chapter which has a central section of “How To Be A Great Employee”, with seven steps which pretty much anybody would benefit from if enacted in their own lives. He then has a chapter on “the basics of wealth creation”. Unfortunately for most, these basics require things like discipline, the willingness to delay gratification, and the capability to set goals, and maintain the desire to achieve them (with the quote from Henry David Thoreau that “In the long run, men only hit what they aim at.”). For most people, much of this is very uncomfortable, with the realities of what one needs to have by retirement to produce a comfortable income being especially daunting. One of the exercises he offers here is looking at what that purchase you're considering today will have “cost” by retirement age. A fancy big TV system that costs $4,280 today, would represent a value of $68,480 in 30 years (again, the figures in the book to tend towards those starting out their financial lives), and that opting for a $1,500 TV (still a pretty fancy unit!) would “save” you $34,240 over that period of time. Obviously, this is sort of “modified gratification”, where you're making deals with yourself between what you might want vs. what you actually need, in regards to how it would effect your future finances.

One thing he brings up as “almost legendary” is something that I hadn't heard about previously, the “Latte Factor” … this counts up small regular indulgences that build up over time – the author says that instead of Lattes, for him it was cigarettes in his youth – figuring a $5/day habit. If instead of consuming $5/day of fancy coffees or smokes, one were to invest the equivalent $150.00/month, at the end of 40 years that would have built up to just shy of a million dollars! It's amazing how most people don't think they can find $150/mo to invest, yet they'll blithely spend on trivial expenses like high-priced coffees, fast food lunches (as opposed to bringing one's own), and the like.

Another “factoid” which I found disturbing was that “The average American spends 106 percent of his or her annual income annually.” Needless to say, there's no way that one can “build wealth” doing that. He also notes that “Less than 10 percent of Americans have and use a budget.”, and that a budget is essential to, well, budgeting money for investing.

Again, the issue of what one needs vs. what one might want comes into play here. I must admit that the author was rather extreme in his willingness to “go without” … he challenged himself to not buy any clothes for an entire year, and he did not “indulge” in buying a car until he was 30, using public transportation to get around. He goes on an interesting side piece on the self-storage industry in the U.S. – using it as an example of how much “extra stuff” most of us have … to the extent that “In the United States today, the self-storage business is larger than the motion picture business.”(!).

He recommends way to make some of this self-denying fun, with things like “Zero Dollar Days” where one strives to not spend anything for the day. The flip side of this is what he calls “Guilt-Free Money”, an amount that one sets aside to spend on anything one wants once a month.

In the first phase of the 4-stage program, he looks at what one could expect to be making starting out at age 18 working for McDonald's, and how that would likely increase over 8 years. Now, here again I think the author is a bit of an outlier … in his good-better-best figures it goes saving 10% of one's income to saving 30%, the latter being what he did from ages 18 to 25. The total paychecks for those 8 years come to $245,567 and he was able to save $135,326 (with interest) over that period, which invested through age 65 would be over six million dollars. Now, he is aware that the assumptions for returns on investment sound pretty extreme, but he also notes that if one had bought McDonald's shares, the return would have been in excess of 10%.

Now, if one has been diligent in one's early years, it sets one up to be able to spend pretty much what one makes in the next phase, but continued saving/investing would be better, especially in terms of putting money away for one's kids. He has some other eye-opening figures about houses, etc., and how making a choice to live a bit more simply (and invest the difference) can make huge returns down the line.

Obviously, the last two parts, on retirement and “legacy” really depend on the previous phases, as it's mighty hard to start planning once one gets to retirement, let alone considering any sort of (positive) financial legacy. Interestingly, part of what Kelly considers his legacy is the lessons imparted in this book. I know that I was eager to get copies of this into the hands of my daughters (and I really hope they'll read it – but “you can take a horse to water” and all, and one of the hardest things for a parent to do is to force a kid to read something they're not inclined to).

The final chapter in Flipping Burgers to Flipping Millions is something of a rah-rah session about McDonald's, which I found somewhat irritating at the time of reading it, but in reflection, it's pretty much all the author knows first-hand, and the points he raises are certainly good illustrations of the principles in the book in practice. There is, however, one glaring fault with the book … in several places the author points the reader to a web site, http://www.MoneyClassroom.com/ ...which, four years after the book's release, is “under construction” with a field to put in one's email to get notified when it goes live. The “whois” listing doesn't seem to have anything to do with the author or his publisher, so I wonder if somehow over the past four years the domain got lost and is being “squatted” by another group. It's a pity, as the references in the book to the site sound like there was supposed to be some interesting material there.

Anyway, this is one of those that I would recommend to “all and sundry”, especially as the recommendation in it hone so closely to my own “financial literacy” project. It appears to not currently be in print (expect via the publisher), except for in the e-book format, however the new/used guys have it with “very good” copies for as little as a penny, and new copies for under a buck (plus shipping). If you can find it in the dollar stores, pick it up … I wish I'd been able to get more copies via that channel myself!

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Saturday, November 21st, 2015
8:52 pm
A really good autobiographical book ...
This was one of those delightful dollar store finds … something I picked up pretty much because it wasn't a novel, and was in an interesting enough subject (a memoir from somebody with whom I was at least vaguely familiar), and was, of course, just a buck. Of course, part of the reason I picked this up is that my younger daughter is in a performing arts program in school, and is also taking classes at Second City, so it was as “paternally focused” as the “women in engineering” books I've read largely because my elder daughter is studying to be an engineer.

Needless to say, the name Alan Arkin rang a bell, so his An Improvised Life: a Memoir came with a certain degree of familiarity, however, I was rather surprised at how few of his roles I remembered from his IMDB profile … admittedly, I'm hardly a movie buff, and I think I've seen only a handful of the dozens of films he's been in (including not seeing stuff like Argo or Gattaca that were pretty big). I guess a lot of that is because my “mental image” of him is his later-years manifestation, such as The Chief in the 2008 Get Smart movie, and not in his younger roles in things like 1970's Catch-22, or (a movie that I very much enjoyed as a 9-year-old) 1966's The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming … an image not much shifted by the pic on the cover, which is him at about age 75.

One of the issues/problems I have with stuff that's not straight non-fiction, is that there tends to be a lot less “essential factoids” that will be screaming out for me to flag for future reference. In fact, it appears that I only stuck one of my little torn-paper bookmarks in this (which I'll quote from later), so I'm probably going to be doing more summarizing and paraphrasing in this review than usual. It was, frankly, a bit frustrating, as in numerous places he'd start with a couple of strong sentences towards a particular “bullet point” of a concept, but then take the text on a somewhat circuitous route (no doubt “the scenic route”, lending a lot more interest to the telling than what would have been convenient for my purposes) to get where he was going with it.

Arkin appears to be one of those rare people that knew what he wanted to do from his earliest years. He notes that, from about age 5, he had decided that he wanted to act, and was obsessed with playing roles from pretty much anything he encountered (spending months dancing to a record of a Stravinsky opera his aunt had taken him to – recreating every part). He focused on Charlie Chaplin for a while, and Danny Kaye after that. By age 8 he was even analyzing film, citing perceptions such as “The scene had instantly turned false, and I had the distinct feeling that the performances of the two people in the scene were no longer directed at each other but toward some anonymous audience.”. His growth in this area is one of the most useful parts of this book … as he walks the reader though his engagement with the acting arts as his skills grew, and I'm looking forward to putting it into my actor daughter's hands as soon as I get done with posting the review of this. What is presented as a memoir might as well have been marketed as a workshop, as the practical advice given here (if in a narrative rather than a presentation) is well worth the price of admission (in this case, the cover price, since, hey, I got it for a buck!).

At the end of World War II, his family packed up and moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles (preceding the Dodgers by a decade), his dad hoping to get work as a scenery painter in the film industry. Arkin was thrilled to be in Hollywood, and ended up in schools that had acting curriculums. Unfortunately, outside of the acting (which seems to have gone very well for him), the rest of his school experience was pretty horrible. In his senior year he began studying with a Benjamin Zemach (who had worked with Stanislavski), whose theories, at least as they were imparted to Arkin, are illustrated here. Again, where, in other contexts, the amount of reflecting on his inner reactions to stimuli and processing of events/instruction might have seemed fairly self-indulgent, here they provide a level of immersion in the art that I suspect would be useful to any aspiring actor.

In 1954 he got a call from a friend who had stumbled over a pretty amazing situation … a total free ride at the Bennington College, a girl's school which brought on a handful of guys to act in theater productions. He put together a bag of salami, cheese, and bread, and started to hitch-hike from L.A. to Vermont, just taking a (rather reasonable) week to get cross-country. His contact had disappeared, but the school still had his appointment on the schedule, and he was soon sent to interview with the head of the English department, future poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress, Howard Nemerov. The two, according to Arkin, hit it off from the start, giving him a fairly secure base at the university. He credits the acting professors there with developing his art, one positively, one via conflict … unfortunately, his other school work was disastrous, and after a couple of years he parted ways with the college … partially due to his having recently married a dance student. At that point, Arkin and his new (pregnant) wife headed to New York, with no particular plan.

Being constitutionally unsuited for “jobs”, he ended up as part of a folk group called The Tarriers, which began to find some success, a recording contract (their albums are remarkably still obtainable ), and a European tour. However, mid-way through the tour he had a “What the hell is this? Who am I?” moment, realized that he really wanted to act and informed the rest of the band that he'd be moving on after the end of the tour. He parlayed his folk guitar chops into a role in an off-Broadway play that needed a lute player (a small part for which he got paid more than anybody else in the production, due to the relative strength of the musicians union contract) … that ran for over a year, but Arkin determined to drop music afterward.

A few months later, a contact from Bennington got a hold of him and offered him a spot that with an improvisational group that was being set up for a summer run in St. Louis. During that summer, Paul Sills came down from Chicago and liked Arkin's work well enough that he told him if he ever wanted a job in Chicago, to look him up. Arkin, however, returned to New York (and unemployment) after the St. Louis run, and had another kid. This (and the uncertainty of their existence) was too much for his wife, who took the kids and left him. He hung on for a year in New York, hoping for some break, but there was nothing, so in desperation (Chicago was a black hole for theater/movies/etc. back then) he called up Sills and got a job with a hole-in-the-wall theater called Second City.

Second City very quickly got national attention, and in the year Arkin worked there he says he “gained ten years worth of experience”. Part of Sills' plan was to open up an extension in New York, and Arkin was one of the main elements of that … they lasted on Broadway for only 3 months, but a restaurateur fan of theirs set up a club for the troop a block away from New York University, which was quite successful. One of the more charming stories in the book is of an evening when Groucho Marx came to the show, pretty much took it over (via audience suggestion elements), and hung out with the cast long into the night. The New York club was successful for a long time, and actors from it started to get offers for other work, and with their leaving (most of the original group were from Chicago) new blood came in, beginning the upward spiral as an “institution”. The one quote that I actually marked in here (largely as it parallels my own educational experience), is from his reflections on this (from a 40th reunion event):
We had started out in Second City, all of us, because there was nowhere else to go. We were mavericks, misfits, almost unemployable. Most of the original members of the group had come out of the University of Chicago, where the dean had said publicly, “Get a general education. Don't specialize. You're all smart people; you'll end up on your feet.” They took him at his word and as a result the University of Chicago produced a generation of brilliant people who wandered and floundered without finding specific work to do, all of them prospective Second City cast members. I fit right in.
In New York, Arkin bounced back and forth between Second City and Broadway productions, then he got his first break in film, and built a fairly substantial career in it. In this same time he discovered both therapy and meditation, and discusses what he learned from these … including a concept of chakras – which his meditation teacher congratulated him on when what he had thought was a heat attack was “actually” “his heart opening”. From this, he discovered the work of Michael Checkhov, an acting teacher who had a theory of psychic vortexes, which Arkin incorporated in his work. He also discusses working with other teachers, such as Uta Hagen, and how their theories influenced him.

At this point (about half-way through the book), the narrative becomes somewhat less “life story” and moves more into “acting philosophy”, as Arkin shifts into directing, more high-profile projects, running workshops, etc. … and in each case looking deeply into his motivations, reactions, and experiments with the craft of acting. While this material is fascinating, it's also not particularly linear, and would be awfully involved to detail here.

Needless to say, there is a lot to link in An Improvised Life for anybody interested in the performing arts … plus it's a quite engaging tale in and of itself. This is a reasonably recent book, having come out in 2011, and it is still in print, available from the on-line big boys for about a third off of retail. However, as I noted at the start, this is kicking around in the dollar stores, so if you stumble across it in that setting, do add it to your cart … as a usual side effect of being in that channel, the new/used guys do have this (in “very good” condition) for as little as a penny (plus shipping, of course). I liked this a lot, felt that I learned quite a bit from reading it, and can't wait to get it to my daughter who's in this world. If you enjoy any of the component parts of this, I'm pretty sure you'll really like this, and recommend the heck out of it!

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Sunday, November 15th, 2015
12:00 pm
What we are becoming ...
I got this book via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, and like most (if not all) of the books featured there, it was a bit of a “pig in a poke”, as the information one is provided to make one's request decisions is typically a scant few sentences about each featured book. Fortunately, Michael Bess' Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future is pretty good … a bit “more than I really wanted to know” on the topic, but certainly interesting and informative. I have some friends who are very into the thought of “posthuman” existence (especially into living forever), and this book would be ideal for them … for everybody else, well, it might be a bit speculative. However, in this case, the speculation is backed up by a metric s-load of research … the book itself is only 216 pages, which is followed with another 70 (one-third more) pages of bibliography and notes (and in this case you have to follow along in the end notes, as there are frequent major chunks of text back there supporting arguments or adding context for things in main part).

The book is structured in four sections, “Humans Redesigned”, “Justice”, “Identity”, and “Choices”. With four to six chapters each, looking at specific topics. Part of me wants to rattle these off, but there are a LOT of them. One of the admirable elements to the book is how it's integrated with a companion web site. Now, I've had bad luck with companion sites in the past (they have a bad habit of being neglected, if not ending up 404'd), but this one looks like it's a very well designed web site (well, with the glaring exception that the “Dialog Page”, featuring what would no doubt be a fascinating forum for the various topics, is empty, and requiring one to be “logged in” - despite what appears to be the fact that one can neither register to log in, nor log in if one were registered – to start a discussion), which notably features 16 appendices of follow-up information for various parts of the book, plus “update” sections, featuring recent articles in the Science/Technology area (the first section of the book, featuring Artificial Intelligence, Bioelectronics, Genetics, Nanotechnology, Pharmaceuticals, Robotics, and Synthetic Biology) as well as the Social/Cultural arena (the three other sections, Choices, Identity, Justice). This is at the unwieldy, albeit unmistakable http://www.ourgrandchildrenredesigned.org/.

One of the interesting format elements here is that most chapters start with a “brief fictional vignette” which, while (naturally enough) somewhat sci-fi, allow the author to paint a rather vibrant picture of how some of these enhancements/developments might play out. There was one snippet of one of these that I found particularly engaging – part of a story about a sort of rescue shelter for bio-engineered “mistakes”, this being an encounter with a orangutan which had been engineered with “twenty percent human cognition-related genes”:
      She led him towards a side door. “There's one more guy I'd like you to meet before lunch. Over in that small red barn over there. His name's Jeremy.
      He followed her into the barn. Same musky smell, only more pungent. A dappled light coming through the skylight. Steel bars, the whole place a cage. A thatched hut over in the far corner of the cage, woven from sheaves of grass and leaves.
      “Jeremy,” she called out, “You have a visitor.”
      David peered into the darkness, his eyes adjusting. A holo screen on the wall lit up. Letters began appearing, forming words.
      GO WAY.
      David looked at her, but she ignored him.
      “Come on, Jeremy. Just a few minutes so you can meet your new friend David.
      He noticed she was speaking more slowly and clearly than usual.
      Silence. Then letters.
      “No, you're not. You're just being unfriendly.”
      THRO POOP.
      “You better not! If you want dinner today.”
      Rustling, the grass parted, and he came out. An orangutan. About one-and-a-half meters tall, a huge round face, round brown eyes. He stood leaning forward, holding a large wireless keyboard in his left hand.

      “So … why's he here? Why wasn't he considered a success?”
      “Because he's miserable, that's why. He's tried three times to commit suicide.”
I have quite a few little bookmarks though this, flagging things that I felt were particularly notable. There is so much stuff covered in Our Grandchildren Redesigned that I won't try to walk you through it all, but will hopefully be able to give you a sense of what's in here by dropping in on the bits I felt were worth a slip of paper …

In the Envisioning The Future chapter, the author lays down some cognitive grids to consider these developments, a chronological division into Long Structural Processes (50 years or more), Short Structural Processes (20-50 years), and Conjunctural Processes (1-20 years), which get further elaborated with:
But here, another aspect of our three-tiered list comes into play. Novel technologies tend to change more quickly, radically, and unpredictably than human social, economic, and cultural institution. The rise of the Internet, for example, became a major historical phenomenon in less than twenty years, but phenomena like racial prejudice, class conflict, gender bias, and similar social and cultural factors tend to evolve much more slowly. The implication is clear: we are likely to do better at predicting general patterns of the coming century, we should not try to foresee too precisely which technologies will exist in different decades. If we insist on doing so, we are likely to end up pulling a Rutherford.
Of course, one has to love that phrase “pulling a Rutherford”, which refers to the great physicist Lord Ernest Rutherford, known as the “father of nuclear physics”, who came up with the concept of radioactive half-life, among many other discoveries, yet totally dismissed the possibility of harnessing atomic energy just a scant dozen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were introduced to it.

In the Pharmaceuticals chapter, in a discussion of the development of memory-enhancing drugs (some of which are in clinical trials), Bess notes:
The notion of boosting memory in humans sounds at first like a terrific development. I would be able to learn foreign languages faster, recall more accurately the names of people and places I have known, find my car keys without a lot of cursing and fuss. But what abut forgetting? When we examine the functioning of memory as a practical component in a person's daily life, we find that it is just as important to be able to selectively lose information as to retain it. Without this ability we would rapidly find ourselves drowning in a sea of trivial details, impressions, emotions, and images.
He takes a look at various pills that are currently on the market (interestingly, most of these were not developed to be brain or mood enhancers), and how new sorts of research are able to push the envelope as researchers learn more about the underlying biology/chemistry of consciousness.

One term that I notably had not previously encountered was “epigenetics”, which is dealt with (duh) in the chapter Genetics and Epigenetics. Here is how the author frames this:
The new scientific field that studies these patterns of genetic activation and transcription is known as epigenetics. Though definitions vary, an epigenetic process can best be describe as any molecular mechanism that changes the expression of genetic information without altering the underlying DNA sequence itself. The DNA code stays the same, but certain portions of it are selectively silenced, while others are spurred to action, resulting in dramatically different phenotypic outcomes. … In recent years, scientists have discovered a variety of epigenetic mechanisms that allow the DNA script to be read differently by the body's cells under distinct circumstances; the two most common of these are known as DNA methylation and histone acetylation. These two molecular mechanisms act like volume knobs on particular segments of DNA: one mechanism (methylation) turns down the potency of expression for a given section of code, all the way down to a whisper; the other (acetylation) cranks it up to a shout.
He notes that this approach is likely to allow temporary changes, as it alters how individual genes are expressed, without messing with the underlying code … an important factor if genetic research speeds up, and you don't want to get stuck with “outmoded” enhancements.

Moving out of the tech section and into the “Justice” section, Bess puts forth what he refers to as a “meta-list” of “Ten Key Factors in Human Flourishing” to provide a moral framework for addressing these extremely disruptive trends. These fall under two categories, the Individual Dimension which includes Security, Dignity, Autonomy, Personal Fulfillment, Authenticity, and Pursuit of Practical Wisdom, and the Societal Dimension which includes Fairness, Interpersonal Connection, Civic Engagement, and Transcendence. He adds:
Here, therefore, lies and excellent framework for evaluating enhancement technologies. For each of the enhancements described in this book, we can hold up an ethical yardstick by asking, “Does this device or modification contribute to human flourishing, or does it not?”
In the chapter “A Fragmenting Species?”, he returns to the concept of epigenetics:
As I described earlier, two kinds of human genetic engineering may become available over the coming decades. One form, germline reengineering, would require making changes to the DNA of individuals soon after the moment of conception. The other method, epigenetic modification, would target the molecular mechanisms that regulate DNA expression (while leaving the underlying DNA unchanged). In principle, both methods could generate powerful modifications to the body and mind of the individuals, but the epigenetic pathway would possess two major advantages. Whereas germline engineering would be a one-shot deal, fixed and irreversible, epigenetic modifications would be flexible, reversible, and upgradeable over time. Furthermore, while alterations to the germline would have to be made by parents on behalf of their just-conceived offspring, epigenetic modifications would be available throughout a person's lifetime and will therefore result (in most cases) from choices that individuals will be making for themselves as the years go by.
He goes on to look at some of the ethical issues of the germline modifications, how a child, although “engineered” to be a tennis or cello prodigy might not have the attitude necessary to excel in the path his or her parents chose. This is one of the places that I felt the author could have “enhanced” the telling by including some popular culture reference, in this case The Boys From Brazil, which featured a number of clones of Adolf Hitler, most of which had no interest in anything like world conquest (although there was that one right at the end...). Obviously, this was a minor quibble, but one that came up in my reading when I'd hit passages where I'd be thinking “wow, that's just like X”, and wondering why he'd missed that (he does refer to the Star Wars clone armies at one point, and uses Vonnegut's “ice nine” as an example of unintended results of technological developments).

In the chapter “Why Extreme Modifications Should Be Postponed”, the author sets out “three levels of possible human enhancement” ...
■   Low-level modifications: Capabilities at the high end of today's human range.
■   Mid-level modifications: Capabilities well beyond today's human range, but still recognizably human.
■   High-level modifications: Capabilities utterly beyond human parameters.
He further notes that “This latter form of high-level metamorphosis appears to be what many transhumanists eagerly envision for themselves.”, and later adds:
... the act of undergoing extreme transmogrification inevitably entails serious risks, not just for the person doing it, but for the rest of humankind as well. Such acts of creation would bring into being new kinds of “posthuman” entities that have the potential of being extremely powerful and uncontrollable. We have no way of knowing how they would behave toward the rest of the biosphere – including all other sentient beings on our planet.
This was another place where I felt a pop-culture reference would help frame the concept – in this case bringing up the character of Doctor Manhattan the “posthuman god” of the Watchmen comics (and movie), which is, I believe, exactly the sort of being that Bess is worried about unleashing here.

In the chapter “What You and I Can Do Today” he outlines “five tangible goals people can work for as they mobilize to influence the development of human biotechnologies”:
  1. Mandate basic education in science, technology, and society (STS).

  2. Build “bioethics coalitions” across the left-right divide.

  3. Create a strong governmental agency for technology assessment.

  4. Adopt the precautionary principle in crafting bioenhancement legislation.

  5. Strengthen international cooperation in governing technology.

Obviously, the assumption here is that without a strong, stable, and wide-reaching “ethic” for channeling these developments along approved lines, the “genie will be out of the bottle” soon enough, with the possibilities of rogue states creating armies of super soldiers, or wealthy individuals trying to get to that “god” level. One of the things I've not touched on here, and which the author spends a lot of time with, is the economic concern … how a “baseline” of enhancements will likely have to be funded globally, to ensure that less-developed parts of the world (or poorer parts of individual countries) don't devolve into a Morlock-like subservient sub-species, while the well-to-do evolve into the Eloi (another pop-culture citation – that of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine that could have well be used here).

In the “Enhancing Humility” chapter Bess posits an interesting cultural generalization:
Reform works better than revolution. Strategies of slow, incremental change have succeeded far better at achieving the aims of historical actors than strategies of sudden, drastic change. ... it leaps out at me from the mass of historical events with such intuitive force that I feel compelled to take it seriously. I bring it up here because it has major implications for how our society chooses to pursue the bioenhancement enterprise over the coming century.
I would love to just stick in the next page or so here, where he contrasts the French revolution ending up in “the iron rule of Napoleon”, the Marxist revolution ending up as “a bizarre Orwellian nightmare under Stalin”, and the Maoist revolution ending up “in the famine of 1958-1962 and vicious factional strife of the Cultural Revolution”, with the slow achievement of Women's rights “over a dozen generations”, the growth of rights and power in Western democracies (with working conditions starkly in contrast to those detailed in the works of Charles Dickens), and the evolving status of Black rights over the past century, but that would be way too long. However, he goes on to say:
... Gradual reform, in short is not just morally superior because of its generally nonviolent character; it is also more effective in the long run, engendering forms of enduring change that penetrate deeply into the fabric of society, altering hearts and minds as well as institutions.
      When it comes to the pursuit of the enhancement enterprise, therefore, our society would do well to take the comparative history of reform and revolution into account. We should choose the long, slow, plodding road rather than the shining superhighway of radical change. Technological innovation may indeed be accelerating, but we should not allow it to transform our lives more rapidly than our social, cultural, and moral frameworks can absorb. If we permit enhancement technologies to advance too quickly, the resultant stresses could end up massively destabilizing our civilization, perhaps even tearing it apart.
Our Grandchildren Redesigned has only been out for a month at this writing, so should be available in bookstores that have futurist stock. The online big boys, of course, have it at a substantial discount (currently 36% off of cover), but oddly, quite reasonable new copies are in the new/used channel, that even with shipping come in at about a 60% discount. Frankly, this book was quite the firehose of information, but if you're into the things under discussion in it, I'm sure it will be quite a gripping read … it's certainly one of those topics that is not going away, and having read this will put you in a place of at least not being categorically surprised when these strange new worlds start manifesting around you!

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Saturday, November 14th, 2015
11:56 pm
Have you ever wondered ...
This is another of those books that I'm pretty sure wouldn't have found its way into my library if not for the dollar store … rah, rah, rah for serendipity, I suppose. However, poking through the books at my most-frequented Dollar Tree (of the five in town that I know how to get on public transportation), I saw Shirley McLaine's What If . . .: A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know for Sure, and I just couldn't find a good argument for passing it up for a buck. Not that I'm a fan in particular of Ms. McLaine … although her years of media ubiquity are long past, she's still a bit of a punch-line first and an actress/dancer second when searching through my mental files.

In some sense this is a “gimmick” book, it's a collection of “what it?” musings on a variety of subjects, running from one or two sentences (there are a lot of pages with just that much text – quick read!), such as:
What if our subconscious controls out destiny?
What if evolution itself is speeding up?
What if there really is reincarnation?
... etc., etc., etc. … on to longer biographical pieces (like 24 pages inspired by her getting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 2012), with most (well, most might be the 1-2 sentence ones) clocking in at 2-4 pages. One thing I found quite odd was that there were two or three sections that didn't start off with “what if” … but somehow these didn't feel like they were there in some 4th-way “look for what seems out of place” state of significance, but more like they were somehow stuff that she just couldn't figure out how to phrase in a “what if” structure.

The subject matter is all over the place, from reminiscences of “the old days” in Hollywood, to the expected “space aliens” and assorted woo-woo spirituality, to quasi-political ramblings (for having come out in 2013, she still sure has a bug up her butt about Dick Cheney). Interestingly, one of the more “things that make you go hmmmm” entries here starts off with a “what if” about Cheney … it's talking about “cellular memory” and the effects observed in transplant patients:
Medical reports say that heart transplant patients often undergo a change of philosophy, personality, and values once they recover from surgery. The heart is a special organ, not to mention one that has tremendous cultural, symbolic, and psychological meaning. … Transplant transference has occurred in many heart recipients. … {One} transplant recipient, a health-conscious choreographer, found herself inexplicably attracted to all kinds of junk food, … She also began behaving in an aggressive and impetuous manner that was uncharacteristic of her, but was like the personality of her organ donor.
Another interesting section here deals with the “usual suspects” among the Founding Fathers leaving behind writings indicating that they believed in a "plurality of worlds”, and claims that
Franklin … wondered if there was a God for every inhabited planet.
She even uses that ever-convincing “Ancient astronaut theorists claim ...” phrase several times (of course – ALIENS!). On the plus side, she mentions a character I'd not previously heard of … a free black man by the name of Benjamin Banneker, who was a surveyor who participated in laying out the various “mystical patterns” incorporated into Washington D.C.'s design. What is notable here is that he was supposedly from the Dogon tribe, the same group that is purported to have had a great deal of advanced scientific knowledge maintained in their myths, included detailed information on the Pleiades … which she claims the Washington Monument is sited to align with on particular days. Oh, she also lets us know which revolutionary era figure she believes she's a reincarnation of … but you'd be disappointed if she didn't, wouldn't you?

Again, this book is all over the map … but every once in a while it lands squarely in the “preaching to the choir” (in terms of my beliefs), and that's always refreshing. I especially liked the following, from a piece where she's bitching about the TSA (where she notes that, over the years of radiating us, has discovered via the x-ray scans 0 terrorist threats, 1,485 hernias, and 3 natural blondes):
More important than any of the aforementioned, what if the “security” measure have never been predominantly about security, but more about the purposeful dumbing-down of Americans, making us subservient to control and authority? What if the point of amplifying fear is to render the population cooperative with its own individual captivity? Fear breed handing over control, and handing over control breeds cooperative dumbing-down. In the name of protecting freedom and democracy, we've become prisoners of our own induced obedience.
Preach that libertarian philosophy, girl!

Needless to say, the book is “uneven”, with a lot of goofy open-ended “what ifs” (what are we supposed to do with “What if we could experience psychic liberation?”?), but these are ephemeral enough that they don't really effect the over-all tone of the book. There are moments of actual “deep thinking” here about significant topics, and the autobiographical bits are often quite fascinating. I doubt many people would find McClaine's What If ... a life-changing read, but it's light, informative, and entertaining, so is a good “treat” if one's been delving into too many “heavy” books.

This is still in print in both hardcover and paperback (and various other formats), so it must have its audience out there. Like many books that have found their way into the dollar store channel, the hardcover can be had for a penny (four bucks with shipping) in “very good” condition. Obviously, if you stumble across this at a Dollar Tree, do pick it up – for a buck you can't go wrong … but you might even consider it in the retail channels, if the above sounds appealing enough.

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Sunday, November 8th, 2015
3:23 pm
America's traffic, cars, and roads ... and some things both mysterious and not ...
This is the second of the books that got on my radar from the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit (the other being here – with more details on that event). There was a session I attended featuring the authors of two new books on city/transportation issues, and both sounded interesting enough for me to reach out to the publishers for review copies. The one currently being considered is Samuel I. Schwartz's Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars.

This is a book which, by all rights, ought to be very dry, and possibly tiresome. It's not. Heck, it's downright entertaining, and I'm tempted to attribute this to Mr. Schwartz's good humor (I seem to recall that he was "owning the stage" at the conference), but I'm wondering if this has something to do with the “with” credit (which is on the title page, but not the dust jacket or spine) of publishing-industry veteran William Rosen. In any case, between them, they have produced a book that's a great read, with (I'm guessing) wide appeal, in a subject area that one would not expect. I know it's unusual for me to praise a book before getting into the particulars, but I felt that this was, perhaps, the most notable element here – it's the text equivalent of hanging out with your favorite uncle who's had a fascinating life and is full of great stories.

I did have one gripe with this, however … I really, really wished at numerous points that the book had been illustrated – preferably with a lot of photographs of the places being discussed. I wanted to see the collapsed section of the West Side Highway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Williamsburg Bridge, and many other things mentioned here, along with maps, plans, etc. There are a few images here (less than a dozen, I believe), but the book would have been greatly improved if there were ten times that many.

The author is a first-wave babyboomer, and grew up in the shadow of Brooklyn's famed Ebbets Field … before his beloved (Trolley) Dodgers up and moved to Los Angeles. His development was in the streets of Brooklyn in at time where you still could play stick ball without getting killed by traffic, and a lot of that sensibility informs this book … especially the sense of how things have evolved over the years with the rise of the automobile. Oh, and he's also widely credited as being the person who came up with the term “gridlock” … in a 1980 New York Transportation Department memo looking for ways to avoid that particular traffic manifestation.

Early on he defines the book's focus: it “tells the story of a transformation in the common travel decisions made daily and weekly in the industrial world generally, and the United States specifically … getting ourselves to work, to shopping, to social encounters, and to entertainment – how we've done so historically, and how we're going to be doing so in the future.”. And, one of the key concepts he frames as: “Vehicles come and go. Buildings go up and come down. Roads last forever.”

Except, of course, when they don't. “On Saturday morning, December15, 1973, the forty-year-old West Side Highway … collapsed under the weight of a truck carrying more than thirty tons of asphalt. … A day later, the road was closed indefinitely ...” – leaving eighty thousand cars a day to find an alternate route. This is the first point when “things get weird” here:
The predicted traffic disaster never appeared. Somehow, those eighty thousand cars went somewhere, but to this day we have no idea where. Or how, two years later, twenty-five thousand more people were getting into Manhattan's Central Business District.
He refers to this as “the counterintuitive phenomenon known as disappearing traffic”, and notes that “lane closures not only cause traffic to decrease on the road's remaining lanes, but only half the decrease reappears anywhere else”.

That sort of reality is a mystery to all involved … but there are “less mysterious” things at work here too … in many cases there were serious prejudices built into the available information – cables whose useful lifespan was being represented at 10% of the actual figure, while beams which were “cracked and perforated” by corrosion not even being considered in projections (this is what failed in the WSH collapse). This came up in the context of the Williamsburg Bridge, an 1909 construction that carried 350,000 people a day. Much like the mysterious disappearing traffic, there was a reality here that was surprising – narrower lanes were safer than wider lanes – and fixing the existing bridge (with narrow lanes) rather than tearing it down and replacing it with a “state of the art” bridge (which would have also required bulldozing “two of the most vibrant and prosperous neighborhoods in the entire country”, the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn) is something the author had to fight strongly for.

Another unexpected change he notes is that of the driving habits of the Millennials:
... in 2009, Millennials drove 23 percent fewer miles on average than their same-age predecessors did in 2001. That is, their average mileage – VMT, or vehicle miles traveled – plummeted from 10,300 miles a year to 7.900 … In every five-year period from 1945 to 2004, Americans had driven more miles than they did the half-decade before … but by 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles than in 2004 … if all eighty million Millennials retain their current driving habits for the next twenty-five years … per capita VMT … will fall off the table.
This was a total surprise … even as these trends started to manifest, federal Transportation Department officials were predicting a doubling of VMT over 20 years … and, like in the case of bridge traffic, there were “experts” who flat-out rejected the possibility of the long-term patterns no longer being valid.

The author also argues that American “car culture” didn't happen by accident, but was created by government programs that encouraged suburban sprawl – “houses whose cost per square foot was so much lower than that of the available housing stock in densely populated urban centers”
Which is exactly what happened with the GI Bill's requirement that government-guaranteed home loans only go to new construction, or the Eisenhower administration's decision to build forty thousand miles of heavily subsidized highways. The relative advantage of car-dependent suburban living didn't come from impersonal forces of the market in action, but from a sequence of decisions made by fallible human beings, decisions that could very easily have gone in an entirely different direction. … Fifty years of sprawl in America then does, in fact, look a lot like a fifty-year mistake – one that didn't need to happen.
Of course, this all followed the conspiracy that was a central plot point in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – buying streetcar lines simply to shut them down in favor of car transport.
For more than a decade beginning in 1936, two shell companies – National City Lines and Pacific City Lines, owned by General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and other huge companies with what you might call a strong bias in favor of gasoline-powered transportation – bought more than a hundred electric train and trolley systems in at least forty-five American cities ...
Notably, the same did not happen in Europe and other parts of the world, with trolley and similar transit options being a key part of the cities' transportation mix on through the present. Schwartz looks at both various European examples, and the rather remarkable recent history of public transit in Bogotá, Columbia where the city has narrowed streets (by expanding sidewalks) and has even banned cars on particular days.

Street Smart goes into a lot more stuff than I've been able to touch on here … including looking at various transit systems in U.S. cities, self-driving cars (and other futurist concepts), and more historical details (as well as the author's “war stories” from his days in the NYC DOT) … but I think you get the idea. Again, for a subject that could be expected to be fairly dry, it's coverage here is breezy and engaging – quite a bonus to the information that's presented. This is quite new (just out a couple of months at this writing), so should be easy enough to find at bookstores (when you can find bookstores), and the on-line big boys have it more than a third off of cover price. If you're interested in the whole matrix of cars and cities and transportation (and Brooklyn sport teams), you'll find this quite an agreeable read.

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Saturday, November 7th, 2015
12:08 pm
Evolving the city ...
Back in September I was invited to cover the “Move Together” 2015 National Shared Mobility Summit for my blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform - Green Tech Chicago. I wasn't able to attend the full conference, but was able to hit a couple of sessions on two days, and shoot an interview with the sponsoring organization's (the Shared-Use Mobility Center) Executive Director, and sit through a discussion featuring the authors of a couple of new books. I was interested enough in these that I looked up their publishers, and sent out requests for review copies. This is how Gabe Klein's Start-Up City: Inspiring Private and Public Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun ended up in my reading pile.

Klein has a Chicago connection, having been Mayor Emanuel's head of the city's Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2013 … although his C.V. is head-spinning for the number of things that are on there for somebody who hasn't quite hit 45 yet … he was in a similar position in Washington, D.C., did a stint with ZipCar, and a car-sharing venture that Virgin was contemplating launching, ran a food truck company in D.C., and started his career in bicycle retailing following a hippie childhood (at age 10 he was in a rural Virginia yoga school/ashram).

When in the Emanuel administration, he was instrumental in the development of the Riverwalk, the BRT Chicago initiative (whose dedicated bus lanes are still being created in the Loop), the DIVVY bike-share program, and the recently-opened Bloomingdale Trail, among numerous other projects variously familiar to my fellow Chicagoans. The book presents itself as “a helpful guide steeped in pragmatic realism”, with chapter sub-titles such as “On managing others, empowering your team, and shamelessly promoting their accomplishments”, and “Oh how to find funding where none seemingly exists, make the most of a slim budget, and get creative with the basics”, etc. However, this is primarily a memoir of Klein's career (thus far), with occasional inserts of entrepreneurial “theory” spun off of his experiences in these assorted positions.

One thing that certainly flags Klein as “not your typical bureaucrat” is the sign he'd (I'm guessing tongue-in-cheek) suggested in place of the locally-well-known “Building A New Chicago” work signs that appear all over the city … his version (which he had at least one done up, which hung in his office) read “Getting Sh*t Done – In Every M*th*r F*ck*ing Ward”. If there is an over-arching theme here, it's that of using mind-sets and tool kits from entrepreneurial start-ups to help revitalize and spur development in cities:
You need to push boundaries and undermine the status quo, or your work reverts to the codes, regulations, and standards that have become the caricature of bureaucracies. What's worse is that these standards often fail us, as they did in this instance {his first attempt to install bike lanes in D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue}, because they fail to encapsulate the dynamism of the city, the potential for engineers to creatively solve new problems, and the capacity of our citizens to see and embrace change.
Another odd thing about Start-up City is its format … it looks more like a travel book than a business book – in a 6x6” square lay-out, with lots of pictures, and strange illustrations that look like screen shots from some cartoon Lego world, and infographic-style graphics detailing assorted points. So, it's somewhat unsettling to flip through this and run into business-school insistences such as “Embrace S.M.A.R.T. management and Six Sigma principles.” (the acronym standing for “Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-based”, and Six Sigma being an approach that “says that anything less than 99.9999998 percent error rate, or 3.4 errors per million, is unacceptable”). Needless to say, this isn't all about the “having fun” of the book's subtitle!

As you might have surmised by this point, a lot of this book is about “getting shit done” in the cities in which Klein has worked, but it also has “visionary” aspects, where he looks at concepts of how things will be evolving over time. One section that was particularly in line with the conference where I heard him speak looks at the his view on the future of cars:
Vehicles today are only in use approximately 5 percent of the time. The rest of the day, they take up valuable space that could be put toward other public uses. That's a big sacrifice we've made, and I think that the self-driving cars are part of our opportunity to fix it. As mobility evolves from a private luxury into a subscription service in the “internet of everything” world, vehicles (in urban areas, at least) can be active 95 percent of the time while serving multiple customers rather than sitting around unused 95 percent of the time. As a result, societies will not need anywhere near as many vehicles as we have today.
As a life-long “city boy”, I, naturally enough, found the stories of “fighting city hall” popcorn-worthy, whether it was Klein as an outsider fighting the unfair regulations against food trucks in D.C., or trying to correct programs in Chicago that were “wracked by paranoia, which caused a series of gross inefficiencies” (which, for example, led to using winter-formulated asphalt pot-hole patching material year-round, which would last about 2 days when the temperatures were above freezing!). And, there's a lot of that sort of conflict narrated across the stories here.

While Start-up City is an engaging and informative read, it's ultimately a bit of a blur … succeeding as a memoir, but not so much in its attempts to be a “guide”. There is plenty of room here for the author to have bolstered the “business book” and “urban visionary” elements to be equal partners with the personal history narrative that's at the core of this … it's not that those aren't in it, but they feel like they're less integrated into a three-way whole that they might have been. Klein closes out the book in the “visionary” mode, and here's a bit from the Conclusion:
The future challenges and opportunities we face in cities are not just about the obvious – the advent of high-tech vehicles, apps, or even traditional transportation. How we configure our future neighborhoods and transportation systems will have profound impacts on climate change, on socioeconomic mobility, an on public health. The ground is shifting beneath us, and whether you're talking about energy or healthcare or climate, the landscape is evolving more quickly than we can even begin to anticipate. This is why our North Star cannot be about technology for the sake of technology alone. Instead, we must use the momentum of technological change as as force to help us create places that celebrate public life.
This has only been out a few weeks at this point, so it should certainly be available via the bigger brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it at nearly a third off of cover (and a very reasonable price for the e-book – although I wonder how much of the graphic presentation of this survives into the that format). I liked it – and certainly folks from Chicago and D.C. will be amused to see familiar places and get behind-the-scenes looks at local projects – but I think it falls a bit short from being all it could have been (or, perhaps, was envisioned to be).

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Friday, November 6th, 2015
11:16 pm
I did not need to know ANY of this ...
This was one of those dollar store finds that was in the “just as well it was only a buck” category. Dave Bry's (pronounced like “brie”) Public Apology: In Which a Man Grapples With a Lifetime of Regret, One Incident at a Time is an odd, and, frankly uncomfortable book. It is exactly what the title/subtitle suggest, a series of events for which he's apologizing … most of which are embarrassing to various degrees.

This is set up chronologically, with sections on Junior High, High School, College, New York, and Adulthood. Each story starts off with “Dear (name):” and then runs with whatever bad behavior he's apologizing for – sometimes for many, many pages. Yes, through the course of this you get a pretty good scope of his history (and the sense that he's a bit of a jerk with substance abuse issues), but it's all one long icky read. Honestly, about a third of the way through this I was thinking “this guy must be doing one of those 12-step programs!” and he's working on step 8-9 where he'd make “a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all” and using this to at least apologize … however, that doesn't get mentioned or even hinted at anywhere in here, so I guess this is just some sort of “airing of dirty laundry” in print. The author has been writing for several magazines and web sites, and he notes in the Acknowledgments that “many of the apologies in this book were first published on The Awl” (web site), so I guess he's decided that the embarrassing personal story is just “his niche”. Ewwww.

Now, I almost never “give up” on a book, but about half way through this I was seriously considering not finishing it. Fortunately, the stories from his later life are less “triggering” than those of his earlier life … and some of them even get into “poignant” territory (such as those around his father's death … like picking up some comedies for the family to watch when they were basically waiting for his dad to finally succumb to brain cancer – one of which ended up being Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, which involves a sub-plot about Allen's character beliving he has a brain tumor).

The subject matter of these stories is quite varied, from apologizing to friends of his parents' about what he wore to their son's bar mitzvah, to apologizing to Bon Jovi for having thrown empty beer cans over the rocker's fence and onto his lawn. There's apologizing for a graduation prank, and apologizing for dramatically spitting out the hamburger he'd been eating in a Paris bistro, when he discovered that it was made with horse meat. There's apologies to garage owners, gals at school dances, neighbors, and even to his son for letting him get lost in the park. Again, the earlier the stuff was, the more horrific the emotional load in the telling … it's easier to let tales of him being an idiot around c-list rock stars (when writing for Vibe magazine) slide out of one's head, than those of him forcing grade school friends to “worship” a poster of Jim Morrison.

I have a hard time imagining how one gets to a place where the idea of writing these vignettes seems like a good idea, except, as noted, as some obsessive part of a 12-step program. Perhaps he should have written a post-script to the main part of the book apologizing to the those folks who actually read it. One would really have to be a particularly odd sort of a voyeur to enjoy this … although I guess there are probably those out there who fit that profile … but it's not me, and I'm guessing it's not you.

Not surprisingly, Public Apology appears to be out of print (except for the ebook edition), and it's available on-line for as little as a penny in the after-market hardcover. As noted, it's in the dollar stores as well, but I don't expect anybody to go out looking for this. I guess we can chalk this up to “I read it so you don't have to” … you're welcome.

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Thursday, November 5th, 2015
3:16 pm
Figured I'd put this up here too ...
{Yes, I do feel bad with how things have devolved around here ... I mean, I have a whole separate LJ for my book reviews, but that seems to be the only thing I end up posting any more ... when this used to be my main blithering node. Sure, "back in the day", one might do dozens of one-to-two-sentence posts on LJ, but that was when you were pretty sure that somebody was listening - these days the only reaction is the chirping of virtual crickets. So, most of my day-to-day verbiage ends up over on Facebook. Yeah, I hate that too. On the other hand, most of the stuff that I write over there (as opposed to random likes and shares) is bitching about one thing or another, so you may be lucky to not have that showing up here! That being said, the following is something I just posted over there, and I was thinking "gee, this is pretty long for Facebook" and that it looked more like a LiveJournal missive ... so you get to see it too (and some of you may be seeing it twice)!}

Man ... I have been fighting with the Internet all day. VERY FRUSTRATED.

I was trying to set up a new site over at my main host company (OK, at this point my only host company), and #1, the DNS isn't cooperating ... it's still showing the "parking" screen from the registrar - even though they assure me that it's set up (yeah, I know, the DNS can take a LONG time to "propagate"). #2, I used the host's auto-installer for WordPress (yes, for that site I'm going to bit the bullet and do it in WP), and it ended up with just TEXT screens about the installs that should have been happening on the site and the admin page. It turns out that there was a setting on the domain management page that needed to be turned on (something about PHP), which was NOT MENTIONED ANYWHERE in the set-up info. Uh ... wouldn't that be a good place to START on the do-this-then-do-that instructions? They said it would take about a half hour, but nothing's showing up yet (I'm getting a set-up screen if I use their internal link, the registrar's parking link if I refresh the screen ... grrrrr!).

At least I was able to get an email account set up for that (which the WordPress set-up thing needed).

Since I was poking around in there, I ended up "getting around to" working on the Eschaton Books​ email. Since I rarely got any mail to the "info" account on that domain, I'd not rushed into updating it since I moved Eschaton from HostGator this fall. I guess I was fully anticipating the SNAFU that trying to do that was going to be. Mind you, it was simple enough to set up the BOXES on the host side, but it turns out that Thunderbird does not let you just change an IMAP set-up into a POP3 set-up, AND it's "not happy" if you try to set up a NEW profile with an existing email address. Neither my host's site nor Thunderbird had any particularly useful info on this. Fortunately, I Googled up a blog post by some guy who had had the same struggle I was going through, and who'd done a perfectly clear step-by-step process for making that work (which required changing the name of the email account o the IMAP profile, shutting down the things that had it checking mail, and THEN setting up a new profile with the old name as a POP3).

I suppose having new emails set up should be a "small victory" that I could enjoy, but not having the damn WordPress site up (and the stress of the hours I've been fighting with this crap today) isn't letting me enjoy anything. Dammit.

And, I'm off to the suburbs again tonight, and was hoping to be able to show off this site there. Sucks to be me ... as usual.

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Saturday, October 31st, 2015
7:50 pm
What I did on my summer vacation ...
OK ... so those of you who pay attention around here are likely aware that, aside from my book reviews, I've not been posting much on L.J. (indeed, this is just the second non-review post in the past 4 months) ... and, while I've occasionally wanted to, there have been various factors that have led me to just the standard drivel over on Facebook, and not much here.

One of the reasons is that I've been having "health issues", and - as you know - I've been in the hellacious never-ending job search for six-and-a-half years now, and there are all sorts of people who have been "coaching" me to not say anything Political, Religious, or overly Personal on-line because THEY WILL FIND IT and it will DISQUALIFY ME FOR EMPLOYMENT. This has, thereby, been a struggle between the "good angel" who wants to share my on-going existence with whatever reading public I have left, and the "bad angel" who wants to toe the line for the sphincter-grippers of various sorts who think that anything other than the blandest pablum is totally unacceptable on-line.

Anyway ...

For nine weeks this summer, Monday through Friday, I got up in the morning, took the bus down to the Tribune (or just across the street north), laid down in that machine over there ===> (click for bigger picture) for about 15 minutes, then got back on the bus and went back home. As these things go, that's about as uncomplicated and non-invasive as possible, and I was back to "my own devices" by 10am every day.

What's that machine, you ask? It's a Varian TrueBeam™ Radiotherapy System and it was zapping a CANCER (in my prostate).

This whole experience was rather odd. Number one, I had ZERO symptoms ... nothing, nada, zilch that would be telling me that there might be something awry with my plumbing. However, last year (I typically get a physical in February) my internist said that I had an elevated number on some blood test (I have since come to know it as the PSA - not a Public Service Announcement, but the Prostate-Specific Antigen - test) and the Doc said "we should keep an eye on that". Well, this February, the number came back DOUBLED ... and so I got sent off to get a prostate biopsy.

Let me be very clear on the following point: you do NOT want to get a prostate biopsy unless you absolutely need one ... I have had a LOT of surgery over the years (mostly thanks to the 1993 car crash), and this was the singularly most unpleasant medical procedure I can recall (perhaps due to being done under a very mild local rather than general anesthesia). The version I had was "rectal" (which, frankly, compared to the other options I've read about, might be the least nasty), which involved a sonogram probe stuck up my butt, followed by some horrid medieval device with 12 fine spring-loaded needles that punch through the wall of the rectum into the prostate gland and then rip out a small sample of tissue each. There are sites that say "You may feel discomfort or pressure when the needle enters the prostate gland." and further suggest that the spring-loaded needles are "nearly painless". They LIE. I was fairly stoic through the first 4-6 assaults on my inner bits, but was really wishing this had been done under general by #9 or 10.

I don't want to gross you out too much, so I won't get into describing the after effects of this procedure ... but nobody warned me as to how weird (and disgusting) things were going to get ... and it was all "sci-fi horror show" for a while there.

Now, the good news is that 10 of the 12 tissue samples (taken from various areas of the prostate) came out totally cancer-free, but one area was 60% cancerish, and one was like 30% cancerish right next to that (the "ish" coming from their not being able to say absolutely certainly, unless it's at a whole different level, that it IS cancer) ... so this was being caught EARLY both time-wise and in terms of spread.

The urologist who performed the biopsy said that with my other issues, he didn't want to perform surgery on me, and so I was referred off to a oncologist. This next process was pretty bizarre as well, as I had assumed that I'd go in, we'd talk about options, and that I'd be having some time to consider what I wanted to do. Instead, I had a 20 minute chat with the doctor and the next thing I knew I was in a big CATscan ring with them mapping out my innards. The oncologist also didn't want to do surgery on me (in this case, inserting little radioactive "seeds"), and so I was scheduled for 9 weeks of having my mornings in the machine. I put together a little video to give you the sense of how sci-fi this is ...

Again, it was about as simple, painless, and non-complicating as it could be ... although by the later weeks, I was definitely having energy issues, as the radiation was getting to be a bit draining. {Oh, and after I put together that video, I found one that I could have just posted ... it's got more info, so here: https://youtu.be/gvrhNrTo7Uw if you're interested.}

So, is that it with my medical adventures? ... Nope.

Over the past several years, my internist has suggested a whole laundry list of "stuff I should probably get checked out" ... however, being without a paycheck during this time has made chasing after expensive procedures impossible. The cancer treatments, thankfully covered by The Wife's health insurance from her work, quickly pushed me past both the deductible and out-of-pocket limits ... leaving me in a wondrous 4-5 month period where everything that the insurance would cover was covered 100%.

My very first thing on the list once I discovered this situation (purely by accident - I was filling a fairly expensive prescription at the pharmacy and it came up as $0.00), was to get a therapist ... while a psychologist and not a psychiatrist, I have really appreciated getting an hour a week to vent with constructive response. I had been wanting a shrink for a long time, but it was something I couldn't justify financially (and I'm going to miss that come January).

Next, I got lined up for a sleep apnea test. Those reading my reviews have had a peek at this previously with my review of a book on the subject that I picked up at the sleep clinic. It turns out that I was "waking up" (at least the brain was to force the body to breathe) a whopping 58.6 times an hour ... thereby getting very little rest and pretty much zero REM sleep (i.e. no dreams!). They set me up with a (100% covered, thank you very much) CPAP machine, that makes me look a bit like Bane when I'm sleeping, but I'm now down to almost no wake-ups to breathe. It took a couple of weeks, but I'm suddenly having immersive technicolor dreams again ... which is certainly good for my psychic well being (interestingly, I had calls from two old friends who said, about the time I was starting to have dreams again, that I had showed up in their dreams and they thought they'd check in on me!).

Finally (so far), I've got set up with a "vein clinic" to address the circulation problem I've had in my legs for a few years. I'd always put off this issue as a not-unexpected degrading of the system following decades of neglect (I've always said, in the cowboy phrase, that my body has been "rode hard and put away wet", with long years of being a "type-A", "burn the candle at both ends and in the middle", kind of guy over-fond of opting for stimulants instead of sleep), but my doctor thinks that things will be greatly improved by having procedures done on my veins ... and I have one leg scheduled for one week this month and the other for the next week.

Anyway, all that added stuff comes from the cancer treatments.

I guess at this point (I'm just blithely assuming that we "got" the cancer and it's not going to be spreading or coming back) I'm a "cancer survivor". What is freaky, of course, is that I had no symptoms, and aside from the (very nasty) biopsy, nothing really to show for having supposedly had cancer. For all I know, it could have been a big complicated joke ... but I'm nowhere near that paranoid.

So, there you have it, a VERY personal post. Perhaps more will be forthcoming.

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Tuesday, October 13th, 2015
11:15 am
O Divine Poesy ...
OK, I'm stumped … I know that somebody out in social media land strongly recommended this book … I was thinking it might have been Chris Brogan, but I wasn't able to find the thing that said “this is the basic stuff” (or something along those lines) making Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles something that I had to pick up.

Now, I'd not been familiar with Pressfield previously, but he appears to be a very successful writer in what seems to be mainly historical fiction, having come out of screenwriting (where he had at least one major success after a lot of failure). On a surface level, this book is about the inner workings necessary to be a successful writer, with a special focus on doing battle against what he calls “the resistance”. Frankly, his description of this is very similar to a concept (perhaps going by the same name) that I read in some other book, and for the life of me, I can't recall what that was either, so you're getting me writing this at perhaps at maximum frustration.

I really didn't have any particular expectations going into this other than it had been highly recommended by somebody whose opinions I trust. This is an odd book … it's sort of autobiographical in a scattered way, with musings twisting around remembrances, interspersed with hard-won advice. There are lots of clichés about writers, and Pressfield embodies a lot of them … from living in a van, and cranking out material on an old manual typewriter, to allusions to ideal relationships gone bad because the work for the muse trumped the work on the girl. The echoes of Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson hang suggestively over this as well, although, having read this, I have not much more knowledge of the person Pressfield is, beyond small biographical tidbits like “He is a former Marine. In 2003, he was made an honorary citizen by the city of Sparta in Greece.”

This is split into three “books”: RESISTANCE - Defining the Enemy, COMBATTING RESISTANCE - Turning Pro, and BEYOND RESISTANCE - The Higher Realm. These are broken into dozens of pieces that range from a couple of sentences to several pages. He starts things out pretty straight-forwardly, with an introductory section titled “What I Know”, which reads:
      There is a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.
      What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
So … that's what the writer (and other artists, or anybody trying to achieve anything worthwhile) is up against. On one level this is a “spiritual” book – the Resistance is somewhat personalized, and the Muse is certainly a real entity to the author … before he begins writing he says “a prayer” which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's The Odyssey in the T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) translation. The third part of this gets deeper into that zone.

When reading this, I ended up putting in more than my usual number of little bookmarks, but going back to them, the bits I flagged seem hard to extract from the flow of the book … they were highlights in the process, but in several cases I can't really pull them out to bring to you here. I will make an effort, though. In a section “How To Be Miserable” he talks about being in the Marines, and how the Marines love misery, which he notes “This is invaluable for an artist.”, as:
      The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
Fair warning, I suppose … this is very similar to the amazing introduction to the Best Screenplay nominees at the last Academy Awards, where Robert DeNiro described the inner state of writers, and I wonder if whoever scripted those remarks was drawing from Pressfield's work, at least in spirit.

The concept of “genius” shifts back and forth in the book, between the Greek concept of the spirit which provides the individual's abilities, and the more modern sense of advanced competency (in contrast to mundane or “hack” work). This comes up in this discussion of mastering technique:
      The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.
One of the subtler themes here is that of evolution, not so much on the physical plane, but in the spiritual realms. A key conflict is the “Ego” vs. the “Self”, with the Ego being an ally of the Resistance. The author puts it: “I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego.”. He goes on to define the Self more in this part:
      The margins of the Self touch upon Divine Ground. Meaning the Mystery, the Void, the souce of Infinite Wisdom and Consciousness.
      Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it's the Self we're seeking. When the dervish whirls, when the yogi chants, when the sadhu mutilates his flesh; when Native Americans pierce themselves in the Sun Dance, when suburban kids take Ecstasy and dance all night at a rave, they're seeking the Self. When we deliberately alter out consciousness in any way, we're trying to find the Self. When the alcoholic collapses in the gutter, that voice that tells him, “I'll save you,” comes from the Self.
      The Self is our deepest being.
The book winds up in an interesting discussion of “hierarchy” vs. “territory”, with the former being the playground of the Resistance, and the latter being the field of the Self.

You might well wonder what The War of Art has to do with writing … but there are, in fits and starts, a lot of direct-from-the-trenches advice on that level as well … but it's more a spirit of fighting through the Resistance and staying true to the Muse than being a practical manual about being a writer. Perhaps the most telling thing I can say about this is that I suspect I will re-read it … and reasonably soon … something that only very rarely happens in my book consumption. This lacks linearity in the way Zen koans do … and I suspect it will reveal more on subsequent reads.

This is still in print in the paperback, and it is quite reasonably priced in the Kindle format. While it might not be “for everybody”, I'd recommend it to those who self-identify as writers, as you'll find it poking around in your head more than everything else you've read of late.

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Monday, October 12th, 2015
10:11 pm
To sleep, perchance to dream ...
I was a bit on the fence about reviewing this, or even adding it to my LibraryThing catalog, as it's a free, extensively abridged, version of another book — Sudhansu Chokroverty's Questions & Answers About Sleep Apnea — which is a 112-page book covering 100 questions, while the version I have is a 80-page book covering 20 questions (and, frankly, I was able to knock it out while waiting for my in-clinic sleep study). However, I went ahead and added it over on LT, so being the OCD-driven maniac that I am, I'm going ahead with grinding out a review.

As you might assume from the title, this is primarily a bunch of common questions about sleep apnea being discussed at various lengths (from a few sentences to a few pages). Sleep apnea is one of those “newer” diseases, having first been officially identified/defined in the 1950, although its first appellation was “Pickwickian Syndrome”, based on the description of the (very public) sleeping patterns of a character in Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers.

Initially treatment for this was rather invasive … involving tracheostomy (putting a hole in the windpipe past the point of obstruction … which couldn't have been particularly popular. However, in 1981 the “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP) approach was developed, with a machine that pumps air past the point where, in sleep apnea, the base of the tongue presses against the soft palate, closing off the airway, keeping that channel open.

The core issue in sleep apnea is that when the base of the tongue relaxes against the soft palate, you can't get air … and as the CO2 raises in the blood stream, the brain starts sending out signals to get some oxygen in … waking up the sleeper. According to the author, 15-20 million people in the US suffer from this to some extent, and it ends up causing a whole array of health issues: cardiovascular (high blood pressure), metabolic (diabetes), and psychological (depression), let alone the mental strain of having frequently interrupted REM sleep. Of course, the snoring, gasping, aspects of the sleep apnea sufferer trying to get some oxygen also effects their partners … I'd been long exiled to the living room for sleeping, due to “snoring like a 747 on take-off” so that my wife could get some sleep.

I'd never suspected just how bad I had this … it turned out that I was waking up 58.6 times an hour before getting the CPAP machine, and since I've been using it (just a week or so at this point), that number has dropped to under 1 time per hour. Needless to say, the former number would indicate that I was getting no meaningful sleep, and probably had not had any noticeable REM sleep (or dreams) in a very long time.

There were some interesting bits and pieces in here … like the “STOP” guide for determining if one might have sleep apnea:

      S - Do you Snore loudly?
      T - Do you often feel Tired, fatigued, or sleepy during the daytime?
      O - Has anybody Observed you stop breathing during your sleep?
      P - Do you have or are you being treated for high blood Pressure?

Of course, in the span of 20 questions, not everything's going to be covered, but this book (and I assume the non-abridged 100-question version moreso) does a good job of walking the reader from basic questions about recognizing the problem, defining the processes/symptoms, introducing the concepts around the CPAP machine, and answering key queries related to issues that might arise.

I feel fortunate that I've taken to this with little difficulty (I'm still finding myself having to get back up when I realize that I forgot to fill the reservoir for the built-in humidifier, but I assume that this will eventually become a “bed-time habit”), and look forward to the benefits (energy, weight loss, etc.) that everybody tells me comes with using the machine.

Again, the copy I have is a freebie from the clinic's literature rack, but the author's more extensive look at Questions & Answers About Sleep Apnea is still in print and available via the on-line big boys, and used copies can be had for as little as a penny plus shipping. If you or your partner have some of the red flags around sleep apnea, you might want to pick up a copy of this to familiarize yourself with the symptoms, hazards, and treatments.

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Sunday, October 11th, 2015
11:21 am
Debates on freedom ...
One of the truly awesome things about the neighborhood I've lived in for 40 years in downtown Chicago is the presence of the Newberry Library, a research institution with a global reputation (for instance, the “originals” of the Popul Vuh reside in their collection), which has a great love of books and free speech. These interests come together every summer in the concurrent events of the 4-day Book Fair, and (on Saturday) the Bughouse Square Debates (this coming from the nickname of Washington Square park in front of the Newberry). “Bughouse Square” has a long an colorful history, being a major “speakers corner” for the labor movement (and others … including the characters in the famed Dill Pickle Club, a half-block down an alley from it) in the early 1900's, and today it is supposedly the only place in Chicago where one can host a protest without a permit – the only requirement being that the speaker is on a raised platform, even if that is simply “a soapbox” (hence that usage). The debates feature a “main stage” with guest speakers, but also a half-dozed “soapbox” stages set around the park where anybody can get up and speak their piece to the (often heckling) crowds.

One of the annual features is the awarding of the the John Peter Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award, named for former Illinois Governor J.P. Altgeld who served from 1893-1897 and is best known for pardoning three of the Haymarket convicted bombers, and resisting the Federal government's efforts to crush the Pullman Strike. This summer, the award went to author Wendy Kaminer, an unusual selection in that she's not local. As part of the award presentation, the recipient gives a talk, and I was sufficiently impressed that I was wanting to check out some of her stuff, and found a copy of her 2002 Free for All: Defending Liberty in America Today.

Ms. Kaminer is a former ACLU board member, and that organization's “better angels” are exhibited in this book. While I had sort of been hoping for a Libertarian screed, what Free for All features is more a “pox on both your houses” middle ground, with fingers wagging at both the Left and the Right, the Democrats and Republicans, and the Bush and Clinton administrations. As is the case in books dealing with “issues of the day”, much of this seems almost amusingly dated (there is a lot of indignation being thrown at names that I'd not had run through my head in a very long time), and this book is collection of columns that were published primarily in liberal bastion The American Prospect (with some from Free Inquiry, The Nation, Dissent, and The New York Times) in the years 1999-2002. Needless to say, talking about liberty in relation to terrorism had a different palette prior to 9/11/2001 than after, and she notes that she edited some material here to reflect the changes brought on by those attacks.

Frankly, as this is largely a philosophical look at our freedoms, the “collection of columns” format weakens the book as a whole … while an Ann Coulter is perfectly effective when pulling together thematically similar rants into a book, this feels a bit disjointed, and that's certainly not helped by jumping around within its timeframe. It is also topically a bit spread out, addressing 10 different areas, with some getting as few as just two columns, and others eleven. There are two sections on national security issues (“Homeland Offense”, the two “bookending” this, starting with a “post-9/11” group of columns and ending with a “pre-9/11” set of pieces), one on public/private privacy dynamics, an extensive section on free speech, issues around religion, issues on law & order, two sections on “women's issues” (one “rights” and one “wrongs”), and two looks at “anti-individualism”, one being offenses of the Left, and the other of the Right.

As you might suspect, this is not a particularly uplifting read, as it primarily is an exposition of how our rights and freedoms are getting abused … and this is before the excesses of the current POTUS and his out-of-control administration. Personally, from a perspective of the recent “pen wielding” disregard of the rule of law over the past several years, many of the issues fulminated over in here seem downright quaint.

Anyway, the author somewhat sets up her perspective in the Introduction:
      America's disloyalty to liberty is disheartening but predictable. Liberty leashes power and, right and left, people who find themselves in possession of power tend to resist restraints upon its use. Cynics don't care if they abuse power to advance their own interests; people who take pride in their own virtue generally manage to convince themselves that they exercise power virtuously (even when they exercise it harshly) to serve the public good. Powerful people convinced of their own goodness are as dangerous to individual liberty as powerful people for whom goodness is irrelevant.
One of the pieces here, “Toxic Media”, deals with the “big issue” (in 2000) of violence in games and shows, and the uproar of how this is targeted to children. When was the last time you saw hand-wringing over that on the Sunday morning talk shows? Here's how Kaminer closes out this piece, which I think does present some solid “philosophical” points that arise out of this:
      It's unfortunate and ironic that amoral corporations, like Disney or Time/Warner, stand as champions and beneficiaries of First Amendment rights. As gatekeepers of the culture, they're not exactly committed to maintaining an open, diverse marketplace of ideas. Indeed, de facto censorship engineered by media conglomerates may threaten public discourse nearly as much as federal regulation. And, gratuitously violent media enriches neither our discourse nor our culture.
      But speech doesn't have to provide cultural enrichment to enjoy constitutional protection. We don't need a First Amendment to protect popular, inoffensive speech or speech that a majority of people believe has social value. We need it to protect speech that Lynn Cheney or Joe Lieberman considers demeaning and degrading. Censorship campaigns often begin with a drive to protect children (or women), but they rarely end there.
One topic that is “up to the minute” is that of gun rights … and the author makes several very good points in the “Gun Shy” piece (the following is pulled from a couple of pages with about 2.5 paragraphs – that I felt was somewhat peripheral to the main argument – skipped):
      Gun sales are said to have increased dramatically after September 11, to the bemusement of some who point out that guns won't protect us from terrorists armed with viruses or nuclear bombs. Still, it's long been clear that many Americans feel reassured by firearms, and if you fear the civil disorder that further attacks might bring, the desire for a gun is not entirely irrational.
      So, it's not surprising that people might assert their rights to own guns while they cede less controversial rights to privacy or speech by embracing electronic surveillance or supporting repression of dissent. It's debatable whether an increase in gun purchases will protect or endanger them. Armed with studies and statistics, advocates and academics on both sides of the gun debate argue about whether gun ownership deters and successfully interrupts violent crime or simply increases the chances of any assault becoming deadly, as well as overall levels of violence. People often choose sides in this debate reflexively (your views on gun control signal your position in the culture war), but questions about the practical effects of gun ownership aren't easily resolved. …
      Constitutional scholars and historians right and left have been engaged in a lively debate about Second Amendment rights for some years. But outside the pages of law reviews, liberals tend to embrace gun control and scoff at the Second Amendment, asserting that it only ensures the power of the states or the collective right of “the people” to organize armed militias. The trouble is that the Bill of Rights was intended to empower individuals, not groups (and certainly not governments). It was intended to restrain organized majorities, not to arm them. Indeed, most liberal civil libertarians adamantly construe the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth amendments as grants of individual rights. (They'd construe the Third Amendment similarly if the government ever tried forcing us to quarter troops.) Still, they perversely single out the Second Amendment as a grant of collective rights, mostly because of a cultural aversion to guns. Liberals tend to disdain the right to own a gun the way conservatives disdain the right to read pornography.
This is one of the most clear statements on the gun debate I've seen (certainly more nuanced than the popular “What part of 'shall not be infringed' don't you understand?”), and it's, if anything, a more key debate in 2015 than it was in 2002!

Again, Free for All is a bit dated, but the discussions of our rights and freedoms within the contexts of some now “historical” debates is worth reading. As a testament to that, it is still in print in paperback, so might be out there in the brick-and-mortar book world, but the on-line big boys have it in stock and the new/used guys have it for as little as 1¢ (plus shipping) for a “very good” copy.

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Friday, October 2nd, 2015
3:33 pm
Falling asleep in the sun ...
This is another book from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, and, unfortunately, after a string of quite good selections from LTER, this one is definitely back in the “meh” category. As you may recall, I also write a blog for the Chicago Tribune's “ChicagoNow” blogging platform, called Green Tech Chicago, so I keep an eye out for a lot of renewable energy stories, and I've come to expect a certain level of … well, interesting … which isn't front-and-center in Philip Warburg's Harness the Sun: America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future. Since finishing reading this, I've been trying to “put my finger on” what specifically I found unappealing with it, and I think I've finally figured that out. In most material on “green energy”, there's a forward-looking aspect which promises great things in the future, often over-blown gee-whiz stuff, but hooks to get you excited about what's being discussed. This is true from GenIV reactors to mustard plants as a oil source, to tidal turbines, to solar satellites, etc. Those stories grip the imagination and pull you in to the tech involved. Not so much here.

For something subtitled “America's Quest for a Solar-Powered Future” (there I go again with taking exception with a book's subtitle), there's very little “future” focus here. Frankly, this reads like a series of very serious, diligently researched, but ultimately uninspiring newspaper stories … if not a collection of excerpts from quarterly reports from various industry players. The ten chapters here look at different applications of solar technology – as it's presently implemented – and anchors the stories by featuring individuals involved in those businesses. If this was a series of “investigative journalism” pieces on “the state of solar”, it would sort of make sense, but in this context they're just (to me at least) awfully bland.

Now, I will admit that I've probably read more about this stuff than most folks have, so things that are “new and exciting” to me are pretty thin here. I ended up with just two little bookmarks stuck in the book … albeit one of them highlighting a fascinating system of using molten salt (a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate) to store heat:
Heated to more that 1,000 F, the molten salt flows in large steel collector pipes down to the base of the concrete tower. From there it can be channeled to a heat exchanger that uses the captured energy to create steam for a power-generating turbine – if there's an immediate demand for electricity. Alternatively, there super-heated fluid can be pumped into a 3.6 million gallon stainless-steel storage tank just few dozen feet from the tower.
And the tower in question is an indication on how huge that project, Crescent Dunes, is … it's as big as a 50-story building and stands at the center of 17,500 mirrors, each of which is about 140 square yards in size. I only wish there was that much “cool stuff” to note from every site the author visited.

Frankly, this might have been intentionally boring, as in the note sent out by the publisher with it, they say it's a pragmatic report on the current state of affairs, which would explain why there's so much stuff in here on government regulations (and give-aways by the current administration), supply chain and manufacturing issues, conflicts between the “green energy” folks and various environmental organizations (a lot of these installations have had to go to great lengths to make sure a wide array of critters didn't get disrupted), and assorted international political concerns (even going so far to suggest that having cheap Chinese solar panels destroy the American solar industry might be a good thing because it would accelerate the installed base of solar energy).

It could also be the case that the book just didn't appeal to me because its author is very likely the sort that I would dislike in person … he's an attorney, a “community organizer” (like somebody else I can't stand), has worked for various governmental entities, and has been a lawyer for a handful of Environmental NGOs … this is not a resume that speaks of “vision” – a Peter Diamandis he's not. If the phrase “written by a lawyer” has the same icky negative vibe for you as it does for me … you'll get the sense of what I see as wrong with Harness the Sun.

On the other hand, the material here is certainly well-researched, with a couple of dozen of pages of small-type footnotes supporting his arguments and assertions, and he includes a “selected bibliography” with over a hundred documents. If you wanted to have a “snapshot” of the solar industry today (it just came out a few weeks ago, so I'm guessing the info is as current as possible), this will give it to you. But … it's not exactly gripping. Perhaps tellingly, even though this is brand new, the on-line big boys have it at a substantial discount, and the new/used vendors have new copies going for about 10% of the cover price. If you are looking for an overview of the solar industry, this is the book for you … as it is an extensive look at pretty much all the types of operations in place in the US … but if you're looking for something to get excited about, maybe not.

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Thursday, October 1st, 2015
2:36 pm
Let the buyer beware ...
OK, so this may end up being one of those reviews which is more about my reactions to things around the book rather than the book itself. I had run into a mention of Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton's Now, Discover Your Strengths (the odd formation of the title serves to imply that it's a follow-up to their previous First, Break All The Rules) in some other book I was reading (don't recall what that was at this point), and it sounded like a very useful read, as it offers the promise of helping me discover and focus on my strengths. So, as is my wont, I scurried over to Amazon and ordered a used copy … no problem, right? WRONG! It turns out that the on-line assessment associated with the book involves a code (printed inside the dust jacket) that can only be used once, and evidently one of the previous owners of my copy had done the quiz and I was S.O.L.

Now, the core element here is THE ASSESSMENT … “you can't tell the players without the program” and all … and they (in this case “they” appears to be the Gallup organization) are selling these for as much as a new copy of the book about their “StrengthsFinder” … and that will only give you your top five (out of 34 “strengths”) – if you want to see the rest of the rankings, it will cost you five times as much. Needless to say, I'm not going to shell out $90 for that info, and, frankly, just getting the top five (although, admittedly, the cover, in rather small print, only promises “your top 5”) seems like a gyp even if the code was working. I sent in a request to get a usable code (noting that I was going to be reviewing the book) and got ZERO response … which further pissed me off.

I'm hardly the only one in this situation … there's a rather interesting blog out there which both addresses this, and has a long run of comments bitching about it. The blogger has the suggestion that “If you’re honest with yourself, you can achieve accurate results by self-reporting.”, and points folks to a form which lists the 34 strengths and lets you rank them to come up with your own list. Frankly, out of the 34, I probably wasn't saying “yuck!” to only 6 or 7, so I was able to narrow down the field quite a bit … but this lacks the precision that having the actual quiz's dynamics involved.

So, on one hand I was angry for not being able to approach the book as it was intended, and on the other, a bit embarrassed that I'd once again fallen on the landmine of buying used books (with on-line components – more often an issue of stuff being “404” than being invalid, but still) … however, six and a half years without a regular paycheck makes the odds of my paying retail for something like this pretty damn slim.

You might expect that I'd just throw some curses at the authors, their organization, their publisher, and the horse they rode in on, give you the broadstrokes about what the book's about, and wash my hands of it. But …

The research involved here is pretty damn impressive. The Gallup Organization had done a thirty year (as of the time of the book's release in 2001 – I don't know if it's been on-going since) “systematic study of excellence wherever we could find it”, involving over two million interviews consisting of “open-ended questions”. Out of this massive amount of data they started to find “themes”, which eventually became the 34 “strengths” presented in this book – Achiever, Activator, Adaptability, Analytical, Arranger, Belief, Command, Communication, Competition, Connectedness, Context, Deliberative, Developer, Discipline, Empathy, Fairness, Focus, Futuristic, Harmony, Ideation, Inclusiveness, Individualization, Input, Intellection, Learner, Maximizer, Positivity, Relator, Responsibility, Restorative, Self-Assurance, Significance, Strategic, and "Woo" (which they say stands for "Winning Others Over", but could be just as well taken in the sense of "wooing").

One of the interesting things here is that they go against the “business as usual” concept of spending a lot of time, effort, and money on trying to “fix” one's weaknesses … here it's argued that this is, generally speaking, a waste, and we'd be much better served by focusing on honing our strengths. These are based on what they're referring to as “talents”, which are defined in the analysis of the study as “Talent is any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”, with the emphasis on the any, as even some less-than-positive/helpful patterns can be framed as talents if they can be productively applied.
What creates in you these recurring patterns? If you don't much care for your patterns, can you stitch a new design? The answers to these questions are (a) your recurring patterns are created by the connections in your brain; and (b) no, beyond a certain age you are not going to be able to stitch a completely new design – your talents are enduring.

Your talents, your strongest synaptic connections, are the most important raw material for strength building. Identify your most powerful talents, hone them with skills and knowledge, and you will be well on you way to living the strong life.
The authors are pretty adamant that these things are hard-wired in our brains, and that going against what's in there is pretty much like Heinlein's classic line about “teaching a pig to sing”. However, there are inner signals that let you figure out where those talents lie … “Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning, and satisfactions will all help you detect the traces of your talents.”

The middle section of the book is simply a walk-through of the 34 “themes”, each with just a single page, featuring a descriptive paragraph and 2-5 examples (framed as “X sounds like this:”) featuring people from the study who fit that theme, with their relating something key to the concept. As noted above, reading through these does give one a fairly good idea of what are “your strengths”, as they prompted a “eww, that's not me reaction over and over again, except for where they didn't.

Again, without having the actual on-line test to go from, there was an irritating vagueness to this all. The listing of the strengths is followed by a rather interesting section called “The Questions You're Asking” which was pretty informative, if not including my #1 question: why can't I take the damn assessment?!. The next part is another 1-page-per look at “How To Manage A Person Strong In X”, each with a half-dozen or so bullet points with fairly specific suggestions of working with that particular type of person.

The penultimate part of this got the majority of my little bookmarks, “Building A Strengths-Based Organization”, which advances the authors' iconoclastic stance towards balancing strengths and weaknesses. One thing I found fascinating (given my own long job search) was:
Most employment advertisements loudly assert the need for certain skills, knowledge, and years of experience but remain mute on talent. It is ironic tha they itemize qualities they can change in a person while ignoring the ones they can't.
They include a number of additional assessment tools for managers, with lists of questions (“these questions were selected from a list of hundreds because, when worded in exactly this fashion (complete with qualifiers …), they predicted employee {behaviors}) to be used in working with staff. There are quite a few eye-opening data bits here, such as that eight out of ten employees are “miscast”, and that “job status” is more predictive than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure when it comes to heart attacks!

Now, Discover Your Strengths concludes with a technical appendix on the methodology, etc. of the research involved in developing the StrengthsFinder, which also includes some intriguing statistics on how various demographic categories differed (or didn't) in the results.

Obviously, it's hard for me to recommend this book via the used channels, since you can't take the actual test, but I'm not sure I liked it well enough to say “hey, money be damned” and saying it's worth paying retail for. If you're interested in this sort of thing as a philosophical discussion of types, sure, spending 1¢ (plus shipping) will get you a very interesting read about the work Gallup's done in this area … but they're hell-bent on wringing every dollar out of organizations (who are the main target of this book), and aren't going to cut the people who might be trying to better themselves (again, check out some of the comments on that blog post … some angry people out there!) any slack in the pursuit of that lucre. It's fascinating, but feels real sleazy once you've been jilted.

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Sunday, September 20th, 2015
11:35 am
This is why Jefferson wrote of separation* ...
Geez … I sure picked a swell time to have pulled Mike Huckabee's A Simple Government: Twelve Things We Really Need from Washington (and a Trillion That We Don't!) out of the to-be-read piles (where it had been lingering since I grabbed a dollar store copy a year and half ago), didn't I? All the insanity around his support of that “won't do her job because of her beliefs” gal broke weeks after I got into this (honest!), and it really focused the problems I have with this book, and its author in general.

Now, let me apologize now if this ends up being more about my political philosophies and not so much about the book. There's so much more to write about Huckabee himself than what's in the book, frankly.

Huckabee is one of the clearest cases of where I have discomfort with my erstwhile allies on the conservative side of the political spectrum. His basic world-view (at least as expressed in A Simple Government has a certain “Mayberry”vibe to it … common-sense, Constitutionally-based, classic American populism … which does, admittedly have a “church-going” tinge to it in the many real-world examples across the country. What amazes me is that the religion never seems to get “educated out” of guys like Huckabee … it's like the water in his fishbowl, “just there” and never questioned. His arguments are typically of a Constitutional/common-sense (albeit not in the Paine sense of the latter!) vein, which I'm reading and agreeing with, until, suddenly he's justifying something or insisting on something, or whatever, based on some Christian (and not even biblical) basis, and I'm like “WTF, dude?!”.

It shocks me that he, and conservatives like him, don't see the dissonance in that. Of course, in Huckabee's case … he's been a fundamentalist from the get-go, having attended a Baptist college and getting a degree in religion, and then moving on to a Baptist theological seminary (which he dropped out of to go into Christian broadcasting). So, it's not like he was notably secular at any point in his life.

I, of course, am as deeply secular as anybody with as many religious credentials as I have (from Vajrayana Buddhism to tribal shamanic lineages, to assorted “western esoteric tradition” things, to even being a PK) could be, and have ZERO reference for how religion (or, more specifically, his particular brand of Baptism) permeates his life. The only parallel that I can sort of posit would be sports (although this is, admittedly, more “tribal” than “doctrinal”) and my emotional connection with the Bears and the Cubs is about as close as I can get.

So, it seems plainly bizarre to me that he can so fervently support somebody like Kim Davis, unless he truly believes that one's personal take on one's religion (because, in reality, there is precious little “anti-gay” material in the bible, but a lot of cultural anti-gay sentiment in the fundamentalist Christian traditions) over-rides the law of the land. And, from what I see in Googling a bit, Huckabee even feels that one's faith trumps the decisions of the Supreme Court. Yet, I don't suppose that he is in favor of Muslim women wearing burkas in their drivers license photos. And, in the latter case, the individual hasn't taken a job that they're not wanting to perform because of religious beliefs, so is arguably less of an affront to the system (although certainly not something that should be allowed). It's like if I were a bartender and I refused service to a Packers fan, just for being a cheesehead.

Anyway, this sort of thing pops its silly head up over and over again in a book which (were one to purge the religion from it) would be quite a reasonable political read.

One note on the book … it's yet another thing which came out during the last election cycle, looking at the current POTUS' first term and predicting (sadly, rather accurately) the horrors to come were said person given a second term … so, much of it is somewhat dated and forward-looking to things that have (or haven't) already happened.

A Simple Government is set up in 12 chapters, first about “Family Values” (making a point that the “most granular” level of governance is that in the family unit), then looking at a “Return to Local Government” (a very good idea), a look at managing budgets – comparing the state with the family budget, a look at taxation, a look at health care, a look at education, a look at environmental issues (which the author appears to be quite passionate about, but significantly argues that the Federal government is really bad at responding and really good at screwing things up), a look at immigration policy (and this was even before the insane policies of the current administration reached their present nadir), a look at terrorism, a consideration of our military policy, some discussion of America's place in the world, and a hopeful look ahead (again, written before the current POTUS had a chance to drive us further down his path of destruction in a second term).

I flagged a couple of bits that I thought were particularly sane in here, and figure I'll share this one:
... What if some stranger from the next town over came to your house one day and said he would take care of running your family for you if you gave him a certain amount of your income in exchange? You would have a say in the matter, but, oh wait, he'd also be in charge of a few other families – all different from yours – who would also get a vote. Would you trust him?
      My guess is you wouldn't. But this is what it's like at the federal level of government – a bunch of strangers take your tax dollars and figure out how best to put them to use. They don't know you, and they don't understand the needs of your community like you do. As a result, they set up programs and pass laws in an effort to please everyone (often pleasing no one), and you have very little say in what happens. And the bigger we allow our federal government to get, the worse the problem becomes.
      Every time Washington enacts a new law or mandate, you can be sure that the states, the private sector, and the people are left with less control over their destinies than they had the moment before that bill was signed. Politicians get so caught up in arguing the merits of a particular provision that we don't see the overall shift in power, especially when the bills are so large that we can't deal with their totality. Power is a zero-sum game. In other words, whenever the federal government accumulates more power, the state and the people inevitably lose some autonomy they previously had. Eventually, we can lose our way entirely.
There's a lot more “common sense” analysis of the various factors in play within the subjects under consideration in the assorted chapters, but this was at least a fairly contiguous block of material on this – that didn't shift into that (one's individual religious spin's) “faith trumps all” stuff (which, to be fair, is not pervasive through the text, but never far off-stage in the author's world-view).

Again, I might have had a somewhat different approach to reviewing this, had all that Kim Davis lunacy not cropped up in the past few weeks (and especially the author's championing the actions of somebody who is – in a secular view – clearly in the wrong). Will you want to read A Simple Government? If you're a gung-ho Christian (or Southern Baptist, or however further down the fundy rabbit-hole you care to go), with a conservative bent (ya think?), you'll no doubt love this book … but the farther apart from that demographic you are, the more you'll find stuff to be irritated with here. As noted at the top, I found this over at the dollar store about a year and a half ago, so it's been floating around out there for a while … I was rather surprised to see that it's still in print (in a paperback edition), but the hardcover is available from the on-line big boys' new/used channels for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping, of course) for a new copy. This is not one of those that “everybody needs to read”, but it's a solid common-sense look at how screwed up the government is (if you can ignore the preachiness).


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Saturday, September 19th, 2015
1:25 pm
Nice work if you can find it, I guess ...
It's probably a merciful thing that I've forgotten precisely what/who suggested that I check out Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun … I suspect that I read about it in some other book, as most folks who know me realize what an cantankerous, cynical, and generally pissed-off kinda guy I am, and would figure that this book and I were operating in wholly different universes. Frankly, for most of this book, I felt like Wednesday Addams being sent to the “Harmony Hut”, and wondering when it was going to end.

Speaking of divergent “worlds”, I try not to read reviews of books before I review them, but in this case I was trying to decide if I was going to buy a copy, and found a recurrent theme in the more negative reviews. I'm not one to toss around the “privileged” tag a lot (although being now 20 years separated from a six-figure income in my on-going entrepreneurial impoverishment, it's an occasional temptation), but the author lives in a pretty high-end niche, with concerns (or lacks thereof) unfamiliar to probably most readers. She's a former clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor, a former chief adviser to the chairman of the FCC, and a lecturer at Yale, while her husband is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution … so you can imagine what their income level is. At one point she cites a study that “suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for a person's daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise”. I have acquaintances who think making $35k/year is a princely sum and say that were they making (as little as) $50k/year they'd never bother with trying to better their positions! For these folks (and I think they're more common than not), “getting a $60,000 raise” is no more conceivable than having little green men walking out of a UFO to present the check … yet the author throws this out there like it's an everyday possibility in her world. So, understand that the “happiness” being addressed here is not including being relieved to keep the lights, cable, and internet on, make rent, and buy some groceries in any given month.

I found it somewhat ironic that, towards the end of this, Rubin reports reading a review of her project (which had been unfolding on a daily basis on a blog) to her husband, and noting it was being called “stunt journalism”. Given the inapplicability of her example to (what I assume to be) most readers, this is taking that to a “meta” level … all but admitting the “stunt” aspect of this within the actual body of the work. Of course, there is a wide variety of works that fall under that (obviously somewhat snide) label … from the sublime: Julie and Julia – to the somewhat ridiculous: The Guinea Pig Diaries (etc.) … with this falling somewhere in the middle.

So, with those caveats, on to The Happiness Project … this begins with her taking a crosstown bus in Manhattan on a rain-soaked day and seeing a person just like her, “trying simultaneously to balance an umbrella, look at her cell phone, and push a stroller”. She notes:
I wasn't depressed and I wasn't having a midlife crisis, but I was suffering from midlife malaise – a recurrent sense of discontent and almost a feeling of disbelief.
Amusingly, she relates this to the Talking Heads' song “Once In A Lifetime”, specifically citing the line “This is not my beautiful house.”, and then adds:
All these thoughts flooded through my mind, and as I sat on that crowded bus, I grasped two things: I wasn't as happy as I could be, and my life wasn't going to change unless I made it change.
{Yeah, cue the tiny violins.} She jumped into doing research on “happiness”, and started spinning out materials, a “scoring chart” based on that used by Ben Franklin, a list of categories and sub-categories (which became the basic structure of the book), a list of her own “Twelve Commandments”, and what she calls the “Secrets of Adulthood” (among other lists of stuff), drawn from a wide array of sources.

Now, I really didn't sync with much stuff in here, so my little bookmarks of “choice bits” are few and not particularly illustrative, so I'm thinking the most useful way of presenting what's in the book is to fall back on giving you an “outline”. The project was designed from the start as a year's enterprise, so is broken up by months, each month tackling a different area, with its own specifics, and action points. Here goes:

      January – Boost Energy – Vitality
            - Go to sleep earlier.
            - Exercise better.
            - Toss, restore, organize.
            - Tackle a nagging task.
            - Act more energetic.
      February – Remember Love – Marriage
            - Quit nagging.
            - Don't expect praise or appreciation.
            - Fight right.
            - No dumping.
            - Give proofs of love.
      March – Aim Higher – Work
            - Launch a blog.
            - Enjoy the fun of failure.
            - Ask for help.
            - Work smart.
            - Enjoy now.
      April – Lighten Up – Parenthood
            - Sing in the morning.
            - Acknowledge the reality of people's feelings.
            - Be a treasure house of happy memories
            - Take time for projects.
      May – Be Serious About Play – Leisure
            - Find more fun.
            - Take time to be silly.
            - Go off the path.
            - Start a collection.
      June – Make Time for Friends – Friendship
            - Remember birthdays.
            - Be generous.
            - Show up.
            - Don't gossip.
            - Make three new friends.
      July – Buy Some Happiness – Money
            - Indulge in a modest splurge.
            - Buy needful things.
            - Spend out.
            - Give something up.
      August – Contemplate the Heavens – Eternity
            - Read memoirs of catastrophe.
            - Keep a gratitude notebook.
            - Imitate a spiritual master.
      September – Pursue a Passion – Books
            - Write a novel.
            - Make time.
            - Forget about results.
            - Master a new technology.
      October – Pay Attention – Mindfulness
            - Meditate on koans.
            - Examine True Rules.
            - Stimulate the mind in new ways.
            - Keep a food diary.
      November – Keep a Contented Heart – Attitude
            - Laugh out loud.
            - Use good manners.
            - Give positive reviews.
            - Find an area of refuge.
      December – Boot Camp Perfect – Happiness
            - Boot Camp Perfect

One element that I found to be mixed at best was her inclusion of comments from her blog about these various items. These range from the vaguely interesting to the totally pointless … to the extent that I began to wonder if some were selected to simply be a shout-out to her favorite followers (although anonymously). Also, as self-focused as the book is, she indulges in a lot of “before” descriptions … and the over-all take-away is that she was not the most pleasant person to be around … she details a lot of ways she was one of those folks one tries hard to avoid in a social setting (hey, she was a lawyer, I guess it goes with the territory).

To hit some “highlights” … in January's “Toss, restore, organize.” it turns out that she's a maniac for throwing stuff out … she even talks about badgering her friends to let her come over and clean out their closets. In February's “Quit nagging.” it becomes pretty evident that this was a particular item she had to pay attention to. One has to figure when she starts out March with “Launch a blog.”, she's talking about her situation, as blogging is not something that I'd recommend to all and sundry! Admittedly, she does frequently note that this is “her stuff” and that other folks need to figure out what's going to support their happiness, but a lot of this still comes across as “dictates” from on high. April's “Sing in the morning.” really reflects her having two young daughters (ages seven and one) when writing this … I'm not sure that the same strategies would work with a surly 15-year-old. You'd think that somebody who was such an anti-clutter person wouldn't come up with May's “Start a collection.”, but she makes an exception, and recommends that everybody have one “junk drawer” and one empty shelf. In June's “Don't gossip.” Rubin tells more tales on herself, as this appears to have been a favorite activity for her at one point. One of the odder concepts here is July's “Spend out.”, which is both related to giving/spending without expectation of return, and “using the good stuff” (be that napkins or perfume). One of the points that has widest applicability is August's “Keep a gratitude notebook.”, which is pretty self-explanatory, and a very good idea. One that is hardly “for everybody” is September's “Write a novel.” … which starts out with somebody introducing her to NaNoWriMo. October's “Meditate on koans.” isn't quite as doctrinally Zen as one might expect (hope), as she notes having her own file of koan-like phrases from literature that she seems to prefer than the classics. November's “Give positive reviews.” isn't just trying to be a Jedi mind trick on people like me, but is more admission on her part that she always was trying to “look smart” by tearing things down. Her “Boot Camp Perfect.” in December was simply trying to do ALL these things all the time … which I guess worked better than one might think.

Needless to say, The Happiness Project was not the book for me, but I guess it (and the author's web site, and podcast, and articles in various outlets) is wildly popular with other sorts of people. If I was going to be really sarcastic, I'd suggest that the subtitle of this is “how a millionaire managed to minimize her ennui and call that being happy”, but then that wouldn't let her name-check Aristotle and play up her Ivy League education, would it?

Since this does have its audience, it's still in print (in the hardcover, no less), and the on-line big boys have it at about a quarter off of its relatively hefty cover price. Fortunately (and, trust me, this is how I got it), the new/used guys have “like new” copies for a penny (plus shipping, of course). There were parts of this that I liked, but the “Eloise at The Plaza” vibe became frequently irritating. However, since I'm a cranky old guy who hates self-improvement books … “your mileage may vary”.

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Friday, September 11th, 2015
1:07 pm
Again ...
9/11You know, it really feels like "we've lost".

The current POTUS and his execrable administration sure seem to be "playing on the other team" and doing everything in their power to make the U.S.A. less safe, less unified, less sane; while giving every advantage to those who want to see us destroyed, and living under the dystopian nightmare of a Global Caliphate.

It's disgusting how the "secular left" has bought in on this, supporting the POTUS because of his drive for Soviet-era Communism (see this). Certainly the "hippies", the LGBT supporters, and the hard secularists (which, admittedly, I'm amongst, albeit from the other side of the political spectrum) will be the first targeted for beheading, etc., by the POTUS's friends in ISIL, the Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It's amazing to think that just 14 years past the 9/11 attacks, that we, as a nation, would be kneeling before the forces of Islamic Extremism ... unwilling to call self-confessed Jihadists terrorists, unwilling to block evil nations from becoming nuclear threats to us and our allies, unwilling to "call a spade a spade" when it comes to the source of these threats.

I doubt we'd be this dire place had Romney won the last election.

If we survive the current insanity, and end up the ones writing the histories (as opposed to that Global Caliphate), the mis-rule of the current POTUS will be marked as the darkest period in our nation's history ... when one man, and his vile co-conspirators on the Left, sought to destroy everything that has made this country great.

There is not enough bad in this world to be enough to wish upon that person's head (and those of his disgusting cabal) .

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Monday, September 7th, 2015
9:56 am
Woke up in a Soho doorway, a policeman knew my name ...
Well, that was enjoyable … this is yet another great read showing up in my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program – not something that's “a given” in LTER, as there have been a lot of clunkers over the years – but this one was both informative and entertaining, and engaging throughout. The only “whuh?” element here was that it's not “new”, really … but the paperback version (officially coming out next week). I'm guessing that the hardcover of this was offered via LTER last year, as there are a whole bunch of reviews up for it already. This is Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity – What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves by Christian Rudder, the co-founder and in-house data wonk for the OkCupid dating site. I'm assuming that this (coming out only a year later) is substantially the same as the hardcover, but this is coming out with a new subtitle [previously: “Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)”], which always makes me wonder if there's been an update between the versions.

On one level, this is a bit of a “morality tale”, sort of in the mode of Ryan Holliday's Trust Me, I'm Lying (although in a much less sleazy milieu), where a master of a “dark art” comes clean about it, and tries to make amends. Unlike Holiday's “gaming” dang near the entire information infrastructure, here Rudder is talking about data … and how it can look into our lives … and eventually he ends up wringing his hands a bit (and noting that he does very little “social media”, won't post pictures of his family, etc., in an effort to minimize how transparent his life is to the algorithms churning through that data) at how even with the slightest digital “trail of breadcrumbs”, the number crunchers can find out remarkably accurate and personal information – typified by the story of how Target, by analyzing the shopping patterns of a teen girl, knew she was pregnant (and started sending out pregnancy-related fliers) before her family did … or, more unsettling, the patent that Amazon has taken out for an “anticipatory shipping” system that will send out products that its analysis of the data indicates that you need/want, before you even order them. However, that's sort of jumping to the end of the story here … the book is NOT a doom-and-gloom “the computers are going to rule us” dystopian tale, but a look from the inside of how all that stuff works … although the cautionary element is certainly hovering over the book in its name – a portmanteau mashing up “data” with “cataclysm” – which echoes one mind-blowing factoid he has in here: as long ago as 2012, Facebook was collecting 500 terabytes of information every day!

Dataclysm is set up in three parts, “What Brings Us Together”, “What Pulls Us Apart”, and “What Makes Us Who We Are”, each with 4-5 chapters looking at specific elements thereof. It starts with the basics, gathering the data. Early on he puts up a caveat, true for most data sets involved (in academic studies), which have a tendency to be based on white American college kids … he adds:
I understand how it happens: in person, getting a real representative data set is often more difficult than the actual experiment you'd like to perform. You're a professor or postdoc who wants to push forward, so you take what's called a “convenience sample” – and that means the students at your university. But it's a big problem, especially when you're researching belief and behavior. It even has a name. It's called WEIRD research: white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. And most published social research papers are WEIRD.
He adds in a footnote, from an article in Slate, that this profile only represents about 12% of the world's population, and differs from the others in “moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception”. While it's not exactly a case of GIGO, it certainly warns that when trying to extrapolate WEIRD data to a global model, you're probably going to be off from the start.

There is a lot of humor in this book … an entertaining review could be whipped up by just repeating the jokes … while this is tempting, I'll try to limit myself to a few choice ones. One that stood out sufficiently that it got its own little bookmark when I was going through this, was an odd footnote which reads: “* Definition of true ignorance: getting your "what the kids are into" intel from the Securities and Exchange Commission” … OK, so standing on its own isn't quite the self-depreciating gut-buster it ought to be, so I'll have to “explain the joke” (trust me, I have a lot of experience in having to do this). This is at the very start of the “Writing on the Wall” chapter, which starts out talking about home-sickness among troops a century or more ago … noting that “in the American Civil War nostalgia was such a problem it put some 5,000 troops out of action, and 74 men died of it”, and then suggesting that the best scientists of 1863, on “either side of the Potomac”, were furiously working “to develop the ultimate war-ending superweapon: high school yearbooks” (assuming that this “cures” nostalgia). He asks if they still have high school yearbooks, what with Facebook around … but then points out that in a recent FB quarterly report (hence the SEC angle) they noted a drop in use among the under-18 crowd, possibly requiring the printed book again. Yeah, it's funnier when you're reading through it.

This, however, sets up the issue of writing … in less than a generation, kids are writing vastly more than any of their predecessor demographics ever imagined. Rudder cuts to the chase in terms of internet writing, and focuses on Twitter … writing 140 characters at a time. Many commentators have bewailed how the web was going to destroy the language, and that we'd lose the use of longer, more sophisticated words. Here the author compares Twitter's list of most commonly used words with that of the Oxford English Corpus (all 2.5 billion words) … in each case, the top 100 words are considered, which makes up half the writing. Counter-intuitively, the Twitter list has an average word length significantly longer than the OEC's … 4.3 characters vs 3.4 (yes, there are a whole bunch of 2-3 letter words on those lists) … and what's even more remarkable is that the average word length of something like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, clocks in at a shorter word length than a similar word-count sample from Twitter (3.99 vs 4.80 – and that's with the @'s and #'s stripped out of the Twitter numbers). Another amazing source of data is Google Books, which has so far digitized over 30 million books, going back as far as 1800. Using that data all sorts of interesting things can be tracked, for instance, there's a fascinating graph in here which looks at mentions of food items … things like “steak” or “sausage” go back to 1800, but the “winner” (currently peaking at over 8 mentions per million words) is “pizza”, despite not noticeably appearing in the data until the 1940s.

Rudder similarly goes into the OkCupid data to see how message length relates to getting responses (which, after all, is the point on a dating site), and then flips into looking at “social graphs” (he uses examples of his own, plus his with his wife's data combined). To get an idea of how these look, check out a post I did when LinkedIn was discontinuing its cool (but no doubt resource draining) “inMaps”, where I included a copy of my (final) LinkedIn map. These can be very predictive, working in part off of Milgram's famous “six degrees” experiments. The author cites studies which show how couples' relationship longevity can be quite accurately predicted by how these combined maps develop.

Obviously, one of the biggest “big dogs” on the data end of the Internet is Google:
Google has become a repository for humanity's collective id. It hears our confessions, our concerns, our secrets. It's doctor, priest, psychiatrist, confidante, and above all, Google doesn't have to ask us a thing, because the question is always implied in the blank space of the interface. … What a person searches for often gives you the person himself.
An amazing example of how this “works” is that researchers using the Google Trends tool have been able to “track epidemics of flu and dengue fever in real time”, which has developed into “Google Flu”, which follows searches for symptoms and remedies, and reports the trends to the CDC.

Going back to the OkCupid data, Rudder describes doing analysis on profile text … and brings up a remarkable mathematical entity called Zipf's Law:
{The} counterintuitive relationship between the popularity of a word (it's rank in a given vocabulary) and the number of times it appears is described by something called Zipf's law, an observed statistical property of language that, like so much of the best math, lies somewhere between miracle and coincidence. It states that in any large body of text, a word's popularity (its place in the lexicon, with 1 being the highest ranking) multiplied by the number of times it shows up, is the same for every word in the text. Or, very elegantly: rank x number = constant … This law holds for the Bible, the collected lyrics of '60s pop songs, and the canonical corpus of English literature … and it certainly holds for profile text.
He then presents a table with words ranked from 10 in various steps down to 29,055 out of James Joyce's Ulysses (to pick an example of “highly idiosyncratic” language) … the “constant” here does vary somewhat, but are pretty close to a common number. One of the things he is able to do with this is to make comparative charts of how frequently words appear in different groups' profiles. The example he starts with is comparing the word rankings of “white men” with “everybody else”, with the first few words being “the”, “pizza”, and (the band) “Phish”. There's a diagonal which is the “common” line, and, not surprisingly, “the” and “pizza” are both on that line, and way up in the top/top corner. However, “Phish” is about 80% up on the “white men” side, and only about 30% over towards the “everybody else” side. He then adds another dozen or so words, with things like “orange” and “rollercoaster” showing up on the diagonal, and “snowmobiling” at about 0% for “everybody else” and around 60% for white men (on the other hand “Kpop” - Korean Pop, ends up at about 0% for white guys). He then starts breaking these down into various racial groups, with both men and women, and finds rather surprising stuff … “{These lists} are our shibboleths. As such they are something no one could generate a priori, by typing things into Google Trends or by searching millions of hashtags. Sometimes, it takes a blind algorithm to really see the data.”

One final amazing thing he holds for last here … it's called “Parsons code” and it's the engine that enables the Shazam app to recognize music from very small samples … “... almost any piece of music can be identified by the up/down pattern in the melody – you can ignore everything else: key, rhythm, lyrics, arrangement … To know the song, you just need a map of the notes' rise and fall. This melodic contour is called the song's Parsons code, named for the musicologist who developed it in the 1970s.” this is a string of letters, U for melody up, D for melody down, and R for repeated note … he charts out “Happy Birthday” and “Yesterday” for examples. His closing paragraph is:
Like an app straining for a song, data science is about finding patterns. Time after time I – and many other people doing work like me – have had to devise methods, structures, even shortcuts to find the signal amidst the noise. We're all looking for our own Parsons code. Something so simple and yet so powerful is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, but luckily there are a lot of lifetimes out there.
Again, Dataclysm was a delight, full of “I did not know that!” moments, entertaining stories, and some sobering realities. The paperback is just coming out in a few days, and right now the big boys have it for pre-order at a 45% discount (and this is evidently popular enough that used copies of the hardcover edition are still more expensive than the discounted rate on the new paperback). If you're a “web denizen” like me, or a math geek, or somebody interested in digging behind the surface of social realities, you will really enjoy this book. Highly recommended!

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Sunday, September 6th, 2015
11:12 am
"How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore ..."
I, frankly, don't recall how J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún got into my to-be-read piles, as it has been floating around there for a very long time. I suspect that this was a dollar store find (although it's missing the marker swipe that most of those feature to signify a cut-out, as well as the register receipt that I'd typically stick in the back pages), but I can't imagine that I ordered it on-line (it's a bit obscure in relation to most of my reading), unless it was in one of those infrequent binges I have with a B&N clearance (which do tend to spark some “oh, heck, that looks interesting” pig-in-a-poke acquisitions). Anyway, this has been trying to insert itself into my reading stream for at least a couple of years, and managed to find both a slot where I was in a Monty Python-esque “and now for something Completely Different ...” mood, and looking for a “quick read” (which this promised to be with over half of it just being short lines of verse).

This is, of course, hardly the first Tolkien in my collection … being of the age where everybody I knew read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in grade school. I wasn't, however, notably aware that the author's “day job” was as a philologist, who had a long career as a professor (in Anglo-Saxon and English Literature) at Oxford University.

I felt, in reading this, that the book should have been co-credited to his son, Christopher Tolkien (who has been executor of his father's literary estate), as an author rather than as simply being tagged as having edited the book, as there is probably a higher word-count of his explanatory copy than the actual translation/retelling of the texts by his father. He gives an on-going commentary both on his father's interaction with the material, and how it was pretty much rescued from obscurity to create the present book. This is a key part of that:
      My father's erudition was by no means confined to “Anglo-Saxon”, but extended to an expert knowledge of the poems of the Elder Edda and the Old Norse language (a term that in general use is largely equivalent to Old Icelandic, since by far the greater part of Norse literature that survives is written in Icelandic). In fact, for many years after he became the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925 he was professor of Old Norse, though no such title existed; he gave lectures and classes on Norse language and literature in every year from 1926 until at least 1939. But despite his accomplishment in this field, which was recognized in Iceland, he never wrote anything specifically on a Norse subject for publication – except perhaps the “New Lays”, and for this, so far as I know, there is no evidence one way or the other, unless the existence of an amanuensis typescript, of unknown date and without other interest, suggests it. But there survive many pages of notes and draftings for his lectures, although these were for the most part written very rapidly and often on the brink of illegibility or beyond.
The specific material in the book are poems “treating of the Völsung and Niflung (or Nibelung) legend, using modern English fitted to the Old Norse meter”, which, until this (2009) publication, had never been released or quoted previously. The titles are Völsungakvida en nyja – “The New Lay of the Völsungs, and Gudrunarkvida en nyja – “The New Lay of Gudrun” (these are approximate here, my lacking an appropriate font for several Icelandic characters). The general theme of the story is vaguely familiar, being closely related to the the narrative that runs across the four long operas of Wagner's “Ring Cycle”, although the younger Tolkien notes that the German composer had taken substantial liberties in crafting his stories, and was working from Germanic versions of the source material, which appears to have varied a good deal from the Norse. The editor further notes:
To a large extent the spirit of these poems which has been regarded as (a branch of) the common “Germanic spirit” – in which there is some truth: Brythwold at Maldon would do well enough in Edda or Saga – is really the spirit of a special time. It might be called Godlessness – reliance upon self and upon indomitable will. Not without significance is the epithet applied to actual characters living at this moment in history – the epithet godlauss, with the explanation that their creed was at trua a matt sin ok megin [“to trust in one's own might and main”].
The younger Tolkien also gets into some discussions of how the various language groups, Old Norse, Old Germanic, Old English, and assorted related forms, had noted similarities, which could be traced especially through cases where essentially the same stories (or elements of common stories) were preserved in varied linguistic contexts. In the case of the Norse materials, preservation is a major issue … as Christian influence was spreading and, by about 1,000 CE, the presence of either writers/orators or hearers with enough knowledge of the myths and the language was nearly at zero, although:
… poetry became a profitable export industry of Iceland for a while; and in Iceland alone was anything ever collected or written down. But the old knowledge swiftly decayed. The fragments, much disjointed, were again collected – but in an antiquarian and philological revival of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Perhaps it would be more true to say, not antiquarian revival, but kindly burial.
Not only did the Norse material suffer from cultural shifts, two substantial fires, one in 1728 in Copenhagen, and another in London in 1731, ended up destroying much of what had been collected, and leaving gaps in what survived. The poems that Tolkien is working from here were a later “compilation” of surviving materials, in a form that it suffers from … the editor again comments:
This author was faced with wholly divergent traditions (seen in the preserved Eddaic lays) concerning Sigurdand Brynhild: stories that cannot be combined, for they are essentially contradictory. Yet he combined them; and in doing so produced a narrative that is certainly mysterious, but (in its central point) unsatisfying: as it were a puzzle that is presented as completed but in which the looked for design is incomprehensible and at odds with itself.
This point is largely why I've gotten over 1,000 words into this review without getting to any “content” per se. There were elements that I found fascinating … such as the character of Atli, or Attila (“the Hun”), and the Niflungs/Nibelung (somehow the same as “Burgundian” in modern English), in conflict with him, plus the Goths (in the pre-Bella Lugosi's Dead sense of the term) in the mix as well – all this happening somewhere around 436 C.E. (although one must wonder how historical the theft of the dragon's fortune – at the core of the story – is). Another very interesting thread here is how hard it is to be a favorite of Odin … Odin's favorites are the baddest-assed of all the bad-assed Norse warriors … and if he likes you, he's going to conspire to make sure you're going to die so you can be collected by the Valkyries to come be one of his warriors at Valhalla … needless to say, being “favored” this way is less than popular among most of the mortal warriors involved.

Anyway, I tagged a few bits in the poem to give a sense of how Tolkien's re-telling (in modern English, but following the Old Norse poetic format) reads. This first one is from “The Lay of Gudrun”:
At the dark doorways
they dinned and hammered;
there was a clang of swords
and crash of axes.
The smiths of battle
smote the anvils;
sparked and splintered
spears and helmets.

In they hacked them,
out they hurled them,
bears assailing,
boars defending.
Stones and stairways
streamed and darkened;
day came dimly –
the doors were held.

Five days they fought
few and dauntless;
the doors were riven,
dashed asunder.
They barred them with bodies,
bulwarks piling
of Huns and Niflungs
hewn and cloven.
One of the things that made reading this somewhat challenging was that the poetic parts were commented on after the end of the whole poem … and without markings in the poem itself to indicate where there were notes … so one had to be “reading in parallel” the notes (which referred back to specific stanzas, or groups of stanzas) and the poem to see what was being given clarification. This set of stanzas is part of a section that is noted to be “totally independent of the Norse sources”, and appears to be related to Old English poetic fragments The Fight at Finnsburg and Finn and Hengst, which goes to illustrate how fragmented the materials had become and how randomly re-assembled those bits and pieces survived.

This next bit is from “The Lay of the Völsungs – part V – Regin”, which gets into he familiar Nibelung tale of the killing of the dragon Fáfnir (here referred to as “Hreidmar's son”) … the notes for this section (which are found nearly 100 pages further on in the book!) indicate that the source material from these verses was also “patched in”, derived “from a prose passage in Fáfnismál, closely similar to that in the Saga”.
Round turned Sigurd,
and Regin saw he
in the hearth crawling
with hate gleaming.
Black spilled the blood
as blade clove him
the head hewing
of Hreidmar's son.

Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
seeking wisdom.
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.

Gold piled on gold
there glittering paley:
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.

Great and grievous
was Grani's burden,
yet lightly leaped he
down the long mountain.
Ride now! ride now
road and woodland,
horse and hero,
hope of Ódin!
While the story is disjointed and somewhat hard to follow, and some of the issues in the commentary are obscure elements of history and linguistics, the over-all sense of reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is of being treated to a culturally significant document which has been (to various degrees of success), wrested from the grip of oblivion. Not only (as touched on above – and more extensively in the book) did the ancient sources nearly disappear, the material by the elder Tolkien seems to have never been organized for publication by him, but was “rescued” by his son from lecture notes, letters to colleagues, and annotations of related survivals. While not being a “pristine” fifth-century literary document, this at least lets us hear the echoes (albeit in modernly readable English) of a long disappeared world.

This is still in print six years on (I'm guessing it might be in use as a text book, although its cover price is not in those inflated zones), so you might be able to find/order a copy through your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it presently at a 37% discount, but there are “new” copies in the new/used sellers' offers that would bring the total (although there are no super-cheap listings – making me again assume it's in the textbook channel) to less than half of that figure, even with the shipping.

Obviously, this is not a “for everybody” book, as it does require a certain level of focus to get the sense of it. However, if you were an English major, or are a fan of Norse/Germanic mythology, you might find this of interest.

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