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

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Thursday, August 25th, 2016
11:53 pm
OK, that is very deeply weird ...
So, I spent pretty much all day today trying to re-configure my computer, as almost everything had gone missing after a crash (see previous post).

As I noted, one thing that was GONE gone were my FireFox tabs and bookmarks. Another thing that had disappeared was the new Solitaire thing from W10.

I was trying to download this, and was getting no response from the Microsoft Store thing (the "Get the game" button did nothing), and got into the MS help chat thing with a guy who took over my system and tried installing the store app from the command line (long time since I've seen that!). Once he got that done he needed to reboot my system.

This took a VERY long time, but eventually I was back in.

And ...

EVERYTHING WAS BACK. My FF tabs ... my FF bookmarks ... the W10 Solitaire Collection ... EVERYTHING. Well, everything BUT the .txt file he'd put on my desktop with the link to resume the session. No sign of that (so I can't get back to him) ... OR the tab that had the chat window going in Chrome. So weird.

I mean, I searched through all the nooks and crannies of my system looking for stuff (like the .json files for FF sessions), and there was NOTHING there ... but after this reboot ... it's all BACK - and it appears that all the stuff I did today to re-assemble my desktop is GONE (not that this is a problem ... except for having to re-download a mess of video from my camera, the file of which has also disappeared ... but it's confusing as heck).

I really feel like the Universe is going into "let's mess with Brendan" overdrive ...


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1:42 pm
Man ...
I'm at least glad that I ordered in a new computer ... and am now slogging into the nearly-endless process of getting stuff that I use installed on it.

Because, while I was out this morning, my main system had a BAD crash. Almost everything on my desktop was gone. All my programs "didn't know me" (including Thunderbird, which I think has lost all my old mail). I probably lost 300-400 tabs in FireFox and all my bookmarks (well, I had backed that file up a few years back). This really sucks.

Fortunately, I just (a few weeks back) installed a new external HD that I had sitting around (waiting to use it for a data retrieval project from a previous dead drive), and had backed up most of my files ... unfortunately, this did not include the program files, which would have had my FireFox and Thunderbird data ... so I was able to re-construct my desktop for the most part. I was disturbed to find that my CrashPlan back-up-to-the-cloud system didn't appear to be uploading those program files either ... so they look to be well and truly gone.

I've been in such a panic/funk about other stuff of late, that I really, really don't need this (see the "friends only" posts). Sucks to be me.


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Wednesday, August 24th, 2016
11:41 am
Thought for the day ...
My entire f'n life has been the 2003 NLCS (and not from the Marlin's perspective).


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Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016
6:26 pm
The previous post is "friends only" ... here's why:
If you would like to read the previous post, please contact me to be "friended".

Why is this?Collapse )
Monday, August 22nd, 2016
7:19 pm
The Odd Couple ...
This was another Dollar Store find … with the standard “didn't go looking for it” aspects involved in seeing something that looked plausible staring out from the shelf for a buck. I don't think that I'd have acquired this if it hadn't been in that channel, as I really didn't care that much about the authors (and their legendary mis-matched relationship), but it was “interesting enough” to get into my cart a few months back.

I'm glad that these various factors conspired to get me into Mary Matalin and James Carville's Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, as it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I'd been hesitant, because I'd hated the Clintons so much, and Carville was their personal media pitbull … and I wasn't sure that I wanted to put myself through some glorification of that sorry period in our nation's history. Similarly, I wasn't sure that I really wanted to follow behind Matalin's track through two Bush administrations … with the emotional scars still left from those years.

However, while the political stuff is certainly in here, it's much more a dual memoir of two completely different political players (if you're not familiar, Matalin is a conservative Republican, who is remarkably fond of her former boss Dick Cheney, and Carville is a co-conspirator with the Clinton Crime Family – and otherwise a supporter of the worst of leftist politics), and how their lives have played out. The dichotomy here is perfectly clear, as the book is set in two typefaces – one for the “Mary” parts, and one for the “James” parts – so you always know who's talking.

If there was one pivotal element here, it would be when the couple (well, family at that point) up and left D.C. for New Orleans. Carville, of course, was from down there, and still had a huge extended family around, but Matalin was from Chicago, and as hot and humid as our summers can be, it was certainly a change for her (although, oddly, she favors open windows, while he wants heavy-duty AC). Of course, their having their daughters (and the various stories of the kids growing up) is another thread here, but the “good stuff” is really the fly-on-the-wall look into the world of Washington, politically, socially, and its accompanying media.

Flipping through this, I'm seeing that most of my little bookmarks are highlighting places with “gotcha” reminiscences (needless to say, mainly from Matalin), which throw a particular light on stuff that usually goes unseen. The book sort of (it jumps around quite a bit) starts with the biggest conflict between the two, the re-election loss of Bush Sr., for whom Matalin was deputy campaign manager, to Clinton, whose campaign was being run by Carville. Following the election, Matalin couldn't find any work in her field, and ended up being hired by CNBC to co-host a “girl-gab show” with Jane Wallace, called Equal Time, that had been described as “Wayne's World on estrogen” (something with which it initially shared a lot of production values). This started out as pretty much just a time-filler, but ended up building up a devoted cult following, which eventually got noticed. She says:
It turns out, when your ratings are lousy and nobody's watching, you are left alone to die a quiet TV death. It's when you have a hit that the problems start. Once we were “discovered” by the TV critics, the CNBC suits appeared like Death Eaters and tried to suck the blood and soul from Equal Time ...
The “last straw” for her was that she did not want to do anything about the O.J. Simpson trial:
The rest of television was doing the O.J. Trial nonstop. What intelligent or edifying thing could I possibly add to that? What intelligent or edifying thing could anyone say about that? The O.J. Trail clearly marked the early stages of cable crapdom: the dumber the story, the greater the coverage.
This then moves into the couple's work on Crossfire and their long friendship with the late Tim Russert, with various stories from each of them regarding how that show impacted both sides of the political spectrum.

Again, this is very much a personal memoir for the two authors, and it here shifts into discussing Mary's multitudinous pets, and James' dislike of them all … followed by a chapter on raising their kids … followed by a very brief chapter on, well, “bedroom stuff” (largely summarized by its last line: “none of your damn business”) … followed by a look at how they had grown up, and how James is a classic case of ADHD (and how different they are in their personality types – she's big on spontaneity, and he's a stickler for a locked-in schedule).

This takes us to a chapter called “The Dark Ages” which is about the “hanging chads” end to the 2000 Presidential election. Just about the only thing (well, aside from the kids) that seemed to save their marriage is that Carville thought Gore was an ass, so didn't have quite as much blind devotion to him as he did to Clinton … but it wasn't something that he was prepared for when Matalin got tapped to work for V.P. Dick Cheney. She had insisted that it was only going to be for six months, although this wasn't going to be the case. One part here that drew my attention was in her discussion of how hectic these transitions can be …
      Meanwhile, it turns out that there is something worse than a transition hell that's smooshed into a few short weeks. And that is transitioning from an administration with a civility and maturity level lower than Animal House's, a comparison that is actually a compliment to the outgoing Clinton administration.
      You think I'm being a partisan exaggerator? Well, would you call this mature and civil? Once into the White House, we found all the W's had been stripped from our computer keyboards and our desks were full of molding garbage, uneaten fast food and/or porno – and those were only the cute stunts. The vice president's office were the worst because, as it turns out, Al Gore is not what you'd call graceful in defeat. Instead he lived up to his reputation as a real loser.
Because of the destruction of the White House facilities by the outgoing regime, the VP transition was happening from Cheney's home, with a single phone line for communications. Matalin ended up with a pretty impressive dual title, Counselor to the Vice President, and Assistant to the President, giving her remarkable access across the Bush Jr. administration. By August 2001, she had the office of the VP, “a (mostly) well-oiled machine” , and she and James took a cruise together without the kids, and things began to look like she was ready to start her own transition out of the White House.

And then it was September 11, 2001. That morning Carville was speaking at a conference and said, regarding Bush “I hope he doesn't succeed, but I am a partisan Democrat.” … minutes later cell phones started buzzing around the room, with the news of planes flying into buildings. Matalin had arrived at work “spiffed up” in designer duds (and spike heels) to make an impression at a labor meeting scheduled for later that day … a bad choice as things turned out.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Love & War is the play-by-play from within the White House (and subsequently those “undisclosed locations” that the V.P. was being shuttled off to) on 9/11 and the time following. As you may recall, Bush was out of town (reading to school kids in Florida) when the attack came, and the Secret Service whisked (here described as being physically picked up and carried) Cheney off to a safe room in the sub-levels of the White House, while most everybody else was told to get away from the building, as it was expected that a plane (perhaps the one that was taken down by its passengers) was headed for there. Matalin was a few blocks away (in her stiletto heels) when she got a call from the Secret Service – Cheney wanted her there, and they managed to find her and get her back and down to the WW2-era PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center) … evidently the first time this space was used for its intended purpose, and what had been “state-of-the-art in FDR's day” was poorly equipped for current tech. Plus, with as many people who ended up being in that space, they found the ventilation was less than needed. One poignant bit here was in her discussing trying to get in contact with key administration members … “Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was literally incommunicado … We discovered later that he was pulling his injured and dead colleagues out from the smoke and debris of the Pentagon carnage.”

I don't believe I've read any specifically “post-9/11” books (although I've seen quite a bit online), so I don't have other examples to compare this to … but being able to look over Matalin's shoulder, as it were, as she discusses what was happening in the upper reaches of government over those days, weeks, and months of doubt, rage, and chaos is remarkable here. The details are revealing, and they confirm my counter-to-the-MSM-story gut reaction about the nobility of the Bush administration, especially when compared with its venal predecessor. Needless to say, being part of Cheney's team, her family life was deeply disrupted, as Matalin was off at whatever “undisclosed location” that they were keeping the V.P. (one story she tells was of a Christmas trip out to Wyoming when they were able to have their families join them … she had shipped out – on Air Force Two – all of their holiday ornaments, and requested the advance team find a tree for their living quarters, which she describes: “{it} wasn't a tree so much as a spindly shrub with a few errant branches, a very small version of a freaking Charlie Brown tree”, which caused a major break-down … James came through, however, and notes: “the tree was kind of puny, in a comical way”). Needless to say, as time rolled on, the Iraq war became an issue in their household, and in 2003 she finally disengaged from the White House job. In the course of this both authors do a lot of musing on the reality of the D.C. scene … I found this bit by Carville worth noting:
Most times people do something because they actually think it's going to work out. Most times, they are not evil people trying to undermine America. Most times, there's not some underlying conspiracy or motive. … There's a great tendency to overestimate conspiracies and underestimate stupidity.
Of course, this is a guy who worked hand-in-hand with the Clintons, so you'd expect him to try to sweep as much “evil people trying to undermine America” under the rug as possible. But, I digress.

As one would expect in a memoir, there's a lot of “personal” stuff in here, a lot of family issues with the Carvilles (including its matriarch, his mother, dying during this time), the lingering death of their much-depended-on housekeeper/nanny, and even their getting re-married. It turns out that their original nuptials were not up to snuff in the view of the Catholic church (Mary had been previously married), and, as she was starting to get into that brand of imaginary friend stuff, this both became an issue and an excuse to throw a big party down in Louisiana. Lots of stuff about new friends, new experiences, and other revelations of their shift to New Orleans, including their girls growing up and heading off to college.

Amid this there's also a section when they “get partisan” again, with reflections on some of the campaigns and opposing sides of issues they'd been on. Matalin has a great “rant” in here about dealing with the MSM (in parts worthy of Limbaugh or Gutfeld), which of course spoke to me. Here's some of the key bits:
Eighty-nine percent of journalists self-identified as liberal. … Who were the 11 percent who confessed to not being liberal? … As annoying as it is to the public, I much prefer today's open partisanship of the media. Nothing produced more hair pulling, breast thumping and chain-smoking in GOP camps than reporters professing no bias while reporting like Democratic operatives. … Do you ever see even a scintilla of fair and balanced reporting from MSNBC …?
To his credit, Carville takes a less aggressive tone in this part (despite his clear loathing of many of the players in both Bush administrations), and has a lengthy entry taking a look, on various levels, at “what's wrong with Washington”, and this bit certainly rung a bell:
I sincerely believe that part of the problem is that so many of the people in positions of power in Washington truly, utterly, do not understand the struggles of average people. They literally can't wrap their minds around the battles ordinary people have to fight every single day ...
The book, which came out in 2013, sort of peters out (being something of a “snapshot” from their lives, things don't get all tied up with a ribbon), taking a look back at the Katrina disaster, and how it is still effecting things down there, and has a final “punctuating” event of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion (and subsequent major oil spill), which happened in 2010 (a scant few months past the Saints winning the Super Bowl – an event that the authors had been heavily involved in – which was a huge thing for the New Orleans community). This part isn't long, but it sort of puts a pin in the timeline as a place to leave off the chronological narrative, and allowing them to finish with some “looking to the future” stuff.

I really enjoyed reading Love & War … the back-and-forth between Matalin and Carville (although not in response to the other's writing – they appeared to have written this separately, but in tandem, taking up a topic and letting the editors piece the bits together) is an appealing format. It does, though, go without saying that this would be far more engaging for “political junkies” than it would be for those whose obsessions lie in other realms. That being said, however, the “behind the scenes” looks at those challenging times following 9/11 are well worth the price (and I'm talking retail, not Dollar Store here).

It appears that the hardcover is now out of print, but there's a more recent paperback version out there, so is a pretty good bet to be available at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor As I noted up top, the hardcover has gotten out to the aftermarket and the on-line new/used guys have "like new" copies of it for 1¢ (plus shipping), so if you can't find a Dollar Store copy, that would be your best bet. Again, it's an engaging read, with some really fascinating material in amid the "Mary & James' life together" stuff.


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Sunday, August 21st, 2016
3:48 pm
How does that work, again?
I'm always pleased to find a book like this at the Dollar Store … which I've come to understand is often (as I'm sure is the case here) “pure luck” of my swinging by to look at the shelves when some particularly choice titles have been rolled out of Walmart and into the aftermarket. Certainly, it beats the old system of having the covers stripped off and returned to the publisher with the actual books going into the trash! I used to be confused about this, as a recent release (this one's only 4 years old) that's still at full price through the on-line big boys seems to be an unlikely find for a buck … but now I'm just happy to get 'em!

Needless to say, that's how John Long's Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology got into my hands. This can be seen as a rather odd book, as Long is a biologist (he's Chair of the Department of Biology at Vassar), although he's also a professor of “cognitive science”, which I suppose does get one into at least the neighborhood of robots. He was a PhD candidate who got enticed into studying the backbones of marlins – a fish that is incapable of surviving in captivity, so can't simply be brought into the lab. In Hawaii, he was able to obtain the backbones of recently processed marlins, and was able to study in detail the fine structure and various motions achievable via that bit of organic architecture, but this wasn't something that could be functionally tested as the backbone was missing the marlin.

One of the most interesting factors of Darwin's Devices is it's very much a “science book”, no so much a “popular presentation” of the subject matter, but a tracking through the process of “doing science”, including discovering one's big errors, bad assumptions, experimental challenges, and limits caused by both funding and available technology. Early on here, the author frames what's coming with:
At this point the best model of a marlin backbone is not a marlin backbone. Because we couldn't study it any further in the living fish, we were left with three choices. One: quit and do another project. As depressing as that sounds, sometimes it is the only practical alternative. In the hopes of finding a species that works really well for answering a ton of different questions (which would make it a “model organism”), switching species is a common response. Two: try to build a new instrument or experimental procedure to answer the question. For the stubborn and electromechanically minded, this is often a way to work out your frustrations and keep busy while you come to grips with the fact that you really, truly are stuck. Three: build a model of your fish. For those of us who need to keep writing papers so that we can earn tenure and win research grants, this is the way to go – we model.
While modeling offers a lot of flexibility as far as how/what you're looking into he notes “... we always have to make, even in the most accurate models, many simplifying assumptions. The trick is to make the right ones.”. His initial “capstone” to his doctoral research involved a computer model of the dynamics of the marlin backbone in action. One can model in either the computer or in a physical device, but, as he's reminded “every computer model is doomed to succeed”, and his had the unfortunate factor of violating the laws of physics (in this case, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics), something that did not faze the computational environment at all … he subsequently outlines why it's often more useful to go with a physical model: “If an engineer's design violates the laws of physics, the machine won't go on forever: instead, it just won't go.”

At this point Long goes into a discussion of the surprisingly wide array of backbones and related structures (notochords, etc.), various of which appear to have evolved independently in a number of different phylogenetic lines. This sets up the choices made for the first physical model, the Tadro (shortened form of “tadpole robots”), which “are based on the tadpole-shaped larvae of sea squirt chordates”, each having “for its axial skeleton a notochord of differing stiffness”, the stiffness controlling the swimming performance of the model, and which is genetically coded, allowing that variable to evolve from one generation to the next.

Here the author goes into a bunch of technical detail about natural selection, and how traits will change in a population across generations … even getting into some delightfully obscure (to me) mathematical short-hand such as “delta x-bar equals delta p”, which indicates how genes relate to phenotype, and logical formations such as ceteris paribus, a Latin phrase meaning “all else being equal”, which is the method by which “we isolate one variable and understand how it influences the whole system”.

The Tadro model went through various stages until they had Tadro3, which was a simplified system (basically a small computer in a bowl) which, like its tadpole-ish larva predecessors, responded to light, and whose tail stiffness could be varied (the stiffness standing in for vertebrae). The “success”, evolutionarily speaking, was the Tadros navigating to a light source, which was its “food”. Through a number of equations, the ability to do so defined the “fitness”, and so determined what particulars the next “generation” would exhibit.

Here the book wanders into a look at robotics and “intelligence”, noting that the evolution of these robots involved “embodied intelligence”, each generation got more efficient via optimizing chordate stiffness, not getting any “smarter” except in a body sense (the entire program that ran these is reproduced here, and it's only about 50 lines of code). There's a reasonably detailed look at the competing intelligence theories of Alan Turning and John Searle, and how these different stances can create dramatically divergent ways of considering what's happening with the robots. This then leads into a thread about the work of a number of neuroscientists, whose research points to yet another whole “world” in which the Tadros operate (and the author does admit – even celebrates – the confusion inherent in these different cognitive contexts).

There is a LOT of material being backgrounded in these sections – with discussions of if a “brain” (what one MIT professor calls a “cognition box”) is really necessary, when a palette of “reflexes” might be as functional, or even more so. Various versions of these frames are charted out as both organic and electronic diagrams, and reduced into some more Greek-abbreviated mathematical formulas. It's all fascinating (and not oppressive) in context of the read, but a bit complex to summarize in this review.

While not evolving per se, the Tadro3 gets supplanted by the Tadro4, which is equipped to model predator avoidance. It ends up with two light sensors (to better determine direction), and “an infrared proximity detector” which is designed to some extent mimic the “lateral line” of sensing cells on fish. One of the other interesting “sciency” things here is that one of the factors that they'd set up to determine “fitness” in the Tadro3 turned out to be messing up the data. They had decided that “body wobble” was a negative, but discovered that penalizing for wobble ended up degrading the feeding efficiency … as it was “functionally dependent of swimming speed”, and the faster moving units were exhibiting more wobble, but could maneuver better. There are various tables and charts looking at how they processed this info, but it stands out as big “oops”, and a cautionary tale of how one's initial assumptions when setting up models need to be very carefully considered!

Another significant change in the Tadro4 was the addition of “vertebrae”. They took the gel-based notochord of the Tadro3, made it a consistent stiffness and length, and added bead-like vertebrae … as the other elements are constant, the flexibility of the “backbone” was only determined by the width of the “intervertebral joints”, which was variable in relation to the number of vertebrae placed on it (more vertebrae, less joint space, stiffer spine). They also made two versions of the Tadro4, an evolving “prey” unit, and a non-evolving “predator”. The Tadro4 was modeled on a different type of critter, an early (400 million years old) jawless vertebrate fish, Drepanaspis. Having multiple sensors allowed the team to test for the relation of sensory systems and vertebrae, with the hypothesis that having the sensory system (to determine the presence of predators) would spur the development of (propulsion-enhancing) vertebrae.

It pains me to do so, but at this juncture I'm going to throw my hands up and say “too much stuff – can't summarize it!” … the author bounces around between some very technical evolutionary theorizing, overviews of the experiments his team did, and charting out “adaptive landscapes” (which, short of scanning and including those graphics in here, are kind of hard to describe). He also shifts from the development of the tail-mobile Tadros, and into an “ET” (Evolutionary Trekker) called Madeleine, which has four flippers … and is named for its vague similarity in shape to that small French pastry. This takes side trips off into considering Plesiosaurs, and aquatic vs. terrestrial tetrapods (where there are 1,679,616 possible different mobility options … needless to say, only a tiny fraction of those being tested with models).

It's at this point that a lot of the action shifts from the college lab to the R&D centers of various robotics companies … and ultimately off into the acronym-laden world of DARPA and military applications of robotics. However, it's hardly just our folks looking at this … he quotes an expert in the field as saying that at least fifty-six countries are developing robotic weapons. He quotes an associate as saying that military robots should be “unmanned, expendable, and cause maximum damage”, and gives an example of something called the MicroHunter which is a palm-sized torpedo-like vehicle, with just one moving part – the propeller. These were tested against a SEAL diver, and the SEAL was only able to stop these from hitting the target 50% of the time (they had otherwise been getting 100% marks) – and that was with just four in play. The book ends up with a “philosophical” look at how to manage this sort of technology, but with a “SkyNet” dystopian vibe hanging over it all.

As noted, Darwin's Devices is still in print, and the on-line big boys seem to have it a full cover price. However, having gotten into the Dollar Stores, “good” copies are available from the new/used guys for a penny plus shipping, and “new” copies can be had for under a buck (plus shipping). Again, this isn't exactly one of those “popular science” books, as it's more focused on the experimental/research/theory aspects than most of those would be … which is one of the reasons I'm looking to pass this along to my robotics-obsessed (she's currently off developing an aerial mapping drone on a summer internship!) engineering student daughter … but it might be a bit overwhelming for some (I'll admit that I got a bit lost at a few points here). It is, however, a fascinating look at a line of research, with all the complexities involved in that, with an over-all arc which charts out the (somewhat disturbing) development of this sort of robotic system. A definite recommendation for all science/engineering geeks out there (others' “mileage may vary” on how you'd like this).


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Thursday, August 18th, 2016
11:49 pm
Strange ways you can tell you're getting old ...
Now, unlike some people (such as my wife), I have never been one to indulge in "retail therapy" (she has been called "an engine of the economy" as her absolute two favorite things to do is to buy stuff and throw other stuff out), and will buy something that is functional and have it perform its function for as long as it lasts, without even a whiff of thinking of replacing it "just because".

I suppose ONE of the clues that I'm "getting old" is that I have lived in at my current address for 35 years at this point ... which is a chunk of time. I have a number of things still around which I bought when getting ready to move in over here from my Mom's place (including, remarkably, some glass plates from France which have survived my 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's) ... and it's never struck me as particularly odd that these things were beginning to have an "antique" air to them - until some needed to be replaced.

While the blender I got back in my drinking days (primarily for making Velvet Hammers) still works fine when it's called into service, a year or so back one of the beaters from the hand mixer that was also from the early 80's broke, and I couldn't get a (reasonably priced) replacement for it. So, off to Amazon I went, and ordered a new one ... nominally the same model, but a whole world of difference in style (plus it had an extra speed setting that its predecessor didn't). Being that I'm rather "change averse", I wasn't 100% happy about the replacement, especially given that there was nothing wrong with the previous one, except for not being able to get a new beater.

What brought this topic to mind, however, was my having to buy yet another beard trimmer. I've had a beard almost constantly since high school (see the icon - my graduation shot), and so this device has been a regular necessity. I bought one in college (I think), which got replaced some time later (probably a couple of decades back), the replacement unit being perfectly functional until just recently, when the plastic started to degrade. Did the cutting mechanism go bad? No. Did the battery/electrical system go bad? No. The freak'n plastic (notably around the battery compartment) began to get brittle and fall apart! The last time I trimmed my beard, I had tape all over that to just keep the batteries in contact with the connections long enough to finish the job.

Thankfully, these are not vastly expensive items, with the new one (the replacement I got had all sorts of extra guides, and a separate ear/nose trimmer thing) costing about twelve bucks delivered. But, still ... the plastic was old enough that it was breaking up???

I was somehow reminded of when we were packing up my father-in-law's house in Columbus, OH, in preparation of his move south. There was all sorts of stuff in the garage which was from his dad (I got some of this to pass along to The Girls, after all, how cool would it be to have a rasp used by one's great-grandfather). This has a bearing on the above as well, as one of the things I've had to replace over the past year or so was the basic drill bit set that I'd had since the early 80's, or possibly before that. I'd occasionally thought of getting new bits because one of them was dead dull and pretty useless, but it wasn't until I was building a platform for a futon and had the drill slip off the edge and fall bit-first into the floor (breaking the bit) that I finally got a new set. When I was looking for "new", I was initially looking to get the same set as I'd been using for decades ("change averse", remember), but found that the company that made those was long out of business.

I will occasionally run across something in my now quite over-stuffed tool box which is a similar "trip down memory lane", such as finding solder with the old Archer brand from Radio Shack, and the like (frankly, I still have quite a lot of old Radio Shack stuff around here ... used to love that place when it was bins and bins of assorted make-it-yourself tech!). Which, of course, upon reflection is one of those clues about "getting old". Stuff that I bought in my early 20's is beginning to be collectable as Memento Mori now that I'm in my late 50's!

As long-time readers may recall, I've had to unwillingly divest myself of a LOT of old tech over the past couple of years ... because "if it ain't broke", I sure wasn't going to throw something out just because there was something else on hand brighter, better, and faster. You never know when you're gonna need a system with a 286 chip! However, I eventually bent to pressure and ousted well over a dozen old computers and related peripherals. Thank goodness the blender (and its classic ice-crusher accessory!) never had to be replaced.

Oh, speaking of kitchen equipment ... there IS one thing that I'd really like to get new, but have never been able to justify the expense vs. the use. I have an old first-generation Cuisinart with a full set of blades (one of my early pro clients was a gal who was an early Cuisinart "expert" who I booked on TV shows and developed a syndicated radio show for), whose inner workings are built like a tank and fully functional to this day, but whose plastic container parts are suffering from similar chemical break-down as my beard trimmer - to the extent that they have lost their handles (needed to effectively turn the container to start and stop the unit), and need to be given a two-handed squeeze and turn to operate. Like the hand-mixer, replacement parts, when available, are pointlessly expensive ... and since I typically only pull it out to shred Brussels Sprouts at Thanksgiving, I put up with the hassle.

Anyway, figured I'd share. I guess it's a sucker bet to expect permanence, in either appliances or people ...


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Sunday, August 14th, 2016
9:06 pm
Throwing money at Zuckerberg ...
{Posted this over on Facebook ... figured I'd share it here as well.}

Interesting ... I've been running an experiment in FB ... my previous new-book-available post over on @eshcatonbooks got a whopping SIX "people reached", and for this latest volume, I figured I'd take FB up on their "boost post" thing ... setting a $20 max spend. In two days it's spent about half that, and as of this writing, it's "reached" 940 people.

What's a pisser is that of that 940, 71 are "organic" reach ... which means that FB has been SMOTHERING the reach of non-paid posts, as the previous post of its sort got 1/12th of that.

Is it worth it? Dunno. Suspect not because nobody has ordered a copy since the boost has been there (or, at least, nobody has ordered a copy via CreateSpace, where I can get pretty much real-time results - which is where the order button on the page that is linked to in the post points to - I'm not sure how much of a lag there is between an Amazon order happening and my knowing about it). There have, however been 14 click-throughs to the book's page.

Now, with the way the CreateSpace margins are set, if I had TWO out of the 940 "people reached" order a copy, this would be worth the ad spend (or about 3 via Amazon), it wouldn't be making a profit, but the costs would be largely covered. However, I've thrown a vast lot of money away in buying ads for books over the past 25 years, so my "gut feeling" is that I might as well be burning a $20 as buying the "boost" for the post ... only actual sales would convince me otherwise.

The one thing that I think may be positive here is that the targeting I set (which is fairly broad, but filtered on having non-fiction books as an "interest") is no doubt getting the book(s) in front of a lot of people who'd never hear of them otherwise. Aside from the 14 clicks, this has also resulted in 29 likes, only 3 of which are by "people I know" (2 being me and Eschaton), with a total "engagement" of 33 (31 if you take away my own likes). This means that it's costing me about $11 to get 31 "engagements" ... and I don't think that paying 36¢ per head for somebody to just become aware the book/company is something that would be sustainable for me, unless I could chart that against sales (of which there have been NONE - screwing up the math with dividing by zero).

Again, my No.1 take-away from this is bitterness about FB making it almost impossible to REACH anybody unless you pay for that reach. Admittedly, Eschaton's page has never garnered many "likes" (I think it's up to 60 at this point), so even if the posts were being seen by everybody who "signed up" to see them, it still wouldn't be much of an audience, but the difference between the reach numbers is aggravating. This would, of course, be a much less discouraging thing if I was getting a few sales ... all that I'd need to be OK with it would be a response rate of less than 1/2 of 1% of those "reached" by the post ... but, lacking that, it's hard to feel like this is something that makes any sense (especially given how broke I am).

Bleh. One more to file under "sucks to be me", I guess.


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Monday, August 8th, 2016
12:10 pm
My choice is "nope!" ...
This was another book obtained at the dollar store. Sometimes I get great stuff there, some times “not so much”. I wonder had I taken the time to look at this more closely if I'd have bothered to put it in the cart. At the time I must have figured that if it had Richard Branson and Jack Canfield involved, how bad could it be? Well …

Choice Point: Align Your Purpose by Harry Massey and David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., is based on a film (that I'd obviously never heard of) by the same name, which evidently was primarily set up by stringing together interview clips with a lot of people in fields related to the interests of the authors. More on this in a bit. It also came out in 2012, and was evidently part of the “Mayan Calendar Ending” the-sky-is-falling mania from back then (interesting, the book has no copyright date, although the Foreword, Preface, and Introduction are dated – all to late 2011 – with Amazon listing the publication date as February 1, 2012). It purports to be a “personal blueprint of transformation”, but is pretty much New Age twaddle serving as a loose matrix to hold quotes from “names” interviewed for the movie.

The guy behind this, Massey, is a co-founder of NES Health Ltd., which peddles “a 21st-century system of natural holistic health care based on integrating physics and biology” … this is one of those books that actual physicists hate, and every time the text floated a physics term, the Inigo Montoya (from The Princess Bride movie) quote “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” came to mind … over and over again. Almost every scientific term in here is twisted around to some cringe-worthy “unicorn fart” interpretation.

And, of course (it wouldn't be New Age without it!), they're selling a course … which seems to follow the general outline of the book, with out-takes and transcripts from the movie (which they're also selling DVDs of).

As regular readers of these reviews know, I typically have several little slips of paper to guide me back to the “good parts” … I had one in here, in the Preface (notably, not written by either of the nominal authors), which seemed pretty promising:
The knowledge of how a cycle begins and ends is the key to using choice points. Whether the cycle lasts for one day or thousands of years, the principle of when it starts, when it ends, and what happens in between is the same. Each cycle begins with a seed event – something that sets a pattern of energy in to motion. Before the pattern repeats itself as the next cycle, however, it ends with a window of time where the pattern is absent. This place of no patterns is the choice point of the cycle. The choice point is the greatest window of opportunity for each cycle because it holds the greatest opportunity to change patterns of the past before they repeat. In this way, cycles of time and our power of choice are closely related.
This reminded me a lot of the Gurdjeffian enneagram concept with the “shock points” (deleted in the since-popularized corporate “enneagram” crap) and motion … which made me hope that the whole “Choice Point” thing would be a system along those lines. Nuh-uh.

The book is, however, structured to be a system of sorts. It has ten chapters across three “phase” Parts, with 3-6 topics per chapter. The “parts” are “Understanding Your World”, “Align Your Purpose”, and “Be The Change” … which would be fine, I suppose, with less “fluffy” filler. What's frustrating here is that it's hard to totally reject the project, as there are some pretty substantial quotes from the 20 “visionaries” (some of whom hardly qualify for that label, being simply “newage” activists of various stripes that fit the authors' paradigm). Frankly, this whole thing reminds me (embarrassingly) of some of my college papers, which strung together more-or-less applicable blocks from multiple sources with narrative copy steering everything toward the point I was trying to establish. I wonder just how “involved” the bigger (or less woo-woo) names included here actually are/were with the project, as in a lot of cases it feels like they were interviewed once, and had various “sound bites” extracted, first for the movie, then for the book, and eventually for the course!

There was one thing that I actually liked here … but it's more “structural” than anything … at the end of each chapter there's a list of “Things To Remember”, which gives one the outline of the material without being burdened with the saccharine blah-blah-blah of the actual text. Here's an example, from Chapter 7, “How To Be The Change”:
  1. Changing ourselves ensures that a change is a lasting one.

  2. We need to be a match for what we want.

  3. There is an interplay between destiny and free will.

  4. We can choose how we act within natural cycles and choose to align with specific patterns.

  5. The outer world reflects the inner world.

  6. If we look within, we can discover our inner world.

  7. If we want to see peace in the world, we need to be peaceful.

  8. If we look inside and deal with any emotional wounds, we can discover our true selves.

Sounds great, yeah?

Now, I have to admit that I'm a cynical, curmudgeonly, cranky font of darkness, so all that “peace & love” stuff makes me snarl … and I suspect that somebody more on the “flower power” side of the gauge would likely have no problem getting behind this. However, it's one of those reads that had me channeling Michael Ironside's “Ham Tyler” from the original “V” TV series, with his contempt for Marc Singer's “Mike Donovan” character, with the book's authors standing in as the nauseatingly light “gooder”.

Needless to say, it's a good thing that Choice Point only cost me a buck. This had the potential of being a valuable book, but it would have to have been taken out of the hands of its authors and put into the control of some less hearts-and-flowers types. If you're into that stuff, hey, you might like this. Bizarrely, this appears to still be in print (the on-line big boys have it at full cover price), and even stranger, the new/used guys are actually charging a few bucks for it.

Again, if they hadn't played fast-and-loose with the science, went with fewer “gooder” types stuck in as “visionaries”, and wrote out the 2012 “Chicken Little” vibe, this could have been a worthwhile read … but that would be a different book, wouldn't it?


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Sunday, August 7th, 2016
9:15 am
Observing culinary history ...
This was another delightful, if surprising, dollar store find. Surprising in that this is relatively new (it's only been out for three years at this point), and the on-line big boys have it at full cover … which means that I was very lucky to have run into it for a buck as it must have just have made that strange journey off of the Walmart shelves.

As my previous life had been in food publicity, I knew of the author (although I don't recall if I'd ever met him), and he's certainly only a one-degree-of-separation connection, having name-checked an old family friend in passing here (as somebody he'd assumed was getting the New York Times job instead of him). But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The book in question is Steal the Menu: A Memoir of Forty Years in Food by Raymond Sokolov, who I think I know best from his magazine work.

To start off, I want to say this was a delightful and engaging read, but with the caveat that, having spent much of my early career in the PR outlands of the food biz, this could well be more appealing to me as a “trip down memory lane” than it might be for a random reader picking up the book.

As one would gather from the subtitle, this is a memoir, and not some high-concept treatise on the food/restaurant/media world. It's about where Sokolov was, what he was doing, and how it effected him. The book's set up in five sections, which largely walk through his life and experiences. To be deeply presumptive when commenting on a book by somebody with the sort of C.V. he has, I really think this would have been significantly improved if it had been broken up a bit … as the five chapters tend to carry a lot of material each, and having those broken up into 3-5 thematic sections would have made this “tighter”, not that it particularly rambles or anything, it's just that there are narratives in here which sort of meander from one into the next, where they might have been more definitive were they to stop, summarize, and then move into the next topic. Again, who am I to kibitz on his (or his editors at Knopf's) decisions? But there it is, all the same.

The book starts with a recollection of a lunch that he had with the legendary Craig Clairborne and his managing editor in 1971, in the cafeteria of the New York Times, when Sokolov was preparing to transition into Clairborne's role at the newspaper. The book's title comes from the advice that the legend gave his woefully unprepared successor (“In Craig's world, I was indeed a nobody. I'd never taken a cooking class, published a restaurant review or written a recipe … in the kitchen, I was a cipher … I had no business at this table ...”) during lunch … because if you ask for a copy of the menu, you might well not get it (and, of course, restaurant reviewers are ideally incognito when doing their forkwork, so there's no good reason for the staff to agree to let a random person have a menu).

The initial section, “First Bites”, does what one would expect in a memoir, tracing his life from his birth in Detroit a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His family was more interested in food and eating out than the average, and so he ended up getting a varied basis in assorted cuisines. A bit of a child prodigy (at least in spelling), he ended up at Harvard, and then Oxford, and was working towards a doctorate in the Classics (his proposed thesis topic focused on “rare Homeric vocabulary in Theocritus”). In the early 60's he was one of multitudinous American youth who took advantage of the post-war exchange rate to bum around Europe, which not only allowed Sokolov the ability to deepen his connection with the classics, but also get a very good grounding in food – if mainly in the lower-end eateries affordable to the traveling college student. He passed his PhD orals at Harvard in 1965, and took a job as a correspondent in the Newsweek Paris office, where he frequently found himself with “almost nothing to do”, and an expense account …
… I busied myself with entertaining “sources” … at restaurants of high gastronomic quality. No one in the office minded. In fact, the bureau chief seemed glad to not have me nagging him for work, and it amused my colleagues that I was putting so much energy into establishing contacts in corners of French life they had no time to investigate.
His timing proved to be excellent, as it was in these years that “the nouvelle cuisine revolution had already begun simmering in the provinces”, and he had his first food piece published (anonymously) in Newsweek in 1967 based on an assignment he'd been given to check out the awarding of a third Michelin star to an Alsace restaurant, L'Auberge de l'Ill, which was a replacement for an initial pitch for a story about an up-and-coming chef by the name of Paul Bocuse.

Soon after, he was offered a spot back at the New York offices of Newsweek, and he (with his young family) landed back in the US on his 26th birthday, in August of 1967. His main responsibility in his new position was doing book reviews, which included a number of cookbooks. He had tried to angle some freelance work with magazines such as New York, but that hadn't gone anywhere. However, in 1971, an associate had suggested that he apply for the New York Times food job, who additionally mentioned the idea to another associate, who ended up speaking with Claibourne's editor, resulting in a lunch appointment. On the way back from that lunch, he was told that because he didn't have much of a food track record, they'd want to get “some tryout pieces” from him, which they'd pay for, and cover his expenses. They liked these and he was hired.

The next section “The Ungatronomical Me” starts out with a note (much like his impression on Craig Clairborne) about his wife's belief that he “was radically, hopelessly unqualified for the job” and his reflection that:
If you had told me then that I would spend the rest of my life writing and reporting on food in major publications and in many books, I would have laughed at you.
He goes into a long-ish side track here to describe his youthful spelling bee fame (at 10 he was the youngest contestant ever in the National Spelling Bee). While this does seem a bit self-indulgent, it serves as a key turning point – amid all the press attention he experienced, he got “fatally interested in journalism”. which led him to working (doing movie reviews) on the Harvard Crimson, which in turn opened the door for his getting that Newsweek position, without which he suspects that he'd have ended up “a disappointed retired professor of Greek at some provincial university”.

This leads into the meat of the story, the “Food News” section, which starts with a humorous reminiscence of his first week at the Times, and his introductory interview with the HR department – which had evidently not been clued in that he was the new food editor – when asked what he had been hired for, he said he would be “handling food”, and they ended up putting through the paperwork for him being an assistant salad handler in the cafeteria … the error being first discovered by the rather substantial discrepancy on his first paycheck between what he was expecting and what showed up!

There is a vast lot of material in this section, and quite varied – making it somewhat difficult to cull out specifics for highlighting here. He starts with a bit of reflection of just how Clairborne had changed the “food editor” gig in his 13 years at the Times (including discarding “the old food-page model of recipes handed out by food-product companies”, a trend which would eventually doom my family's PR firm a couple of decades later), how their operation functioned (including minutia such as who answered phones in what order – he was the fourth option if everybody else was already on a call), and a look at the early growth of Chinese regional cuisine in the New York market (originating with one of those “tryout pieces” that he rushed into print when Clairborne opted to not do his last week's projects). From there he wanders off into politics (sort of – it starts with a rambling recall of a story based on presidential offspring Tricia Nixon's wedding cake, but circles back to his spelling bee days and then fast-forwards to the opening of the LBJ library, all of which anchored in the author's animosity towards Richard Nixon). He gets back to the Times job, and mentions that he “was not happy with the mediocre gastronomic outback I found myself in” (New York???) and describes how he took a rather “activist” stance in knocking down some restaurants and building up others that “reminded me of my time in … Paris”, including taking credit for launching Lutèce into its run “for the next thirty years as the top restaurant in the United States”. He follows this with a return to France, and this time succeeding in connecting with Paul Bocuse. Then he's back talking about Chinese food, which leads (in a vague way) to his dismissal from the Times.

However, before he got canned, he was still connected with the paper, in the form of an (embarrassingly to all involved) at-that-point still upcoming cookbook. This is the lead story in the “Upstairs In Front” section (named for what he'd put down for “where he worked” on forms – being a description of where his desk was in their house), which covers his freelancing years. He wrote for Time, the Sunday magazine at the time of the Chicago Sun-Times called Midwest, he still did book reviews for the Sunday New York Times, and magazines like Travel & Leisure. Also, notably, he began writing for Natural History magazine, a monthly from the American Museum of Natural History (which I used to subscribe to, and so best know Sokolov's writing from), where he wrote a food column for 20 years.

One of the more significant projects of this period was his work on the book The Saucier's Apprentice, a definitive text on the art and array of classic French sauces, that Julia Child's co-author Simon Beck noted: “no one, not even in France, had written anything like it”. Given that Sokolov had arranged to do the book when he still had a test-kitchen staff, it's especially a remarkable work, as his experience was at the table, and not at the stove. He says:
My idea was to match up the assembly-line efficiency of the old sauce system with the preservation magic of the deep freeze. … giving directions for twenty-five brown sauces, following recipes for their most unremittingly orthodox versions in Larousse gastronomique. These “small or compound” brown sauces fitted neatly into a family tree, ranging from africaine to poivrade, plus two game sauces descended from sauce poivrade, which constituted a third generation, demi-glace's grandchildren.
His description of what he had to go through to get this done in his home kitchen is rather off-putting, yet the thrust of the book is to make these heretofore arcane culinary gems accessible to the home cook, to be poured out into ice cube trays, frozen, and doled out as needed. I need to get a copy of that!

In another veer (one of the points that I think would have been better served with a break into a sub-section), he goes from the efforts for making these old-school French sauces approachable to everyone, to a look at the spread of nouvelle cuisine into the U.S. (and global) markets. Here he name-checks chefs, restaurants, cook books, and gets into quite a lot of technical detail on how the “new cooking” was conceived and composed. Oddly (again, a sub-section split would have been useful here), this leads to his tenure at Natural History, where his column was framed as needing to “reflect the various fields in which the {Museum} intersected with what people ate” … which he discovered was pretty wide-open as “anthropologists had by and large ignored what the people they studied ate”. Needless to say, with two decades of stories to draw from, this part of the book is a bit of a fire-hose of Sokolov trying to put out a wide array of the sorts of things that he covered, from cannibalism myths, the history of Navajo fry bread, Cornish vs. Finnish pasties, to the botany of the Key Lime. This leads to a discussion of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, which then leads off into more info on industry organizations and individuals, and eventually gets around to his work at the Wall Street Journal, initially with the short-lived Book Digest where he would identify books to buy excerpt rights for, and subsequently at the WSJ proper, managing a daily “arts” page.

The last section “With Reservations” starts off on September 11, 2001, with Sokolov taking his dog for a walk in southern Manhattan (“the Journal's offices had look directly at the Twin Towers from across West Street”). He mentions that he'd been hired to do a story on the innovative food-service network that Joe Baum had designed for the World Trade Center, back before it was constructed in the early 70's … so he had a long history with the location … including him having been scheduled to have lunch there in 1993 when the first terrorist attack (with a van full of explosives in the basement garage) happened. The chaos and subsequent difficulties following 9/11 caused a major shift in the WSJ, and he ended up losing the job there in 2002. This led him to starting a new book project, and picked up work at Harvard on his “long-abandoned PhD”. He goes into a discussion of the details of going back to academia after such a long period (unsurprisingly, his extremely obscure thesis topic had not been scooped up by some subsequent Classics student). His subsequent brief foray into academia ends up with a return to the WSJ to write restaurant reviews … which then morphs into his doing “pop-food odysseys” which he compares to some of the “American folk food tradition” stories he did for Natural History. This rambled through searches for “the best hot dog” and different BBQ traditions around the country, the growth of Las Vegas as a culinary hot-spot (especially for insanely expensive experiences that could hardly be sustained elsewhere), the explosion of high-quality cuisine across the country (notably even in small backwaters, of which he details several), and the evolution of cutting-edge work in “molecular gastronomy” and other “modernist” experiments. His later work with the Journal expresses itself in notes on dozens of up-and-coming (in 2013) restaurants and chefs … which is pretty much where the book stops.

Again, because I love the subject matter (and how I ache to have some of those meals he reproduces menus of!), Steal the Menu was a gripping read for me. If you are a fan of fine dining (and perhaps publishing) this should be attractive to you as well. It is certainly still in print, so you could find it at your local brick-and-mortar, especially as the online big boys aren't presently discounting it. However, as it's found its way to the dollar stores, the new/used guys are also offering it, with “very good” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping), so it's not going to set you back much to pick this up. I quite enjoyed this (despite my occasional bitchiness in the above), and am pretty sure you'll like it if “it's your thing”.


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Saturday, August 6th, 2016
2:24 pm
<eeyore>Not that anybody's likely to be buying them anyway ...</eeyore>
OK, despite having some friends who are VERY into numerologically "having the right numbers" for anything, I really wasn't able to get any help with the idea of having a "good" number for the flat-pricing level of my review books.

Initially, I was pricing these PER REVIEW (at 25¢ each), which seemed to be an equitable solution ... but I've had feedback (notably from some folks who want to SELL them) that this is confusing (as the book length and pricing diverged depending on the length of the reviews), and that I should go with a "flat rate" per volume.

Now, I had other feedback, early on, that was suggesting VERY low cover prices. However, as these are coming out from CreateSpace, I need to have the cover price high enough to be able to at least have a slim margin on their "expanded distribution", or I can't get the books out into those channels. While I've not run the numbers for all the existing books (which I recently re-did to add in the by-author and by-title indexes), I'm pretty sure I'll be OK with that, even though this will be (excepting the two shorter books from 2014 and 2013) an across-the board price reduction.

The idea of going with a flat rate started to make sense when I got into the middle of working on the 2009 book (soon to come), which, featuring 81 reviews, would have been priced at $20.25 at the per-review rate ... which seemed to be a bit steep for a 220-page book (and quite a bit more than than some of the other longer, but with fewer entries, volumes).

Being a bit of a contrarian, I couldn't JUST pick a round number out of a hat, but decided to try to find a "special" number, and opted to get a listing of prime numbers between 1499 and 1699 (there being 28 numbers in that range). Unfortunately, I couldn't get anybody to go over that list and say "oh, that's a GOOD one", so I was pretty much left to my own devices.

And, frankly, there's not much out there (or at least that I could find, my Google-Fu may have been wanting on this) for simply analyzing numbers that aren't names or birthdates, etc., short of reducing them to one number and getting a vague blithering about that (although, I guess if your market is China, it would be good to have that reduce to an "8").

In terms of a "price", I was favoring one of these, 1597 ($15.97), which was less than I had been charging for most of these, but enough to cover the XD nut with CreateSpace ... and, while trying to find some resource for analyzing these numbers, ran across the info that it's part of the Fibonacci sequence ... which sort of sealed it for me, as it's a "special" number, if not necessarily related to selling books!

I am thinking that maybe I'll end up combining the 2014 and 2013 books (which are currently $10.00 and $10.75 respectively) into one volume which will end up being right about the same length (/cost/margins) as the 2015 edition, at that would be a pretty big price jump for fairly slim volumes.

Anyway, I'm SURE you were waiting with bated breath for more news about the review books ... you were, weren't you???


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Thursday, August 4th, 2016
10:21 am
A rare positive ...
This stood out enough to be notable, and so I'm noting it.

I went out on Monday night to write book reviews over at Starbucks. I had two books waiting my blitherings, and my usual 4-11pm "shift" over there should have been plenty to get that done. As it turned out, I just got the second review finished before they were going to kick me out (I guess I spent more time on surfing for sub-referential info that I should have), but I did get that finished.

I also had a "reading" book with me, that had a bit shy of an hour's left to go in it ... I'd initially thought I would have gotten to that when still at Starbucks, but I ended up back over at Mariano Park with it.

When I was sitting in the park, I felt awesome, like I had achieved something (the two reviews posted in the past two days), and was happy to get the book I was reading done.

Now, obviously, my life SUCKS ... I have no income, we're in deep shit ... but for that brief moment, nearing Midnight out in the park, everything seemed "right with the world", and I seemed to have some value in it.

As I said ... this is a vanishingly rare psychological state for me ... and it was wonderful.

When I got to my keyboard on Tuesday morning, I edited/posted the first of those reviews, and spewed the link out to all and sundry ... including (as requested - it was from the LibraryThing "Early Reviewer" program) a tweet to the publisher. They, evidently, really liked the review, and they were re-tweeting my tweet pointing to it, and posting their own referring to it. A few hours later the author also out there, not only re-tweeting the previous tweets, but quoting from my review. Needless to say, this made me feel GREAT.

So, I had an 18-hour period of time when I was not miserable, and where the universe wasn't trying to crush me like a cockroach. It was nice.

It would be really nice if this happened more than once a decade or so.

It would also be nice if I could make any MONEY doing the sorts of things that make me feel OK ... but that seems like an impossible dream (I have still yet to have sold a single copy of any of my review - or, less surprisingly, poetry - books). This world is set up to torture me in every conceivable way it can ... but this one brief flash of "good" was appreciated - no doubt in much the same way that a to-order "last meal" is appreciated by those heading to the noose.


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Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
12:25 pm
Once upon a time, there was a ...
It's a fairly defining feature of shopping trips to the dollar store that one is never sure what you're going to be coming out of it with … as stuff that's been there each of the past half-dozen times predictably isn't when you're up there looking for that specific item. And this is even moreso when it comes to the supply of books. I had a nice haul a couple of weeks back, coming out with four hardcover books (with a combined cover price of over a hundred bucks), and this is one of those. Of course, one of the other factors at the dollar store is that I'm rarely specifically looking for any particular book, so most of my purchase decisions are made on fairly shallow investigations into what I'm buying … after all, they're just a buck if I end up with a clunker.

Well … this one is sort of in that “hey, what do you want for $1?” zone … not that it's bad but I had NO idea (until I'd logged it in my “reading” list and had started in on it) that this was not a discussion/analysis/system book, but was one of those “business parable” fictional narratives. As I have pointed out numerous times in the past, I do not relate well to this style. Give me structure, give me bullet points, give me charts and end notes and references … don't just tell me a dopey story!

Now, Dennis Bakke's The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time is not as “dopey” as a lot of these sort of things are … but it's still “neither fish nor fowl”, as it were, not a straight-forward dissertation on the program of corporate re-organization that the author is pitching, nor is it particularly gripping literature (although, I have to admit, I was engaged enough by the telling that I didn't find this as irritating as I usually do with these “teaching story” things).

Of course, that's me … others, I'm sure, quite like having their information cross-platformed into a parable (sort of like the jibe at the Waldorf schools where one might have a student doing their chemistry final in the form of interpretive dance or a P.E. exam satisfied with a toothpick sculpture) … but I kept wishing Bakke would get to the point – and, unlike some other books of this sort, he did not upgrade the story with direct presentations of the material in sidebars, etc. (although there is a “slide deck” in the Afterword, and available on SlideShare which summarizes it fairly well).

As I was not interfacing particularly deeply with this, I also didn't end up with a lot of bookmarks in it for the “key points” (indeed, it appears that there were only two here, one marking a bit which reminded me of a famed Lorne Michaels quote, which really didn't have anything to do with the material being presented, and one marking the part with the graphics of the “slide deck” that can also be found on the book's companion site), so you're going to get a lot of vague paraphrasing in this review. Sorry about that.

So … there are these two guys who had worked in a very buttoned-down and obsessively hierarchical corporation, and they had wanted to get out there and forge their own path. They ended up buying (with the substantial assistance of an outside investor), a medical supply/device company, that, as it turns out, also was very regimented. The story picks up fairly early on in their tenure at the company, and with a significant catastrophe … one of the main machines on the production line had exploded, and was a total loss. The fellow running the machine survived, because he was off trying to find the right supervisor to get the required approvals to shut down the machine, which he could clearly see was about to have a problem. This “institutional inability” of this worker to shut down the machine in an emergency situation is the start of the whole re-structuring of how the company does business.

There are several “stress points” here … one of the new owners is the “idea guy” and the other is the “money guy” and they are both beholden to the lady investor who has substantial say in the company (although she's not involved on a day-to-day basis). The “idea guy” starts with setting up situations where individual workers on the production floor can stop the machines mid-run, and then expands that to a more generalized system of “decisions” … and ultimately into “The Decision Maker Process”, which (from the slide deck) is:
In a decision-maker organization, the leader leads by choosing a decision-maker.
The decision-maker must ask for advice.
The advice process brings multiple perspectives together to guide a successful outcome.
But the decision-maker makes the final call – and takes responsibility for it.
Needless to say, there is a lot of institutional inertia that the “idea guy” has to fight against to get these things implemented, aside from the resistance from his partner and their main investor. Assorted parts of the company are involved in the story at points – from the R&D teams whose specs aren't always “doable” when it gets down to prototyping, and there isn't enough communication between them and the techs (or the manufacturing) … at one juncture somebody orders in a full product run's worth of an alternative material because, on paper, it's much cheaper and nominally to spec – but it (spoiler alert!) is too brittle and easily breaks – leading to the company having to absorb those costs. In another situation (another spoiler alert!) a long-time employee in charge of the shop floor figures he knows the manufacturing better than anybody, and doesn't need anyone else's opinions, and not only won't go through the “advice process” but he's also in the habit of simply filling in the government regulatory forms from the R&D spec sheets, rather than actually testing the products. One of the operators (of course, the same guy who was trying to shut down the machine) had tested the product and noted discrepancies – problems that had the potential of destroying the company were the government apply maximum fines. Ultimately, the owners made the manager the “decision-maker” on whether he'd be fired or not!

I guess this brings us to another good place to dip into that slide deck. Here's a list of considerations for choosing the decision-maker:
Proximity. Who's close to the issue? Are they well acquainted with the context, the day-to-day details, and the big picture?
Perspective. Proximity matters, but so does perspective. Sometimes an outside perspective can be just as valuable.
Experience. Has this person had experience making similar decisions? What were the consequences of those decisions?
Wisdom. What kinds of decisions has this person made in other areas? Where they good ones? Do you have confidence in this person?
As you might have guessed from the scant outlines above, the guy on the floor who wanted to shut off the machine takes over the job the guy who was fudging data had (who stayed on as a consultant), and there are lots of other “blossomings” of people from being given the ability to make essential decisions. Along the way a lot of people are worried about losing their jobs, but eventually find new roles, plus there's another character who had been at the same company the two owners had come from, and when he tries to implement this system, it's a disaster, but that's blamed on the other fellow being a total “bottom line” guy, more interested in the dollars than the work environment. This, of course, presents something of a caveat: these ideas might not be universally applicable – at least without totally over-hauling the “personality” of one's company.

As the story plays out, everything falls into place as one might expect it to (frankly, I was thinking that they should make this into a Bollywood musical, culminating in a big dance number involving the penultimate scene of the big happy company barbecue), with everybody (well, except for the “bottom line” guy at the other company) living happily ever after. La-di-da … but I guess if you're a “parable person” this will be a lot more appealing to you than it was for me.

That being said, I liked The Decision Maker a lot more than I typically do for things in this format, the core concepts were interesting, and the potential of this being a “business model” is quite enticing (I'd like to work there … but, after 7 years mired in a job search, that's not a particularly high bar). This is fairly new (it came out in 2013), and the on-line big boys still have it at pretty much full price … suggesting that this was only on the dollar store shelf due to the rotation of books in and out of Walmart (where a lot of the dollar store stock originates). However, having found its way to that channel, it also is available via the new/used guys, with “like new” copies going for as little as a penny (plus shipping).

While not what I was expecting (nor being in a format I much care for), I felt this was a worthwhile read, and can recommend it to anybody with an interest in running businesses. And, again, if you're a fan of fiction, you'll no doubt be more enthusiastic about this than I was.


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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016
11:36 am
Training camp for the emotional side ...
As regular readers of this space no doubt know, I get a book to review from the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program pretty much every month. However, as opposed to what's implied in the program's name, it's a fairly rare occurrence that the books are actually early, as in pre-publication … I guess the LTER program is seen by most publishers as a way to get a bit of a bump in visibility well after the book is out there (even if they're sending out ARCs – advance review copies). This one, however, is not due out for another month yet.

Of course, one of the downsides of reviewing an ARC is that it's frequently “unfinished”, with assorted bits and pieces noted as “TK” (“to come”). Also, one of the standard notes to the reviewer is to not quote from these as the copy may change between the ARC and the final release version … which also goes for notes on the graphics (I almost bitched about an ARC of one of Gary Vaynerchuk's books for crappy looking images when reviewing it, but the publisher fortunately sent along a copy of the beautifully-illustrated publication version before I got that posted). I bring this up because there is a lot of what I'm hoping are “place holding” rough graphic pages here that are probably going to be much nicer looking in the actual hardcover when it appears next month.

Anyway, I seem to be on a roll of getting semi “self-help” books from the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” (nice to know it cares), and so I wasn't overly surprised to find that I was going to be receiving Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, PhD. This is set up in something of a flowchart (with an arrow-line that runs through the book between chapters) for a “system” of moving from a starting point of being “Hooked” to an ending state of “Thriving”. While I can't exactly duplicate how this lays out in the book, here's the general idea:
Hooked ==>
      Showing Up ==>
      Stepping Out ==>
      Walking Your Why ==>
      Moving On ==>
            Thriving
… each step of which involves assorted other elements. The term “hooked” here relates to the idea of a “hook” in a movie … a narrative in our head that serves to explain, rightly or wrongly, our experiences … once we get into one of these “hooks”, we start bending all other aspects of reality to fit with that narrative. The author provides several very interesting examples of automatic responses, such as filling in the missing word in “Mary had a little _____” … pretty much every English speaker is going to stick “lamb” (and not, say, “velociraptor”) in that blank, but we have automatic responses to situations in our life which are as predictable as that – if unhelpful, and ultimately not “reality based” – but are things which got plugged in at some point and have become our default response. She also presents some fascinating research on some brain science, like the relation of words to shapes, with sounds and outlines being perceived across cultural and linguistic boundaries with as many as 98% of people studied associating the same sounds (words?) with the same (sharp or bulbous) images … and then relating this to the ability to process metaphors (“sharp” cheese, “loud” shirt, etc.), which appears to take place in the angular gyrus of the brain (damage to which will render people unable to make sense of metaphors, and which is 8x larger in humans than other primates).

There are four most common hooks: “Thought Blaming”, “Monkey Mindedness”, “Old, Outgrown Ideas”, and “Wrongheaded Righteousness” … which are pretty much what they suggest. There is the sense (although I don't think that the author outright says this) that these are nearly as hard-wired as the sound/shape patterns noted above. She moves from defining these to looking at how we attempt to “unhook”, and offers up a 3-question quiz (with 3 options each) which shows how one typically tries to unhook … one set of responses indicate that you're a “bottler”, which means you “try to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things”, and another indicates a “brooder”, who is likely to “stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around, and around”. Not surprisingly, there is a definite gender disparity between these, with the “bottlers” typically being male, and the “brooders” typically being female.

One of the things she brings in at this point – which certainly got my curmudgeonly attention – is the benefit of negative moods … “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” (which reminds me of a phase an associate of mine was going through where he was constantly trying to force happiness, which was really irritating to everybody else around him) … which is followed up with sections on “Good News About Bad Moods”, and “The Upside of Anger”.

There was a third option in that brief survey, and those who selected that other option were “being present”, which is the topic of the the first step of the process here … “Showing Up”. This step is broken into three elements: “Practice Self-Compassion”, “Choose Willingness”, and “Learn from Thoughts and Emotions”. In the first of these the author goes into quite a lot of detail contrasting guilt from shame“Guilt is the feeling of burden and regret that comes from knowing you've failed or done wrong.”, while “Shame casts one not as a human being who did a bad thing, but as a human being who is bad.”, with the difference being “self-compassion”. Interestingly, she notes that criminal recidivism rates are higher for those who exhibit shame over those whose equivalent emotion is a sense of guilt. The “willingness” is largely framed here in terms of cravings – that if you are willing to accept the fact of a craving, you are more likely to avoid it, rather than struggling with the whole concept (sort of like the A.A. idea of “not drinking today”). In the “learning” part, she introduces a question: “What the func?”, a shorthand for “What is the function of this emotion?”, the analysis of which can reveal a lot of deeper realities hidden beneath the external levels of things like anger.

The next step is, well, “Stepping Out”, which includes sub-elements of “Notice with Curiosity and Courage”, “Create the Space in Between”, and “Let Go”. One piece of this that I (predictably) found of interest was the research of James Pennebaker where:
In each study … the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced a marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. …”
… which reminded me of the “morning pages” discipline (see here or here). She relates this to a project with a group of 100 senior engineers who got down-sized late in their careers, a third did a writing discipline like this, a third did a more neutral writing assignment, and a third didn't write … “the degree of change between them was astonishing … the men who had delved into how they truly felt were three times more likely to have been reemployed than those in the control groups”! Referring to a wider study of similar situations she notes: “by dissolving the entanglement that had built up between their impulses and their action so they could see their experience in context, and from a broader perspective, they flourished despite it all.”. She also offers up some techniques for “becoming more mindful”, and shows an interesting “perception” quirk, where context determines meaning … how (written out differently than here) A B C and 12 13 14 can have exactly the same lines being seen as “B” in one and “13” in the other.

The next step, “Walking Your Why”, just has one part: “Choice Points: Make Towards Moves” … both of which are sort of “huh?” to my ear … the former is defined as “the art of living by your own personal set of values – the beliefs and behaviors that you hold dear and that give you meaning and satisfaction.”, while the latter comes to bear in the face of a matrix of influences that enables the environment (culture) to make decision for us, ranging from “social proof” situations (buying stuff because those around us are buying) to “dangerous groupthink” … “The more you choose moves that are toward your values, the more vital, effective, and meaningful your life is likely to become.”

The last of these steps is “Moving On”, which has two chapters, each with one multi-element part to it, first: “The Tiny Tweaks Principle” which includes “Tweak Mindsets”, “Tweak Motivations”, and “Tweak Habits”. I was interested to see in the “mindsets” section some research I'd read in other contexts (I don't recall where, or I'd toss in a link here), which involved planting the idea among a group of hotel maids that their daily activities “were, in fact, exercise” which met the surgeon general's daily recommendations … with no other changes, just having that one piece in their “mindset”, the test group had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, and improved body-fat ratios compared to the control group who had not been told that what they were doing (although having the same activities) was meeting those exercise levels. Similar examples with children being exposed to information of how the brain can grow and improve with study, and elderly subjects who had varying views on the aging process, showed that just a few cognitive factors could result in significant positive changes. In the “motivations” topic, the thrust is largely regarding activities that one “had to do” versus “wanted to do” … with the complication that “our baser instincts have a head start … according to brain imaging, when we're faced with a typical choice, basic attributes like taste are processed on average about 195 milliseconds earlier than health attributes”, meaning that the brain is likely to have made the decision that it wants that cupcake “well before willpower even enters the picture”. There's also some interesting research outlined in the “habits” section, where different signs (encouraging the same behavior) had different levels of effectiveness depending on their location in relation to the activity (i.e., taking the stairs), the author uses elements of this to present a number of suggestions on how to best develop the behaviors that one wants in various situations.

The second “Moving On” chapter features “The Teeter-Totter Principle”, which has the elements “Live at the Edge of Your Ability”, “Choose Courage over Comfort”, and “Opt for What Is Workable”. These hew pretty close to what you'd expect reading those sub-headings, and are presented with a fire-hose of references to well known sources as Bruce Springsteen, Jim Collins, Pierre de Fermat, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others … way too much stuff to try to summarize here … however the “teeter-totter” image is meant “to illustrate the idea of balance, the sweet spot in which challenge and mastery are in a state of creative tension” … with the further note that “emotional agility … involves moving towards clear, challenging, yet achievable goals that you pursue … because you want to, because they're important to you.”

Oddly, when the line reaches “Thriving”, it starts with an extensive look at “Emotional Agility at Work”, as in at one's business. This seemed to be a somewhat odd progression, but I could hardly argue that there's some seriously twisted thinking involved in current contexts:
The prevailing wisdom of today's business culture is that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings have no place at the office, and that employees, particularly leaders, should be either stoic or eternally optimistic. They must project confidence and damp down any powerful emotions bubbling up inside them, especially the negative ones. But as we've seen, this goes against basic biology. …
Dr. David has evidently done a lot of work with clients in the corporate sphere, and goes into a number of “case studies” here, looking at “hooks” that effect both individuals and groups. In a sub-section called “The Why of Work” there was another assertion which is very close to my own concerns:
… work provides far more than a meal ticket. It can give us a sense of identity and purpose, as well as a framework around which we organize our other activities and interests. Work can also bring substantial mental health benefits.
This is followed by a chapter on “Raising Emotionally Agile Children” which includes a few stories of the author's own parenting efforts, and walks through suggestions for various aspects of childhood development (how to think, caring, ways to coach your kids, etc.). The book ends with a visit to the classic The Velveteen Rabbit, and the concept of “becoming real” … I have always found that a serious tear-jerker, which made the close a bit of a gut-punch to me.

Anyway, Emotional Agility will be hitting the store shelves on September 6, but the on-line big boys have it for pre-order at a generous 36% off of cover. This is one of those books that could be “for all and sundry”, but that depends on how you feel about the self-help/personal-development niche. I'm glad to have read it (and have picked up a number of things to talk about with my therapist – to whom I suspect I'll be lending my copy), and think it's one of those that may end up being a long-time go-to book in the popular psychology category.


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Saturday, July 30th, 2016
11:41 pm
Bughouse Square Debates ...
I live a couple of blocks from one of the great cultural institutions in Chicago ... the Newberry Library. Every summer they have a famed Book Fair that runs Thursday-Sunday, and on Saturday there are the "Bughouse Square Debates", which honor the history of little Washington Square Park (on which Newberry Library fronts) as a "speakers corner" back in the day. In fact, as I understand it, this tradition is enshrined in the city regulations as being the only park where one can have public gatherings without any sort of licensing, and that the only requirement to give a talk out there is that one has to be on a raised platform (such as, classically, a "soapbox").

There are several elements to the program, with a lot of the focus being on a formal "debate" between two (sometimes quite contentious) speakers on some topic, generally of civic import ... this year's subject being "Is Chicago Broke?". Over there <=== is a shot of the Tribune's Rick Kogan MC'ing the festivities (click for bigger). Kogan took over the gig following the death of his friend (and local journalistic legend) Studs Terkel, and he always has some fascinating tales to tell about the city. Among the stories he rambled through was how Studs insisted that Kogan bury Studs' and his wife's ashes in Bughouse Square ... when Kogan brought up concerns about the illegality of doing so, Studs said "let 'em sue us!" (fine for Studs, potentially less so for Kogan, I suppose). The debate this year was once again featuring a rep from the Heartland Institute going up against an "activist". Frankly, the crowd at the debates tends to the old-line hard-core (if not to say "lunatic") Left, and I guess the folks at Heartland are the go-to option for an opposing voice that's willing to work what is likely to be a hostile crowd.

And, today the crowd was hostile ... while heckling is encouraged, the pro-union voices weren't wanting to hear ANY solutions to Chicago's long-term financial issues, and were making it very difficult for the guy from Heartland (who, honestly, was not the best presenter from there that I've seen) to make his case. It was so bad that I left half-way through to take a wander in the Book Fair for a bit. As those who bother to read my book reviews on a regular basis will recognize the Newberry sale as that source for "dead people's books" I mention on occasion. It's been less fun over the past decade or so when I've been too broke to swing through buying whatever looks vaguely interesting, but I do tend to pick up a couple of things on Sunday (when it's all half-price).

I returned to the park for the "soapbox" part of the event. This year there were four stations set up around the north side of Bughouse Square, three with scheduled speakers, and one that was "open". While I primarily was targeting station #3, which had a couple of presenters that sounded interesting, I also caught a couple of things at the "open" soapbox. One of these speakers was Kent McMillen, the Libertarian Party candidate for Senate (pic over there ===>, click for bigger). His campaign had a table set up in the info area, and I'd had a chance to chat with him earlier in the day. Given the horrible choices of the main parties, I'm hoping that he might be able to get some traction this year ... I certainly am not going to be voting for the other candidates, and it's nice to have (as the LP often has not had a full slate of people running) him as an option.

I was settling in over by the main stage to hear the results of the judging, when I noticed that a long-term acquaintance of mine (who I'd run into earlier), David Dalka, was up on the "open" soapbox. I circled back to there, and caught the last part of his talk. He's started up a consultancy called Fearless Revival, which is in reaction to the huge global consulting groups that outsource functions away from the clients' home markets to workers who are not necessarily in touch with the actual situations being addressed, or particularly well trained to produce useful results (hey, like hiring somebody in South-East Asia to write stuff for 1/20th or so of what it would cost here - cough, cough - for a local pro's efforts). One of the "advantages" that David had up on the site for using their services really caught my eye: "Protecting you from harmful misinformation, unreality and groupthink in society" ... certainly something that a LOT of organizations need!

As Rick Kogan noted in the closing bits, it certainly was one of the nicer days for this event in recent times ... while it was hot and humid, it wasn't too hot, and there were intermittent cool-ish breezes, making the afternoon less of a trial than it has sometimes been, plus (despite earlier forecasts of thunderstorms) it didn't rain, which is certainly a plus.


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Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
11:45 pm
The previous post is "friends only" ... here's why:
If you would like to read the previous post, please contact me to be "friended".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Thursday, July 21st, 2016
11:03 pm
The previous post is "friends only" ... here's why:
If you would like to read the previous post, please contact me to be "friended".

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