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

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Wednesday, May 10th, 2017
11:23 am
A special relationship with what?
This was a book I got via the LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program … which is almost always a bit of a “pig in a poke” situation in that one puts in requests for books based on a paragraph or so of copy from the publisher, and pretty much have to go with “sounds good” or not. Frankly, I had anticipated a more “general” or “global” look at the subject. However, Rabbi Donniel Hartman's Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself stays fairly tightly bound to a Jewish context, making it far more parochial than I expected (and/or hoped). Once again, I suspect that what “faked me out” was a subtitle foisted on the book by the marketing department, a complaint that regular readers of this space are all too familiar with my airing when the book I wanted to read was what the subtitle promised.

This starts out well enough, early in the introduction (“Religion's Autoimmune Disease”, which takes up 10% of the pagecount) Hartman namechecks (if in a context of arguments that are unlikely “to move the person of faith”) Dawkins' The God Delusion and Hitchens' God Is Not Great (which also appear as 2 of the 16 listed reference works he cites), and comes up with some pretty solid salvos at religion, such as:
… As these religions entered the world stage, alongside their charge to love God and love humanity, they began to wage war with those who preceded or followed them. Wherever monotheism developed, it was accompanied by the belief that the one God could be truly represented or correctly understood by only one faith community. Love of God, or more accurately being loved by God, was perceived to be a zero-sum game – the more one was loved, the less another could be.
      And so, together with the love of neighbor came the hatred of the other. Together with kindness to those in need came the murder of those who disagreed. Monotheism became a mixed blessing and a double-edged sword.
I have to admit that three of the key concepts that the author posits in the book sort of flew by me … while they're defined in the text, they just didn't have enough connection (to my mind) to really serve as useful models. The first of these is that “autoimmune disease” from the introduction's title. While he specifically addresses this a paragraph or two on (in terms of individual believers), I think the following is better at summing up this idea:
The central argument of this book is that religion's (and religions') spotty moral track record cannot be written off to either a core corruption in human nature or an inherently corrupt scripture. Rather it is my contention that a life of faith, while obligating moral sensitivity, also very often activates a critical flaw that supports and encourages immoral impulses. These impulses, given free rein to flourish under the cloak of religious piety, undermine the ultimate moral agendas of religions and the types of communities and societies they aspire to build.
The other two are “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … which I'll get to in a bit. None of these three coinages of the author particularly grabbed me as solid representations of the related concepts (especially when the book delves deeply into Jewish extra-biblical sources), and suggest that he'd come up with them, thought they'd be popular/useful, and tried to make them fit the details. As is often the case, this may “just be me”, but it's my review, and you're getting my take on things.

Again, I wish they'd have been more upfront about the angle of the book … as this isn't a book about or advocating non-belief (which, obviously, was what I was hoping I was getting into), and it is firmly embedded in the deep and ancient traditions of the Jewish faith. Hartman proposes Judaism as an “ideal patient” to study his posited “autoimmune disease”, and gives his rational for this (which would have been helpful in the promotional material in LTER) here:
… my choice of Judaism as a case study does not stem merely from proficiency therein, nor from my belief that traditions are best critiqued by their insiders. I chose Judaism because as a member of this faith, I have a personal investment in exposing its shortcomings for the sake of attempting to heal them – offering a narrative of what my tradition can and ought to stand for. In truth, I am trying to save my own religion from itself.
Now, as a religion major, I certainly found the journey through the texts here interesting, but, honestly, taking Judaism as the “model patient” for the failings of the major monotheisms (à la this) is sort of like studying the Dalai Lama when what you're really addressing is the sort of Asian head of state like Pol Pot or Hirohito. While the Palestinians may disagree, the Jews are by far the least aggressive of the monotheistic faiths … at least in the post-biblical millennia (there is, of course, a great deal of bloodshed and carnage in the Old Testament, and the author presents a long litany of these at one point – but I'm sparing you the blockquote).

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

I really had to dig to get even reasonably straight-forward definitions of Hartman's “God Intoxication” and “God Manipulation” … he has chapters in this which give a vague description and then launch into examples from the tradition or his experiences, which is probably why these seem so hazy to me. However, there are two chapters that deal with “theological remedies” for these, and their introductory paragraphs have about as concise looks at these concepts as I was able to find …
God Intoxication, as we have learned, distorts monotheistic religion by defining religious piety exclusively in terms of immersion in God-centered ritual and consciousness. This consuming focus on a God who demands exclusive attention at all times and at all costs extracts a heavy price in the sphere of the ethical. God Intoxication devalues the human enterprise and consequently the significance of human ethical responsibility.
In terms of a “global” focus, this next bit certainly is the theme of way too many headlines these days … if more to-the-point for Christianity and Islam than Judaism:
… a primary cause of the spiritual autoimmune disease that can plague monotheistic religions comes directly from the potential for God and religion to be manipulated in a way that quiets the voices of moral conscience, draping self-interest in a cloak of pious devotion and stripping those defined as “other” of moral status. God Manipulation, the condition that sanctions such self-interest with the stamp of divine and religious approval, has proven a pervasive and perilous symptom of monotheism throughout the history of human social life. To protect humanity from this perversion of God's image, and immunize religion from itself, is an existential need of the utmost urgency.
As noted, there is a goodly amount of text/tradition support for the various aspects of these … but not presented in a way that lends itself to easy extraction here. There is one piece that I do want to pass on, and it's discussed in the delightfully titled chapter “When Scripture Is the Problem”, although more fully detailed in an earlier chapter. This deals with Hillel the Elder (who taught in the first century BCE), who was approached by a person who wished to convert, but only if he can be converted “while standing on one foot” – that is, in a short period of time. Hillel consents and comes up with one of the great phrasings in all of religious history:
      Judaism's hundreds of biblical commandments and thousands of rabbinic interpretations result in a sea of rules and norms in which it is easy for core religious priorities and goals to get lost. From this perspective, the convert's question reflects a legitimate spiritual desire to know the essential principles and values informing and animating the intricate structures of religious life. For without this essence, religion is just that, a set of empty structures devoid of any underlying meaning or truth.
      Hillel's answer, in any event, provides the potential convert, and all subsequent rabbinic tradition, with an encapsulation of Judaism's core values. “What is hateful to you,” Hillel states, “do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary [upon this principle]; go and learn it.”
Needless to say, Hillel's encapsulation is an excellent place to start for finding a religious expression which is not dependent on all the vileness exhibited by religion in general, and the major monotheisms in particular (be that expressed in Christians trying to ban contraceptives or “gay cakes”, or Muslims cutting off heads on video or burning children alive). And, of course, I would have liked to have much more of that “post religion” thinking (heck, like this) than the in-tradition navel-gazing.

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

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

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Sunday, May 7th, 2017
9:27 am
"A compass, skis, and a shotgun."
This is another example of a dollar store find, but in this case for a book that I would have been very unlikely to have picked up at another price point. While I'm not into reading fiction, I will, from time to time, read humor, and I'd been a bit of a fan of Chelsea Handler (she would have been the sort of person I'd love to have hung out with back in my drinking days!), so when I saw her Uganda Be Kidding Me staring at me from the dollar store shelf, it was an easy one to toss into the shopping cart (plus it promised to be a quick, light read to stick in between a couple of heavy titles). However, it's also something that does not lend itself particularly to my style of reviewing … not being exactly filled with fascinating factoids or concepts.

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

And, she's always looking for a drink.

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

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

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

Oh, one thing to note all the way through this … it starts with vulgar and goes downhill from there. Aside from the basic commentary, Ms. Handler seems to be a total bitch to her friends (which I guess one might consider acceptable behavior if one is paying for everybody's trip), pretty much non-stop. To get a sense of what a nice jaunt with Ms. Handler is like, here's a choice paragraph:
      This was only our second day of safari and our drinking had taken a turn none of us had expected or been prepared for. We would start off with Bloody Marys, work our way through mimosas, and then move to champagne midafternoon, until we came back to our lodges for what turned into group massages where I would end up with one eye glued shut while the baboons raped each other outside our villas and then stole my Ace bandages.
She quotes Rex as saying that they were perhaps the first functioning alcoholic women he'd ever met.

Did I mention “hot mess”? Yes, well. One wonders how long these assorted establishments ended up talking about this group coming through …
That night we had dinner in a circular wine cellar and were separated from the rest of the guests. … Simone attributed our isolation to our behavior in general, and Hannah attributed it to the camp having to keep me from sexually assaulting Rex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, May 6th, 2017
2:43 pm
Walk with the Egyptians ...
This is a perfect example of the delightful serendipity of the dollar store … a nice hardcover book, in a very recent edition (the updated American edition, which just came out in 2014) on an interesting topic … for a buck, what's not to like? Of course, I'm sure that this channel is way less popular with the authors and their publishers, as if they're getting anything, it's likely to be pennies (would Walmart pay on “cut out” copies going to the dollar stores? dunno).

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

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

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

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

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

When the activities begin, the author is in India, and is dropping everything to get back to Egypt. She notes at one point that she's the third generation of “activists” and she “wanted more to act the revolution than to write it”. As I mentioned, the writing is very “in the moment”, but here's a bit from the “Friday, 28 January, 10:00 P.M.” section that at least frames the action, without it requiring explaining names and locations:
      In neighborhoods across the country, through the night of this Friday that will become known as the Friday of Wrath, the regime kills hundreds of Egypt's young. Police and Security men drive cars and trucks into groups of protesters. Snipers shoot young men and women from the rooftops of the Ramses Hilton, the American University, the Egyptian Museum, and the Dakhleyya. Troops fire on them with shotguns and rifles and automatics, and the thug militias, the baltagis, burn them with Molotov cocktails and batter them with stones, ceramics, and marble.
The narrative slips in and out of the “now”, and drifts off into stories of her family, descriptions of neighborhoods and landmarks as they usually had been, and analysis of various political (and religious) factions.

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

A quarter of the book later, the narrative picks up back in the “18 days” of the revolution. Much of this is waiting for Mubarak to actually step down. He does eventually, and the military steps in. Elections are held, and the Islamist parties (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis) win over 70% of the seats … Soueif notes:
The Liberal parties had been too busy campaigning for elections to be postponed until after the Constitution was written to organize or acquire a presence on the street. The Left – while very high profile in the campaigns and initiatives and struggles that fed the revolution – was disorganized and had absolutely no funding but scrambled at the last minute to field young candidates under the slogan “The Revolution Continues”.
She then, after noting the percentages of the vote, adds the one positive she can identify:
The heartening surprise was that not a single candidate believed to have a connection with the Mubarak regime was returned.
The military, once having been thought by the revolution as being “on their side”, turned things ugly … lots of bloodshed … and the old security forces were back in play again. Run the clock forward to May, 2012 and there's finally Presidential elections … the initial voting ends up in a run-off between Muhammad Morsi “the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists in general” and Ahmad Shafiq “the candidate of the Mubarak regime remnants and the military”, who had each gotten about a quarter of the votes, with only about 1% separating them.
For the non-Islamist revolutionaries confronted once more with the ballot box, the choices were terrible. You could either vote for Muhammad Morsi, or you could spoil your ballot. And if you spoiled your ballot – or boycotted – and Ahmad Shafiq won, how would you live with yourself? After everything we'd done, after our friends had been killed and maimed, after so many lives had been ruined – and also after the freedoms and the gains and the new spirit we had achieved – we would have allowed the regime to come back.
Morsi won by a few percentage points, but by July of 2013 “he'd been deposed by the armed forces by popular demand”. Once again the military stepped in, this time with a great deal of support of the people, and the former head of Military Intelligence (!), General Sisi, took the reins of power, and is still incumbent today.

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

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

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

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Friday, May 5th, 2017
3:28 pm
Awaking from the dream ...
I guess I must be generally disconnected from any “community” of my interests … I'll find out about concerts long after they've happened, and will often only find out about new books by authors that I've enjoyed many years after they've come out. Although feeling that I'm fairly clued in to Shamanic books, I was late to the party with the “Toltec” books of the father-and-son team of Don Miguel Ruiz & Don Jose Ruiz. I quite liked the famous first Ruiz book and was raving about its follow-up (when I got to it – in both cases I didn't discover them until they'd been out for a half decade or so!), and I'd ordered this one along with the latter, assuming it was of a reasonably recent vintage in that it had never made it onto my mental radar screens … nope, this came out 13 years ago.

Anyway, Don Miguel Ruiz' The Voice of Knowledge: A Practical Guide to Inner Peace finally worked its way to the upper reaches of my to-be-read piles, and I got into it … still somewhat expecting that it was a later expression of the materials I'd already read. Now, while it was from a few years after The Four Agreements, it certainly preceded the later book … “my bad”, I guess. This is something of an autobiography, with a “shamanic tale” unfolding along the personal arc of the author's life … weaving in and out of teaching stories and mythic elements, hooked into that somewhat odd core element of “how to recover the silent voice of our integrity and find inner peace”. The essence of the Ruiz's model is, to the Western mind, quite counter-intuitive, casting knowledge as the enemy, in favor of some preliterate (or, perhaps, post-literate?) state:
As little children, we are completely authentic. Our actions are guided by instinct and emotions, we listen to the silent voice of our integrity. Once we learn a language, the people around us hook our attention and program us with knowledge. But that knowledge is contaminated with lies.
Much of this is sort of “out there” (especially for folks not grounded in Shamanic materials – especially the Castaneda books, whose internal “Toltec” mythologies set up, or at least parallel, much of what Ruiz is presenting), but one structural element here I really appreciate. At the end of each chapter, there is a “Points to Ponder” section which presents “discussion topics”, much different in tone from the main text, which are sort of like having a follow-up to a lecture in a class setting – which might be the origin of these from Ruiz's workshops.

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

In the “A Night In The Desert” chapter, he gets into a bit of cosmology, and how we process the reality of the world around us:
Once I interpret, qualify, or judge what I perceive, it is no longer real; it is a virtual world. This is what the Toltec call dreaming. … The Toltec believe that humans are living in a dream. The dream is a world of illusion …
He gets into the concept of “art”, as in making our own realities: “You live in your own world, and that world is so private. Nobody knows what you have in your world. … Your world is your creation, and it's a masterpiece of art.” This then leads into how each person not only has their own individual dream regarding themselves, but will “create an image for every secondary character who lives in my story”, which means that for every person out there, there are dozens, hundreds, of images being held by people for whom the person is a “secondary character”. Ruiz circles back to the second of the Four Agreements in this (“Don't take anything personally.”) with the following:
      Once I discovered that people are creating and living in their own story, how could I judge them any longer? How could I take anything personally when I know that I am only a secondary character in their story? I know that when they talk to me they are really talking to the secondary character in their story. And whatever people say about me is just a projection of their image of me.
Needless to say, this is pretty heady stuff, if drifting off in the direction of classic Solipsism, and is the sort of thing that I find makes Don Ruiz's work so attractive … it's not standard issue Newage woo-woo, but a lot deeper and makes a very enticing bridge between shamanic work and deep-end philosophy. Of course, the flip side of this is that it becomes quite challenging to try to summarize the details of what's presented in a book like this, as it's filled with fascinating twists of what most people would hold to be reality, all of which are supported internally, but though pages of material (that I'm not going to re-type as blockquotes).

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

In the “Common Sense and Blind Faith” chapter there is a very telling passage. In the book, “knowledge” is pretty much equated with lies, but:
      Common sense is wisdom, and wisdom is different from knowledge. You are wise when you no longer act against yourself. You are wise when you live in harmony with yourself, with your own kind, with all of creation.
This almost sounds like the Native American concept of the “Beauty Way”, although in this context drawing a lot on how emotions conflict with “knowledge”, and end up with us all “acting against ourselves”. Interestingly, there is a place here where the Fifth Agreement (“Be skeptical, but learn to listen.”) is foreshadowed the better part of a decade before that book appeared, in the context of introducing Ruiz's Four Agreements:
If you want to know the truth, if you are ready to take your faith out of the lies, then remember: Don't believe yourself, and don't believe anybody else. This will give you clarity about many things. …
The best moments of your life are when you are authentic, when you are being yourself. When you are in your creation and doing what you love to do, you become what you really are again. You are not thinking in that moment; you are expressing.
The book ends up in the outer reaches of this all. Ruiz describes the moment that the whole “dreaming” thing became real to him – at the time of a near-fatal (or fatal, but he “came back”) car crash, when his consciousness was hovering outside of his body, looking down on his physical form. This leads him to reconsider pretty much all of reality, and bringing his questions to his grandfather and his mother (his was a family of healers, and obviously of practicing shamans). His mother tells him: “The only way for you to experience that reality is to master dreaming. To do this, you have to completely detach from what you believe you are; you have to let go of the story of your life.” To help him with this, she does something very Castaneda-esque – assembling a working group of 21 people to train, who met every Sunday for three years to go “into dreaming for eight to twelve hours”. His subsequent stories of attempting to maintain that state full-time while working as a medical doctor are fascinating. He describes normal experience like being bats echolocating, we form words to define things, but those are just sounds, and when we awake from the dream, we “see” a world of color and beauty that is beyond the grasp of words.

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

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

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Thursday, May 4th, 2017
11:00 pm
Roles you need around you ...
This was one of those books that I sought out after it being noted/recommended/referenced in another book I was reading/reviewing. While this happens from time to time, it isn't a given that I'll “pull the trigger” on ordering, and it's even less frequent that I really like the title in question. It turns out that what was recommending this book in the one that referenced it is that this is the summarization of the research done by the Gallup Organization on the question (and proposed matrix of relationships) of friendship. Tom Rath's Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without is based on eight million interviews, assorted experiments, and a deep delving into the existing literature. At one point in here, the author notes:
As much as I love numbers and statistics, I could easily spend a couple hundred pages discussing the findings from our research, but that would cause most of you to close this book for good.
... and this is sort of reflected in the organization and flow of the book. There is clearly a sense that there is a mass of data behind the reasonably breezy writing, but the nuggets of data only come out in bits and pieces, rather than in a more wide-reaching context.

The book is also divided up somewhat oddly, with four “parts”: Friends In Life, Friends At Work, Developing Vital Friendships, and Building Vital Friendships At Work … plus the last quarter of the book being taken up by several Appendixes. The core bit on the “Vital Friends” doesn't come in until Chapter 11, following six chapters in the “Life” section, and three in the “Work” part. Most of these are based on “stories” about various people the author had interviewed or studied, ranging from a homeless man (whose life had spiraled down from a very stable and successful point, largely due to his losing his friend-based support system at work) to the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill. One of the factoids presented here grabbed my attention:
During our teenage years we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time spent with friends is less than 10%.
The “Life” section especially deals with ways that friends influence us, from our diets (we're 5x as likely to have, for example, a healthy diet, if our “best friend” has one), to our surviving disease (in one study, subjects that had fewer than four friends were more than twice as likely to die than those with four or more … although the effect plateaued at four, having more didn't increase the survival benefit).

One of the concepts that keeps coming up here is that of a “best friend”, which appears to have a special influence in one's satisfaction (or “engagement”) with work. Rath points out:
You might notice that we used the term “best friend” in our interviews. We did so because our early research indicated that having a “best friend” at work – rather than just a “friend” or even a “good friend” – was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes. Apparently, the word “friend” by itself has lost most of its exclusivity.
... this perhaps anticipating the effects of the terminology of social media where one might have thousands of “friends” without really knowing any but a handful of them. The effects of having a “best friend” at work are pretty dramatic:
Overall, just 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. If you are fortunate enough to be in this group, you are seven times as likely to be engaged in your job. Our results also suggest that people without a best friend at work all but eliminate their chances of being engaged during the workday.
Despite this, many companies actively disapprove of outside-of-work socialization of employees … with a third of the 80,000 managers surveyed opposing these friendships, and only 18% of organizations encouraging employee fraternization … and some going so far as to have anonymous 1-800 numbers set up to report on fellow employees seen socializing outside of work!

And, while having one “best friend” at work improves job engagement by 12x:
People with at least three close friends at work were 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life.
... that's a pretty amazing stat – but its based on their research cross-referencing questions about how many close friends the respondents had, how many of those were at work, and questions about general life satisfaction. Still, a majority of companies are ambivalent to opposed to employee friendships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 1st, 2017
10:00 am
Long time, no post ...
Yeah, I am painfully aware that not too long ago (OK, so maybe it was last year) I was trying to make some cogent, entertaining post in here on a daily basis ... and recently all you see from me is the book reviews (making my review blog sort of redundant).

Frankly, I've not even been able to get out to write those in most of the past month ... which is not only irritating to me, but leaving me with one of those "OMG!" stacks of books waiting my being able to triage the time to get out and crank out reviews (the stack currently is at 8 books, which, with my averaging 2 per 7-hour binge at Starbucks, means freeing up four nights to write).

However, I'm in here today simply sharing a link (yeah, I know, the above is a lot of verbiage just to share a link), an article by the Chicago Tribune's John Kass on free speech ... it's real solid and an "everybody should read this" item:

The lies we were told about who would silence free speech

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Tuesday, April 4th, 2017
12:36 pm
"Breaking apart empty space"
Sometimes I have little bookmarks pointing out things that I'd like to use in these reviews, sometimes I have ones pointing to on-line resources, and sometimes I have them noting books that I want to check out. This one got into my hands due to the latter scenario, as it had been mentioned several times in a book I recently read on Korean Zen. I was, however, somewhat surprised when I got into J.C. Cleary's (a well-known translator of Zen texts) A Buddha from Korea: The Zen Teachings of T'aego, as I was anticipating a collection of the writings of the 14th Century Korean Zen Master T'aego, possibly with some contextifying commentary, but that's not what this book is. This is pretty much two books, the first being an extensive essay on T'aego, Korea in his era, the history of Buddhism, Zen, and other traditions in Eastern Asia, what was happening in the geopolitical world at the time, etc., and the second being the translation of 131 bits and pieces penned by T'aego.

While the initial essay (which takes up half the book) is interesting, it only got one of my bookmarks, perhaps reflecting that I'd picked up the book to delve deeper into the teachings of T'aego, and not into 14th Century Korean culture/politics, etc. I would have likewise preferred it if the material in the second half was presented with commentary. The following is the one thing I marked in the front part of the book, and it has more to do with my interest in books than anything about T'aego:
Many East Asian Buddhists made the long hazardous journey to Central Asia and India to bring back authentic texts. Temples collected copies of scriptures, and rulers sponsored vast compendium editions by paying for the printing blocks and arranging for copies to be printed and distributed to major temples. The first printed books were Buddhist sutras.
While I can appreciate that doing a walk-through of the material dilutes the immediacy of the Zen teaching, so much of this is so lacking in context (specific to the particular texts), that it leaves things remarkably vague, where some clarity would be easy enough to provide, if at least in the form of defining mentioned characters, or noting where things would have been “common knowledge” at the time. For an example, here's a bit for text 6. The Supreme Truth:
… Old Shakyamuni said, “The enlightenment of all the buddhas is far beyond all the words and talk.” So how could the work in our supreme school's vehicle use doings or words? Contrived doings are playing with the spirit. Words are the dregs. As for the true correct way of showing [reality], all the buddhas of past, present and future “hang their mouths on the wall” and all the generations of enlightened teachers hide their bodies in the weeds. Linji shouted when they entered the gate; Deshan hit them: what child's play!
      Knowing early on that it is like this, I was forced to take my empty hands and wander like a cloud over the world seeking teachers and inquiring after the Path. It was like putting a head on top of a head. It also attracted suspicion from people. Looking back on it coldly, it embarrasses me to death. In the past in my native land I hid myself in the mountain valleys and did not sell the Buddha Dharma cheap to worldly people, or bury the wind of Zen [in worldly concerns]. I have just gone on this way, totally at ease, expansive and free, independent, happy, alive.
There are some parts of these which do set up where/when/who for the quotes, which appear to be in the originals, if converted into current forms (such as noting “the fifteenth day of the first month of 1357”). However, this isn't defined as such, and there are various parts which are 3rd person reports of T'aego's activities. Also, a lot of the pieces are focused on the rulers of the time, with copious praise being ladled out, and official business being conducted within the text. Here's one that starts there, but then gets “very Zen”:
      When the rescript had been read aloud, T'aego picked up the whisk and said: “Is there anyone who is truly worthy of the vehicle of the school that has come down from antiquity? All the scriptures of the twelve-part canon of the five teachings and three vehicles are just piss left behind by an old barbarian. The buddhas and patriarchs were just guys talking about a dream in a dream. If you discuss them by making up reasons, you bury the vehicle of the school If you discuss them in terms of conventional truth, you are turning your back on the former sages. This way won't do, otherwise won't do, 'won't do' also won't do. If you are a legitimate patchrobed monk, you can see it beyond all the permutations of affirmation and denial.”
Needless to say, this is getting into that “don't know” territory … I keep waiting for him to say (like some of his current-day dharma descendants) “I hit you with stick!”. There are various “classic” Zen elements in here, and I'm not sure which ones preceded T'aego, and which came from him. The following is from a piece that was a teaching requested by the King, requiring T'aego to present the “essence” of Zen. This is just a small bit, but I thought it was worth passing along:
      At this moment you should look carefully at your original face before your father and mother were born. As soon as it is brought up, you awaken to it: then, like a person drinking water, you know yourself whether it is cool or warm. It cannot be described or explained to anyone else. It's just a luminous awareness covering heaven and earth.
This next one is from a letter sent to a layman student that starts out with the classic “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” the answer being “No.”, but:
… This word No is not the No of existence and one existence. It is not the No of true nothingness. Ultimately, what is it?
      When you arrive here, you must abandon all with your whole body, and not doing anything, not doing not-doing-anything. Go straight to the empty and free and vast, with no pondering what to think. The previous thought is already extinct, the following thought does not arise, the present thought is itself empty. You do not hold to emptiness, and you forget you are holding on. You do not reify this forgetting: you escape from not reifying and the escape too is not kept. When you reach such a time, there's just a spiritual light that's clearly aware and totally still, appearing as a lofty presence.
While, as these Zen things go, this passage is reasonably straight forward {note: that "one existence" is in the text, yet I'm guessing it's a transcription error for "non-existence", but, obviously, I could be wrong}, I still feel that a paragraph or two of explanatory copy would be quite useful for most of these. The reader is not sitting at the feet of the Master and getting full-on transmission, so some wordless gesture is unlikely to manifest indicating sudden enlightenment ... I, at least, would appreciate having bits of this predigested somewhat by framing them in how they've played out over the centuries of pedagogical use. A few of these pieces are long-ish (at 3-4 pages), and many hover around a page, but about half of them are simply 4-line "poems" (there's no indication if the original Korean had a rhyme structure, and Cleary certainly doesn't attempt to impose one on them) which are frequently just "word pictures" of things in and around T'aego's mountain retreat. I figured I'd toss in one of these (albeit more "philosophical" than descriptive) for illustration:

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

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Monday, April 3rd, 2017
3:44 pm
It really was more of a civil war than a revolution ...
As those who follow along at home appreciate, I get my books from a number of different sources, some of which throw a significant bit of serendipity in my reading stream. One of these, of course, is the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, in which LT members get to request any number of the titles being made available to LTER (I think I average 4) each month, and a computer program, “The Almighty Algorithm”, determines who gets what, based on compatibility factors of the title info the publishers have provided, and the content of the users' libraries. Now, what's offered each month is heavily skewed to fiction, which I typically don't read, so the pool of plausible books is small to start, and it's a rare thing where I'm really interested in getting a book, so my filter is largely “I might be interested in reading that” rather that “ooh, ooh, pick ME, pick ME!”.

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

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

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

As opposed to the simplified “Colonists vs. British” dynamic that got instilled in my head, what Hoock presents here is really the tale of a civil war, with there being sizable numbers of “Loyalist” Americans (half of my ancestry ended up in Canada for a while due to this) that the Crown was at least nominally devoted to protecting, obviously along with the land holdings and tax base that the colonies represented. For such a lengthy (and interesting) book, I was surprised to find that I had only stuck in two of my little bookmarks to point me to choice bits to use in the review … here's one of them:
Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America's first civil war than is commonly acknowledged. What is often celebrated as the Patriots' groundbreaking infrastructure of revolution – and community, district, and colonial-level committees do indeed represent a significant achievement of political mobilization – was, for Loyalists an apparatus of oppression and terror.
There are fairly horrific stories of violence on both sides of the conflict, from having Loyalists tarred-and-feathered to having British forces indulging in “no quarter” attacks on Patriot troops (leaving behind savagely dismembered corpses). One of the binds that the British were in was that they were unwilling to deal with the Colonists in terms of “rules of war”, as that would imply that the Americans were, in fact, a government per se, and not just traitors to the Crown. The American side is presented as being remarkably modern in how it played all the reports of excesses of the British to the press of the day … no doubt part of that “infrastructure of revolution” mentioned in the above quote … building up the moral cause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
12:28 pm
Wondering if there IS such a thing ...
Oh, dear … it's happened again. I get a book by somebody I know, and “have issues” with it, which makes me very uncomfortable writing the review. To be perfectly honest (and I'm not proud to say it), I'm going to tip-toe through some things here that I would have been all over if this wasn't by a local acquaintance. Mind you, most of what I would have been casting a negative light on here is on the layout and editing … and the author, in the Introduction, specifically says: “But if you find typos, funky formatting or otherwise unacceptable communication in this book – please spare me the negative reviews on those grounds alone”. What's ironic is that she's constantly through the book encouraging readers to hire folks to do what you can't … and I know of a guy (ahem) who spent 10 years running a publishing company who she could have tapped for some editorial assistance. Especially given that this is a CreateSpace (Amazon's print-on-demand publishing service) book. I recently found an egregious typo (that had escaped my editorial eyeballing in perhaps a dozen read-throughs) in one of my review collections, and it was fixed, with the corrected version available globally, within 18 hours. The cycle would, obviously, be a bit longer for a book with numerous things “in need of fixing”, but within a couple of days a nice tidy new version would be out there. Pity. {and, for one plainly snarky comment: I contacted the author 2-3 times, basically asking whether she'd be interested in my keeping a running notation on what needed attention, and got no response}

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two of the book starts out looking at ways of getting more customers. Frankly, I had sort of anticipated that there would be more clearly evident differences between sleazy selling and non-sleazy selling, but it's probably my distaste for sales tactics (on either side of the table), that even the “non” sounds iffy to me in a lot of these. Kline does have a good “litmus test” for deciding on which side of the line a pitch falls:
The way you avoid sounding like a sleaze-ball in your lead gen is to always imagine that you're talking to your customer face-to-face. Live, and in person. If you feel no queasiness about delivering your message when you're looking your customer in the eye, then you know you're delivering a message that's authentic and heart-felt.
She follows this with a list of questions to ask oneself when launching into lead generation:

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

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

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

The next chapter is about “the ask”, “How to talk to a potential customer about buying …”, and she makes the rather good point that “there's nothing sleazy about being paid for what you do … there is also nothing sleazy about asking to be paid for what you do”. She recommends creating a 2-step offer, the first step being an “initial” offer which is low-cost or even free, but “makes it easy for a potential customer to say 'yes' to continuing the conversation with you”, and the second being your “big” offer, “the thing you were trying to sell in the first place”. She goes into quite a lot of detail here, looking at various aspects of what makes a good initial offer, from how to conceptualize it in relation to the big offer, to specifics of how to “package” various types of initial offers. Kline frames some very interesting approaches in this, saying that “your initial offer should always be something that sets you up to present your Big Offer”, and that it “must address your customer's Big Problem” (although not actually solving anything), plus
… it must give you a chance to shine … it should let you do the thing you're absolutely best at doing – and thereby demonstrate that you would be great at solving their Big Problem …
The last chapter is titled “Never again allow even a single sale to slip through your fingers.”, which is a pretty big promise. This basically walks the reader through the whole process up to this point, and then launches into a pitch for “systematized marketing”, looking at email, phone, direct mail, texting, and social media follow up. She devotes a fairly sizable appendix to detailing a suggested email program, including discussion and examples of a sequence of 10 emails to go out over a 3-week stretch.

One thing I found interesting here was her insistence that in every communication you send out to prospects you should include “the details of the product you have to sell, how much it costs, and what they need to do next in order to buy it”, and gives an example of somebody who was marketing to her, but had no specifics in the initial email … the sender being so locked into the “flow” of information she'd crafted, that:
She replied, “Yes, but I wanted to send out my full sequence of informational emails before I tell you what it is.” Doh! I couldn't believe it. I wanted to buy right then! But she wouldn't let me.
… and by the time the next four emails showed up, Kline was too busy to read them. There's a nice section header here: “Non-Persistent Followup Means Failure” … which sets up the Systematized followup material. One thing stood out particularly here, and that was: if one has defined your Ideal Customers, and what their Big Problem is, you don't have to customize any of your materials … they'll all respond to the same Initial Offer, they initially rejected (or not) the Big Offer “for the same handful of reasons”, and those objections can be overcome by the same sequence of followup marketing.

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

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

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Monday, February 20th, 2017
1:27 pm
A classic ...
It's hard to be a conservative in the U.S. and not at least have a general awareness of Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, but this never seriously got on my radar until I read Wayne Allyn Root's The Conscience of a Libertarian, for which this was not only (as one might suspect) an inspiration, but something that Root claims to carry around with him constantly. As W.A.R. and I tend to agree on most things political, I figured I should get a copy.

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

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

I have a half-dozen or so of my little bookmarks in here for what I felt were the “good parts”, and I think I'll mainly let these speak for Sen. Goldwater, rather than making a ham-handed attempt to paraphrase what he's getting at. These two bits are from the initial chapter (sharing a title with the book), which sets up the author's view on what is meant by “conservative” (these are separated by a few paragraphs, but I think flow well together):
We have heard much in our time about “the common man.” It is a concept that pays little attention to the history of a nation that grew great through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men. The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery.

and …

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

In the “Perils of Power” chapter, Goldwater takes a hard look at the nature of government and those who would and do govern. This is long-ish, at two paragraphs, but I thought worthwhile to share:
      Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man's liberty. Government represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men. And power, as Lord Acton said, corrupts men. “Absolute power,” he added, “corrupts absolutely.”
      State power, considered in the abstract, need not restrict freedom: but absolute state power always does. The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods – the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends – that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom. And note, secondly, that the “can” quickly becomes “will” the moment the holders of government power are left to their own devices. This is because of the corrupting influence of power, the natural tendency of men who possess some power to take unto themselves more power – whether in the hands of one or many makes little difference to the freedom of those left on the outside.
One can only imagine what a nightmare the previous Alinsky-inspired administration would have been to Mr. Goldwater … almost a worst case scenario situation (especially with how the outgoing POTUS has been trying to sabotage the transition to Mr. Trump). Of course, by any measure, the cause of “smaller government” has suffered many defeats over the past 2/3rds of a century. Consider that the author was descrying the over-reach of government in 1960, a time when the Federal machinery was tiny compared to the Leviathan that it has become today. One of the topics that was, evidently, still “in play” back when this was written (but has since become anathematized by the big-government Left) is that of “states rights” which is the subject of the chapter from which the following comes from:
      The trouble with this argument {that “if the States fail to do their duty, they have only themselves to blame when the federal government intervenes”} is that it treats the Constitution of the United States as a kind of handbook in political theory, to be heeded or ignored depending on how it fits the plans of contemporary federal officials. The Tenth Amendment is not a “general assumption,” but a prohibitory rule of law. The Tenth Amendment recognizes the States' jurisdiction in certain areas. States' Rights means that the States have a right to act or not to act, as they see fit, in the areas reserved to them. The States may have duties corresponding to these rights, but the duties are owed to the people of the States, not to the federal government. Therefore, the recourse lies not with the federal government, which is not sovereign, but with the people who are, and who have full power to take disciplinary action. If the people are unhappy with {a particular program of their State}, they can bring pressure to bear on their state officials and, if that fails, they can elect a new set of officials. … The Constitution, I repeat, draws a sharp and clear line between federal jurisdiction and state jurisdiction. The federal government's failure to recognize that line has been a crushing blow to the principle of limited government.
This is a banner that Root took up in his book, advocating a return to a rule by the States and a severe lessening of the federal monstrosity. In the chapter on “civil rights” Goldwater expresses views that could have been penned any time in the past few years, when “legislating from the bench” has become a popular work-around for the Left whose agenda was otherwise stymied by popular rejection. The following is somewhat pulled from its context, but I think expresses the author's gut reaction to this sort of deliberate anti-Constitutional maneuvering:
The Constitution is what its authors intended it to be and said it was – not what the Supreme Court says it is. If we condone the practice of substituting our own intentions for those of the Constitution's framers, we reject, in effect, the principle of Constitutional Government: we endorse a rule of men, not of laws. …. I have great respect for the the Supreme Court as an institution, but I cannot believe that I display that respect by submitting abjectly to abuses of power by the Court, and by condoning its unconstitutional trespass into the legislative sphere of government.
Of course, over the intervening half century and more, the Statist forces have not only indulged in endless “unconstitutional trespass” but have solidified and institutionalized many of these transgressions so that those with no grasp of history (i.e. those educated by the government – how convenient) would assume that these “entitlements”, programs, and even governmental departments were how things “were supposed to be” and not perversions of the intent of the framers. In Goldwater's chapter on “the welfare state” he starts out with a look at how Marxism had failed in its frontal assault in the west, and was evolving a less direct approach (à la the Cloward-Piven Strategy) to achieve the same goals. I wonder if Goldwater knew of the likes of Saul Alinsky and the Frankfurt School, because this paragraph pretty much sums up that whole scheme:
      The current favored instrument of collectivization is the Welfare State. The collectivists have not abandoned their ultimate goal – to subordinate the individual to the State – but their strategy has changed. They have learned that Socialism can be achieved through Welfarism quite as well as through Nationalization. They understand that private property can be confiscated as effectively by taxation as by expropriating it. They understand that the individual can be put at the mercy of the State – not only by making the State his employer – but by divesting him of the means to provide for his personal needs and by giving the State the responsibility of caring for those needs from cradle to grave. Moreover, they have discovered – and here is the critical point – that Welfarism is much more compatible with the political processes of a democratic society. Nationalization ran into popular opposition, but the collectivists feel sure the Welfare State can be erected by the simple expedient of buying votes with promises of “free” federal benefits – “free” housing, “free” school aid, “free” hospitalization, “free” retirement pay and so on … The correctness of this estimate can be seen from the portion of the federal budget that is now allocated to welfare, an amount second only to the cost of national defense.
Of course, the Left loves “buying votes” (with “other people's money”), and the decades of this can be seen in the destruction of once-thriving communities that have succumbed to the social engineering of program after program after program that had no purpose other than institutionalizing Statist political control. Again, I think Goldwater would be horrified with how this played out over the years … and it will probably take a substantial re-visioning of how the government works (such as what Root proposes in his Libertarian book) to “stop the insanity”. The last little booknote I have in here is in the chapter on “education”, and, while the author goes into the unconstitutional incursion of the federal government into the control and direction of education (which, needless to say, was minuscule in his day compared to the current situation), what caught my eye here was his look at taxation. Mind you, this is written by a prominent long-time Senator, who has a very clear view of how this works. This is about as damning as you can get while still addressing the specifics:
      The truth, of course, is that the federal government has no funds except those it extracts from the taxpayers who reside in the various States. The money that the federal government pays to State X for education has been taken from the citizens of State X in federal taxes and comes back to them, minus the Washington brokerage fee. The less wealthy States, to be sure, receive slightly more than they give, just as the more wealthy States receive somewhat less. But the differences are negligible. For the most part, federal aid simply substitutes the tax-collecting facilities of the federal government for those of the local governments. This fact cannot be stressed often enough; for stripped of the idea that federal money is free money, federal aid to education is exposed as an act of naked compulsion – a decision by the federal government to force the people of the States to spend more money than they choose to spend for this purpose voluntarily.
Yes, that's part of the reason that Barry Goldwater is such a saint to the Libertarian movement … here's a man who is at the upper reaches of the government who is not afraid to accuse that government of unconstitutional “force” and “naked compulsion”!

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

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

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Sunday, February 19th, 2017
4:07 pm
Yeah, something that I blithered out over on FB again ...
An FB post that was getting long-form, so I figured I'd share it here:

Sooooo ...

I started Eschaton Books back in 1993, as a side project for publishing my poetry back when I was still a VP in a PR firm. At the time it just looked most cost effective (plus, you got the full run of a number sequence, from 000 to 999) for me to buy 1,000 ISBNs, so I did.

Of course, back then, I used a couple of dozen and the rest had been loitering around in whatever digital void that these sorts of thing do until I resurrected Eschaton in 2008-9 to do the books for Simuality's Avatrait gallery, and then again in 2014 when I started doing the big poetry books, and, subsequently, the book review books.

Now, 1993 is a very long time ago - almost a quarter century - and in the intervening years, the US registrar for ISBNs, R.R. Bowker (predictably) moved into computer systems, and on-line ways of updating one's registration files. Which I, naturally enough, didn't really have a clue about until relatively recently. Anyway, I spent a good chunk of the afternoon updating (I guess Amazon must feed data to them, as most of my review books had most of the info - including cover images - in place) the files for at least my review books.

I sort of hit the wall, however, when I got around to the poetry books. I had been sort of a "bad boy" when it came to these as I basically just re-assigned the ISBNs from the initial "saddle stitched" "chapbook" editions of the small collections, as well as those that had been assigned (back in the day, you mailed in paperwork to the Library of Congress) to the annual collections (which had originally come out in hand-xeroxed editions of 12 that were then comb-bound with grey Classic Laid cardstock covers). It's typically "bad form" to re-use ISBNs, but with the sole exception of my last chapbook, 1996's "Some Semblance of Decay", none of them had the ISBN anywhere IN the books, and that only had it with the barcode (it was also the only one of those with a barcode). So, I guess it's going to be another "hanging over my head" project to get the info on the Bowker site for my 20-some-odd poetry editions in line with the current into.


However, tonight I'm going over to Starbucks to write reviews.

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Saturday, February 11th, 2017
11:29 am
All we are saying ...
As those following along at home will no doubt have a pretty good sense of, I tend towards the depressed side of the bummed-happy gauge, and have been informed (generally in the wake of an infrequent ha-ha outburst) that I almost never laugh, generally going months with the most outwardly expressed levity being a wry chuckle. I bring this up because twice while reading this book I quite literally Laughed Out Loud … and to elicit an LOL event from me is something of a momentous achievement.

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

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

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

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

One piece that sort of stands out as being somewhat out-of-place amid the other “geopolitical” tales is a May 1988 trip to Ulster to consider “the troubles” from his American Irish viewpoint. Perhaps it's, me, but I can't recall much of anything about Ireland being in the news, except for its burgeoning entrepreneurial and tech sectors … so maybe this was a last gasp for the worst of that conflict. The section that I marked in this was more for the age of the piece than for anything else:
Tony and I spent out last day in Northern Ireland with the police, who are much like the police anywhere in the world – apprehending shoplifters, tracing stolen VCRs, quieting domestic tiffs – except they perform these duties wearing flak vests, carrying submachine guns and riding in armored cars.
Uh, tracing VCRs? I remember (a long time ago) when a perfectly functional VCR could be had a Walgreens for under sixty bucks, so this is a look back into a dim and distant past when that video deck was a serious piece of technological equipment. Just sayin'. Oh, and while we're in the random look-at-that mode, in the intro to the “Second Thoughts” section, called “A Serious Problem”, there is a bon mot that I've already foisted on Facebook … “Seriousness is stupidity sent to college.” … sweet!

Now, sometimes my little bookmarks are hard to figure out when I get around to cranking out these reviews, and there's one sitting right up front in “Second Thoughts About the 1960's”, which I can not figure out what was choice enough to get it placed there. Not, mind you, that those two pages, with “What I Believed in the Sixties” (which starts out with “Everything. You name it and I believed it.”, and the launches into a long litany of specifics), and “What Caused Me to Have Second Thoughts” (with the rather delicious intro of “One distinct incident sent me scuttling back to Brooks Brothers.”), don't have fascinating tidbits, but I couldn't identify something to present to you. The main story of this chapter is about a “counterculture” newspaper that he worked on in Baltimore back in the day, but it then spins out from the “adolescent behavior” aspects of the 60's and into similar sorts of stupidity in assorted unpleasant places around the globe where the third worlders are acting towards Western Culture in general (and, of course, the U.S. in particular) the way a 16-year-old in the 60's acted towards their parents. The payoff on this marker is at the end, but I'm going to type up the whole scenario so that it comes with the right baggage:
In Ulundi, in Zululand, I talked to a young man who, as usual, blamed apartheid on the United States. However, he had just visited the U.S. with a church group and told me, 'Everything is so wonderful there. The race relations are so good. And everyone is rich.' Just what part of America had he visited, I asked. 'The South Side of Chicago,' he said.”
The next thing I marked was also about Africa, but about the delusional approaches that most bleeding-heart types have been trying in an effort to help. The start here is his reflections on the USA for Africa, Band Aid, Live Aid, and similar celebrity ego-jerks, the perpetrators of which “did have that self-satisfied look of toddlers on a pot.” … O'Rourke makes the Voltaire-like connection that:
      A mob, even an eleemosynary {yeah, I had to look it up too} mob, is an ugly thing to see. No good ever came of mass emotion. The audience that's easily moved to tears is as easily moved to sadistic dementia. People are not thinking under such circumstances. And poor, dreadful Africa is something which surely needs thought.
Later in the same piece, he goes into more details on just how bad most “aid” programs have been to Africa (be they originated by the governments there or by carpetbagging NGOs), and makes this rather arch note:
      Getting people to give vast amounts of money when there's no firm idea what that money will do is like throwing maidens down a well. It's an appeal to magic. And the results are likely to be as stupid and disappointing as the results of magic usually are.
Oh, I almost missed one of the best lines here (my bookmark must have dropped out), from his 1989 visit to Berlin, right after the fall of the Berlin wall:
      I had been in East Berlin three years before. And I had been standing on a corner of a perfectly empty Karl-Marx-Alee waiting for the light to change. All Germans are good about obeying traffic signals, but pre-1989 East Germans were religious. If a bulb burned out they'd wait there until the state withered away and true communism arrived. ...
I've gotten shrugs from that line when sharing it with family, but I though it was brilliant, and it's a pretty good intro into the next thing here, his pining for a new “Blacklist for the 1990s”. I'm truncating this a bit to make it more temporally general, but thought the following was pretty great:
God knows the problem is not a lack of Commies. There are more fuzzy-minded one-worlders, pasty-faced peace creeps and bleeding-heart bedwetters in America now than there ever were in 1954. … Academia … is a veritable compost heap of Bolshie brain mulch. Beardo the Weirdo may have been laughed out of real life in the 1970s, but he found a home in our nation's colleges, where he whiles away the wait for Woodstock Nation II by pestering undergraduates with cultural diversity and collectivist twaddle … And fellow travelers in the State Department? Jeeze, the situation is so bad at Foggy Bottom that we'd better hope it's caused by spies. If it's stupidity, we're really in trouble.
There's another bookmark that I'm not sure exactly what I was pointing to (I should, but won't, star the key phrases with a pencil while reading) in a rather odd chapter dealing with his interviewing Dr. Ruth Westheimer (remember her?). The only thing I could figure was this quite delightful observation:
      It can be hard for those of us with SAT scores exceeding our golf handicap to remember that ignorance is a renewable resource. Dr. Westheimer has tapped into vast proven reserves of it. Whatever she tells these people is bound to be an improvement on what they think now.
One of the things I found interesting in here was that he'd done some book reviews, including one of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's Everything To Gain in which he details five fun party games using the book. While these are hilarious (and cruel), it would be far too detailed for me to try to convey the essence of them … but the sense is that the book is so horrid that organized mockery is the only logical response … oh, and he even recommends a sixth game involving it – fetch with the dog. And, as much contempt as he has for the Carters, it's hardly even nasty in relation to the bile he saves for the Kennedys … but I'll leave that for your own discovery as well.

The last ten chapters of the book are all from the Gulf War, and are all, to a certain extent, more “straightforward” than much of the rest, as O'Rourke is actually in a situation where he's being asked to do some reporting rather than just framing stuff in snark. Having very clear recollections of that conflict (it was widely televised), I didn't need so much of the set-up, and appreciated his descriptions. However, it's hard to sift out the quotables from the more general material here … there is, after all (in 10 chapters), quite a lot of it. However, I did have a few places with bookmarks, and – without context of who/what/where – I'm just going to throw these at you. The following struck me as being particularly notable, due to its cynicism towards government spending habits:
We are sending 250,000 troops, six hundred fighter planes, three naval carrier groups and twenty-six B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf, a little late to save Kuwait, maybe but just in time to rescue the U.S. defense budget. One well-placed ICBM and Saddam Hussein would get the message, but that wouldn't prevent Congress from taking all our Stealth Bomber money and giving it to naked NEA performance artists to rub on their bodies while denouncing male taxpayers.
Ouch. He goes on to discuss the concept of our being “the world's policeman”, but says:“America is the World's policeman, all right – a big, dumb mick flatfoot in the middle of the one thing cops dread most, a 'domestic disturbance'.”, which, if you think of it, most of the middle-eastern conflicts do resemble. Elsewhere, he has “a good one” with:“… Aqaba, Jordan's only port and a would-be Red Sea tourist resort that looks like a Bulgarian's idea of Fort Lauderdale”, I seem to recall that the Bulgarians get blamed for a lot of bad architecture in the book. There is an interesting story about how he almost gets himself blown up by a box of RPGs that he discovered (and opened) when moving bricks from some fortifications the Iraqis had slapped together on the hotel roof (he was helping get some broadcast equipment set up), which he later heard from a Special Forces guy (who was unaware that O'Rourke had previously encountered it) that they had found one booby trap – a box of RPGs (right where he'd been), that had a hand-grenade with the pin out – and said “man, if anybody had jiggled that box ...”. One more politically engaging comment (although he doesn't actually mention the decades of Democratic Party management in these locales) is this lovely reflection:
If we want to demoralize the population of Iraq and sap their will to fight, we ought to show them videotapes of the South Bronx, Detroit City, and the West Side of Chicago. Take a look, you Iraqis – this is what we do to our own cities in peacetime. Just think about what we're going to do to yours in a war.
This 1992 hardback of Give War A Chance is long out of print, but there is a 2003 paperback edition which is still available. The new/used guys do have “like new” copies, however, for the magic 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) price, were you interested in checking this out. As noted, for as old as this is (and being in the “topical humor” niche), O'Rourke's writing has aged remarkably well. Aside from some noted anachronisms like VCRs and mentions of “who was that?” people like Tammy Faye Bakker (who appears in one of the Carter “games”), most of this (especially broadsides at the Left) are as pertinent now as they were then. I enjoyed it, and, unless you're a progressive snowflake, I suspect you will too.

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Thursday, February 9th, 2017
6:40 am
cultivating relational health ...
I have a very deep ambivalence about this one. On one hand, I actually bought it (OK, used) from Amazon, having seen it recommended highly in some other book I was reading (forgot which), so it wasn't a “serendipitous” addition to my to-be-read piles coming from a chance encounter on the shelves of dollar or discount stores. On the other hand, having read through some of the reviews/promo material on-line, I was a bit nervous about it. As regular readers of this space no doubt appreciate, I'm fairly antitheistic, and am cynical (at best) towards the “major monotheisms” … so when I saw that the author was an “Executive Pastor” at a evangelical church, and had run an evangelical outreach “community”, and there were comments about how this was written “with the gospel in mind” or that it was required reading in a seminary course … I was concerned that this was going to be one of those books where the writer, fearing being damned to Hell for all eternity, feels the need to make a “profession of faith” every 3-4 paragraphs. Needless to say, that would have been something which I'd be unlikely to opt to interface with. One review, however, brought up the question “Is it Biblical?”, which had me scratching my head over how people with enough capacity to operate a computer and compose a coherent sentence could demand that not only they, but everybody else, live their lives according to the fire-side musings of bronze-age goat herders. I figured that if the extreme fundies were finding fault with this, maybe there might be some actual thought in play.

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

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

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

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

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

The second part (and 3/4ths) of the book is taking a look at the “Six Defining Roles of a Relational Genius”, each being the subject of a chapter. These roles are not exhaustive, but
“are essential to the quest to increase your relational intelligence and develop a new kind of genius. Some traits may not be what you expect, but they all have a profound impact on your leadership effectiveness and your ongoing interpersonal world.
These roles are:

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

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

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

The next role is “The Compelling Relator” (which I have to admit I was constantly reading as realtor, which would no doubt be a big selling book in that niche), which has the somewhat surprising “hook” of boredom, and initial data about stuff like web site visits, how many navigational clicks people will use, and even the likelihood of a URL being typed in due to length. He posits an “epidemic of boredom” and references it in the first of these sidebar quotes: “Maybe there's not just an epidemic of boredom out there, but an epidemic of 'boring'.” which is followed by the reasonably inspiring: “The simple truth is this: the more interesting we are as people, the more compelling we become as leaders.” … and name-checks Seth Godin's Tribes. There are quite a few “stories” here, including one in the fascinatingly titled section “Refuse to be Irrelevant” which features that J. guy from the Bible. One bit that I found worthwhile bringing to you was set in relation to that “faith community” the author was involved in (hence the “protégés”):
      One foundational element that we emphasize with protégés is for them to stop assuming what most people assume in conversations: that people inherently want to listen. Too often speakers don't work hard to capture an audience's attention because they presume they have it. Just because someone shows up to a team meeting, an event, a one-on-one conversation, a class, or even a church, doesn't mean she or he inherently wants to listen to what we have to say, regardless of our position or status.
Saccone goes on to point out how much information we all are bombarded with on a daily basis, and how it tends to be the “interesting person” whose message actually gets across … and how these people typically are the ones with the most passion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 8th, 2017
11:06 am
Being great again?
A few months back, I was over at Barnes & Noble and found a couple of things on a 75%-off clearance table, this being one of them. It's a pity that I have so far not found a platform (that I've been able/willing to afford) for reading e-books, as this, due to its vintage, is available free in various digital formats (heck, there are collections of all nine of the author's books in Kindle editions on Amazon for their minimum 99¢ charge), but I have yet to encounter an e-book that wasn't an uncomfortable slog to get through, generally taking 10x the time of reading a “dead tree” book … so it was nice to pick up this slim volume for under two bucks.

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

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

Now, I'll admit that much of my resistance to what Wattles has in here could be based on my general curmudgeonly bitter cynicism (and the whole “God thing” he's pitching), but I really feel that he's writing for a world that is lamentably dead and gone. However, there are quite a lot of things here which are less context-dependent than the rest, and I'll be focusing on these. This is from the first (short – most are only a few pages, given that the book's brief 73 pages are broken into 22 chapters) chapter:
      Nothing was ever in any man that is not in you; no man ever had more spiritual or mental power than you can attain, or did greater things than you can accomplish. You can become what you want to be.
As bad as I feel about resorting to this, I think the current book might be one of those where my readers would benefit from my typing up the chapter listings … since the material here is not in a particular “narrative arc” this would serve as at least a matrix for me to introduce cherry-picked quotations (there being quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in here). So …

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

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

One of the key concepts in this is that everything is perfect as it is, within the context of the stage of its development. I would like to use Wattles own words here, but the section that I'm considering would require block-quoting over a page, which in a 73-page book seems to be pushing the limits of “fair use”. He, however, preceding this section, has a point that is in all-caps as its own paragraph, which seems to be the only item so emphasized, so I'm guessing it's worth passing along (if without the full capitalization):
      This must be your point of view: That the world and all it contains is perfect, though not completed.
He goes on to explain the idea of things being a “partial expression”, thus incomplete, and in doing so compares J.P. Morgan to “strange animals of the age of reptiles”, and thereby “perfect after his kind” (Wattles was an early Socialist, so no doubt had opinions not kindly towards the “robber barons”). He then starts to address what he expects to be objections to this “perfection”, including child labor and “exploitation of men and women in filthy and unsanitary factories” … saying that those workers “only want more of the things that make for animal enjoyment, and so industry remains in the savage, brutal, animal stage” he seems to believe that the workers will eventually “desire more in the way of a higher, purer, more harmonious life” which will result in industry being raised above that plane …
But it is perfect now upon its plane; behold it is all very good.
He goes on to recommend how one needs to see the facts of reality from “the highest viewpoint” (although this might be the source of the “no soup for you” aspect of The Secret):
“All's right with the world. Nothing can possibly be wrong but my personal attitude, and I will make that right.”
For somebody who keeps getting into the Jesus stuff, he does have some fairly, uh, heretical statements cropping up at times, I especially liked this one: “Do not give your time and strength to the support of obsolete institutions, religious or otherwise; do not be bound by creeds in which you do not believe. Be free.” … which is nearly Crowley-esque in its sentiments (and I do hate the idea that A.C. might have been cribbing from Wattles, but the timings make that at least a possibility). While differing in attitude, the following, part of how the author is defining his concept of “consecration”, might also have come from Thelema:
You cannot be ruled from below if you are to be great; you must rule from above. Therefore you cannot be governed by physical impulses; you must bring your body into subjection to the mind; but your mind, without principle, may lead you into selfishness and immoral ways; you must put the mind into subjection to the soul, and your soul is limited by the boundaries of your knowledge; you must put it into subjection to that Oversoul which needs no searching of the understanding but before whose eyes all things are spread. That constitutes consecration.
This sort of seeds the “Realization” chapter, which has recommendations based on that last level of subjection, where one is “learning to read the thoughts of God”, frankly (and no doubt this is the cynical me reacting here), I found much in this section simply a recommendation to solipsism and credulity (he says if you “feel” something is going to be happening, follow that “with perfect faith” “no matter how unlikely it may seem” – which could be taken to be the full recipe for the “new age” movement!).

He gets into some, what seems to me to be “technical”, stuff regarding thought, at first going into (at the end of the “habit” chapter) how to use mental exercises to repeat certain thoughts until they are “the only way you think of yourself”. In the “thought” chapter he says:
      Thinking is the hardest and most exhausting of all labor: and hence many people shrink from it. God has so formed us that we are continuously impelled to thought; we must either think or engage in some activity to escape thought. The headlong, continuous chase for pleasure in which most people spend all their leisure time is only an effort to escape thought. If they are alone, or if they have nothing amusing to take their attention, as a novel to read or a show to see, they must think; and to escape from thinking they resort to novels, shows, and all the endless devices of the purveyors of amusement; Most people spend the greater part of their leisure time running away from thought, hence they are where they are. We never move forward until we begin to think.
And, mind you, this was written in the very early days of film, and well before commercial radio, TV, the Internet, or the smartphone – one can only imagine how little thinking gets done these days!

Needless to say, I'm skipping out on a lot of the details here, to at least be able to convey the conceptual broad strokes. The following are from a couple of paragraphs in the “Action Abroad” chapter, which I thought hung together well, so I'm skipping about a page between them:
Do not try to do great things until you are ready to go about them in a great way. If you undertake to deal with great matters in a small way – that is, from a low viewpoint or with incomplete consecration and wavering faith and courage – you will fail. Do not be in a hurry to get to the great things. Doing great things will not make you great, but becoming great will certainly lead you to the doing of great things.

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

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

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Monday, January 30th, 2017
3:17 pm
America's first Discordian President ...
I'm having so much fun watching the left's heads explode ... it's just too bad that Andrew Breitbart isn't still around to have a place in Trump's cabinet (or, heck, on the Supreme Court!) ...

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{EDIT: Oh, while you're here, do check out this awesome article!}>

Sunday, January 29th, 2017
3:49 pm
Digging it ...
This is a book that I picked up at a “discount outlet” a few months back, when a friend let me know that the store was doing a special book sale (5 hardcovers or 10 paperbacks for a dollar), and I hopped on the El and got over there (actually, that might be very well be where I got a book, previously reviewed, for which I could not recall the source), only to find the pickings rather slim. This, however, is quite a gem!

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

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

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

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

His family did not have “old money”, as his great-grandfather had brought over his young family, coming out of a situation that appears to have been the upper level of servants in an “Upstairs Downstairs” sort of environment in England. The initial chapters dig around in his forebearers' past, including a photo of a church graveyard on the upper reaches of the Thames in Bisham, Berskshire where a couple of generations are laid to rest. There's quite a bit on how his family got established here, resulting in substantial estates by the time of his grandfather (although much of the money came by marriage to a daughter of H.H. “Hell Hound” Rogers, a competitor with the likes of J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller). As one might expect, Coe was shuttled off to the most exclusive schools of the time … of which he has mixed recall … with some aspects being positive, and some not so much. Interestingly, it was winning an annual prize in the “Sacred Studies” program (the school was very “churchy”) that started him down his eventual path – the award was a book which featured some bible verse translated into over 1,000 languages, but also included “a thumb-nail sketch of each tribe or people who spoke that language, and in the native orthography”. This led him into questioning a lot of things, and eventually getting his hands on Sir James Fraser's famed Golden Bough which:
argued that all of my cherished beliefs about Christmas, Easter, and even the death and resurrection of Christ could all be explained as cultural responses to universal concerns, that Christianity was not fundamentally different from any other religious system, such as those of Classical times and even so-called primitive peoples.
He continues …
Taking Fraser in conjunction with the Darwinism that I had absorbed in biology, by the time I graduated SPS, I had become a complete agnostic and skeptic, and have remained so throughout my life.
He ended up going to Harvard, initially to get a “gentleman's C” in English literature, and was well on his way to coasting through when his family went on a vacation to the Yucatan, staying at the famed (and still-operating) Mayaland Lodge at Chichen Itza.
To me it was a revelation to roam the Castillo, the great Toltec-Maya pyramid; the round Caracol, Chichen's observatory; the Sacred Cenote; the so-called Nunnery with its mysterious inscriptions; and all the other buildings and reliefs. I knew little or nothing about the ancient Maya, but I burned to find out about them. When I returned to Harvard, I would … major in Maya archaeology!
Unfortunately, there wasn't such a major available, but he was guided into anthropology, and had to really apply himself his last two years to get caught up with that major and get his grades up enough to look plausible for moving into an advance degree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, January 28th, 2017
2:32 pm
Holy Bubble-Blowing Black Holes, Batman!
This was a relatively recent dollar store find (about six weeks back), but I was sort of looking for a science book to get into, and that category has gotten somewhat lean in my to-be-read piles, so this leapt to the front of the line. While being a “popular” science book, Caleb Scharf's Gravity's Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos is not exactly a light read (OMG, I came very close to making an inadvertent black hole joke there), as it is filled with a whole lot of fairly complex information on cosmological discoveries, much of which was at least reasonably new to me (this came out in 2012, so the material should be fairly up-to-date – as much as one can expect from any technology book).

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

Now, this is full of very complicated concepts that Scharf attempts to present in terms that will make sense to “the average reader” … one of the images he uses is of a sack containing “a representative portion” of the universe. This not only lets him introduce the idea of generalizing from “a fair sample” of data points, but allows him to talk about stuff “streaming out of” said sack. A significant amount of this are photons …
They come in all flavors, from extremely low-frequency radio waves, where a single crest-to-crest distance may span kilometers, to microwaves, infrared, visible, and ultraviolet frequencies, and on to the realm of X-rays and gamma rays. One of the most pervasive types of photons is the kind that originated in the very young universe ...
This serves to introduce the “cosmic microwave background” photons – which are present in our local neck of the universe at about 410 per cubic centimeter, meaning that the immediate (within one light-year of the Sun) neighborhood has about 1057 (more than a trillion trillion trillion trillion, and that's a lot) of them zipping around at any given time. That leads him to discussing neutrinos, which react so little with normal matter that you might have a collision between a neutrino and a sub-atomic particle comprising some part of your body maybe only once or twice in your lifetime – despite there being somewhere around 65 billion of them streaming out of the sun and passing through “every square centimeter of your skin” every second.

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

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

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

The early history of the universe is contemplated, with surmises presented as to early galaxy formation, as well as outlines of the basic types of galaxies, the massive number of stars involved in these, their assorted sizes, etc. At most points the author tries to offer up examples that can help the reader “wrap their head around” these difficult concepts (like comparing the fluid dynamics of water coming out of a garden hose to how jets of material can shoot out hundreds of light-years from celestial objects), while (kindly?) skipping most of the math. He is constantly trying to put these things in terms that at least suggest to the reader how they relate to “knowable” stuff, such as:
While a supermassive black hole can occupy a volume similar to that encompassed by the orbit of Neptune, a big cluster of galaxies can occupy a region some 30 million light-years across. The black hole is only 0.00000000001 times the size of the cluster. That's the size of the period at the end of this sentence compared to one-third of the distance to the Moon.
Frankly, one of the main take-aways for me with the whole book was the extreme nature of all this … the hugeness, the distances, the time involved, the masses (a supermassive black hole can have a mass 12 billion times that of the Sun), the warping of space-time (which can be twisted into something akin to a tornado in some settings), etc. ...which is really difficult to fully appreciate or even effectively contemplate!

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

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

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

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Sunday, January 22nd, 2017
9:31 am
a pervasive phenomenon ...
This one had a “meant to get into my hands” vibe for its route into my library. A month or so back, the author was being featured as a speaker at the DBSA meeting I attend down here, and he'd brought a few books with him, which he handed out to those of us who had gotten there early. I sort of connected with the author, as he grew up in a family business, had been in publishing (in fact, his family's business was publishing – the educational publishers Follett), and had struggled with depression. Naturally, Mark Litzsinger's Out of the Shadows: A Journey of Recovery From Depression is a look at that struggle. One of the things that he focused on in his presentation, which was only a small component of the book, was that, after various go-rounds with psychopharmacology and working with some of the top doctors at Rush and related hospitals, he ended up getting “cured” though ECT – electroshock. This therapy still has that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest” vibe to it in popular culture … but it appears that it's having (in its current, much less destructive mode) a significant resurgence, and the author had a really remarkable set of results which he claims had him operating on cognitively higher levels than he'd ever experienced before:
Within a year of starting ECT treatments, I was operating on a different, better level. Not only was I well, but I was thinking more clearly and interested in many more things. My mind was questioning, I could synthesize information very quickly, and come to deductions about personal and business decisions like never before. … After the treatments, I broadened my learning and interests to encompass new areas in life, including politics, world affairs, travel, culture, and entrepreneurship.
… which rather uncomfortably reminded me of John Travolta's character in the film Phenomenon! Speaking of pop culture connections, I was very surprised (given his obvious enthusiasm for the procedure) that Litzsinger had never even heard of The Ramones' song Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, which is the only other 100% positive look at ECT that I've encountered.

The author is, clearly not (nor does he represent himself as such) an expert on mental health, but he's published this as something of a “public service” (including having all proceeds from it go to Rush's Psychiatry department) … he notes:
One of the goals of this book is to make depression seem normal. That might sound strange if you have depression, but I want to normalize the disease in a way that people – those who have it, those with family members who have it, and the public at large – view it as a relatively “normal” disease, one that can be beaten like cancer.
… and, elsewhere:
– increasing your knowledge and understanding of how depression impacts patients and family members, how the past has shaped current treatment methods, and what the future holds for those who suffer from this disease will provide a firm foundation from which to go forward. The goal of this book is to do just that – to give patients, family members, doctors, and others who wish to learn more a blueprint of the disease's history and treatments, as well as offer hope for a future in recovery.
I go into this here to provide some context for the caveats I'm going to throw out in following. I really wish that I liked this book better than I did. I get the sense that Litzsinger set himself a goal of doing a lot of research, and then brought in a writer (the co-credited Sarah Hamaker) to make a book out of it. There is certainly a lot of material cited (there are nearly 250 end notes for about 140 pages of text), but the book is structured very much like my college research papers … quote after quote strung together with just enough contextifying copy to keep it moving in the right direction. While this certainly lends a sense of “authority” to the material, it inherently creates a situation of very uneven tone in the text, with quoted elements showing up in the middle of paragraphs, or even in the midst of sentences. Of course, given the typical format of my reviews, this is something of “the pot calling the kettle black”, and the book would certainly be a choppy mess if all of those quoted passages showed up as blockquotes, but it makes the reading a less coherent experience than if these cobbled-together parts had been paraphrased and integrated into the narrative flow. Just sayin' …

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

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

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

A similar (albeit “wordier”) list is in the “Families and Recovery” chapter, which has at least one item that I felt was very important:
Remember that hopelessness, disinterest, anxiety, and anger are all depression symptoms.
Given that this sounds like my typical day … it would be great if everybody could keep in mind that the depressed person is not necessarily trying to be a pain in their backsides, or a major drag to the common mood!

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

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

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

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Saturday, January 21st, 2017
11:51 pm
Secrets, yes ... not so much eavesdropping, though ...
This is another of those culinary-themed books that I lucked into at the Dollar Store down by my daughter's college in Urbana. As I've noted before (and, I suppose, it's just part of the mystery of books coming into that particular after-market), I have no idea why there were a half a dozen appealing food-industry books there on that day, but there they were, and I was not going to pass up walking out of there with something around $150 worth of reading for a measly five bucks!

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

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

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

Honestly, aside from some a handful of restaurant reviewers, chefs, and restaurateurs, I don't recall any name-dropping here, which seems to have been a deliberate choice, as she notes that she only “altered a few names and incriminating details” amid “the truth according to my memory”, so this is hardly a “plate and tell” (to possibly coin a phrase) tale. The book is both more mundane, and ultimately informative than that … it is a none-too-uncommon tale of somebody coming out of school with an English major and looking for a means of surviving in the world. Damrosch admits:
I suppose I could have found a job in publishing like a good English major, but as far as I was concerned, offices were dusty, stagnant, and badly lit.
She had several jobs, including an awesome-sounding one as a nanny for a very wealthy family, but wasn't inspired to stay with any of them for an extended length of time. When out of a job at one point, her ex-boyfriend suggested she apply at the small neighborhood cafe where he worked … which she did, initially for a busboy position, but quickly (she goes into details on the ethnic sorting of restaurant staff), as a college-educated white female, ended up in other places on the organizational chart.

I don't have many of my little bookmarks in here, but two are up front in her description of her early years in food service, which I felt stood out as bright red flags pointing out that “this is an English major's story”, this describing a co-worker:
This guy was a rare case: an actor who loved the restaurant business and was taking a break from performing to devote himself to waiting tables. Unfortunately, you can take the actor out of the performance, but you can't take the performance out of the actor, and watching this guy explain the menu as if he were Henry V on St. Crispin's Day sent me fleeing from the dining room on many an occasion.
Trust me, if you're an English major (or theater junky) that's hilarious. Equally so, in a bit about her trying to do some highly complicated recipes out of her eventual employer's cookbook (The French Laundry Cookbook by Chef Thomas Keller, creator of The French Laundry restaurant in California, and Per Se in New York), there's this:
The book recommends working on the open door of your oven, to keep the batter warm enough to work with. So I knelt before the open oven, realizing that despite years of English classes, I could not recall a single poem by Sylvia Plath.
It does seem to be something of a stroke of luck that the author managed to land a gig as part of the pre-launch staff for Keller's new Per Se, as it sounds that this was “well beyond her pay grade” in terms of her experience. She had, however, developed a fixation on Chef Keller and his cuisine, and had, at a restaurant she'd worked at after a return from France (yes, I am skipping quite a bit of detail), waited on him at one point, only to have been flummoxed by the query of one of the party as to what kind of persimmons were being featured in one dish on the menu … Keller was very driven to have quite specifically sourced ingredients, and it probably helped to have Damrosch aware of that when she boned up for he interview (a process which included getting, and poring over, the aforementioned cookbook, which came in handy when she was able to recite details about the Chef's California flagship).

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, January 8th, 2017
1:54 pm
Pardon my ...
Here's another book that came my way via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program … and in this case, it's actually early, with a publication date still a couple of weeks off at this writing. This was a pretty classic case of my requesting a book (the process of the LTER program is that each month there's a list of books that publishers have made available, and you “request” ones you think you'd like to read/review … I typically have 3-5 “requests” in each month, and it's up to the “Almighty Algorithm” – picture a Deep Thought for books – to make the best match for a title to a user's LT collection) that “looked interesting” but I didn't have a burning desire to read. It's a bit more focused than the serendipity of the dollar store, but not much. I go into the preceding to sort of plead my case on not really interfacing with Andy Molinsky, Ph.D.'s Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge and Build Confidence particularly well. I have one lonely little slip of paper in this, and, frankly, when I dragged it out for reviewing, I had nearly zero recall of anything from it. Flipping through the book did bring bits back to mind, but also suggested to me why this didn't particularly stick with me … it's heavy on the “people stories” (à la: “Annie knew that if she wanted to succeed at her job – especially in a male-dominated industry like finance, she had to learn to stand up for herself.”), which are rarely the way to get information into my head. However, there is quite a lot of valuable (and once it's dredged out of the “story” context, actionable) material here, so I'm going to try to flog that out for you in the following.

Now, my first thought for doing this would be to simply reproduce the Part, Chapter, and section headings from the book, which would provide a pretty cogent walk-through of what's in here – but that would sort of just be reverse-engineering Molinsky's book outline … which seems like not making a sufficient effort to convey the essence of the book. The author sets things up in the introduction:
In an ideal world, no one would have to reach beyond their comfort zone to succeed at work, and all the tasks and responsibilities we need to perform would fit perfectly with our personalities. …
But unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Conflict-avoidant managers often need to embrace conflict – or at least learn to tolerate it. Timid entrepreneurs need to be able to pitch and promote themselves and their ideas … introverts need to network … self-conscious executives need to deliver speeches … and people pleasers need to deliver bad news. You get the idea.
{ellipses in the second paragraph in the original}
As one might suspect, those descriptions are based on people profiled in the book (whether or not they're “real” people – the stories are heavy on personal reaction and low on detail), which didn't really work for me, as I found the more “abstract” or theoretical material here far more useful, such as:
We often feel overwhelmed – sometimes even hopeless – when having to act outside our comfort zones. But the reality is that we face a set of very predictable and identifiable set of challenges – and we can overcome these challenges … This book will explain why it's so hard to act outside your comfort zone and help you develop the courage and ability to flex your behavior with success.
He identifies these challenges as The Authenticity Challenge, “which occurs when acting outside your comfort zone feels fake, foreign, and false” or “the feeling "This isn't me at all" and the distress that results from that feeling”, The Likeability Challenge, which “occurs when, as a result of the behavioral stretch you have to make, you fear others won't like you” or “the sense that doing this will "make people not like me," and the worry that results from that perception”, The Competence Challenge, which “occurs when you feel you don't actually have the skills or knowledge to perform the new task successfully” or “the feeling of "I'm not good at this behavior and it's obvious to others," along with corresponding feelings of embarrassment and, perhaps, shame”, The Resentment Challenge, which “happens when you feel frustrated and annoyed that you have to adapt behavior in the first place” or “the strong sense that you "shouldn't be doing this behavior" in the first place, and the frustration and anger that results from that feeling”, and The Morality Challenge, “the feeling – logical or illogical – that when stretching your behavior, you will feel inappropriate or perhaps even unethical” or “the feeling that the behavior isn't something you "should be doing," and the anxiety and guilt that can result from that sense”. There is a section for each of these with stories about people facing the various challenges in business settings, and then a part where he goes over the emotions involved (this is a real good example of an author doing the “tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them” template).

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

This brings us to Part II – How to Successfully Reach Outside Your Comfort Zone, which presents “three critical resources for behavior flexing”. These are: “Conviction: The Critical Importance of Having a Deep Sense of Purpose”, “Customization: Finding Your Own Personal Way of Performing the Task” (which includes “customize the words you use”, “customize your body language”, “customize the timing”, “use props”, and “customize the context”), and “Clarity: The Power of Honest Perspective”. Interestingly, this latter chapter has a great deal of very direct and applicable material – it also largely “steps away” (that's one of the sections, heh) from having the information totally embedded in the “people stories”. This is the place which got my bookmark, in the section “Refer to Yourself in the Third Person”, which reports on research that indicates:
When we engage in "self-talk," especially in stressful and difficult situations, we gain confidence and clarity simply from the slight psychological detachment of referring to ourselves in the third person.
The effect of “these slight changes in perspective and language” goes right down to the brainwave … with test subjects who used the 3rd person having brain scans more like control cases than those using “first-person personal pronouns”.

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

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

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

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

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