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Thursday, August 20th, 2015
6:54 pm
Some things are older than you may suspect ...
I have been aware of Robert M. Schoch for quite a while … he has been one of those “alternative timeline” researchers dealing with the extreme antiquities of Egypt, and the one with the most impeccable credentials of that group of theorists. Not that others in that niche don't have impressive C.V.s of their own, but it seems that only Schoch got into it via what he has an advanced degree in (Geology and Geophysics, which he also teaches as a tenured professor at a major university). If you're not familiar with this area, Schoch's main “claim to fame” arose from being invited to consult on a project studying the Sphinx at Giza … to give his opinion on what he felt the rock facings within the Sphinx enclosure indicated for the age of the sculpture, and, by extension, the whole Giza site. In his opinion, the type of weathering that is exhibited in these very old constructions could only have happened in a period when Egypt was subject to a great deal more rainfall than has been the case in the “canonical” timeline (which holds that the Sphinx was created in 2,500 BCE) and since … his estimates are that the enclosure could not have been carved out any more recently than 5,000 BCE, and might date to as early a time as 9,000 BCE.

As I sat down to review this, I was having a hard time recalling what specifically spurred me to order it … I still don't have a clear answer for that question, but I suspect this might have been referenced/plugged in Graham Hancock's Facebook feed (which I follow with great anticipation for the stuff he features). Anyway … something must have gotten the idea in my head that I needed to get a copy of Schoch's Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future, although I'm not sure exactly why … as it's sort of in a “side issue” zone as far as my reading in the category has gone. It is fascinating, however, how this dovetails with other bits and pieces that I've read over the years.

The connecting theme in Forgotten Civilization is the concept (as noted in its sub-title) of “Solar Outbursts”, and how these may have deeply influenced civilization. Now, like Schoch's research on the Sphinx, there are several other threads of “heretical” material that points to there having been a global advanced civilization sometime about 12,000 years ago. From John Anthony West's theories of some of the older Egyptian ruins (such as the Osirion at Abydos) dating from that age, to various anachronistic sites in South America, India, and elsewhere, the “orthodoxy” simply scoffed and implied that all such theories were delusional at best. However, the recent discovery of the Göbekli Tepe site in Anatolia has changed the playing field, as Schoch notes: “Based on radiocarbon analyses, the site goes back to the period of 10,000 BCE to 9000 BCE and was intentionally buried circa 8000 BCE.” … meaning that we have solid evidence of an advanced culture (certainly in its sculpting) dating to the same 12,000 years ago time period that was supposedly what the priests of Sais had told Solon (according to Plato) was the fall of “Atlantis”. Suddenly, all these “Nah, couldn't be!” advanced cultural artifacts dating from c. 10,000 BCE are harder to just summarily reject (although the vast majority of “doctrinal” archeologists – Zahi Haiwass certainly among them – still do). Schoch takes one chapter here to dig into the “accepted” timeline – which posits mankind being barely out of the cave in 10,000 BCE – and shows how much of this derives from the work of Gordon Childe, who in 1950 published a list of “ten basic criteria” that he held to be indicative of civilization. Childe's model has been the accepted paradigm for the past half-century, but has (when presented with examples like the Natufian culture in the Levant c. 13,000 BCE or Göbekli Tepe, etc.) some serious holes in it.

The book is in three main parts (although not specifically divided that way), first a look at three archaeological contexts, that of the Sphinx, Göbekli Tepe, and Easter Island, then a middle section looking at various scientific pursuits, ice ages (specifically the “Younger Dryas”, a cooling period that happened about 11,000 BCE), sunspots and the lifecycle of the Sun, the Earth's magnetosphere, “cosmoclimatology”, and off into such cosmic obscurities as “galactic superwaves”, “gravity waves” (possibly triggering earthquakes), and even the possible effects of interstellar dust clouds … and then a third part where he's trying to link the theories he's worked up in the first parts to historical events and other “science stuff”, followed by a handful of appendixes which seem to address particular issues that he's had brought up related to things in the book.

I've already touched on elements of the Sphinx and Göbekli Tepe … both apparently date from ≅ 10,000 BCE, with the latter being intentionally buried (much like the Pyramid of Kulkulkan at Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City) a couple of thousand years after its construction. The Easter Island material, however, is somewhat central to the book. It seems that the “moai” (the large statues) were quarried from pits that are presently well under water off the coasts of the island, this, with the fact the many of the maoi are deeply sunk into the ground, would indicate a possible very early date for their sculpting. The answer to the “so what?” question on the Easter Island material is that there are engraved tablets in an undeciphered script called “rongorongo” that Schoch (or, I guess, his wife Katie came up with the idea) feels is very similar to petroglyphs that a Los Alamos plasma physicist, Anthony L. Peratt, felt were similar (or a recording of) certain plasma phenomena that would likely happen in a major solar storm.
Powerful plasma discharges, much more powerful than the auroras observed in the present day, form structures known as plasma columns that can expand in some places and constrict or narrow in other places (due to “pinch instabilities”). In profile these plasma columns can form donut shapes and may look like intertwining snakes, a stack of circles, or even resemble human stick figures (the so-called “stickman” or “squatting/squatter man” figures … ). In the modern day, powerful large-scale electrical discharges known as sprites occasionally occur in the upper atmosphere (about 80 to 140 kilometers above the surface of the Earth). Some sprites take on stick figure forms and other shapes comparable to those of the plasma columns. Based on Peratt's models and experiments, in some cases the stick figure will have an upper cup shape (head) that has the appearance of a bird in profile. Peratt and his colleague W.F. Yao record that observers of the Carrington Event reported seeing “figures in the sky as if drawn with fire on a black background”.
There are photo inserts in the book comparing the rongorongo script with various rock carvings, and plasma experiments. While there are certainly similarities between the script and the carvings, how many ways are there that a “stick figure” will appear? Unfortunately, I feel they were really stretching to attribute significant connections between the plasma patterns and the figures (making me wonder if this whole book is just a gesture to make Schoch's wife feel good). Anyway, those figures, and (in terms of chronology) that “script” (there was noted some question as to how old that actually was), are the main things linking extreme solar events with the archaeology of 10,000 BCE, with the rest of the book pretty much being “oh, and this!” add-ons.

One interesting thing in the above quote is the “Carrington Event”, which was a major solar storm in 1859. This happened over a week, from August 28 through September 5:
In late August of 1859 a major sunspot group appeared. On or around August 26 and 27 a solar flare (although unobserved) may have occurred, as well as a solar proton event (SPE) and a CME {coronal mass ejection}. The CME may have taken on the order of forty to sixty hours to cross the distance from the Sun to Earth, arriving on August 28 and creating the first wave of outstanding auroras and the accompanying geomagnetic storm. …
On September 1, Carrington and Hodgson observed the solar flare. Given how bright it was modern estimates suggest the surface temperature of the sun at the point of the emission was close to 50 million degrees Celsius. An enormous amount of energy was released, not only as visible light but also as intense X rays and gamma rays that, traveling at the speed of light, hit Earth eight and one-half minutes later. A CME was also released from the Sun …
Protons were accelerated by the solar flare and the CME to incredibly high energy levels and penetrated into our atmosphere, creating a major solar proton event (SPE). According to one estimate, this reduced the stratospheric ozone layer by 5 percent, and it took years to fully recover. Furthermore, energetic protons hitting the nuclei of nitrogen and oxygen atoms created a shower of neutrons that rained down onto the surface of the earth. ...
Schoch notes that this event, while major compared to “the usual” output of the Sun, was not as powerful as the Sun is capable of throwing at us (there have been CMEs that we've seen that have been huge, but fortunately pointed in another direction), and the suggestion is that something significant happened at the end of the Younger Dryas that threw the planet into a warming phase that created havoc for the civilizations that existed at the time.

One thing I found very interesting here is that Schoch is largely (in the current progressive terminology) a climate change “denier” … for many of the same reasons that I have doubts about the current dogmatic theory. He rather archly outlines:
The accepted paradigm, the scientific dogma, is not to be fundamentally questioned. Small additions and tweaking, elaborations and expansions, and building on the accepted paradigm are acceptable and even encouraged, but questioning the fundamental basis of the paradigm is not allowable. Radically dissenting views and any data that challenge the accepted paradigm must be suppressed. Heretics are persecuted or ignored. (In past centuries, this might mean torture or death. In modern times it might mean exclusion from the scientific community by being locked out of jobs, publication outlets, and grant funding.) Ultimately such tactics constitute “cheating by concealment” and “discreet fraud” ...
I've been aware of counter theories to the dominant paradigm for well over a decade … going back to Richard Hoagland's “Hyperdimensional” physics material, which he's called on to explain why there has been similar “global warming” phenomena on Mars and other planets happening simultaneously to the activity on Earth … with a Solar cause being far more plausible than SUVs. Schoch cites:
In recent years there has been increasing evidence for, and acknowledgment of, connections between climate, Earth's magnetic field, solar activity, and related extraterrestrial and other “subtle” factors. Much of this work goes against the reigning paradigm, the common consensus that has solidified around the topic of global climate change (more commonly refereed to as global warming). The general consensus view, for instance, has been that increases in global temperatures seen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been due primarily or totally to the actions of humans, most notably the increase of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Natural factors and cycles have been downplayed or ignored, despite the fact that changes in greenhouse gases have been correlated with global temperature changes for hundreds of thousands – even millions – of years, long before humans could conceivably have been causing such changes. Indeed, increases in carbon dioxide may in part be a consequence of global warming rather than a cause. Increases in temperature due to other factors (such as increases in solar activity) may warm the oceans, for instance, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide and an inability to absorb more carbon dioxide …
Obviously, I'm in agreement with him here, and, to be fair, he makes the “cosmic catastrophe” case very well, citing a lot of geological science (of course), from micro-diamonds in geological strata to odd cases of vitrification (where rock has been turned to a glass-like substance by extremely high heat) indicative of the possibility of ground-level (i.e. massive) plasma events. The down side of this is two-fold … first, it's quite grim, and the sort of thing that you really can't do anything about, except to dig deep underground spaces to escape to in the brief warning period that one would have before something like this would hit (interestingly, there are “bunker-like” structures on Easter Island which he posits were created for shelters against the solar storms of 12,000 years ago), and secondly, we're WAY over-due (looking at ice cores, geographic strata, and deposits of assorted isotopes) for a big civilization-erasing event.

However, towards the end of the book he gets into some very strange spaces … from instabilities in the galactic core that can result in periodic bursts of cosmic rays, which would not only effect Earth directly, but “throw gasoline on the fire” on the Sun, causing a whole alphabet of bad stuff, SPEs, CMEs, and even technology-destroying EMPs, to the possibility of our moving into an interstellar dust cloud that would be like throwing dry fuel into the Sun, with many of the same effects. He also pokes into some odd science, from the theories that water “can form nanostructures with the ability to encode, store, and transmit information”, to work that suggests that isotopes' decay rates are not constant but fluctuate in correlation with external factors: magnesium-54 fluctuating in correlation with solar flares, and silicon-32 and radium-226 exhibiting variations in decay rates that correlate with the changing distance between the Earth and the Sun.

While I found Forgotten Civilization fascinating in the material it has at the granular level, it's a very odd book in the broad strokes, starting from an “alternative archaeology” tour of key sites that push civilization back many thousands of years before the dominant paradigm, to a look at how cosmic influences could be the driving force for both “climate change” and historical disasters, to pulling in a wide net of other materials which are only “sort of” to the point (as I see it, at least) … and I doubt that was what I was anticipating when I ordered this! I'm also sort of surprised that this is only the first of his half-dozen or so books that I've picked up.

So, will you like this? I don't know. There is a ton of stuff in this that I was glad to have encountered (including theories I'd never even heard of previously, which is not a usual thing for me), but I've read a lot in the genre, and the over-all arc of the book put me off, and I suspect that it is likely to be a firehose of weirdness for readers coming to it without a substantial background in this material. Countering that perception, while it's been out for three years at this point, it hasn't gotten cheap in the new/used channels … with the cheapest of those books still coming in higher than the discounted price (assuming you're getting free shipping) from the on-line big boys. I don't regret buying this, but I can only recommend it with that whole heap of caveats above.

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Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
3:39 pm
When everything becomes nearly free ...
This book took one of the more unusual paths to get into my hands … it turns out that the author, somehow, ended up reading my Green Tech Chicago blog over on the Tribune's “Chicago Now” platform, and asked his office to send me a copy of his new book. The fact that the author is the global figure Jeremy Rifkin, just blows me away … and I'm thrilled that he thought enough of one of my posts to send out his latest book: The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.

Now, I am pretty sure that, lacking this particular trajectory into my to-be-read piles, I would have been very unlikely to have obtained this title in my “free range” book shopping, as “economic theory” is not one of my favored genres … although this has the clear connection to much of my reading in that it concentrates a great deal on how the Internet has changed the world. This is a follow-up to his The Third Industrial Revolution, the broad strokes of which are presented here as the concept linking energy and communications to the various jumps in industrial/societal change … the first revolution coming via the development of steam power, paired with the printing press, the second being the development of the internal combustion engine (and the oil economy), combined with electronic communications (radio, TV, etc.), and the third, being the evolution of “renewable” energy (I'd prefer to think of neighborhood Thorium reactors, but the focus here is more in the wind/solar zone) combined with the global connectivity of the Internet (and the sub-titular "Internet of Things”).

The “story” here starts in the feudal times in Europe, where most people had a totally subsistence lifestyle, which, through the effects of the water-driven mill, eventually evolved to a market economy, which moved people off the land and into the cities, eventually developing into Capitalism and vertically-integrated models:
The solution {to new demands} was to bring production and distribution all together, in house, under centralized management. The vertically integrated business enterprise took off in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and became the dominant business model during the whole of the twentieth century.
To his credit, the author does note at one point that Soviet-style communism was no less vertical, just with different job descriptions at the various levels of management.

I don't think it's accidental that the printing press and broadcast media are used as the symbols of the first two Industrial Revolutions, as in the Third these are some of the first victims of the "zero marginal cost” reality. This has been a personal bête noire of mine, having been in the publishing biz at the dawn of the e-book phenomena. It was just back around 1999 (OK, for me that sounds like yesterday – no doubt “your mileage may vary” on that perception) when large colleges were spending the money to provide (relatively) high-speed internet services to their students ... once this was available, it was not long before “sharing” music (or “stealing” intellectual property, depending on which side of that chasm you resided) was a very common thing, with platforms such as Napster emerging to simplify the distribution. Whether or not it was “robbing the blind paperboy” or not, that distribution was an illustration of “zero marginal cost” ... if one person had a CD and could copy a song into an .mp3 file, potentially everybody who had an adequate connection (and back then “fast” was around 200kbps, and your cell phone now is about 25x as fast), could have that song for no cost. Needless to say, this created a generation which believed that all intellectual property should be “free” ... and it took quite a lot of legal ugliness to arrive at the current model of paid downloads!

Rifkin focuses a good deal on both 3D printing and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). The latter of these is fascinating, as it grew out of a standard university setting ... but has developed to the point where it is threatening to "burst the bubble" of traditional college education. He notes:
      The revolution began when a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, offered a “free” course on artificial intelligence (AI) online in 2011, one similar to the course he taught at the university. Around 200 students normally enrolled in Thurn's course, so he anticipated that only a few thousand would register. But by the time it commenced, 160,000 students from every country in the world – with the exception of North Korea – were sitting at their computers in the biggest classroom ever convened for a single course in all of history. “It absolutely blew my mind,” said Thrun. Twenty-three thousand of those students completed the course and graduated.
      Although thrilled that he was able to teach more students in one virtual course setting that he could reach in several lifetimes of teaching, Thrum was struck by the irony. While Stanford students were paying $50,000 or more per year to attend world-class courses like the ones he taught, the cost of making the course available to every other potential student in the world was nearly nothing.
An earlier book by the author is The End Of Work where he argued that as technolgy makes for more efficient production, the number of workers plummets. An example he gives here is:
In the United States, between 1982 and 2002, steel production rose from 75 million tons to 120 million tons, while the number of steel workers declined from 289,000 to 74,000.
Those are sobering numbers (unless one owns a steel mill, I suppose), with production nearly doubling, while the work force is at a quarter of its previous numbers. And, that is an example over a decade old, nearly predating the Web.

He goes on to paint a very dire picture for standard employment. Whole categories of jobs have disappeared, and the combination of “automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence” are threatening even classic white-collar gigs. Speaking personally, I've been out of (regular) work for SIX YEARS, and every year it gets closer to a world where even writers can be replaced ... there's even a program that will take the basic data of a sports event and write the news copy from that in a way that you'd never be able to tell there wasn't a human involved. And it goes almost everywhere ... one thing described here is a program for analyzing legal documents ahead of trials ... and “one lawyer can do the work of 500 lawyers, and with greater accuracy”. Scary stuff.
      We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector.
What Rifkin foresees is a “Collaborative Commons” populated with “prosumers” (producer/consumers) ...
In a Collaborative Commons, sellers and buyers give way to prosumers, property rights make room for open-source sharing, ownership is less important than access, markets are superseded by networks, and the marginal cost of producing information, generating energy, manufacturing products, and teaching students is nearly zero. A central question arises: How is the new Internet of Things infrastructure that makes all of this possible going to be financed?
I have a more practical question: if there are no professional jobs, how do I pay my condo's assessment fees and put groceries in the fridge? I have to admit at about halfway through here I sort of got lost ... lots of stuff about traditional theories of “the commons” mixed up with material about environmental issues, and various energy issues (I take it that the author isn't a fan of reactors – even of the GenIV variety – as these don't end up even being mentioned that I could tell). The “solution” in the short term that he proposes is that there will be TONS of jobs in the building-out of “the Internet of Things”, but that's hardly a happy prospect if a “wordsmith” has to retrain to be a “wire twister”.

The last parts of the book seemed to me to be quite pie-in-the-sky (pretty much projecting from the vectors involved in a wide spectrum of new technologies and business models), and somewhat hard to “take seriously” as there's a GIGO factor here ... making a guess at something 20 years down the road based on the “trendy” thing of the past month is hardly a reliable course to take. He does project a “philosophical” evolution, however, which has a certain plausibility ... how “forager/hunter” societies exhibited “mythological consciousness”, the “great hydrolic civilizations” of 4,000-6,000 years ago developed into “theological consciousness”, in the nineteenth century, the convergence of coal-powered steam printing and the new coal-powered factory and rail-transport system gave rise to “ideological consciousness”, and in the twentieth century, the coming together of centralized electrification, oil, and automobile transport, and the rise of mass consumer society evolved “psychological consciousness” (living simultaneously in both an inner and outer world that continuously mediates the way we interact and carry on life), leading (possibly) in the new model to an “empathic consciousness”, or, in a massively connected world, a “biosphere consciousness” (unless, of course, the machines reach “the singularity” first - another concept I don't believe the author touches on).

He does, however, get into a lot of number shuffling over things like “carrying capacity” and various other similar grim scenarios, with warnings about climate issues and terror threats, but his closing points primarily deal with saying that we need to move past materialism and ownership of things. Having been in Marketing Communications (although only peripherally in the ad biz) my whole life in one form or another, I found the following “red flag” of particular interest:
      For the materialist, advertising becomes the powerful drug that feeds the addiction. Advertising preys on one's sense of inadequacy and loneliness. It promises that products and services will enhance a person's personality and identity and make him or her more appealing, attractive, and acceptable to others. The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel defined the new materialist man and woman coming of age at the dawn of the capitalist ethos. He argued that beyond its utilitarian and material value, property is an expression of one's persona. It's by forcing one's will into objects that one projects his unique persona on the world and creates a presence among his fellow human beings. One's very personality, then, is present in all the objects one claims as one's own. Our property becomes indistinguishable from our personality. Everything that is mine enlarges my unique presence and sphere of influence and becomes the means by which others know me.
      Advertising plays off the idea that property is the measure of a human being and pushes products and services as essential to the creation of an individual's identity in the world. For much of the twentieth century, advertising pitched the idea that property is an extension of one's personality and made deep inroads in reorienting each successive generation to a materialist culture.
Needless to say, the author “is against it” when it comes to “materialist culture” and is, by extension, advocating for the sub-title's “eclipse of capitalism”. As much as I can't stand the current state of advertising (I am incapable of listening to broadcast radio as every ad out there is blatantly anchored onto one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins, which I find extremely irritating), this does wander into a zone which is more about espousing far-Left rallying points that charting out actual solutions.

Anyway, The Zero Marginal Cost Society is a very interesting read with a lot of fascinating takes on the economic evolution of the culture. As noted above, I was hardly in close alignment to many of Rifkin's projections, but the material he brings to bear supporting the over-all thesis is well worth reading. This only came out last year, so should still be on a shelf at larger brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line big boys have both the hardcover and paperback at very generous discounts at the moment (close to 40% off), and copies are available in the new/used channels. This is hardly a book for everybody, but if you have interest in technology, history, or economics, you should find something to your liking in this (and if your politics are towards the Left you'll probably have less “aggravation points” that I found when reading it).

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Sunday, August 16th, 2015
6:18 pm
From an impressive leader ...
As I pointed out in the previous review, I have been having a run of good luck in finding interesting books over at the dollar store, at, of course, the amazing sum of a dollar … having been (as I know I've bemoaned way too much in here) “out of [paying] work” for the past six years, the ability to walk out of the store having paid a buck plus tax for a nice hardcover with a $27.95 cover price is pretty sweet!

Needless to say, the current title is one of these that I found on those shelves. As is frequently the case, this is not something that I might have picked up at a regular bookstore, or on-line, the dollar availability creating a serendipity that stirs up my reading habits (a good thing, yes?) a bit. Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril is a book by King Abdullah II of Jordan which stands out firstly by simply being a book by a sitting monarch … something that I, at least, am not particularly aware of being “a thing”. It is also, obviously, a window into the politics and cultural forces in the Middle East that has almost no equal in terms of access to the “back stories” of pretty much everything happening in that arena.

It must be noted that, within his own family, this was not a unique entity, as the author's father, the famed King Hussein of Jordan, had penned an autobiography in the early 60's, and this is referenced as something of a touchstone for this. As far as niches go, this is not just an autobiography, albeit it is formatted on the arc of the author's life (and he is still a young man at age 53), but endeavors to provide an analysis of many factors gripping his country's region. This starts off on a bitter-sweet note, with the Preface starting with:
... when I started writing this book, I hoped it would reveal the inner workings of how, against great odds, the United States, Israel, and the Arab and Muslim world had brokered peace in the Middle East. As I write these words, however, I can only say that this is a story about how peace has continued to elude our grasp.
Of course, King Abdullah II's family, the Hashemite lineage (the current King being a 43rd generation descendent of the Prophet Mohammad), is notable in the region for both its Western sensibilities (with British and American educations featuring in their development), and its willingness, even eagerness, to make peace with its neighbor Israel. This stands clearly apart from other entities in the region, such as Hamas, whose raison d'être is the “elimination” of the Jewish state.

This is not to say that he isn't critical of Israel. It is often too easy for those of us in the USA to see the region in very black & white terms, with Israel being the “good guys” and everybody else being threats to their existence. The author's view is, understandably, rather different, and while he appreciates certain aspects of Israel, his view is that there are factions within Israeli politics who are every bit as dead-set against a negotiated peace as Hamas is from the other side. One thing that was quite the eye-opener his was his experience with the Bush administration. He had seen a good deal of progress in the days of the Clinton administration, but the neo-cons in the Bush White House seemed to have little interest in hearing Jordan's side of things – despite the author's frequent overtures. It appears that the die had been cast early on in the Zeitgeist of the American government leading up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein ... and making even middling efforts to “play nice” with the Palestinians was not part of that, being that they were clearly an “enemy force” in that world view.

Speaking of world views … it's a frequent jab at Americans that we don't have particularly much awareness of what happens in other parts of the globe, and one thing that King Abdullah II refers to here is “Benelux”, which is an economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg within the E.U. that I don't believe I'd ever previously heard of … he holds this out as a model:
My dream is that we will link the economies of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in a common market – patterned on Benelux in western Europe. We could combine the technical know-how and entrepreneurial drive of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to create an economic and business hub in the Levant. The potential for joint tourism is massive, as it that for foreign investment. The possibility for cooperation is immense. The Israelis are world leaders I agriculture, but lack land and workers. We could work together to make the desert bloom.
Personally, this is the most rational, and logical suggestion that I've seen for peace in that region. Unfortunately, politics (and religion) keep getting in the way. Another thing that I don't believe I'd read of was the “Arab Peace Initiative” that Jordan was instrumental on reaching an agreement on (endorsed by 22 members of the Arab League) … unfortunately, it came at a time (in 2002), when things on both sides were spiralling into chaos and conflict. I certainly hope, however, that the author has not abandoned the vision of a “Benelux in the Levant”.

Again, this is also an autobiography, and so there is a lot of personal information in here. I am skipping over all the details about his schooling in the UK and the US (which is interesting), but do want to highlight a couple of bits from that aspect of the book. On one hand, you get a real sense of how dangerous running a country “in that neighborhood” can be … among many leaders who were assassinated over the past century there was the author's great-grandfather, with his father standing next to him. One of the precautions that his father, King Hussein, had made was to name the author's uncle next in line for the succession. While this created some “issues” later, it shifted the target from the author's back, and allowed him to grow (in the relative obscurity of the military) into the leader he would become. On the other hand, there are the stories such as:
My father used to tell me how when he wanted to take the pulse of the country, he would wrap a traditional checkered head scarf around his face and drive around Amman at night in a battered old taxi, picking people up. He would ask every new passenger, “How's the economy going? What do you think of the Palestinian-Israeli situation? What do you think of the King's new policy?”
It is hard to imagine even the Mayor of a major American city successfully doing this, but this shows how manageable a country such as Jordan can be. Taking a cue from his father, the current King has made a habit of visiting various government offices in disguise, and making sure things changed when the people were being mistreated by officials. Sure, it's his own story about himself, but it's hard not to like the author as depicted in these stories!

Another interesting “window” here is on the various wars in the region, and the interactions he (and his father) had with the main players in these conflicts (such as very uncomfortable visits with Saddam's notorious sons, Uday and Qusay). While the Jordanians have been strong allies of the USA, the author is certainly no “yes man” for American interests, and his perspective on the whole convoluted morass of political, military, religious, and regional elements is quite educational.

I would definitely recommend Our Last Best Chance to all and sundry, as not only is it a fascinating look at a really remarkable life, but a view of a globally important region that we certainly don't get from the press here – on the Left or the Right. As noted, I found the hardcover of this in the dollar store, but the paperback (which, oddly, has a different sub-title although just coming out a year after the initial release) is still available, and there are various other editions (international, large print, and, of course, ebook) also out there. I usually point readers to the “cheapest available” route to getting a copy of a book I'm reviewing, but books bought through retail channels have their proceeds going to support scholarships a the King's Academy – a top notch school that King Abdullah II established in Jordan (also discussed in the book), which is certainly something to consider.

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Tuesday, August 11th, 2015
11:45 pm
A love letter to an abiding urbs ...
I've been having a string of fairly good luck with volumes from the dollar store of late … while not being “pig in a poke” buys exactly (I am able to look them over and get a sense if I want to read them or not), they typically come unanticipated, not recommended by anybody or any citation, and pretty much “by accident” of the book being on the shelf on a day that not only had I made it out to one of the dollar stores I have access to (all requiring at least a significant subway ride to get to), but additionally on a visit where I had time to dig into the book display. Needless to say, however, walking out with even one nice “like new” hardcover for a buck (instead of $26.95 in this case) feels like a substantial “win”!

Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay is a bit of an odd duck, however ... it's not really a travel book (I never quite got enough geographical bearings to make any sense of its sub-titular “walk around the Bay”, other than to note that the city is, indeed, on a bay), nor is it centrally a history of Naples, and it's only peripherally an autobiographical telling of the author's on-going relationship with the city, its people, its background, and its other visitors. While I'm not much given to quoting from the accessory sections of books, a bit from the “Acknowledgments” at the end of the text would put this in its creative context:
This is a book of memory and reflection, not reportage. Over the course of sixteen years, during eleven stays in Naples, I talked to hundreds of people; nobody, however, was “interviewed” for these pages. I took only sketchy notes, and none in line with good journalistic practice. What I did instead, year after year, was to let the interesting, sometime funny or poignant thing learned from near-strangers settle down in me, and only now have I made the inventory.
Frankly, the book has an “evergreen” feel to it, not being notably of a particular time, so it could have been written any time in those sixteen years. However, it just came out in 2012 in hardcover, with a paperback edition following a year later (which has its own web page). But the author's approach, being hardly linear, presents me with challenges on how to convey the general sense of the book to those reading my review here. Taylor throws history, art, food & wine, architecture, religion, crime, politics, autobiographical snippets, war, and even a smattering of sex into a basket and gives it a whirl, grabbing random handfuls of the mix to apply to the word picture he's painting for the subject at hand in each part. Also, while the book is illustrated, it is not extensively so, with 30-some-odd ≅ 2x2” b&w pictures throughout the text, and an 8-page insert of color photos, starting with a skeleton from Herculaneum, and a swastika-banner-festooned Piazza de Plebiscito, awaiting a visit from Adolf Hitler, to some snaps of buildings, etc. mentioned in the text, and a number of large renditions paintings discussed in a long-ish look at some art trends (which, personally, I didn't think needed to be included, as a link to an on-line version of these images would have easily sufficed were somebody really interested enough to see what he was referencing).

Naples, it would appear, is a very old place, with the author citing burials of pre-Greek neolithic indigenous peoples dating to 5,000 BCE … and its historical lineage goes back as far as 1,800 BCE when Mycenaean traders established an island outpost in the outskirts of the Bay, followed by other Greeks from various areas, with the city itself being founded around 600 BCE. The book starts with a long “highlights of history” Chronology taking a dozen pages to go from those early dates on up to political happenings as late as 2011. In these listings an amazing roster of conquerors, combatants, and ruling cultures appears … from Etruscans, to Samnites, to Lombards, to the Angevin empire and their competitors from Aragon. Of course, in the midst of that, Rome conquered the Italian peninsula, and absorbed a lot of the Greek culture via Naples. Oh, and there's the matter of Vesuvius … sitting square on the Bay, this volcano is notorious for wiping out its human neighbors every now and again, most recently erupting in 1944, and badly damaging the region with earthquakes in 1980.

I really do wish I could more successfully grab bits and pieces here to quote .. but, Taylor, in a matter of a scant few pages, riffs off of some historical factoid about some Roman ruin, and will suddenly be talking about opera, and then veering off to something from his youth, where a neighbor took the very young author under his wing and introduced him to a touring opera production in Dallas, of all places, only to have that move back to ancient history, and the art still visible in certain ruins in and around the city.

Much of the history of the city is quite bloody, from the well-known cruelties of assorted Roman emperors (some of which favored Naples as a vacation home, if not second capitol), to the back-and-forth of various dynasties from other places in Europe over the centuries, which frequently resulted in public beheadings and less-public poisonings. Plus there was plenty of famine, disease, and war sweeping over the region, including having much of the city leveled by Allied bombers during the Second World War. He also discusses the notorious sway that organized crime has had in the region … an issue that appears to be on-going.

There are additionally tales here of modern artists, musicians, and writers … many of them in the past century seeking a haven for their homosexuality when the cultural setting of the USA was less than welcoming. He discusses meeting with some over the years, and having been influenced by others.

Naples Declared is still in print (in the paperback edition, as well as a Kindle version), but used copies of the Hardcover (and paperback) are available in “very good” condition for as little as a penny (plus shipping) from the on-line big boys' new/used vendors … which if you can't get yourself to a Dollar Tree (I saw a couple of copies of this still at the one I usually go to this past week), is probably your best bet. I enjoyed reading this … it is chock-full of fascinating detail from a wide scope of disciplines … and the writing (while, as noted, somewhat chaotic in its focus), is quite engaging. I'd pretty much recommend this to all and sundry … being one of those books that one doesn't have to read in any particular genre, but is so broad-based that you will be glad to have gone through it, pretty much what your particular interests are.

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Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
11:25 pm
Introducing "Quantum Biology" ...
Here's another of those books that have come my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … and it's another good science book, of which there have, fortunately, been quite a few of over the past couple of years. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili is a fascinating look at an evolving field.

Now, I have to admit, this is one of those books that I have had a certain amount of “oh, really?” response to, as, frankly, the consistent uncovering of quantum operations involved in “everyday” events seems a bit … well, like when fundamentalists attribute everything to God … and I'd feel better if I'd seen more on this topic in my other reading, rather than having it all show up in one book like this (hey, I've read lots of books that were based on just the author's lunatic take on the universe!). This is not to say that the concept of quantum activity being key to various biological processes is totally new to me … I recall having read some things about how photosynthesis is achieved, at its most microscopic levels, by an energy transfer described as a “quantum walk”, where an exciton (according to Wikipedia: “a bound state of an electron and an electron hole which are attracted to each other by the electrostatic Coulomb force”, or, elsewhere: “an excited electronic state delocalized over several spatially separated molecules “) is mobilized, via quantum coherence, across the pigment-protein elements to where its energy potential is eventually utilized. This is covered in Life On The Edge, but in a particularly idiosyncratic way (the section of photosynthesis is framed in a Fantastic Voyage scenario of shrinking the observer down, through various dimensional frames in the plant, until they're looking at molecular/atomic levels).

Like this, it appears that there are MANY biological functions that we've known about for ages, but have had substantial lacunae in the how these worked … and these go to as basic things as how we smell scents, or how we move our muscles (really, it would appear that we just either didn't ask how these things happened, or simply skipped over the details) … and this book picks apart these at the finest levels and looks at how quantum mechanical events play a key role in the “how”.

I'm somewhat irritated with myself that I didn't put in my usual couple of handfulls of little bookmarks in this (I found one), as it makes it a lot harder to condense the sense of the book for you here … but the Fantastic Voyage factor is at play all through the text … lots of “story telling” flowing in and out of specifically scientific bits (which very quickly get quite complicated), and not a lot of “Topic One … Topic Two … Topic Three”, etc. … which I, oddly, found bothersome. The book starts, in the introduction, with a rambling piece about a robin, “getting ready” to migrate from Sweden to North Africa … which at times brings to mind the cocoanut-carrying swallows of Monty Python fame. One thing that I sort of took offense to in here is how the authors disparage the work of Rupert Sheldrake … dissing him on several occasions … which (obviously) comes up when looking at how birds get around (something that Sheldrake has published work on). I think there's an old adage about living in glass houses that the authors might have kept in mind when presenting material as “out of the mainstream” (or at least “established”) as this is.

Anyway, as to that European robin wanting to get out of the cold … how does she navigate as accurately as she does, going from Scandinavia to the other side of the Mediterranean (and back again) on her migration? Well, nothing is straight forward here (I think I'm getting to the “why” of there not being my usual mass of bookmarks in this), and something will start off with a colorful story about a robins migration, then veer off into historic theories, alternate modern research, the work of various scientists that have worked on parts of what comes together in the bird's navigation, assorted similar elements, the underlying physics (both classical and quantum), vectors off into biological topics, and sometimes dropping threads, only to pick them up several chapters later. It turns out that the bird has a magnetic “sense” built into its eye that uses a particular quantum process within a chemical reaction dealing with a pigment, which allows it to “see” the angle of the lines of magnetism around the planet … and by reading that angle, the bird can tell where it is. No, really, it's a LOT more complicated than that, and the details are half the book apart.

I wish I'd be able to easily walk you though this, but it's a jungle in there. To give you a taste of how this plays out, here's a bit from another “Fantastic Voyage” look into something – in this case, how a tadpole changes into a frog:
... These nanomachines of nature are performing, at a molecular level, a carefully choreographed dance whose actions have been precision engineered by millions of years of natural selection to manipulate the fundamental particles of matter.
      To get a closer look at the cutting action, we descend into the enzyme's jaw-like cleft that holds the substrates in place: the collagen protein chain and a single water molecule. This is the active site of the enzyme – its business end that is speeding up the breaking of peptide bonds by bending the neck of the energy hourglass*. …
      … the enzyme is restraining the peptide bond in an unstable transition state that has to be reached before the bond can be broken. The substrates are tethered by weak chemical bonds, … which are essentially electrons that are shared between the substrate and the enzyme. This tethering holds the substrates in a precise configuration ready for the chopping action of the enzyme's molecular jaws.
      As the jaws of the enzyme close, they do something far subtler than simply “biting down” on the bond: they provide the means through which catalysis can take place. We notice a big positively charged atom hanging directly beneath the target peptide bond being swung into position. This is a positively charged zinc atom. If we consider the active state of the enzyme to be its jaws, then the zinc atom is one of its two incisors. The positively charged atom plucks an electron out of the oxygen atom from the substrates to stabilize the transition state and thereby deform the energy landscape …
      The rest of the job is carried out by the enzyme's second molecular incisor. This is one of the enzyme's own amino acids called glutamate, which has swung into position to hang its negatively charged oxygen atom over the target peptide bond. Its role is first to pluck a positively charged proton out of the tethered water molecule. It then spits this proton into the nitrogen atom at one end of the peptide bone, giving it a positive charge which draws electrons out of the peptide bonds. … drawing the electron out is like pulling the glue out of a bonded joint, causing it to weaken and break
* this is a conceptualization of how “quantum tunneling” is enabled.

And, that (obviously) doesn't even get into the quantum elements involved in the process … these stories swirl in and out of the description and through the background science … citing all the big names, and lots more whose research is either more obscure or sufficiently recent to not be as recognizable. I must admit, there was material in here by the likes of Shröedinger, Planck, Feynman, and others that I'd not encountered previously … but that's probably due to this “quantum biology” stuff running off into less-explored corners of the physics involved.

I'm hoping that this book isn't finding its way into the textbook channel, as it is so convoluted that it confuses as much as it explains … I almost never re-read books, but this one tempts me to triage the time just to make sure I got everything straight. Needless to say, it's chock-full of fascinating material, but much of it is fairly challenging, requiring at least a familiarity with several disciplines to really understand what's happening there (and a lot of this really pushes the envelope vs. “standard knowledge” or general experience).

As one would expect for an “early reviewer” book, Life On The Edge is brand new (only officially coming out just this past week!), so is likely being featured in the brick-and-mortar stores delving in to physics. The on-line big boys have it at about 1/3rd off of cover, which is probably your best bet at the present for picking up a copy.

While I had a number of “gripes” with the book, both in how it was presented and in some of the details, it was more of a “wow, that's amazing” reaction most of the time. While I would have preferred something more linear (although, with all the material coming in from various disciplines, that might not have been practical), and less “cutesy” (really, I didn't need the “now you're shrinking down” stuff), it's quite an eye-opening look into a brand new area of science.

Oh, and you can thank me for not titling this review "... and a few swabs from Bono too".

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Saturday, August 1st, 2015
10:13 pm
Claiming Your Personal Power ...
I have a very mixed impression of Brendon Burchard … I first encountered him in the context of building up an “information business” (his Millionaire Messenger book), and have found him on one hand very informative, with material that is, generally speaking, actionable in a fairly esoteric niche, but on the other hand way too into the “inspirational” - “believe it and it will happen” - zone for my tastes (see his Life's Golden Ticket). Among the “info biz” guys, he's pretty open and giving (this book was “free with shipping”), with a lot of material not requiring one's credit card, but there's always seemed to be that “yeah, but ...” thing in play, that, like in MLM, a lot of people will aspire to making a living at it, but most never have a realistic shot.

His new book, The Motivation Manifesto: 9 Declarations to Claim Your Personal Power, is a bit different, as it is “a manifesto”, and so is very “opinionated”. I was extremely enthused with this when I started reading it, having been frustrated by a number of people in my daily life who are advocates (some impassioned advocates) for mundane, average, non-achieving, and common results, lifestyles, and goals (yes, I've been berated for reading/reviewing as much as I do as it “by implication” makes others feel bad because they can't/don't make the effort … the reality of Diana Moon Glampers is just another Alinskyite administration or two away). This is a call to excellence, to striving, to reaching beyond what we think we can achieve (let alone what the TV-numbed slugs settle for) … or at least it is in the first section.

The book is in two sections (well, an introduction and two sections), the first being “On Human Nature”, which looks at Freedom, Fear, and Motivation. Reading this (and the intro) had me wanting to stand on street corners and “spread the word” … it's that powerful. The second part, however, the “9 Declarations”, suffers somewhat from trying to “systematize” the call-to-arms of the first part into something more … well, marketable? Not that it's not full of great stuff, but I felt it bogged down in places, and there were bits that I was mentally going “blah, blah, blah” about, and other parts that were generating a significant amount of resistance. The only bookmark I found I'd put in while reading this was in that part of the book, however, in Declaration VIII - “We Shall Inspire Greatness” where some of the specific types of things I noted above are addressed.

I'm a bit frustrated working on this review, because I usually have a dozen or so little bookmarks tucked in where I've found particularly juicy bits to bring to you here … but in the case of The Motivation Manifesto, the “good bits” tend to run on for pages, not sentences. I'm going to dig through this and see if I can pull out some particularly representative paragraphs, but it's not going to be easy to do.

First of all, though … let's get to what the “9 Declarations” are:
            I.      We Shall Meet Life with Full Presence and Power
            II.     We Shall Reclaim Our Agenda
            III.    We Shall Defeat Our Demons
            IV.     We Shall Advance with Abandon
            V.      We Shall Practice Joy and Gratitude
            VI.    We Shall Not Break Integrity
            VII.   We Shall Amplify Love
            VIII.  We Shall Inspire Greatness
            IX.     We Shall Slow Time

Obviously, this isn't your basic to-do list … “reclaiming agendas”? … “slowing time”??? … “advancing with abandon”? Burchard is writing in an abstract mode in much of this, with, for instance, in the “time” one, the phrase “We are not supposed to miss this moment.” repeats itself several times, yet there are accompanying (meditative/breath) exercises to practically adjust the perception of time.

Here's a bit from the “Motivation” section of the first part of the book … it will give you a bit of the flavor of the writing's tone (which is rather “styled”), and show why I'm having a hard time here, as key points tend to unfold over several paragraphs, and are difficult (if not impossible) to condense out into bullet points.
The long evolutions of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience share a common thread of unlocking human potential by leveraging reason and the full power of the mind. Reason is the secret to developing a motivated and independent identity. I think therefore I am and I do. Motivated people seize this truth. The great artists, leaders, and innovators use the entire force of their reasoning faculties to become their highest selves and do their highest good. They express who they truly are and pursue goals they find meaningful. They strategically contemplate their direction and values; they weigh what will give them the greatest sense of vibrancy and fulfillment in every major decision. They select from life's abundant array only the courses that suit their nature and their intention to be free and to serve. They are resolute in calling forth their greatest character traits and wrestling their lowest impulses into submission. They appear, in the eyes of the mindless masses, to be the lucky ones, the chosen. In fact, they decided to choose.
Each of the “declarations” has similar looks at the thematic elements, and layers of information, where the “time” one has exercises, the first one splits out various “roles” that motivated individuals play in their lives, and within the “demons” one, it takes “internal enemies” and defines them as a demon “Defiance”, which has three heads, “Doubt”, “Delay”, and “Division”, and details how these hinder our efforts, and how we can overcome them.

Again, this is hard to condense down to a few nuggets … most of the material comes packaged in runs of several paragraphs like the above … it is, however, worth the effort of working through.

Physically, The Motivation Manifesto is “deluxe” with a black leatherette cover with gold-stamped text, rounded cut corners, and a red ribbon book mark. It's available via the on-line big boys, but apparently is still being offered on Burchard's site for “free” (a $7 shipping fee), which also includes a 12-week on-line course (I've not taken advantage of the “extras” like the course as yet). Needless to say, this is quite a deal, and is considerably less than the other options out there (even the used channels at this writing).

While “inspirational” books like this are hardly “my thing”, it's hard to not value something with statements like this:
Nor can we allow apathetic, small-thinking men and women to lay waste to our future. We mustn't let social pressures to poison our potential. Surely, we have warned other from time to time that we do not care what they think or that their judgments of us are unwarranted. We have often complained, made kind requests of others, or reminded people of the circumstances that made us want to improve our lives. We have appealed to their magnanimity to be gentler or more supportive, and we have asked them as kindred spirits to stand with us against those who interrupt our charge. Yet too often others have been deaf to our true voices. They didn't believe in us or support us or cheer us on when it mattered most. We must, therefore, not await their assistance or approval any longer. We must hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in battle should they stand in the way or our dreams, but in peace and assistance, friends.

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Friday, July 31st, 2015
11:20 pm
An interesting journey ...
If I were a judge, and this was a case, I'd probably have to recuse myself, as I have long-time familiarity with the author, who was among the early crew over on LiveJournal … and so has been one of my “pixel people” for well over a decade. Unlike many of those on-line contacts, I have actually met the author on one occasion, last fall, and almost killed him with my bare hands then (he'd asked me to take part in a film somebody was doing about his “Concrete Shamanism”, and at one point – standing out on the beach with the cameras rolling – he insisted that I choke him “for real” … I grabbed a hold of his wind pipe and waited for him to look real panicked to let him go). Needless to say (no doubt to the relief of other authors), that's the only time THAT's happened!

Anyway, aside from the Shamanism, the author and I also had the writing/publishing overlap, especially when I was still runnng Eschaton Books full time. This brings up another point where I should probably take a step back … I am a terror when it comes to formatting issues (and typos, and lacunae, and assorted related errata), and this book is full of them … to the extent that I asked the author over on Facebook about what lay-out program he'd used for it, thinking that the one consistent, highly irritating, “issue” in the book was an accidental artifact of some quirk in that system. He identified this, but assured me that the formatting “issue” was an intentional design element (all through the book, where a paragraph breaks across pages, the resuming text block has an indent like new paragraphs have, albeit coming mid-sentence). Unfortunately, this was hardly the only “odd element” in the book, and only one really stood out as being an intentional design element (the header/footer stylings on page 82).

So, the book in question is ALL THINGS GO: How I Became A Shaman by Eric Durchholz / Patrick John Coleman … the latest in the author's varied output of nearly a dozen titles. As one can guess from the sub-title, this is a book about transformation, but it's more “how Eric Durchholz became Patrick John Coleman” than about him “becoming a shaman”. Frankly, despite his “branding” what he's doing as “shamanism”, it seems to me that his path has much more to do with the Lakota figure of the Heyoka than a “medicine man”, “curandero/brujo”, or other Shamanic manifestations (an example of this is his use of a partial pack of children's alphabet flash cards for divination, and other toys as shamanic "tools").

If I posit that the author is a Heyoka, it frees him of any of the linearity, structure, consistency, and logical progression that I would otherwise be looking for in a narrative like this. So I hope that he “owns” that as an alternative handle to “shaman”. One would not be surprised if a Heyoka stopped a chapter mid-topic (heck, mid-sentence) and launched into the next thing on the facing page … one would not be surprised if there were “missing” bits that were none-the-less identified in the text (in terms of graphics, etc.) … one would not be surprised if the use of QR codes was irregular, with many of them leading off to inaccessible material (such as “private” YouTube videos) … and one would almost expect there to be odd formatting like that noted above. A Shaman, even a “Concrete Shaman”, would “have some 'shplainin to do” about why things were the way they were in the printed piece … a Heyoka, not so much (and, given that his books are self-published through Lulu.com, he doesn't have an Editor to answer to).

The book is an auto-biography of sorts … although not particularly linear. Eric (I've known the “Eric” persona a lot longer than the “Patrick” entity) has had a rough life on a lot of levels, and the backstory of much of that appears in various points in this. For the broad strokes: he was born “Patrick John Coleman” in Chicago, but was adopted by a family from Kentucky and re-named “Eric Durchholz”, his adopted family are “narcissists” (in his terms) and found it very hard to deal with him being both artistic/creative and gay. Living in a small town in the bible belt, his upbringing was fraught with traumas, and he attempted to run away on multiple occasions. By 1999 (the year his best-known novel, The Promise of Eden came out) he was living in Nashville, TN, and having a reasonably integrated life with his particular social scene there. However, in 2010 he lost nearly everything he owned in area flooding, and “freed” from the encumbrances of material things (which he cites at one point as “having way too much stuff to be able to move to Chicago”), he re-located to Chicago, and began working in Comedy, at Second City and other clubs. Then …
In April of 2013 I was dragged into the spirit world and told I would be a “psychic, medium, healer and helper” and I was terrified by the experience. I was told by unseen spirits that I had died of a brain aneurysm in my new apartment that was situated between two huge graveyards. … When I returned to life after an intense and horrifying period, I found I was very different. I knew things I should not have known. … And my mind was a jumbled mess so I decided to figure out just what had happened to me. … In my case, I did not choose to be shown the inner workings of the Universe and what humanity is and what we truly are and the one thing that keeps coming is that my perspective is not valid. … We are all human beings viewing life through our own prism. Everyone's perspective is valid. This is a true thing. … Another true thing is that I can access alternate and parallel realities to gain knowledge, get lessons and find ways to heal myself in this one.
And …
I did not choose to be a shaman but my perspective as a shaman is just as valid as your perspective. … Just listen to what I have to say and draw your own conclusion. Or you can do what I do. I prefer to have no beliefs or opinions and just accept things as they are. Because when aliens show up in your apartment to give you energy-field upgrades, what are you going to do? Tell them to leave?
As I mentioned, the book jumps around quite a bit … at one point being a scenario from 2042 … parts of it written as Eric, parts of it written as Patrick … parts of it written as plain expository material. There are also sections on Jane Roberts / “Seth”, Esther Hicks / “Abraham”, and Edgar Cayce (the author sees a lot of meaning on his being raised close to Cayce's home), as well as back-and-forth between the “Eric” and “Patrick” personas.

As I noted, there really isn't that much stuff about how the author becomes “a shaman”, aside from the mental/spiritual turmoil involved with having the one persona leave and the other come in … he pretty much encapsulates the “becoming a shaman” part as:
I did not choose to be a shaman. I was pretty much bopped on the head, pulled into the spirit world and told I was a shaman. One day I was working on comedy and the next I was figuring out the mystery of my own existence.
He notes that he “began practicing” in August of 2013 … so most of the “transition” is happening in the months from April to August of that year.

While I've followed Eric's on-line presence for well over a decade, he also delves into auto-biographical material here that I somehow hadn't noticed … specifically that dealing with his becoming HIV positive. He copies a lengthy post (9 pages here) that he made to Facebook back in August of 2012 which details his discovering this and beginning to come to grips with it. I'm, frankly, amazed that I'd missed (or somehow forgotten) this on-line data point (it certainly is a substantial sub-theme of the book), but I guess my radar in this case was set more for the books/shamanism axis of the author's life, and not really registering the gay/HIV aspects (although at one point in his on-line “career” it was certainly hard to avoid that).

So, basically what you get in ALL THINGS GO is a bunch of stories of Eric's life, a bunch of looks at things that have influenced him, a bunch of information about Patrick and how he came to be “in” Eric, and assorted material on things like “formlessness” and “walk-ins”, all tossed into a cement mixer, bounced around, and poured out (see what I did there) as the author's coming to practice “concrete shamanism”. I enjoyed parts of this very much, was made quite uncomfortable by others, driven nuts by some of the formatting, and fascinated by little sparkling bits of otherworldly wisdom that show up randomly through it.

Would I have been reading this if the author wasn't one of my “pixel people”? I don't know. And, in this lies the crux of my wondering if I really would recommend it to somebody who didn't have over a decade's familiarity with the author. It's a strange book, for sure. It's a reasonably “easy read” (the “uncomfortable” bits notwithstanding), but it's ultimately a look at one man's odd journey. If the uncommon melange of stuff that I've described above sounds of interest to you, by all means pick up a copy. As noted, it's published via LuLu (so might be a challenge to find a copy in a retail outlet), but Amazon has it as well … and throwing this in on a larger order will avoid shipping costs (which I recall are pretty hefty through LuLu).

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Sunday, July 19th, 2015
11:29 pm
Walking out of the jungle ...
I have known Alberto Villoldo for a very long time, having first journeyed with him down to Peru before he founded his Four Winds Society, and having done many of his programs/trips back in the 80's and 90's. Unfortunately, while his organization was getting bigger, and more formal, my finances were dwindling (yeah, starting my own publishing house was awesome, but we never managed to break even over the years of my running Eschaton), so we sort of drifted apart over the past decade or so.

Of course, those of you keeping way too close tabs on these reviews will know that I've at least been keeping up with Alberto via his writings, having read/reviewed most of his stuff. I got early word about this coming out (following favorite authors on Facebook does have its advantages), and contacted the publisher for a review copy. I apparently had never reached out to Hay House before for one of their books, as I was quite blown away by the media kit they sent out … pretty much the most deluxe thing that I've gotten from a publisher yet (well, at least since the fun “KaChing” button that came out with Joel Comm's book of the same name)!

Anyway, I didn't really know what to expect from Alberto's new One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness … I initially thought it was going to be something of an amalgam of various culture's “ancient ways” for Medicine/Wellness, but was fairly surprised by what it ended up as. The key point here is explained in the introduction:
Apparently, during my years of research in Indonesia, Africa, and South America I had picked up a long list of nasty microorganisms, including five different kinds of hepatitis virus, three or four varieties of parasites, a host of toxic bacteria, and assorted nasty worms. My heart and liver were close to collapse, the doctors said, and my brain was riddled with parasites.
Now, I can't say that I'm surprised by that news … I had frequently lobbied for doing Shamanic work in nice climate-controlled hotel function rooms (which is possible - I've “mentally generated” a roaring bonfire for a fire ceremony in a suburban banquet hall) rather than out in nasty hot, humid, bug-infested, muddy, if picturesque locales … and it gave me pause as to what I might be carrying around from my trips with Alberto.

He further notes: All my test results indicated I was dying; the doctors had even said, “You should already be dead.” … which is a pretty sobering thought. He got this news while at a conference he was keynoting down in Mexico … and his wife was heading off to run a expedition to the Amazon immediately after. He says:
I stood in the departure wing at the Cancún airport, staring at my options: Gate 15, the flight to Miami where I would be admitted to a top medical center for treatment, or Gate 14, the flight to Lima and the Amazon, where I would be with Marcela in the land of my spiritual roots. … Miami was the logical choice. But in that moment I summoned up the courage to put my future where my mouth was – to live what I had taught so many.
Of course, Alberto is no fool, and he basically felt that he was quite likely heading off to his death. He quotes from his journal:
There are no guarantees here, Alberto. There is a difference between curing and healing. You may not be cured; you may die. But regardless of what happens, you will be healed. You will not walk out of the jungle into your old way of being.
There was no “magic wand” in the Amazon, he continued on to a few other locations for scheduled events, but eventually ended up back in the U.S. for medical treatment. The worst part was what was happening with his brain, the meds killed the worms, but the dying worms released their parasites into his system, flooding it with all sorts of toxins. He found that he couldn't play Scrabble, as he could no longer find the words … leading him to begin to wonder what was going to happen to him in terms of consciousness and self. His return to health took over a year, and involved Shamanic treatments, standard medical approaches, spiritual disciplines, cutting-edge techniques in brain science, and a drastic regimen of dietary adjustments.

Now, I need to insert a significant caveat here … one of the things that surprised me the MOST in the book was this latter element … I have never held “food fetishists” in particularly high regard, and there are so many “unusual diets” out there which are hawked/championed by a wide assortment of very devout believers, each contradicting the next, that I've always felt, in a similar mode to the late Christopher Hitchens' adage for religions “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all {food fetish diets} can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.” Needless to say, this preconception/prejudice on my part made the section of the book dealing with dietary issues very hard to deal with … I was even getting snarky reading it, with mental commentary like “I didn't expect Alberto to turn into Martha Stewart!” when he's suggesting menus, ingredients, spices, and cooking methods.

Fortunately, that was just one section of the book, and the others I was in considerable better simpatico with. The structure here is four sections, which Villoldo recommends working through in order:

          Part I: Discovering Your Inner Healer
          Part II: Shedding the Old Ways
          Part III: Overcoming the Death that Stalks You
          Part IV: From Stillness Comes Rebirth

The first of these, generally deals with Shamanic realities, both historically, and theoretically, from how native peoples Alberto encountered in the Amazon didn't have the sorts of diseases that the West deals with, to ideas like the Mayan concept of “acquiring the jaguar body”, and new-age (albeit utilized by the shamans) things like the “Luminous Energy Field” (“the LEF”, though most of this), and even off into the Jungian “collective unconscious”. Here also is the concept that “the mind is mad”, and suggesting that the shift from hunter-gatherer diets to grain-based agricultural diets were essentially “sugar-based” … thus appealing to the “limbic brain”, but not conducive to working with spirit … “The neocortex thrives on One Spirit Medicine; the limbic system, driven by sensation, pleasure seeking, and emotion, does not.” … and countering this with “good fats”. The rather trendy concept of “neuroplasticity” (yeah, you've heard the commercials) comes in here to set up the idea that OSM (I suppose I can use an abbreviation too) works by “Upgrading the information in your luminous energy field, eventually allowing new neural networks to form.”

Oh, one other caveat on the book … in parts of this Alberto uses “One Spirit Medicine” in nearly every paragraph … almost like he's trying to “brand” a wide spectrum of shamanic, spiritual, and scientific material with the label. It becomes irritating because he's simultaneously trying build a case that all these disparate elements pull together to MAKE “One Spirit Medicine”, while labeling everything with the name … it's like one were talking about developing an alternator, but constantly referring to it by the model of car it's eventually going to be a part of.

The second section is the one that I had the “food fetishist” issues with, although it starts out well enough, discussing the “second brain in your gut” – the 100 million neurons involved in the alimentary canal – and how Serotonin is chemically linked to DMT (synthesized by the pineal gland, and a component in ayahuasca and other psycho-active plants used by shamen). Where this takes the turn into the “iffy” area is when Alberto asserts: “Research now shows that most of the diseases of modern living begin in the gut and are related to our diet.” … in no way have I researched this, but my … uhhh … “questionable assertion” meter was certainly going off when I read that. He does a good job backgrounding environmental microorganisms and how we've evolved over millennia to interact with these, and a reasonable bit on “environmental toxins” … but this leads into the popular manias on genetically modified foods, and the “toxic effects” of grains and sugars. Suddenly we're being told “if you want to upgrade your brain to support One Spirit Medicine, you'll need to avoid all processed grains” and insisting on “cutting out fruits like watermelon and raisins, which have a higher glycemic index than a Popsicle” … which then turns into strict regimens of fasting and micro-managed meal schedules, menus, and supplementation. Something tells me that the Amazon shamans are not waking up and taking 250mg of Pterostilbene, 1g of S-acetyl glutathione, 500mg of Trans-resveratrol, and 1g of Curcumin (in its liposomal form), among a long list of other enrich-the-health-food-store supplements. The rest of this section gets into “super foods” and what to eat and not eat when (for instance, he recommend not eating fruit except in its growing season). Among the many issues I have with this section is my perception that one could probably not afford these regimens unless one was bringing home a solid six-figure income … needless to say, you may find this section just brilliant, and maybe it might have the benefits that Villoldo is suggesting it does, but I found it “out of character” for the author, and it rings like his having “found religion” in the “food fetishist” world – perhaps being the main element of coming out of the jungle into something other than his “old way of being” – although, as I frequently have to say, “your mileage may vary” from my reactions here.

Moving on, the third section deals with health issues on a more basic level … the “death clock” on a cellular level, and how things in the system start breaking down around age 35. He spends a number of pages discussing the mitochondria in our cells, and how the mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother's genes so “represents the feminine life force recognized by the ancients”, then gets into recommendations for “aerobic exercise”, “healthy fats”, and “fasting” for ways to support the internal recycling of cellular waste … and to lessen “oxidative stress”. He outlines a number of enzymes that he supplements with, BDFN (“brain-derived neurotrophic factor”), Glutathione, and SOD (“superoxide dismutase”), which are supposed to help with various of these “stressors”. This then shifts to looking at psychological stresses and “limiting beliefs”. One bit I found particularly interesting is:
From television and the Internet alone, we're exposed to more stimuli in a week than our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime. And we're continually running to keep up with new information, to the point that we're chronically exhausted. I can't count how many times I have heard someone say, “If it weren't for caffeine, I wouldn't get anything done!” Nature designed the brain to deal with one lion roaring at us at a time, not the entire jungle turning against us.
This is in the context of the “HPA axis” (Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenal glands), and the hippocampus, which he suggests is “the thermostat of the HPA axis”. He cites research that, among teenagers, the incidence of anxiety and depression is five to eight times what it was just 50 years ago, and then goes into the body chemistry, including adrenaline and cortisol, “stress” steroid hormones released by the HPA axis, and recommending omega-3 fatty acids to re-set the balance in this (which dovetails with the info on fish oil that I wrote about being very helpful with my own struggles with depression in my recent review of one of Dr. Weil's books). The chapter shifts from how one can avoid the fight-or-flight trap, and into some more psychological spaces … making free time (the hunter-gatherer societies tend to have only 3 hours a day of “work”, something that exploded into long hard days when agriculture took over), “pondering” and/or daydreaming, etc. This also leads to less fear of death and unseen things. “The invisible world is unified, nonlocal, and beyond space-time. Though omnipresent, it is invisible to ordinary perception: we know it only through its manifestations.”, yet, the limbic brain perceives separation rather than unity, creating fear, perception of threats, etc. and a significant part of OSM seems to be shifting experience away from that.

The fourth section takes up as much space as the first three, which is a good thing, as I was on much more “agreeable” ground here, as it deals largely with the concepts of “mythologies”.
The values and beliefs contained in myths are so stong that once you find your personal guiding myth, you feel compelled to change your life to conform to it. Change the myth and your values and beliefs change – and the facts of your life change acordingly.
Villoldo notes that the Judeo-Christian tradition has engrained myths that “operate in the psyche like computer programs running continually in the background” but that “at this point in our history, it's pretty clear that the human species needs to be more collaborative, creative, and cooperative – qualities that are aspects of the archetypical mother figure” … which suggests that a “Mother Earth”/Gaian mythology would be more beneficial today. At this point, the classic shamanic tool of the Medicine Wheel gets put in play:
Though the practices associated with the medicine wheel vary among the different indigenous groups of North and South America, the way I was taught by my teachers in the Amazon, we begin in the South, with the journey of the healer and healing our past wounds. We then move to the West and the journey of the Divine Feminine, facing the fear of death. From there we move to the North, the journey of the sage, where we learn to be still, like the surface of the lake that reflects everything and disturbs nothing. Finally, we reach the East and the journey of the visionary, where we practice dreaming the world into being and participating in creation.
The South is represented by the serpent, with the implied parallels of “shedding skin” with growth and change. In an odd twist to the typical narration of this, Alberto brings in the myth of Parsifal and the Grail, with the over-tones of the feminine force. The West is represented by the Jaguar … and here the author asserts that this, in its indigenous American context, represents healing power much the same way that the caduceus does in European traditions. In the West, we meet the Goddess and face the fear of death. Greek myths are referenced here, Orpheus and Eurydice, Eros and Psyche (the latter in substantial detail). Alberto notes:
All initiation involves a journey to the ream of death and a meeting with the Divine Feminine from which you return renewed. … There is no rushing the journey of initiation. Mastering the fear of death is a lifelong process. You may be challenged and tested many times, although with each time the way becomes easier.
In the North is the realm of the Sages (this relates to certain “topographies” of the “otherworld”) and is represented here by the hummingbird (although in other traditions, such as the Lakota, this is represented by the buffalo), with the sense that the hummingbird can hold still mid-air, and exhibits a calm within frantic action (hovering while its wings are rapidly beating). “In the North we learn that what we call reality is an illusion, albeit one we are jointly re-creating every instant.” To provide a second perspective on this, Alberto brings in the story of Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita … where it's revealed that “everything we do can become an offering to the divine and that we shouldn't be fixated on achieving specific results” … and with the suggestion that in stillness we can be guided by Spirit.

The East is represented by the Eagle, and the theme is that here “you come to see that the consciousness that observes your experience is an inextricable part of a larger consciousness”. Appropriate to that, the myth that is presented from another culture is that of Siddhartha, becoming the Buddha.

The last part of this section is an extensive piece on the “Vision Quest” … in this Villodo discusses the turning points for a handful of his previous patients, whose difficult life situations were overcome, largely through doing a vision quest. He presents a plan for a 3-day vision quest in which one finds a “power animal”:
In shamanic cultures, when you do a vision quest, traditionally a power animal will appear to you in a dream or waking vision. The word animal comes from the same root as anima, Latin for soul, breath, the life force. Carl Jung used anima to refer to the feminine principle. An animal, then, is an expression of the feminine aspect of the soul of the world. … When you connect with a power animal you are in effect connecting with the psyche or soul of nature.
This is followed by the “conclusion”, in which Alberto ties up the various parts of his OSM “system”, putting them in context of a number of settings, from healing to inner harmony, and evolution and brain development. Again, One Spirit Medicine is a shift into new areas for Villoldo's teaching, while certainly grounded in what he's been working with over the past 30 years, it's moving into a whole new space – evidently based on his experiences with nearly dying from the various ailments that he'd picked up on his journeys.

Obviously, I have some issues with the new stuff, but this is, I think, the most “organized” form that he's generated yet. I may be misremembering, but it seems to me that up till now, he'd been good with people interfacing with his teachings to the extent that they were called to … and this has changed to something more structured and linear (although he does preface his “I recommend reading the chapters in the order in which they're presented and trying the practices and exercises.” statement with a “to get the most out of the process” caveat). Needless to say, I have significant disconnects with the new material he's inserting in the middle of that process, and I wonder how many people would be willing (or able) to go to the extremes of diet modification (and extensive supplementation) that he outlines therein. This has only been out a couple of months, and so should be available in the local brick-and-mortar stores carrying metaphysical titles, but the on-line big boys have it at the moment at a whopping 45% off of cover price, which is probably your best bet for picking up a copy.

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Saturday, July 18th, 2015
4:04 pm
"No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it's dark ..."
I guess the problem with a standard Liberal Arts education is that there's not enough time to get to everything, and I have discovered some glaring holes in mine that I've been trying to fill. I suppose had I done one major instead of three (with a “fourth” unofficially added in elsewhere during the summers), I might have pushed through more material in my English major, but I keep finding stuff that I know of, but really haven't read. Fortunately, there are the Dover Thrift Editions out there, making it very reasonable to plug those gaps … and with a low cover price, they're ideal to “pad” on-line orders to get them up to the free-shipping promised land.

One of the more notable voices that I was familiar with, but hadn't specifically studied, was the notorious Oscar Wilde (and I'd even stayed at the hotel he lived at in Paris – The Hôtel du Quai Voltaire – also favored by Baudelaire, Wagner, and many other notables), although I have now caught up with a number of his famed works over the past few years. The current one is likely his most “pop culture”-known piece for the movies it's inspired, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While I'd been aware of the broad strokes of this, in its various interpretations, I'd never ventured into the text itself. I had, however, picked up a copy with an Amazon order some time back, and decided to slot it into my reading list last month to have a bit of a break from the other stuff I'd been going through.

Wilde's writing is magnificent … and I wonder how my own composition might have been affected had I read much of it in my teens and 20s. His books are also a window into a long-lost world of the English upper classes … one that I must confess to be something of a “golden age” to me (being largely a product of old-line noble families) … which is certainly not a popular concept in these dark days. This is the first caveat I'd offer for the book … if you have little patience with the doings of Lord this or Duke that (or are of the neo-Jacobin demeanor so de rigueur in certain circles these days), you might find Dorian Gray tiresome, as much of the book is the doings, discussions, and activities of the Victorian-era idle class.

Now (and I have to “go here” in those rare occasions when I'm reviewing a piece of “fiction”), if you are “spoiler-averse” (and somehow missed the basic story elements in pop culture), you might want to stop reading at this point. I am so used to reviewing non-fiction where the concept of “spoilers” doesn't come into play, that I have a very poorly tuned sense of what is and isn't TMI for the review reader.

The book is generally third-person narration from an unspecified standpoint (i.e., not being a specific character relating it), with large blocks of conversation between the main characters. Central of these, of course, is Dorian Gray – a beautiful youth who has become the “muse” of an up-and-coming painter, Basil Hallward, who is in the process of finishing up the title image. The picture is unusually striking, and the artist has been planning to have it be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibit of his work. A friend of Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton is visiting, and is charmed by Dorian, and begins to infuse in him his own “libertine philosophy” of living life for its pleasures (it is generally suggested that “Lord Harry” is a stand-in for Wilde here – having the best lines). As Dorian thinks through this … focusing on his beauty … he is suddenly saddened by Wotton's warnings on the fleeting nature of youth, and faced with the completed portrait, says:
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June … If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
What is interesting, from a modern perspective, that there is nothing “supernatural” in this scene … just Dorian becoming aware, perhaps for the first time, that his beauty is a temporary thing, and being horrified at the prospect, and wants more than anything to avoid that fate. There is much agonizing and accusation between the three men, and Hallward, in desperation at the idea of losing his muse, grabs a palette knife and move to destroy the canvas, but Dorian stops him, as he is as enamored of the image as the other men. He arranges to have it brought to his house, where it is at first put in a prime viewing location.

Before moving through more of the story arc, I'd like to drop in some material that grabbed my attention while reading this as particularly illustrative of Wilde's writing. The first one is a description of Lord Wotton's (seldom seen) wife, “Lady Henry” ...
She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy.
A bit later she's quoted in regards to an opera that she and Dorian had both been at, albeit separately: “I like Wagner's music better than anybody's. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says.” … and one has to wonder if Wilde had a particular individual in mind as the model.

Another bit that I found of interest was this one dip into Lord Wotten's head …
Certainly few people had ever interested him so much as Dorian Gray, and yet the lad's mad adoration of some one else caused him not the slightest pang of annoyance or jealousy. He was pleased by it. It made him a more interesting study. He had always been enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisection others. Human life – that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value. It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one's face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulpherous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties on had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And yet, what a great reward one received! How wonderful the whole world became to one! To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect – to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point they were in unison, and at what point they were at discord – there was a delight in that! What matter what the cost was? One could never pay too high a price for any sensation.
The “mad adoration” he refers to is that Dorian had developed for a 17-year-old actress, who was evidently something of a Shakespearean prodigy, playing in a dingy working-class theater all the great female roles in the Bard's catalog, a different play every night. Sibyl Vane, discovered accidentally by Dorian Gray, had become his obsession, and he returned to the theater night after night to see her, eventually asking her to marry him. He then invites his friends to experience the remarkable acting of his love. However, his winning the heart of Sibyl, had “broken the spell” that had made her so exquisite on the stage … she had lived in a world where she was in love with the plays, in love with the stage, and totally immersed in that as in a dream … when her love shifted to Dorian, her ability to act crumbled, and on the night when he was to be showing her genius off to his friends, her performance was wooden, rote, and totally uninspired – which horrified Dorian, as he was in love with the genius of the girl, and not the person. He goes back stage and breaks off the engagement, and abuses Sibyl for her change. The next day he get word that she has killed herself … which does not affect him in the least, but he notices a subtle change in the portrait – a slight look of cruelty in the face.

He is given a book by Wotton, which inspires him to immerse himself in the pursuit of fine things, at first becoming a model dandy which fashion followed, and then for years traveling around the world, becoming an expert in scents, jewels, musical instruments, embroidery, etc., and racking up ever more changes in the picture, now ensconced in a locked room in the upper levels of his mansion. Some 20 years on from the opening scenes, Dorian is visited by Basil Hallward, the painter, who that evening is scheduled to depart for an extended stay in Paris. Hallward is there to present a whole litany of accusations against Dorian that he's heard over the years … wanting to have some response (denial?) before he leaves. Dorian is irritated at hearing these and tells Basil that he has “a diary” and brings him up to the hidden room. Obviously, the portrait is the record he's referring to, and the artist is aghast at the changes in it, making Dorian angry about being confronted in this way … and he ends up killing Basil. He blackmails a doctor to get rid of the body, and covers everything up.

One thing Dorian is in fear of is reprisals from Sybil's brother … a sailor … who first tracks him to an opium den, but is convinced that Dorian can't be the guy responsible for his sister's death, because of his apparent youth … Dorian escapes, but an old lady tells Vane that he hasn't aged in decades … setting Vane on a fresh search. In perhaps the weakest plot point, Vane is killed in a hunting accident (not by Dorian, but he's in the party), which is both a great relief to Dorian, and a cause for him to re-think the course of his life. He eventually convinces himself to destroy the portrait … but when he does, all the degradation that was infused in it, transfers to him, and he dies.

Again, the most appealing aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the splendid writing of Wilde … there are certainly “plot holes” here which in lesser hands would be glaring, but this is a delightful read … and a splendid look into another time. Because this is a “thrift edition” book, it has a minimal cover price of $4, and is currently on sale at Amazon for half that … so it's one of those things to put on a list of low-priced add-ons for when you're just shy of free shipping!

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Friday, July 17th, 2015
12:44 pm
Another job search book ...
{Hello, review/journal readers … the following review is going to be awfully personal, with a lot of my deep inner neuroses and open-bleeding-emotional-wound stuff hanging out … just to warn you that this is going to be even less pedantic than usual ...}

OK, so those of you who have been paying attention to this space over time no doubt know, I've been in a LONG job search … an insanely long job search ... that just passed its sixth year mark in May. Needless to say, there's a level of desperation building, that wasn't necessarily there back when I was reviewing a lot of job-search books when penning The Job Stalker blog on the Tribune's ChicagoNow site a few years back (when I stopped writing that, I stopped requesting job-search books from the publishers, which is why you've not seen many reviews in that genre of late). I have recently thrown myself on the tender mercies of a local Vocational Services organization, which paired me up with one of their “executive coaches” (yes, I used to be an “executive” … almost hard to remember those days), with the hope of trying some new things to get me back into the world of positive cashflow. One of the first things the lady said was “read this book” … as it is the template that they use for helping people like me get hooked up with jobs.

So, two handy facts about this before we get going … I would very likely never have picked up this book without it being “assigned” to me … and I have certain significant “issues” with the job search paradigm being presented here (in a somewhat-non-PC phrase I use: “asking me to do THAT is about a useful as yelling at a quadriplegic to take the stairs” … but it's smack dab in the middle of the “Brendan is not like the other kids” category), making me be a bit “reactive” when hitting those parts.

However, given those particular land mines, Orville Pierson's Highly Effective Networking: Meet the Right People and Get a Great Job is a very informative, structured, and even easy-to-read book. The author uses a technique that I typically find irritating – the “real world story” – to good effect here, and, frankly, those parts of the book make it almost a fun read … “humanizing” the instructions presented chapter-to-chapter (at the end of each there is a developing story about a friend of the author who comes to him for coaching in a new job search, which progresses as the various stages of the author's job-search model are discussed).

Now, obviously, it's hard to make a single book on the job-search be a “one size fits all” instruction manual, but Pierson at least makes a stab at it, with on-going asides to new college grads and other first-timers in the work world on one side and to CEO, etc., folks on the other. The main thrust of the book, however, is in the middle of that … salaried employees looking either to change jobs or get jobs after having been downsized (the central character of the unfolding illustrative story is an engineering manager, for example).

The book has a somewhat odd structure … while its over-all arc is reasonably direct through the author's system, individual chapters are presented as being in one (or two) of four “steps”, which are part of a table of info that precedes each (which feel like they originated in another format – perhaps a PowerPoint that he uses to train people in his methodology?). These are defined in the second chapter as:

            Decide to network effectively.
            Prepare for job hunting.
            Talk to personal and professional contacts.
            Land a new job.

One of the things I found most commendable here is Pierson's realistic view on how hard the kind of networking he recommends can be … and he sets a goal to make the process as comfortable as possible for all involved (he points out that the person being networked with in any given situation might be very uncomfortable with the discussion – expecting that he/she is being asked to provide something, such as a concrete job lead, that they are not capable of producing). The other thing that is fairly notable here is his insistence on (and instructions for) utilizing one's “non-professional” (or not in one's target field) friends & family connections, as they frequently know somebody who knows somebody who can put you in touch with a key connection.

Back to the “structure” issue … I really wish he'd make one big chart with all the elements in it … he seems to go from structural level to structural level with not the most linear flow … for instance, in the chapter which includes the four “steps” noted above, he also has “The Four Goals of Networking”:

            1. Get the word out.
            2. Gather information.
            3. Meet insiders at targeted organizations.
            4. Get in touch with Decision Makers.

These precede his definitions of the steps, and the steps are initially presented in another chart with various sub-steps detailed, before getting into the specifics for each. This level of complexity makes it hard to regurgitate this in a summary form here … it reads through fairly logically, but is hard to condense. Before launching into the main part of the book, Pierson has a chapter on “networking myths”, which tackles seven of the most common ones he's encountered. The specifics here are well presented, with his description of the “myth” and information that counters each. He also notes that there's a LOT of confusion about networking out there because so many books that have been written on the subject are for salesmen and not job seekers … and he notes that MLM has further blurred the lines, as a lot of “network marketers” are trained to sell to any live body that gets within 3 feet of them, which means that a lot of one's contacts are wary about any approach that is goal-centered.

In the “Prepare” section the author defines “Real Networking”, which consists of “An Authentic Conversation” (No gimmicks. Be Yourself.), “Common Interest”, and “Information Exchange”. Now, here's one of my “reactive” points … I have never gotten anywhere in my life “being myself” … the minute I start acting “authentically”, everybody starts looking at me like I have three heads … so seeing this here makes me very nervous. As a result, this is one of those places where I've mentally inserted a footnote “for Normals”, and have to figure out how much “acting normal” is OK before it becomes a “gimmick”.

He gets into charting networks at this point, which, again, seem to be something more naturally from a PowerPoint, but show how quickly connections can grow. He references the “six degrees” material, and notes “job hunters usually succeed at the second and third degree of separation”, i.e., it's not who you know, but who they know, and who those other people know. If your “network” is as small as 10 people (and most have several hundred - “Your total network is everyone who will accept a phone call from you”), that's 1,000 people on the third level. He further divides warm from cold contacts, and close (in terms of connection – former school mates, other members of organizations/churches, etc.) contacts in three categories:

            Active – contacts you talk to regularly.
            Dormant – contacts you used to talk to regularly.
            Passive – network connections that have not been activated.

In a part on “mapping your networks” he offers a list of a half a dozen categories of networks, and several dozen specific potential contacts. He then breaks these out one-by-one with discussion on how to approach them, etc. (in fact, in several places he even offers up sample “scripts” to use with the various types of contacts).

The place he loses me is in the “Project Plan” … and, again, this is ME – with my particular psychological issues, I suppose … but the first two of the three points of “an effective project plan” are right up there with the quadriplegic (or classic-era Dalek) taking the stairs:

            Professional Objective - What kind of work you want to do.
            Target Market – Where you want to work.
            Core Message – What you want to say about yourself.

In my career, I've been a bit of a MarCom “generalist”, competent/plausible in 10-15 different job categories … and I've always preferred situations where I was “wearing a lot of hats” rather than being faced with a “time to make the doughnuts” kind of grind (no matter how interesting the doughnuts in question might have been) … so coming up with ONE thing to focus on is, cognitively, almost impossible (and I've typically been the guy who "picks the slowest line", so “pick one” is rarely a good strategy for this). And, in terms of WHERE, I have no clue … and don't even have a good idea (even after reading this and other books insisting on this element) of how to GET a clue.

He goes on to define and expand on these, even at one point (as a section heading) noting: your target list is just as important as your resume … which has me hitting a brick wall, as I've never been able to come up with one any more focused than “gee, I guess X company would be a cool place to work”. Again, as far as my job search was concerned … the wheels fell off the cart at this point, so much of the rest of the book was “looking at the stairs”, and not being able to make any progress at integrating the materials. Pierson suggests numerous networking strategies to “get your message out”, “gather information”, “meet insiders”, and “get in touch with decision makers” … but always in the context of “Target Organizations”. So, if YOU have a clear “professional objective”, and a clear “target list”, this will no doubt make a great deal of sense and be useful … to me, they're like saying “use the third arm coming out of your back”.

The next sections are about dealing with one's personal networks … approaching “warm”, “cool”, and “cold” contacts on “inner”, “middle”, and “outer” circles, with sample scripts for ways to make useful connections with these various categories. One thing he notes is to NOT provide your resume before meeting with somebody, or while talking with them … send it along later. This makes the discussion more about you and your search (and what sort of free-association info might come up in that talk), and not about the particulars on that piece of paper. Another interesting suggestion is to “map the networks” of decision-makers who might be in a position to influence your hiring. I found it odd, especially in this context, that the author doesn't much focus on LinkedIn (as this would almost be an ideal tool for this), but most of this is not more technologically advanced than making phone calls or meeting for coffee.

I suspect that for MOST people, Highly Effective Networking would be a very useful book, as I'm guessing that the vast majority of people don't have the “blocks” I have for key elements of this, and would have no problem defining “what they want to do” and companies where they want to do it. For a book in this niche it is quite readable and even enjoyable. It appears to still be in print, and the on-line big boys have it for a bit off the cover price, while copies are available via the new/used channel for as little as a penny plus shipping. Again, if you're not me, this is likely a must-have for the job search.

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Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
10:44 pm
Funny how my memory skips ...
Well, today is my 30th anniversary ... of sobriety.

Yep. 30 years without a drink. I'd be off celebrating at an AA meeting tonight, but I present a conundrum to those folks, as they're thrilled to find somebody who has been sober as long as I have, but are frustrated that I did so totally without the benefit of their program ... so I represent a "bad example" to those struggling with alcohol, and I always feel a bit like an unwanted outsider on those rare occasions (which have only been in the past few months) when I show up at a meeting.

Those of you who knew me in my teens and 20's may find this amazing, because I was, if anything, an enthusiastic drunk. Of course, when I got into PR, there was the whole history of that profession with booze, which I certainly did my bit to uphold (including a bottle of rye whiskey in the bottom drawer of my desk, just in case the morning was too stressful to wait for lunch).

My dad (who died when I was 2, so I have this all second-hand) used to joke that my amniotic fluid was Wrigley Building martinis ... my Mom having been an executive with the J. Walter Thompson ad agency based there in those "three martini lunch" years (I must admit that I was sad when I saw Walgreens had recently taken over the old restaurant space), so I probably got an early appreciation for gin in utero. After my dad died, we moved out to New York, and I've joked that I grew up in "Mad Men" ... so booze was a constant environmental thing (although I didn't start sneaking any until my early teens).

At some point I discovered that booze had the capability to shut down my emotions ... which have always been on the depression-angry side of the dial ... and if I drank enough, I wouldn't have to feel ANYTHING. As such, I was rarely a "social" drunk, as my goal was to get as close to oblivion without losing consciousness as I could ... and would consume (in the words of Beldar) "vast quantities", looking for that point when the emotions would flatline.

I had an internist friend at one time say he wished he could have studied me back in my "workout" days ... I would typically do a 2-hour workout six days a week, alternating between a day of assorted calisthenics and a day of free weights ... while hydrating with Gin Gimlets. He said he really didn't even have a model of how that would work on my system ... going through 8-12 ounces of gin while doing intense exercise. From my perspective, of course, it was a way to get a "baseline" of booze in my system cheaply, before taking a shower and heading out to the bars.

Frankly, the sheer quantity of booze I was drinking probably made it easier for me to quit, as I used to say that I really wasn't particularly interested in the first eight cocktails, as I didn't much notice them, but it was the second eight cocktails that I wanted to get to. Not having the first 8 drinks was not a notable sacrifice, although that assured me of not getting to the ones that meant something to me.

Now, admittedly, quitting drinking was NOT something that I had been contemplating ... I got suckered into what was somewhat of a low-level intervention. I had been very depressed for a very long time, and I was being presented with "a program" for that ... only it turned out to be an interview for admission into an out-patient "substance abuse" program at the now torn-down Prentice Hospital over at Northwestern. Interestingly, I was taking a substantial enough vitamin regimen that they didn't change or add anything to that (score 1 for Brendan knowing what his body needed!), except, of course, quitting drinking.

The program involved 3 hours of "group therapy" an evening, five days a week for six weeks (I re-upped for a couple extra weeks as I wasn't "buying into it" much), starting the week with an NA meeting and ending the week with an AA meeting. The group I was in with was a wide range of people, from a wimpy couple who were "worried" that "occasionally" they'd have 3 glasses of wine (!) in the evening, to a local news broadcaster and his producer who "hit bottom" when they showed up at a production meeting with the "wrong briefcase" (the one with the cocaine and the Uzi in it), with a couple of hard-core boozers and junkies in between.

To be honest, at that point in my life, quitting drinking was THE MOST PERVERSE thing to do that I could think of. Almost anything else would have been predictable to some extent ... suicide, moving into hard drugs, edging into more extreme lifestyles, etc. ... somebody would have money on that (I've always said that I was way ahead of the pack for the "Most Likely To Die By 30" honors). However, quitting drinking would be the biggest "fuck you" I could have said to the universe, so between that (and the noted "first 8 drinks" thing), I went ahead with it. And, of course, being the OCD maniac that I am, I never let it slip.

The problem, though, was that drinking was not JUST an addiction for me, it was my HOBBY. I was always collecting obscure drink recipes, obscure booze (at one time I think I had a couple of dozen types of rum in my closet), and related materials (the blender I still have is one I bought specifically for making "velvet hammers"), and throwing legendary parties. Plus, I was a huge fan of "tropical drinks" and my favorite restaurant, the late lamented Louie's Cantonese Cafe on Rush, was a great source of these, so I was "sad" every time I just had tea there, rather than a Zombie. Recently, my younger daughter (who's in a theater program) was shooting "a PSA" here about drinking, and was amazed when I dug into a closet and was able to provide "props" which hadn't much seen the light of day in 30 years. Amazing to see what was still in there (including cool Inca Pisco bottles from my trips to Peru!).

Of course, the fact that I had large amounts of alcohol only a couple of yards away from my desk is a testament to how solid my "pit bull" teeth were sunk into the "not drinking" thing. One of the things the AA folks would not have approved of was similar ... probably for the first year or so of my sobriety, I still went to the same local bars every night ... only drinking coffee and soda and stuff (they even got in non-alcoholic schnapps so I could do shots). Naturally, as time went on, it got less and less amusing to hang out with a bunch of drunk people, so I ended up spending less and less time at the bars (although I just found I'd been "namechecked" in a piece about Kronie's!) ... but it made for a "gentle" transition for me.

Anyway, that's most of my booze story (yeah, there's more ... but I'll keep the edgier stuff to myself). I was in the bar (Elliot's Nesst on Bellevue) drinking on June 30th, 1985, and was in the Chemical Dependence program and not drinking on July 1st, 1985 ... and haven't had a drink since.

Oh, yeah, one more thing ... I also credit the Chicago Bears with helping me keep sober. I typically would "drink off" a Bears loss, and that was the year the Bears won SuperBowl XX, only losing once (to the Dolphins) the whole year. I don't know if I would have "slipped" if they'd gone 8-8 or something, but I know things were a LOT easier with them having a great year like that!

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Thursday, June 18th, 2015
3:53 pm
For those about to Tweet ...
So, this was one of those books that I got wind of on-line and dropped a note to the publisher to request a copy. Fortunately, it's another title from the good folks at Wiley, who are always quite accommodating of my asking for review copies.

To be honest, I've been using Twitter for so long (over 8 years … I was one of the first 3 million users – out of nearly 650 million total users), that I wasn't particularly anticipating learning very much in this volume, but with enthusiastic referrals like that one ==> from Chris Brogan (click on pic for a bigger version … he seems to be enjoying it!), I could hardly have not opted to give it a read.

Now, Twitter Power 3.0: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time isn't just a book about using Twitter, but about using it as a vehicle for building brands. In it, authors Joel Comm (who you may recall I've reviewed previously) and Dave Taylor both set up (quite literally – the first third or more of the book is pretty much step-by-step on getting a Twitter account going) Twitter for those unfamiliar with it, and delve into their recommendations on how to use it for business.

The book starts at about a basic level as one could ask for … explaining “social media”, and how that's evolved, and why it's important … then moves into looking at Twitter in the context of the whole social media environment. The book is extensively illustrated with screen grabs, so the reader doesn't have to use too much imagination to follow what's being detailed … and among these in the early bits is even a shot of the fabled “Fail Whale” … once a familiar and all-too-nearly-omnipresent “feature” of Twitter, now a semi-fond memory of the early days on the service (when was the last time you saw the Fail Whale?).

Some of the things that the authors coach their readers on are things like picking a name, and the ways that can impact things down the road … walking one through considerations that are well thought-out, and might have been missed by some “late adopter” deciding that it was time “to get on that tweety thing”). While I agree with most of the (very common-sense, really) material in this, I did have a slight disagreement with their blanket statement about putting numbers in your ID (ala classic AOL accounts) being “something you should really try to avoid”, with my counter-example (and, admittedly, this would only apply to a limited number of users) of Chicago Tribune's digital honcho Bill Adee having the rather clever Twitter handle of @Bill80. Perhaps the best part of the set-up chapters is how they walk the reader through the process as Twitter will present it, and suggest (sometimes quite strongly) things to skip (such as when Twitter wants to get into your email to let you know who's already on the service – which, if you use it right when you join, will result in a lot of contacts hitting your account, and finding pretty much nothing there … so this is a step they recommend holding off on until you're gotten some “there” there in terms of content).

In my opening above I noted that I wasn't anticipating learning much about Twitter in general, but I was wrong on that count. For instance, if you're needing/wanting to set up multiple Twitter presences, but don't want to be having to follow a whole slew of mail boxes (I am quite familiar with this problem), you can use one Gmail account for them all (!) … how? Well, Gmail ignores periods in the stuff to the left of the @ sign … j.ohndoe and john.doe are exactly the same to Gmail, however, to Twitter those are totally different addresses and will let you set up new accounts on what is (on the other end) the same email, just but adding those periods. Pretty cool. They also follow this tip up with some other interesting Gmail hacks (that I may use eventually).

One odd feature here is that they hand “the mic” over to a Matt Clark of a design company called TweetPages for the fourth chapter. While “bringing in an expert” is a laudable concept, the book already has two “cooks” and shifting over to a third voice makes that section stand out. I really think this would have been better addressed if Comm and Taylor had sat down with a half dozen designers working with Twitter (I'm sure there are hundreds of consultancies out there would would have loved to be credited here), and presented a “processed” take on the (no doubt variable) information on “Twitter Setup and Design”. This not to say that the material he brings to the book is trivial … I bookmarked a number of things for my own use here, including where Clark says that, even with your profile pic, you should pay attention to the SEO value of the element … he uses the example of re-naming “IMG43879852895.jpg” as “TweetPages-Matt-Clark.jpg” as something that takes just a few seconds but could result in noticeable increases in search traffic … and he provides URLs to a number of very useful things, from a tool that helps in identifying fonts, to one that will alphabetize lists, to another which suggests free (open source) alternatives to commercial software, etc.

If there's one thing that having the “guest” chapter does, it provides a “pivot point” for the book, as following that the book makes a significant shift in focus and tone, from the careful hand-holding of setting up one's Twitter presence, to nitty-gritty marketing advice on “Building a Following on Twitter” and “The Art of the Tweet”. Now, I have some additional caveats here … as so much of what they're talking about in these parts seem to me (who has been using Twitter for a very long time) as being “pie in the sky by-and-by” kind of results. I have never run, or been associated with a project using, a Twitter element that came anywhere near the sorts of following/responses/retweets that they talk about here. Maybe I'm “snakebit” when it comes to this sort of stuff … but this reads to me like it's the “1%” telling the hoi polloi how things work on their end of the world. I seem to recall that I had a very similar issue when reading Joel Comm's Ka-Ching (about running on-line businesses) five years ago … it sounded great, but represented results that neither I, nor anybody I knew, had ever been able to achieve.

The book then goes into “Connecting with Customers”, “Team Communication”, “Build Your Brand”, “Drive Follower Behavior”, and “Make Money on Twitter”. Similar caveats apply here … the theories seem sound, but I've never seen it work like this (an example: “out of 200 followers, your {tweet} generates 12 replies, and you can see by searching for your username that it also picked up four retweets” – I'm pretty sure there are lottery games with better odds than those sorts of numbers happening) … although the authors have had a great deal of success in Twitter, so I suppose are case studies in how it can happen. There are some tips in here, though, which are golden … such as following somebody you know is at a conference and the hashtags that are being used there to “virtually” attend. There have been dozens of conferences I wish I'd have been able to get to, that this would have been a great way to at least “listen in” to the chatter.

Twitter Power 3.0 closes out with some excellent additional useful info, with one section presenting a dozen third-party programs that work with Twitter, from the near-essentials of TweetDeck or Hootsuite, to things that follow trends or send alerts when selected key words are mentioned … and a final chapter that features five pages of Twitter accounts that the authors believe are key for marketers to follow from their own lists (and a Twitter newbie loading these in when getting set up would “hit the ground running” on good info!).

This is brand new, just out a couple of months, so you should be able to find it in the stores catering to business/internet books, and the on-line guys have it at about a quarter off cover at this point. I found this an interesting read, tempered by the above-noted caveats (my jealousy at their results?). Certainly if one was totally new to Twitter, this would provide a great starting point, and it has enough useful stuff in it to make it a worthwhile read to even “old hands” on the service.

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Sunday, June 7th, 2015
11:57 pm
Good News For "Type-A" Types ...
As I've noted here from time to time, books coming out from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program do have a tendency to just be “meh” … probably being due to being something of a “pig in a poke”, where one requests review copies on a couple of sentences of description in most cases. However, every now and again there's a “WOW!” book and Kelly McGonigal's The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It is one of those. Now, I need to preface this all with a bit of a caveat: While Ms. McGonigal is a PhD (in Psychology from Stanford), I'm not sure how “grounded” her material is in a wider scope of research … while much of this is referenced to various studies, I don't get the sense of it being exactly massively vetted, and I kept wondering if this was like some of the “newagey” stuff out there (albeit, pointing in a rather different direction) which cherry-picks bits of research, often out of context, to support a “revolutionary” stance. And, frankly, the central thesis of the book is sufficiently removed from the realm of “common knowledge” that it could well have been featured in Woody Allen's “Sleeper” … where is character wakes up after 200 years in cryogenic suspension to a world where deep fat, steak, cream pies, and fudge are deemed health foods … so why not “stress is good for you” as well?

The author describes how she used to be “like everybody else” in believing stress is bad for you, and taught classes and workshops to get folks to “do whatever you can to reduce the stress in your life” , but then she ran across a study that changed her mind. I'm having a hard time effectively paraphrasing this, so forgive the long quote – but this is the “launching point” for the book:
… In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?
      Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But – and this is what got my attention – that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
      The researchers concluded that it wasn't stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.
      That number stopped my in my tracks. We're talking over twenty thousand deaths a year! According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would make “believing that stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.
She obviously “connected the dots” and realized that her “anti-stress” work might well be killing people. She then looked at various health “crusades” that generally had backfired, from graphic anti-smoking materials to “shaming” strategies for weight loss, a lot of what passed for “common knowledge” in the medical community has turned out to be counter-productive when actually studied. And, just like smokers increasing their smoking in response to autopsy pics of cigarette-blackened lungs, or overweight subjects doubling their calorie intake in the wake of “eat healthy” campaigns, McGonigal realized that her audiences frequently were more depressed and distraught than before she “told them what to do” about stress. After digging into the subject she'd pretty much done a 180° turn:
… The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.
      The new science also shows that changing your mind about stress can make you healthier and happier. How you think about stress affects everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life. The best way to manage stress isn't to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.
Needless to say, this sounded like great news to somebody like me who's spent decades driving the body and mind to the limits of exhaustion – or in the Cowboy phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” – nice to think I wasn't killing myself all that time!

One criticism I've seen about the author's work here is that she doesn't have a sharply-defined concept of “stress” … she does offer up a definition, however: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”, which one does have to admit is a bit wide-reaching and non-specific … and she does address the fact that covers a lot of ground. However, one person's major stressor might be another's minor irritation (she uses her personal fear of flying as an example which a lot of people would find laughable), and vice-versa, so having an “umbrella” that is big enough to cover “being out of cigarettes” and “death of a family member” is probably a good idea.

There's another key psychological field that plays into the main thrusts of the book, and that's “mindsets” … “Mindsets are beliefs that shape your reality, including objective physical reactions … and even long-term health, happiness, and success.” … and what's amazing about this work is that a single brief “intervention” addressed at changing one's mindset on something can seed seemingly permanent change. One study she cites was done with hotel housekeeping staffs, who were generally overweight with bad cardiovascular numbers … much as if they were sedentary (and they believed that they “weren't exercising regularly”) … the researcher, Alia Crum (another Psychology PhD at Stanford), developed an information program (posters and 15-minute presentations) describing how their work was exercise, burning as much as 300 calories an hour, and exposed a test group to this. The test group's mindset was changed from seeing their work as “hard on their bodies” to being “intensive exercise”, and, with just this shift, they began to lose weight, and improve their over-all health … results not seen in the “control groups” which did not have the material presented to them.

Crum also did research on how one's expectations effected hunger hormones … where what one had been told about a food, in this case a milkshake, determined the blood chemistry the subjects exhibited. She also developed a protocol for testing stress reactions, where subjects (including the author) went through a mock job interview, structured to be a horrible experience. One set of subjects first saw a 3-minute video about how stress can enhance performance, and the other set saw a video about how stress is worse for them than they thought … and both groups were tested for the presence of two “stress hormones”, DHEA and Cortisol, in their saliva during the experiment. Remarkably, the variable of which video was shown determined the ratio of these hormones, with the “stress is good” message providing a positive mix.

So, how did the “stress is bad” mindset get so established in the medical and psychological orthodoxies (let alone public opinion)? In 1936 Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye was doing a series of experiments involving injecting various substances into rats. He was noticing that the rats were having the same bad reactions no matter what he was injecting them with … and eventually generalized a theory that the structure of the experiment (injections, etc.) was what was making the rats sick (and eventually dead), and came up with “stress” as the word for the cause. His definition of stress was “the response of the body to any demand made on it”, not (in the author's description) “just a response to noxious injections, traumatic injuries, or brutal laboratory conditions, but anything that requires action or adaptation” – leading to pretty much anything being a potential lethal stress-inducer.

His work became a world-wide phenomenon (he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 10 times), and he published and lectured all over the globe … with the funding of the tobacco industry(!). Yes, back in those days, cigarettes were often marketed as a way to relax, and Selye even testified in Congress “that smoking was a good way to prevent the harmful effects of stress”. Also, most of his research (and those following) was based on investigations of lab rats, in hideous situations (the author describes it as “The Hunger Games for rodents”) that was then generalized to humans … even though humans (thankfully) rarely are subjected to the extreme degrees of “stress” that the poor rats in these studies were.

One of the things glossed over in these experiments is that sometimes the rats sailed through with no bad effects … which led other researchers to look at what might be “good”in stress. The author sums up these as: “The stress response helps you rise to the challenge, connect with others, and learn and grow.” … with specific examples of the various ways those happen. The stress response releases hormones that can be very beneficial, if “framed” properly, and this is where the “mindset” work comes in … even a very brief re-framing of what one expects out of stress can make a remarkable difference in how that stress is processed – not only mentally, but in terms of one's bio-chemistry.

There's quite a lot in here about how various researchers have implemented mindset-shifting programs in numerous settings, from “last chance” inner-urban schools to video game players … the subjects that got the messaging were able to re-frame threats into “challenges”, and overcome what previously seemed insurmountable.

The author shows that there are a lot more dimensions to stress-response than the familiar “fight or flight” dichotomy … she also proposes a “tend and befriend” aspect, which is typified by those who have been through horrific experiences frequently devoting their lives to help others. In this form, substances such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin come into play, directly shifting how the brain is relating to situations around it.

A third modality she presents really hit home for me, the “defeat response” … which I feel is more prevalent than one would want to think:
The defeat response is a biologically hardwired response to repeated victimization that leads to loss of appetite, social isolation, depression, and even suicide. Its main effect is to make you withdraw. You lose motivation, hope, and the desire to connect with others. It becomes impossible to see meaning in your life, or to imagine any action you could take to improve the situation. Not every loss or trauma leads to a defeat response – it kicks in only when you feel that you have been beaten by your circumstances or rejected by your community. In other words, when you think there is nothing left that you can do and nobody who cares.
Yeah, it sounds like she's been reading my poetry!

The book is full of lots of stories from school systems, corporations, governmental programs, and psychological research which offer examples where the sort of mindset adjustment making stress appear as a beneficial factor in one's experience lead to vastly improved results versus “control” groups that got no messaging, or groups who were unfortunately exposed to “stress is bad” messages … results that not only were notable in their statistics, but also appear to have long-lasting effects.

Now, the copy I have is an “ARC” – advance reading copy – which often does not represent the final format of the book … I'm hoping that the published version (which came out last month) has set up the “exercises” in a more structured way, as they're easy to miss here, and they offer a lot of benefit … it would be great if those were in “boxes” or somehow otherwise set outside the general flow of the text, making them easier to find and refer back to. That was one of my few gripes with The Upside of Stress.

As the author somewhat intimates at points, even reading the book may have the sort of mindset-shifting effect to move the reader towards a more positive interface with stress … after all, if a 3-minute video on how stress can be a positive factor can change physical responses, how much more would reading a 300-page book with the same message help make those changes? While I'm not suggesting this is a “magic pill” for stress … stranger things (NLP, placebos performing better than actual drugs, various spiritual practices) have happened. In any account, it's an interesting read, and I can't think of anybody whose existence is sufficiently stress-free that they wouldn't get something out of this. As noted, it's only been out a month as of this writing, so your odds are pretty good of finding it in your local bookstore … and the on-line guys seem to have the hardcover for about a third off of cover price at the moment. I must admit, the caveats outlined at the top of this review still hang over this a bit … I hope that what McGonigal is outlining here is real and that the research will eventually come to solidify this version of stress, replacing the “tortured rats” model of Selye and his followers … but on some levels it has that “too good to be true” scent, making me hold off of a 100% endorsement of it.

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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
4:37 pm
Just in case you were wondering ...
OK, so I guess I figured I was "getting enough" out of 750Words.com (as blithered about HERE) to pony up the $5/month for on-going membership.

I suspect that this decision is based more on OCD ("oh, look ... something that I have to do every day!") than on any particular benefit I'm getting from it - so far at least. There are people who insist that it's "as good as" meditation or therapy, but I'm not feeling it ... but things are so horrible in my life at the moment that maybe nothing short of heroin would make me feel better. I did set up a spreadsheet where I track my words-per-minute, with 10-day averages and on-going averages, my time-to-750-words, with similar tracking, and my words-written-per-day, also with a 10-day average and a total-total (in case you're wondering, I'm so far over-all averaging 35.61 WPM, 21.39 minutes to 750 words, and have rung up a total of 27,879 words).

Although the concept of doing "morning pages" has been delightfully described as "having a cup of coffee with your Jungian Shadow", I keep wondering if I could channel this into something productive ... perhaps working on a book, bit by bit by bit. After all, the "usual" length of a non-fiction book tends to run 75-100k words, so I'd (since the first of May) already have been ⅓-¼ of the way to having a book done by now (and if I'd just doubled my writing time, I'd have made the 50,000 word count for NaNoWriMo)! I was sort of inspired by a (humorist) writer I recently heard speak who noted of his latest book that "some of those chapters barely took me 20 minutes to write" ... if I could start generating at least the seeds of interesting contemplations each morning, I could end up spewing out book after book after book of my mental ruminations ... which, thanks to Create Space, I could actually foist on the world at large (and, after all, they couldn't sell any worse than my poetry collections!).

Lit FestOh, and speaking of things Create Spacy ... it looks like I'm going to be down at the Printers Row Lit Fest this weekend. As an IWOC (Independent Writers of Chicago) member, I was able to "get in on" a table (for just $10!) co-sponsored by IWOC and CWIP (Chicago Women in Publishing) that will be in the IWPA (Illinois Woman’s Press Association) tent (located in the middle of Dearborn Street, the seventh tent north of Polk Street). I ordered 14 copies of The Common Book of Witchcraft and Wicca (which I did the layout, design, basic editing, etc. on for the Witchschool.com guys) to sell (I'll do some fliers for the poetry ... no use spending money on printing those until I have a paying customer!), so if you were hankering for a copy of that, but wanted to paw through a sample copy before committing to it - you can come by the tent and have at it!

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Monday, June 1st, 2015
1:31 pm
How odd ...
As you know, I'm constantly churning through books and foisting the reviews of which here for your edification. As I have, I believe, pointed out, my reading totals have dropped dramatically over the past few years, from the 72+ books I'd been reading per year from 2006-2012, down to barely making it to 40 books read in 2013-2014, which makes the regular flow of titles from the LibraryThing.com "Early Reviewer" program, a bigger percentage of what I've been reading of late. While the average LTER book has been sort of "meh", there have been a few that have been awesome, and I'm currently reading one, The Upside of Stress which is pretty remarkable (assuming that what the Ph.D who wrote isn't blowing smoke up our collected nether regions).

In the book the author defines various types of stress reaction ... the well-known "fight or flight" which is contrasted by a lesser-known "tend & befriend" (what makes doing volunteer work a successful strategy for the depressed) ... but she also defines a "defeat response". When reading this, I was amazed to find an almost point-for-point description of how I've been feeling:

Defeat Response

This was screaming of the page at me.

I really can't wait to get this book finished, because it's been pretty remarkable so far, and I'm hoping there's going to be something (more substantial than what follows that particular quote) about how to dig oneself out of that hole ... because having "lost motivation, hope, and desire" and being in a place where it's "impossible to imagine any action I could take that would improve the situation" are so dead-on for my life right now. Sucks to be me ... but you knew that.

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Sunday, May 31st, 2015
12:34 pm
Struggling with Science ...
This was another of those LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program books that I put a request in for due to my being the doting father of a daughter who is studying to be an engineer. These days, almost anything that deals with females going into the STEM fields gets my attention, as I'm (obviously) rooting for my kid to be the most awesome engineer ever, and anything I can do to make that less painful for her, I'm up for. Evidently, the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” is in sync with this, as Eileen Pollack's The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys' Club is about the third or fourth book I've gotten from there that's more-or-less on the topic.

As those who have read many of my recent reviews, I seem to be in a zone of having issues with how the books I've been reading have presented themselves via their sub-titles. I am not the first person to note that “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” is not particularly representative of the actual thrust of this book. While being “thematically” accurate, this is largely an auto-biographical tale, focused on the author's experiences in attending Yale as a physics major, and not some in-depth look at the societal factors leading to the still-substantial difference in the gender mix in the sciences.

Not, mind you, that this material isn't in there, but … and this is just my “gut feeling” … it seems to have been added on in order to turn the author's personal story into something more “generally applicable”.

I hope I'm not indulging in “spoilers” here, but Ms. Pollack opts to not go forward with a career in physics, and instead becomes an author and writing professor. It is, perhaps, a testimony to her skills in composition that I went through most of this book not really “getting” how long ago most the narrative happens … as I ended up with a “huh?” moment when the dates finally sunk in – having felt that I was reading something far more recent in her life than the 30 years or so in the past this all occurred. Not that this is “ancient history” (she and I are only a year apart – so I probably have a visceral identification with her college experience, if in a very different context), but I was surprised about 2/3rds of the way through the book to find this was a middle-aged woman's recalling her grade school, high school, and college years.

Why surprised? Well, this is going to sound bad, but it's really hard to nail down with other words … a lot of this is awfully whiny, with stories about how she wasn't appreciated at various levels, or how she got stuff, or didn't get stuff, or acted differently, or whatever, which read as a lot more immediate that revisiting long-past slights.

Of course, I'm a guy, and so probably don't have the appropriate sensitivity to how those situations impacted little Eileen … but my ability to empathize with her (despite being a "right-end-of-the-bell-curve" kid myself) definitely has a point where it drops off into less-sympathetic impressions.

Since the first 2/3rds of the book (which is convenient divided up into sections of her early years, her Yale years, and her revisiting things three decades later) is pretty much just a bio … I guess it wouldn't hurt to do the broad strokes. The author was from a small town in the “borscht belt” of the Catskills in upstate New York, where her Jewish grandparents owned a small resort hotel, and her father was the town dentist. She starts the narrative very early on, when she is shocked that the stuff she's noticing (like thinking) at “age 3 or 4” isn't some major discovery on her part … setting up a pattern of thwarted expectations that tend to recur throughout the story. She's described by one teacher as “obnoxious”, and from her descriptions of her behavior at various points, that seems to fit. For much of the early part of the book, she's keen to point out how she was living in a wholly different reality than most of those around her … she tells of a time when she was being tested for possibly skipping a grade (3rd?), and was in the office of the teacher who was putting her through various assessments. A pigeon gets into the office, the teacher freaks out, gets up on the desk, and is later quizzical why she didn't get more upset … her response: “Why should I be upset? This isn't my office. I'm not the one who needs to clear up after it.” … which is obviously set up to show how “different” she was (even though she makes a point to say that she remembered what she said from 50 years ago ... how much dialog do you recall verbatim from when you were 8 or 9 years old?).

There's a lot of auto-biographical stuff here that, while adding “color” to the telling, probably doesn't do much to advance the supposed thesis of the book … do we need to know about her crushes … the nearly-inappropriate relationship she has with a high school teacher, which does have elements that impact the story, but it's just uncomfortable in the telling (she thought they'd get married, he turns out to be gay), etc.? And, do we really need to know about her hormonal imbalance (too much testosterone) that only got addressed (kickstarting her periods) with a visit to the doctor in college? These may make the bio more interesting, but don't do much for main point of the book.

So, the first third of the book sets her up as a brilliant, but unfocused kid. The second part of the book is her experiences at Yale … and how she had to struggle through a wide assortment of difficulties that she (no doubt rightly) perceived as being things that a male would not have had problems with (from not wanting to speak up in class to ruining a pair of hose she was wearing in a lab). Again, a lot of this comes across as “poor me” rather than “this was a universal experience of all women on the Yale campus”.

The last third of the book involves her going back to Yale (and her grade and high schools) to see how things had changed, or not. She was welcomed back by the various departments, etc., and set up with situations where she could interview students. This leads to the key informational part of the book … after having interviewed (briefly, because she went to the wrong office initially) a female department head, there was a reception for the author, which ended up being attended by a large number of female students (and the department head), with the students raising a number of issues that the department head didn't realize were problems, resulting in her clearing her schedule and giving nearly full attention for the next several days to Ms. Pollack … introducing her to a lot more contacts, etc. This provides the real “meat” of the book.

Anyway, The Only Woman in the Room is not coming out until this Fall (it has a September 15 release date), so you'll have a while to wait if you want to check it out … although you can pre-order it at the moment from the on-line big boys (at a 45% discount). While the book is well-written, and the story is engaging up to a point, it still feels like it's an auto-biography that ended up getting a sociological coda added onto it to make it appealing to a large enough market to get published. I had, when requesting this, hoped for something more integrated, and possibly more informative (not that there isn't a whole lot of data eventually presented here). I just didn't feel that the “Why Science Is Still A Boy's Club” theme was particularly advanced by the author's life story. Again, this may be my being a cynical "privileged" male brute, lacking the sensitivity to fully empathize with the tale … so you might connect better with it than I did.

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Saturday, May 30th, 2015
11:14 pm
The sign points, the road falters ...
ghtds1.pngI really must stop believing in sub-titles … I've had quite a run of books that purported (via the sub-title) to be about one thing, but never quite got there, or went in some completely different direction. On one hand, I'm kind of pissed off when this happens … having devoted a chunk of time to actually read the book, in expectation that it was going to be going somewhere it really wasn't … but I guess it's “my fault” for taking the sub-title at its word(s).

I'm afraid that Graham Hancock's The Divine Spark: A Graham Hancock Reader: Psychedelics, Consciousness, and the Birth of Civilization ends up on that list. While there is LOTS about Psychedelics, and a bunch about Consciousness, the “tease” that got me interested in this in the first place was the “Birth of Civilization” part, which, while referenced, certainly does not play a significant part in the book.

Now, I've been a big fan of Graham Hancock for a long while, and have, fairly recently, been following him on Facebook, where I saw him discussing the book, and excerpting bits from his parts of it there. I reached out to Disinformation Books (which I was surprised to find is now part of Red Wheel / Weiser) for a review copy, which they eventually provided. The first thing to note about The Divine Spark is that Hancock is primarily the editor of a collection of 26 papers dealing with (generally speaking) hallucinogens, their history, their sources, their chemistry, their use, etc. … only 3 of which are Hancock's. The rest are a smattering of MDs, PhDs, familiar names like the solid Robert Schoch and the off-the-wall Russell Brand, plus a motley crew of drug enthusiasts and reality theorists … with item lengths ranging from a very brief 3 pages, to nearly 30.

As long-time readers of my reviews will no doubt recall, I have a certain amount of experience in this sphere, having studied shamanism back in the 80's (with much of the entheogenic enhancements discussed herein in trips to Peru and elsewhere), as well as having the experiential resources of a near-classic “misspent youth”. So, when I found the book a bit over-the-top in enthusiasm for psychedelics, it makes me wonder how it would be received by somebody whose interface with mind-altering substances was more in the tequila zone. Admittedly, in the past several decades I've been “clean & sober” and a non-participant in any chemical enhancements (I was very rah-rah when I read Hancock's story – included in this collection – about giving up his long-time intensive daily Cannabis use … having had a couple of friends who completely ruined their lives with their dedication to that particular plant, at the expense of everything else … and quite disappointed in his recent posts of having started smoking again, thanks to Colorado's new marijuana laws).

The book is broken up into five sections: On Consciousness, Expanding the Mind, Serious Research, Experiencing Psychedelics, and Supernatural. Individual pieces cover personal experiences with LSD, MDMA, Ayahuasca, even home-cooked DMT (who knew?), detailed notes from assorted scientific and quasi-scientific experiments dealing with psychedelics, to discussions of things as variable as the Casimir Effect (a method of extracting “free energy” from vacuum oscillations), stars being conscious (“Perhaps the reason galaxies don't fall apart is because they are not dumb balls of gas reacting to nothing more than the laws of physics, but are instead joined-up communities of intelligent dynamic beings.”), the existence of Richard Dawkins as a proof of the existence of God (OK, so this is Russell Brand's blithering). And, there's lots of reports of things experienced when in altered states, especially working with Ayahuasca in assorted settings.

Again, I kept waiting to get to that “Birth of Civilization” stuff, and not finding much on the subject. There is work referenced here, in a couple of places, by a writer that I had not previously encountered, by the name of Michael Winkelman, who appears to be a researcher who only publishes into the text book channel … meaning his books (several of which sound fascinating) are painfully expensive, with one appearing to have a list price of $132.00 (for just a 336-page hardcover), whose Kindle price is just shy of a hundred bucks! His work is touched on in at least a couple of these pieces and, again, seems to be the source of the concept that entheogens are what dragged early man up towards “Civilization”:
Winkelman uses the concept of psychointegrator plants to refer to experiential, phenomenological, or psychological aspects of their physiological effects. He suggests that the resulting mentation (how you think) and emotion (how you feel) may produce a holistic state of psychological integration and emotional growth. … Psychointegrator plants are traditionally used across cultures in a religious, spiritual, and often therapeutic context and may enhance some of the innate capacities of consciousness, integrating various forms of information.
Needless to say, I was disappointed that these theories where not better represented in the text, as the idea that what we are as modern humans represents a dynamic interface between basic hominid “meatware”, and the unique (albeit complementary) chemistry of this group of plants. If Winkelman's books were available in “mass market” editions (rather than the type of books you have to rent!), I'd have had an order in for 2 or 3 of them already.

Obviously, despite my disappointment in this (highlighted in the sub-title) subject not being covered more than in passing, there is quite a lot of very interesting material in The Divine Spark … although, again, I wonder how well this would come across to folks who haven't been exposed to these sorts of experiences. It will no doubt be extremely popular with fans of hallucinogens, as the book reads, over-all, as quite “druggy”.

One piece really appealed to me as a libertarian … a brief paper by Hancock called “The Consciousness Revolution” … where the author looks at models of consciousness and how they, through religion and politics, become locked into particular dogmatic and ideological views.:
I refer here to the so-called “war on drugs” which is really better understood as a war on consciousness and which maintains, supposedly in the interests of society, that we as adults do not have the right or maturity to make sovereign decisions about our own consciousness and about the states of consciousness we wish to explore and embrace. This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behavior toward others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behavior toward others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.
I do wish I was able to be more enthusiastic about The Divine Spark, as much of it is fascinating, but I kept getting that “designated driver” vibe reading it … like hanging out with one's wasted friends who are having a great time, and you're not. This has just been out for a month or so, and should be easy to find … the on-line guys have it (of course), and are currently knocking off about 20% from the cover price (heck, you could get it for 1/3rd of the price of the cheapest Winkelman book).

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Tuesday, May 26th, 2015
3:57 pm
Multi-Media ... just for you!
OK, so now I have a "sample" page featuring one poem for every month of the 1994 collection ... one down, 11 to go (well, and then more to go beyond that ... that's just for the 12 volumes currently available).

One would think these would be relatively trivial to produce, but, no ... each takes at least an hour between all the steps. Frankly, the most "daunting" part of this is picking what poem to read. During my main writing period, I'd compose 21 poems a month, so there's a LOT of reading to be done if I'm going to really pay attention ... but I generally just flip through looking for some particularly clever turn of phrase or image, and go with that one (assuming it reads like it will "read" well).

October 03, 1994

November 14, 1994

December 15, 1994

This is leading to a more "random" selection of poems than what I'd prefer. I'm leaning towards doing small "DOWNLOAD THE FREE EBOOK!" versions of the poems selected (a 12-poem e-book, whoop-de-whoop), as a lure for maybe building a "list" ... since other methods of getting eyeballs on the poems don't seem to be working, and they're SURE not getting people to click on that "order" button.

Anyway, here are 3 more examples of me reading my stuff ... click on each pic and you'll go off to the "sample" page for each (which has both the YouTube video embedded, and the text of the poem. Oh, c'mon ... you didn't need to feel all cheerful and stuff today, did you?

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Monday, May 25th, 2015
8:00 am
This is more for my benefit ...
OK, so I was working up the below graphics because I ran into an open tab that had the old Creative Commons search coding in it, and it had been MONTHS since http://search.creativecommons.org/ had worked, so I did some poking around to figure how that expressed itself in the Google image search, did some screen grabs, and slapped together the image here so that I could go search for pics "Labeled for reuse with modification" ... i.e., stuff I could use in promo graphics and on the web.

Since the Creative Commons search automatically (well, when you clicked the boxes for reuse and modification) dropped you into that mode in Google image search, I wasn't clear on how to "find my way there", and had, frankly, ended up making several graphics from scratch because I wasn't able to find things out there that I felt safe using.

However, much to my surprise, when I clicked on http://search.creativecommons.org/ it was BACK! For months it had ended up at some variation of a 404 page (it was a different code, but still a "can't find it" page), with no info on the "GitHub" project that's supposed to replace it (and if you go to the CCSearch page and click on the thing about GitHub you will see why I was a bit at a loss with that).

Anyway, if the CCSearch thing is back, I'll probably not need these instructions ... but figured I'd post it just in case the site disappeared again. {As is frequently the case, you can click on this for a full-size version.}

I suppose that if I'd paid closer attention to those Google search pages I would have noticed how to get there, but at least here's a step-by-step process to just get images that you're free to use and mess with!

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Sunday, May 24th, 2015
10:41 am
One a week?
This was another LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program book … that I was waiting for a long time (it was from the January 2015 “batch” but just arrived a week or so ago) … and I got “faked out” by it, because it had been offered previously, and a bunch of LTER reviews were already up on the site … leading me to assume that all of those folks had gotten their copies of Rachel Swaby's Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World and I hadn't (I contacted the publisher, Broadway Books, and they kindly sent me a copy of the recently-released paperback, which pretty much arrived simultaneously with the ARC – uncorrected proof  “advance reading copy” – from the LTER offer). As regular readers of this space will no doubt suspect, the reason I was so hot to get a hold of this is that I wanted to get it read, reviewed, and passed along to my engineering student daughter … figuring this would be inspirational to her (as it was, I gave her the “finished” copy).

As one would correctly surmise by the book's sub-title, this is 52 brief biographical sketches of women in the sciences, some “household names”, but most not. The author opens up her thought process in selection to a remarkable extent in the introduction, noting:
Accomplishments alone could have warranted inclusion in a different kind of book, but to be here, narrative – a secret bedroom lab, an ocean-floor expedition, or a stolen photograph that helped solve the structure of DNA – needed to be the twin pillar of achievement. I didn't include scientists if I didn't feel like I could travel beyond the bullet points of a dazzling career.
She also points out:
The scientists in this book aren't included because they were women practicing science or math in a time when few women did – although by that criteria, many would fit. They're included because … their ideas, discoveries, and insights made earth-shaking changes to the way we see the world.
Obviously, a book like this needs some sort of organization, and while it could have been done chronologically (admittedly, each section is arranged by year, but this causes a somewhat confusing “retrograde” flow of time periods), given that another of Swaby's selection criteria was that “the book includes only scientists whose life's work has already been completed”, it is by “field”, with sections covering Medicine, Biology and the Environment, Genetics and Development, Physics, The Earth and the Stars, Math and Technology, and Invention. Personally (and this is a minor quibble), I found those categories a bit on the hazy side, leading to less clarity than there might have been … but one understands that these women were not strictly siloed into handy categories in their lives.

There is a surprisingly expansive timeline here, going as far back as Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), who is listed as a German Botanist, but is included for her detailed scientific illustrations of insects, and those primarily in Suriname (on the north coast of South America), to as recent as Stephanie Kwolek (1923-2014), an American Chemist, who, in a lifetime working for DuPont, invented Kevlar, and contributed to the development of Lycra and Spandex. It's also somewhat surprising that the list isn't dominated by 1900 dates, with about a third being 1800s or before (although some of these ladies were very long-lived, with nearly half the list living into their 80's and beyond).

Of course, in a book with 52 individual stories, there's not much of an “arc” to speak of, and so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few things that grabbed my attention (although, in the reading of it, I found it hard to add bookmarks, as nothing stood out as “essential” for the description). One that was mentioned in one of the quotes above, was the “dirty secret” of DNA … which featured one of the less-long-lived subjects of the book, Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), who was an English Geneticist … Swaby says that (generally-credited discoverers of DNA) Watson and Crick “simply wouldn't have made their discoveries when they did had it not been for two crucial pieces of information passed from Franklin's lab at King's College in London to Watson and Crick's at Cambridge without her knowledge {bolding mine}. The two pieces were an unusually clear photo of DNA that Franklin had calibrated and captured (she'd developed a very precise process for obtaining photographic images of these molecules), and an internal report summarizing her past few years of work … these allowed Watson and Crick to correct a number of key errors they had in their data, and so publish the results before Franklin had a chance to synthesize her results into a submittable paper.

Another surprising story is that of Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), more generally known as a Hollywood actress. Here she's an Austrian (born Hedwig Kiesler) Inventor, who developed a frequency-hopping communications system (to help the Navy aim torpedoes, which were experiencing a 60% failure rate), the 1941 patent for which (that did not emerge from being “classified” by the military until two decades later) is the basis for “Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, wireless cash registers, bar code readers, and home control systems”. Swaby follows up with:
While she had a long career as a celebrated actress, Lamarr finally got the real recognition she deserved when she was awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1996. Her response: “It's about time.”
There are some famous names (as scientists) in here as well. One being Virginia Apgar (1909-1974), an American medical doctor who is likely familiar to any parents for the APGAR score for newborns, which she developed, but which was later cleverly re-worded by a resident to spell out her name … A-Appearance (Color), P-Pulse (Heart rate), G-Grimace (Reflex irritability), A-Activity (Muscle tone), and R-Respiration. Prior to her coming up with the test, newborns weren't generally “examined” after birth, letting addressable issues turn into life-threatening situations. She later moved on to head the Congenital Malformations division at the March of Dimes.

Another name that anybody around in the 60's will recognize is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), and American Marine Biologist whose book on the disastrous side-effects of pesticide use, Silent Spring, was a major catalyst for the modern environmental movement. Her influence was felt both in the celebrations of Earth Day, and in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps most media-known of this list would be Sally Ride (1951-2012), American Astrophysicist, and more famously, Astronaut. She beat out over 8,000 other applicants for her 1983 space mission, giving an icon for every STEM-loving girl on the planet.

Given that there are 52 bios in a 230-page book, none of these are particularly in-depth looks at their subject … each running 3-6 pages – enough to give some background, provide those “narrative” elements that Swaby was looking for, and hit the high points of what, in a lot of cases, were long and distinguished careers.

There aren't any “boring” parts in Headstrong, the author's search for stories and the brevity of each topic assuring that, and it's a pretty breezy read. The cover features the pictures of a dozen of the subjects (none labeled, so after Sally Ride and Hedy Lamarr, I had no clue who was who), and one thing that I think would have improved the book would have been pictures in the chapters themselves … although in some cases these might have been hard to come by.

This just hit the bookstores last month, so should certainly be available. I anticipate that this is going to be a classic for girls like my daughter, sort of a “vision board” for the whole spectrum of scientific achievement. The on-line big boys have it at nearly 30% off of (a very reasonable) cover price at this point, and that might be your best bet at the moment, unless your local book store is given to matching discounts. Aside from the “encouraging my daughter” aspects, I enjoyed reading this in the context of a fairly neglected “history of science” storyline. If your interests are in that direction (or in Feminism in general, I suppose) you'll find a lot to like here.

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