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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Defeat Response

    This was screaming of the page at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    October 03, 1994

    November 14, 1994

    December 15, 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
    11:23 am
    Fascinating stuff ...
    This seems to be something of a theme in recently-reviewed books here, but this title also took a somewhat circuitous route into my hands. I had requested Jonathan D. Moreno's Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century in the May 2012 “batch” of books being offered in the Early Reviewer program over on However, I didn't win it (instead the “almighty algorithm” deigned to match me with Death Metal Music that month), although I was interested enough in it that I'd put it on my Amazon “wish list” with the anticipation that one day I'd order a copy. However, in August of 2014, Moreno's Impromptu Man came up in LTER, and I requested and won it. The current book came with that as a “throw in” from the publisher … I was amazed that “they remembered” that I'd wanted this (I wrote them, and it was actually purely happenstance), and that's how I got Mind Wars - so it's “sort of” another LTER book.

    If not uniquely so, Moreno is certainly well-positioned to have informative views on the subject of “brain science and the military in the 21st Century”, having been described as the most interesting bioethicist of our time, and having served as a senior staff member on three presidential, and a number of Pentagon, advisory committees, as well as holding a chair at University of Pennsylvania in Medical Ethics, and being the US representative to the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee. He grew up in the Medical field, as his father was noted psychologist (see Impromptu Man for his biography of his father), and the younger Moreno was familiar with many of the top researchers of the time.

    This actually comes into play at points in this book … as in researching it, Moreno discovered some very disturbing work that had been done by a couple of long-time “family friends”, and he found it hard to reconcile some of the experiments that had been done by these otherwise much-respected scientists. In fact, the book begins in the 60's, where his father had a Hudson-valley location for his institute (and government approval for dispensing LSD), when Dr. Timothy Leary notoriously opened up his much-less-clinical operation just a couple of dozen miles north in Milbrook, NY. While popular culture, understandably, associates LSD with the hippies and related movements, its origin (and initial supply) is much more closely linked with mind-control experiments of the military. This is the “rabbit hole” that Moreno first jumps into. The copy that I have is the second edition … the first, in 2006, really broke new ground, showing:
    ... that the security establishment's interest and investment in neuroscience, neuropharmacology (the study of the influence of drugs on the nervous system), and related areas was extensive and growing. However, no one had attempted a systematic overview of developments in neuroscience as they might affect national security, nor had anyone raised the many fascinating ethical and policy issues that might emerge from this relationship.
    His work lecturing on the initial edition of the book also seemed to have loosened up channels where he'd previously been “hitting walls”, his “prediction that neuroscience would be of increasing interest to national security agencies” was not only borne out, but
    ... matters moved more quickly than I had guessed. To my surprise, within two years after the first edition of Mind Wars I began to receive invitations to participate on intelligence community advisory committees that have provided important analyses of the state of the science and its future prospects.
    While a lot of this book is “gee whiz!” looks at what is being worked on (systems that let users operation machinery – be it a replacement arm or an attack drone – with just one's thoughts, scanners that can “read” the content of thoughts, etc., etc., etc.), a substantial portion of this is rather into the nitty-gritty of the brain, and the details of how they're coaxing that machine to work with machine machines … and with a philosophical overlay across the whole work, putting all this science in the context of the related ethical issues. On this point, here's a bit that I bookmarked in the first chapter, “DARPA on Your Mind”:
    It is ironic that discussions about national security often fail to involve the optimal means of ensuring that people are safe to live their lives: keeping the peace. The sad fact is that there is a specific marketplace for the material of war, not of peace. Even though we might like to think that military and intelligence assets ultimately keep the peace, the fact is that it's a lot easier to monetize and market firepower than peaceful easy feelings.
    While essentially, un-illustrated, there is one page with diagrams of the brain which I found very useful, especially the one on “the forebrain and brain stem”, which details several systems and subsystems and eventually nearly a dozen specific points – many of which I was only familiar with the name. Moreno almost waxes poetic in his introduction of the brain: “Weighing only about three pounds but containing one hundred billion nerve cells, or neurons, with more possible connections than stars in the universe, the adult human brain is evolution's greatest achievement.” Of course the poetry exists in an environment that is largely funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), so the first use of most of this new tech is so that “ultimately, human abilities may be augmented so that combat soldiers could have vastly more powerful and faster robotic arms and legs, and pilots could control vehicles through intentional thought alone.” Making quadriplegics get up and walk, or thinking your microwave oven into operation, are only happy by-products of the research.

    In a discussion of proprioception (from Wikipedia: “the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”) and how we might get feedback from machines, there is this fascinating section:
    Interestingly, tactile feedback may not even be a necessary part of the equation. The Brookings Institution national security scholar Peter W. Singer observes that the “sixth sense” of feeling bodily connected to the tools we use emerges over time. He imagines that controlling a prosthetic arm could become as second nature as driving a car, wherein one develops an intimate knowledge of its maneuverability and size through repeated experience. In the words of philosopher Robin Zebrowski, “it has been shown that our brains actually allot neural space to those tools which we take up consistently. The tip of the cane actually does become part of the person's body, to a degree never before realized. Each of us is bound, bodily, to the tools that we use in a deeply neurological way.” Thus, in a limited sense proprioception may naturally incorporate prosthetics or other neurally controlled robotics as an emergent property, without needing to be engineered from the get-go.
    Unfortunately, nothing in the middle five sections of the book, “Mind Games” (Abu Ghraib -like humiliation, Manchurian Candidate -like “brainwashing”, U.S. LSD programs, Soviet ELF – extremely low frequency wave – projects, etc.), “How to Think about the Brain” (“remote viewing” programs that lead into a discussion of historical views of brain/mind duality, the “localism-holism debate”, specific brain region/chemical functions, etc.), “Brain Reading” (various tests, systems, sensors, scans, predictive modeling, etc. that seek to get into people's heads), “Building Better Soldiers” (sleep issues, metabolism issues, reaction time, memory, and processing issues, fear/emotion issues, genetic enhancement issues, etc.), and “Enter the Nonlethals” (various non-killing approaches from drugs, smell, acoustic beams, microwave pain inducers, and the related legal/ethical arguments around these), had anything that jumped out enough to me for me to have flagged with a little bookmark, but I'm hoping the little “laundry list” of topics here will give you a sense of where Moreno was going in those parts of the book.

    The final chapter, “Toward an Ethics of Neurosecurity”, is almost a separate treatise in itself, and is pretty much Moreno taking all the details preceding it and giving it his “bioethicist” spin. Let me apologize in advance for the following lengthy quote, but I think it's a key point he's making, and I didn't feel that either my attempting a paraphrase or cherry-picking smaller bits did it justice.
    ... For those who are deeply concerned about the exploitation of science for military purposes, an obvious answer seems to be that the scientific community should simply swear off cooperation with the national security agencies, including accepting research contracts. Call this the purist approach. Based on some historical experience I shall elaborate, I believe the purist answer is shortsighted. In the real world, this kind of research is going to continue and it's best that university researchers be those who do it, rather than building top secret science fortresses with researchers who are not answerable to anyone but their commanders. It is critical for the well-being of our democratic society that the civilian scientific community is kept in the loop and that the rest of us can have at least a general idea of the kind of work that is being done, even though for legitimate reasons many of the details may not be generally available.
         An important reason to keep the scientific process as normal as possible, including transparency in interactions among scientists, is that science sets an example for an open society in which secrecy is minimized. Secrecy makes it harder for our elected representatives to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of overseeing government-funded science, and for experts outside of government to contribute to sound policymaking. One way a democratic society can minimize secrecy is to keep national security agencies linked to the larger world of academic science. For the same reason, suggestions in Congress and elsewhere that DARPA should pull back on its external funding should be resisted. The link between the academic world and the national security establishment makes for a healthier society than if each were isolated from the other.
    Now, I feel bad that I've only really been able to scratch the surface of all the amazing work that Moreno details in Mind Wars, but I hope the above gives you a good indication of what you can expect in the book. The new edition has been out a couple of years at this point, but it is still in print, so you at least have a sporting chance of being able to find it in your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it, of course, but aren't cutting much off the cover price (which is quite reasonable for the existing paperback edition). The new/used vendors also don't have it for way cheap, but you might save half off of the retail if you went that way with a “very good” copy (and remember, paperbacks tend to lose condition a lot faster than hardcovers in the after-market).

    I really liked this one, the writing is crisp and intelligent, and Moreno makes a valiant effort to make a lot of difficult concepts approachable. That said, there were parts of this that were somewhat of a slog, simply due to the density/complexity of the material involved. If you're interested in military stuff, mind stuff, tech stuff, heck, even drug stuff, you'll probably going to get a lot out of this. I'm excited to pass my copy along to my engineering student daughter, who is focused on robotics and was fascinated to hear me talk about the “thought control” elements detailed here!

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    Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
    11:15 am
    Figured I'd share ...
    I posted this over on Facebook a couple of days ago, but figured that it was the kind of venting that sort of belonged over here. It really does bug me when all I end up posting in here are my book reviews, since I have a whole 'nuther LJ devoted to that ... but it's been a long time since LJ functioned like FB (in terms of back-and-forth bantering ... thankfully not in terms of the "only getting see what FB wants your to see" crap), so anymore I think of putting this stuff up there. I'm hoping that there are going to be MORE of "the old gang" coming back to using LJ regularly, though!

    Things not to do ...

    I recently started getting emails from an author who is (of course) selling a training program (isn't EVERYBODY now selling a training and/or coaching program of some kind?) and he sent out a letter, trying to figure out why more folks weren't converting.

    He was very clearly WANTING a response - with lines like" "What do you need help with, right now?", "I really want to hear from you.", "how can I help you get there? What is it you're still looking for?", "Tell me. I really do want to know. Just hit “reply” and tell me what's going on with you.", "Whatever it is, I want to know.", and "I want to hear from you." ... all of that in ONE email!

    Sure sounds like he wants to help ... maybe even start a conversation, doesn't it?

    Except at the very end he notes: "My team and I can't respond to everyone, but we will read every answer." ... sort of weaseling out there, isn't he? He doesn't want a CONVERSATION ... he doesn't want to HELP ... he just wants to know WHY YOU'RE NOT CONVERTING. And he (conveniently?) even puts in a P.S. to let you know "The course is still available", with a hot-linked URL, just in case in reading all this you've "seen the light" or something.

    Now, being in the DESPERATE state that I've been in, I, of course ("any port in a storm"), respond to him with a 600+ word email, detailing pretty much what he's asking about, and TWO WEEKS later, I've heard bupkis ... except, of course, his near-daily pitches to sign up for his damn course.

    A couple of days ago there's the FIRST MENTION of the "interaction" - entitled "Reminder: You asked for this" - which is announcing a short-term sale on the course. Yeah, that sure answers my issues, buddy (and in case you're wondering it's STILL more than I can afford at the moment).

    I'm surprised, because this person got on my radar via a "liked & trusted" on-line contact, and my impression of the guy doing all of the above is that he's a world-class JERK ... and I can't imagine what the guy who recommended him was THINKING of ... and I sure hope it's not because he's getting a cut.

    The old Chicago machine had a phrase: "We don't want nobody that nobody sent." ... but this guy was VOUCHED FOR ... it amazes me what dicks people turn into when they're shilling for their on-line crap!

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    Monday, May 11th, 2015
    6:17 pm
    How to become a "Thought Leader" ...
    Speaking of books that took odd paths to get into my hands … Tim McDonald, a buddy I've known from the Social Media Club of Chicago (who, ironically, is currently “taking time off from social media”), has a personal project he's working on called #365DaysOfGiving, where he (wait for it …) gives away something every day for a year. This manifests variously, from postcards on his travels, to very expensive tickets for events, to framed graphics of his favorite sayings, to, well, books. He'd attended the book launch party for this, and was offering it on his list. As it turned out, I was one of a number of people who requested it, and he (randomly) sent it off to somebody else, but when I mentioned that I'd do a review of it, he was essentially wanting to “gift” that to her, and so (over my protestations – at this point I can pretty much hit up any publishing house for review copies of new books, and was certainly willing to do so in this case) he ordered me a copy from Amazon.

    I figured that it would only be polite to bump this up to the top of my “to be read” pile when it came in, so I got Dorie Clark's Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It  read over the past week. This book is, essentially, a how-to manual for becoming a “Thought Leader” ... and, as I've always somewhat aspired to this sort of role (albeit, hoping for “organic growth” to get me there), I was certainly interested in the topic.

    Ms. Clark's bio is interesting … from her site: “At age 14, Clark entered Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted. At 18, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College, and two years later received a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School” … so she's smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, I suspect that her experiences give her a somewhat “unrealistic” view of what is generally possible for “most folks”. While I mean this to be a mild caveat on the book, I did find myself reacting to a number of things in here with some incredulity as to their "general applicability".

    As regular readers know, I fall back on this crutch way too often, but sometimes the best option for giving you the “broad strokes” of the book is to pass along the contents listing … of course, for some books that would be pointless, but others, like this one, are very clear on how the info's set out … so:

                      Part 1 – Finding your Breakthrough Idea
                              - The Big Idea
                              - Develop Your Expert Niche
                              - Provide New Research
                              - Combine Ideas
                              - Create a Framework
                      Part 2 – Building a Following Around Your Ideas
                              - Build Your Network
                              - Build Your Audience
                              - Build a Community
                      Part 3 – Making It Happen
                              - Putting Thought Leadership Into Practice

    Now, I'm pretty sure that most of my issues with this come from my own personal situation … I'll have been stuck in my current job search for six years as of next week, so when Clark talks about “becoming a recognized expert in your field”, I have to ask “and what field would that be?” … if I was in my 36th year in Public Relations, or 22nd year in Publishing, I'd have an answer for that (and I'd anticipate that I'd already be a “thought leader” in either by now), but no. While my situation is, quite likely, extreme … I'm guessing that not being on the cutting edge of one's field is a majority state – especially among Millennials, who are notorious for job/field hopping. While Clark insists: “If you want to become recognized as the best in your industry, you'll have to fight for it, but the promise of this book is that your goal is possible”, I can't help but see a parallel to Lake Wobegon's “... and all the children are above average” in the possibility of each and every reader becoming the “best” in their industry!

    However, we're talking about you, not me … you're likely in “an industry”, you've got some ideas, you want to be a “thought leader” … well, Stand Out does systematically walk you through the steps. Interestingly, the book starts with a story of a gal who was in a VC firm, who did an analytic report on its performance … not even looking to be a “thought leader”, she got to that by just sticking to her guns on the (very disturbing) report … she faced a lot of resistance on what she was researching, on releasing the results, and doing subsequent articles on it … and came out as a go-to voice on (the pitfalls) of venture capital. So this is possible even if you're not specifically looking for it.

    There are many, many stories in here illustrating specific points, more than I could possibly name-check in this review … in fact, they're the saving grace of the book, as they show how many of the steps here (which, as noted, frequently sound on the surface pretty much only achievable by some tiny minority), have played out in people's lives on the way to their becoming a “thought leader”. The other recurring element that is of great value in this are the “Ask yourself:” lists at the end of major sections. Starting with “The Big Idea” (once she gets out of the way that one need not be an Einstein, Gandhi, or Jung to come up with significant idea), there are subsections walking the reader through how to get to a “big idea” - “What Assumptions Are We Making?”, “What's Next?” (trends), and “What Can You Draw On From Your Own Experience” - each of which focuses on the experience of particular individuals, and offers a list of questions to elicit what you may have to offer (such as: “What experiences have you had that others in your field most likely have not? How does that difference shape your view of the industry?”).

    The next part, “Develop Your Expert Niche” addresses the questions of how to best stand out: “Building a base of knowledge in a narrow subject area may seem like a career-limiting move, but sometimes it's the only way to get past the competition.”, noting Robert Scoble's recommendation (for tech blogging – but generalizable from there) of “... choosing one segment to specialize in so that your coverage can be much deeper than that of even the better-funded players … if you write exclusively about that subject you're going to rapidly outstrip {the other players} and become the definitive source on the subject”. Clark suggests looking at what you're a “local expert” in, or what you are “passionate” about (even your long-time hobbies), as a way of narrowing down the niche. Once one finds that, it's time to look for ways to “distinguish yourself” in it … even if by being “not that” of the expected traits (and example she gives is how Rachel Ray got hired by Food Network for not being a chef). Next there's “developing” your niche – digging deeper into the subjects, and “expanding” your niche – moving in to adjacent areas, or producing new channels of exposure.

    Not being “in an industry”, the next part was one I had issues with, as “Provide New Research” can be painfully broad if one is not starting from some settled place. However, the section walks you through some illuminating examples, and the “Ask Yourself:” questions, such as: “Who are the usual information sources in your industry? Who else is knowledgeable but doesn't often get asked for their insights or opinions? How can you reach out to them?”.

    I felt one of the key parts of the book was the “Combine Ideas” chapter, as this is where the successful “mashups” come from. One of the examples Clark offers is how Steve Jobs' college class in calligraphy ended up spurring some of the typographical features of the Mac … and refers to this ability as “Janusian thinking” (from the two-faced Roman god Janus). The focus here is how to take the things you may know from one area and bring them to bear in another … with some very interesting examples. She states: “If you want to develop breakthrough ideas, something outside the norm, you need to be willing to live outside the norm. At times, that can subject you to scorn … even when you're not being attacked, you may be greeted with a subtler form of skepticism …” {people not seeing the potential in your ideas}.

    The last part of the first section is “Create a Framework”, which is set up in regards to Kübler-Ross' work on grief or Maslow's famed “needs” structure. Clark suggests: “If you want to make a mark in your field, try to spell out the fundamental principles behind it. Surprisingly often, the central tenets of a field have never been consciously articulated.” … and follows up with questions about what in your field are “mysterious”, “secret”, or “misunderstood”. The more “systematized” you are able to make the material, the better it will be understood – and spread: “Creating a framework means helping others think about a topic …”.

    That, of course, brings us to the second part of the book - “Building a Following Around Your Ideas” - with individual chapters on building one's Network, Audience, and Community. This is very nitty-gritty, and familiar territory for those toiling in the social media trenches. She gives an extensive look at Seth Godin (obviously in the “Create a Tribe” sub-section) and how he's built himself up into a global phenomenon, and offers several other stories from varied settings. This part of the book, however, didn't lend itself as much to cherry-picking quotes, so I'm pretty much going to leave it at this.

    The last part of the book (consisting of the one chapter “Putting Thought Leadership into Practice”), is for a fairly rarefied audience … those who have both come up with a breakthrough idea, and have built their “tribe”. Needless to say, most people reading it won't be there. The subsections here are “Making Time For Reflection”, “Making Time For Luck”, “Making A Living”, and “Making the Effort”.

    Despite all the aforementioned concerns about the “general applicability” of Stand Out  (and, I must admit, Ms. Clark does address a lot of my own personal issues up front in terms of how “a generalist” can find that one idea … although, she sort of stumbled into hers, as one 700-word blog post she'd done for the Harvard Business Review “took off” and gave her the platform to build all the rest on), it is quite an engaging read. Her combining direct discussion of the main points with examples of how this has played out in “real life” is quite effective, and, as noted, the questions for digging into one's own experiences are awesome.

    While this book is probably best for those in a significant position in an identifiable “industry”, it is a worthwhile read for anybody who has ever contemplated the possibility (dream?) of becoming a “thought leader”.  This is brand new (just out a couple of weeks), so should be available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line guys are offering it at about a 25% discount. I just wish that I were in a better position to put the info in here to use!

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    Sunday, May 10th, 2015
    4:58 pm
    Maybe with a different sub-title ...
    I came to having Jeff Goins' The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do through a relatively unusual route … author Chris Brogan (he gets mad anymore if you call him “social media guru”) - whose books you've seen covered in this space previously, put out an offer in one of his on-line vehicles about being able to get a copy of this for just covering shipping, and I figured if Chris was pushing it, it was probably something worthwhile. Which is making me somewhat uncomfortable, as I was expecting something more ... direct, perhaps ... for a book sub-titled “A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do”, and this is proving to be one of those occasional titles that everybody else loves (97% of the 217 Amazon reviews of this are 4 or 5 stars, with 86% at five), and I can't figure out why.

    As regular readers of this space (and my personal blog in particular), will know, I have had a long bout with unemployment, and when I signed up to get The Art of Work, I assumed that it was a book-length permutation of one of those self-assessment things that would help guide me to some new unsuspected realization of what I was “meant to do” which would lead me into some vastly rewarding new career. Nope. In fact, while this does have some material along those lines, it's a whole five pages in an appendix at the back of the book.

    Now, this is no doubt another example of “Brendan isn't like the other kids” … I have never found parables and related teaching stories particularly convincing or moving … with these sorts of things typically eliciting mental comments of “who cares?” and “why am I reading this?”. I certainly appreciate that there is a whole genre for that sort of stuff … and a wide audience that can't get enough of it. But that's not me. And, as you might suspect at this point … most of this book is stories about people encountering some sort of adversity, and either finding some way of dealing with it, or finding a way out of it due to some external factor or whatever (did I mention the “who cares?” reaction?). As noted … it may be too sweeping to say I never get anything out of these kind of stories, but it's pretty close … and that's the core of this book. To me, this might as well be describing things the author is seeing in the clouds as a way to discuss electronic circuitry … I want to hear about the circuitry … and that's limited to that one appendix.

    There is a “system” here, and it encompasses the over-all arc of the book … as each chapter is set up to somehow “illustrate” the subject of one of these:

    1. Awareness

    2. Apprenticeship

    3. Practice

    4. Discovery

    5. Profession

    6. Mastery

    7. Legacy

    The first three of these are in a section called “Preparation”, the next three in a section entitled “Action”, and the last in its own section, “Completion”, with an additional “Conclusion” section following. The book shifts in and out of narratives about the people featured in the various chapters, moving into “commentary” which does offer some concrete “action points”, but it was hard (for me at least) to get much out of that. Here's an example out of the “Accidental Apprenticeships” chapter (which otherwise is dealing with a gal from Singapore who ended up with an older guy who, when she got pregnant, wanted her to have an abortion … she didn't want to, and her family threw her out and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, she encountered somebody who got her into being a “doula”, and the next thing she's doing TED talks) about finding mentors:
    How do you find these people? Where do they come from? It's hard to tell. Likely they'll surprise you, appearing seemingly out of nowhere at just the right time. The whole thing will look like an accident or a mystery but, of course, it is far from it. As Paulo Coelho writes, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” There's some truth to that. Fortune favors the motivated. When a person is determined to not just succeed but to do work that matters, the world makes room for such ambition. You won't be able to predict how this apprenticeship unfolds, but you can be prepared for it when it comes.
    OK, how does one APPLY that? Again, this is about as “direct” as things get here … how do I force the universe to send me a mentor to make everything head in the right direction? Clap my hands and say “I do believe!” until Tinkerbell appears with a magic wand?

    Now, these chapters aren't just filled with wishful pablum, the Apprenticeship chapter does have some interesting historical material about how this worked in the age of guilds, etc., and more recently in the arts, and even including a story of how Steve Jobs passed off a program written by Wozniak as his work to fraudulently get an engineering job (that's some funky “apprenticeship”). The closing instructions for this chapter are:
    These experiences are impossible to engineer but easy to recognize once you know what to look for. … Sometimes the people who help us find our calling come from the least likely of places. It's our job to notice them.
    Yeah, but HOW? Do we wait forever until the “mentor” arrives? Waiting for pixie dust to fall on one's head does not sound like a plan, let alone a "proven path".

    Jumping ahead to the “Discovery” step, in the chapter “Building Bridges”: this is about a couple who decided to pull up stakes in the U.S. and move to one of the poorest countries in Africa – Burundi – where they intended to grow coffee. The husband had a passion for coffee, and they pretty much just went to Africa to follow that … it was a year and a half, in a backwards place where they didn't even speak the language (and they brought their kids), before they even started the business. Goins seems to think this was a swell plan, and notes:
    {they} uprooted their family and moved to a remote part of the world because it was an opportunity to make a difference doing what they love. As it turns out, this is a great formula for moving in the direction of any calling: find what you love and what the world needs, then combine them.
    Personally, this sounds more like a recipe for a good way to end up either dead or impoverished and stranded in a festering hell-hole, but hey, what do I know?

    Goins then goes into a discussion of “callings” and how the idea that “you just know” what you're supposed to be doing isn't true, and that most have to “take a leap” and go with it. Additionally, this chapter spends a lot of pages discussing a biblical parable (that of Samuel), an approach which rarely clarifies any point. Of course the difficulty here is “finding what you love” (or, at least it is for me), and then finding some way that this activity can be packaged in some manner that the world will not simply ignore it. In the case of this couple, they'd identified a neglected coffee industry (started by the Belgians in the 1930's) which produced a very high quality bean, and they figured they could make something of this. However, is this a “plan” for you? I suspect that the ability to find a personal passion and a niche that would support it is vanishingly rare … and, of course, there's nothing here to get you from “I wish” to your goal.

    I really wanted to like this book … and, mind you, it's not an unpleasant read, just nothing that I could connect with. As noted up top, I had sincerely hoped that I would have found something useful for me here, but I'm obviously not the “parable and postulate” kind of guy. You, however, might find this sort of stuff splendid (acid test: do you think the proposition “do what you love and the money will follow” is a universal law or a Big Lie? … if that resonates with you, you'll probably like this book, if you're like me, not so much).

    The Art of Work just came out in March, and as I mentioned, people are falling all over themselves praising it. The on-line vendors have it at nearly a third off of cover price at the moment, and it's reasonably value-priced going in. While I was horribly disappointed in it, I realize that I'm an “outlier” on the cynical/bitter end of things, and get nothing out of stories like the ones at the core of this … but you might find them highly instructive.

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    Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
    10:47 am
    At a computer screen long ago and far away ...
    Yes! Today is my 15th anniversary of being on LiveJournal (and hence, blogging)!

    Sure, back in the early days, LJ worked more like Facebook or even Twitter (before either of those existed), with back-and-forth conversations between members and one-line shout-outs at random times during the day ... but the "long form" writing was still there (hey, especially when I started reviewing books in here), and over those years I've posted more than 4,700 things here and made over 12,000 comments on other people's posts.

    I was one of the several dozen folks who followed ana over here (from the various IRC channels that had been home to chit-chat about her 24/7 "AnaCam") back in late April and early May 2000 (Ana got here 4/28/2000 as user #2291, I lagged behind a bit, getting set up 5/5/2000 as user #2663) ... a boost of bodies and buzz that I believe was essential to LJ's early growth.

    If you pardon a "geezer moment" ... it's hard to appreciate how exciting LJ was back then ... this was before Facebook, Twitter, heck, even MySpace ... the existing options for this sort of thing were IRC, AOL chatrooms, and various BBS services (I spent a lot of time on Compu$erve and PLINK, for instance), and LiveJournal was so much better.

    Anyway, figured I'd "stick a pin in the calendar" to note the anniversary!

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    Monday, May 4th, 2015
    10:04 pm
    So that's cool ...
    In a recent review, I mentioned the 750 Words site, and I figured, with the start of the new month, I'd give it a shot. It turns out the concept originates with a discipline called morning pages, where one is supposed to fill out (longhand) three legal-pad pages (which it appears, tends to come our somewhere around 750 words) of just whatever runs through your head ... or, as it's explained in that link: in Jungian terms "you are meeting your Shadow and taking it out for a cup of coffee". Obviously, I'm not the only person for whom that would be a frustrating mess ... not the part with hanging out with one's Dark Side, the part about longhand (which, in my case, would end up looking something like a 3-year old writing in a strange amalgam of Klingon and Sanskrit) ... so somebody came up with this site that lets us keyboard-dependent writers play along too.

    The interface is pretty plain ... just a large text box with a counter down in the corner telling you how many words you've cranked out so far (and a thing that shows when one's scribblings have been auto-saved), and once you cross the 750 word line it pops up a notice to let you know you're done. I doubt many people just STOP there, but it's a signal that lets you wrap up your thoughts.

    The thing, however, that has gotten me (and, obviously, my OCD) excited is all the DATA that it spews out once you're done. Not only does it keep track of your daily total, your cumulative total, your words-per-minute rate, etc., but it gives you all sorts of analysis as well ... from a "rating" (like movies) to what you're "Feeling mostly ..." (so far I'm 4/4 on "upset") and "Concerned mostly about ...", with pie charts breaking down what can be quite a few elements, to a section on "Mindset while writing ..." which breaks down (with pie charts) dualities of introvert/extrovert, positive/negative, uncertain/(certain?), and feeling/thinking. It also analyses what you wrote for "time orientation", "primary sense", and "us and them" (pronouns used, I guess). One section that I didn't include in the graphics here is "frequently used words" (since you can sort of re-create the themes of the piece by looking at those - and I've been really letting the Shadow out in these so far).


    Anyway ... if you click on those you'll get a full-sized version to check out ... fascinating stuff!

    I've seen things saying that this is "as good as meditation", if used this way, but in Handley's book the "750 word" exercise is presented as an "exercise" for building up your writing chops. Since I'm averaging right about 20 minutes for my 750 words, I think I'm in pretty good shape (and should probably ratchet up my expectations ... but I don't really want to burn much more time than that), at least as far as my fingers are concerned.

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    Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
    10:54 am
    An unexpected seeker's memoir ...
    I think it is very fortuitous that I hadn't read Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion prior to a book I reviewed a week or so back, as had Harris' book been “fresh in mind”, the other would have suffered more in the reviewing. Just as I was hoping in my review of that other book that there might be someone “who will take the useful concepts of this and run with them”, this comes close to providing the sort of narrative for a “rational religion” (or, as the sub-title would have it: spirituality without religion). However, upon further reflection, I believe that I found out about this book when doing some background research for the review of the other ... so there's a timeline involved.

    Given that I've read and reviewed most of Harris' books, I ended up chastising myself that I hadn't recalled some of the notable bits of his biography. Admittedly, I read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation more than seven years ago, but I very clearly was commenting in my review of the former about the author's spirituality … yet this was something that rather blind-sided me in the current book. Who would think that the clear-headed Atheist of “Letter” would have been a life-long seeker of things spiritual? But, there it is, the author is another inquisitive mind digging into psychology, brain science, and practicing Buddhism … hardly what one would expect for somebody whose name rolls off the tongue with “Dawkins”, etc. This is hardly a “Pilgrim's Progess” for the Atheist camp, but Harris does define it thusly:
    This book is by turns a seeker's memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I”. I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. … Just as a modern treatise on weaponry would omit the casting of spells and would very likely ignore the slingshot and the boomerang, I will focus on what I consider the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry.
    I'm sure that the author could have produced a tome many times this one's length had he indulged in a fine sorting of gems out of dung, but he does keep this moving along on a particular heading ... which can be reasonably triangulated with notes such as “many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception” which is countered with “millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available” … i.e., there seems to be something happening out there (or, more to the point, in here), but the valuable bits are hard to isolate when encased in the deposits of bronze-age belief systems churned through millennia of power-hungry control freaks.

    Waking Up takes the reader through a journey across five specific sections, each covering several sub-topics … the main chapters are “Spirituality”, “The Mystery of Consciousness”, “The Riddle of the Self”, “Meditation”, and “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles”. His first steps are to sort out the bits from the other bits of religion, and how these can't (or shouldn't be) seen as equivalent (please pardon the extensive quote, but I found his analogy quite on-target, along with its surrounding contextifying material):
    Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation – because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
    I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
    The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don't always point to the same underlying reality – and when they do, they don't do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.
    As opposed to some of his previous books, Harris doesn't spend a lot of time picking apart specific religions (although he does have a few zingers strewn throughout the text!), but he walks through the various chapters in a fairly logical (albeit, frequently from a Buddhist perspective) progression. The “Spirituality” chapter covers “The Search for Happiness”, “Religion, East and West”, “Mindfulness”, “The Truth of Suffering”, and “Enlightenment” … an arc which is obviously informed by Buddhist thought, but the specifics are hardly doctrinal, with his looking at ancient Greek philosophy, the lens of Theosophy in popularizing Eastern thought, the mysticism indulged in by Newton, and the phenomenon of the Dalai Lama. At one point he is contrasting the east and west version of medicine and spirituality … with the West being clearly the place you want to find your medical care, but things are flipped around when it come to spiritual traditions:
    As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.
    Much is made here of meditative states, and there's even a box with how-to instructions, with the Cliff's Notes versions on Suffering and Enlightenment, which gives an opportunity to criticize his stances, if one is coming from the hard-core Atheist camp.

    The second chapter looks at Consciousness from both philosophical and medical standpoints … asking questions about “transporter” tech (if the transportee has appeared at the destination before the de-materialization of the traveler at the source, is the subsequent removal murder?), with fascinating materials about patients whose corpus callosum is severed, rendering the two halves of the brain virtually independent, creating a situation where there is, for all intents and purposes, two people in the one body. Indeed, other studies show that the corpus callosum can't sufficiently transmit enough data to “synch” the two brain halves in even undamaged brains, leading to the assumption that there are always multiple “consciousnesses” operating (an example he gives in this section is when you can't remember a name that you know you know … one part of the brain knows the name is known, but the operative part can't, for whatever reason, access that data point … a frustration that I frequently have!).

    In the third chapter,”The Riddle of the Self”, where he contrasts what he calls “the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” with the general feeling “that our experience of the world refers back to a self … a center of consciousness that exists somehow … inside the head” … and tries to pick out what it is that we call “I”. His aim here is to argue that “the conventional sense of self in an illusion – and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment” … and he posits that “the selflessness of consciousness is in plain view in every present moment – and yet, it remains difficult to see.”, which leads him to discuss (and instruct a self-guided demonstration) the “optic blind spot” as an example of a similar “not noticed” but clearly evident (once one finds a way to see it) reality. He goes quite a bit into the “Theory of Mind”, and material related to that, from Jean-Paul Sartre to V.S. Ramachandran.

    The chapter on Meditation is largely grounded in the author's own practice, and the studies he made with various teachers from a number of traditions. There is also a basis here in more brain biology, examples of perceptive quirks (negative space being “filled in” as an actual present element, etc.), some general philosophy, and even some art … which leads to a sidebar called “look for your head”.

    The final chapter, “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles” gets into the crunchy bits … in talking Gurus, he notes how Alan Ginsberg was strident in his defense of some of the more extreme (and challenging to justify) actions of “crazy wisdom” Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa (whose books I've read, and who I had the chance to hear speak once … an engagement he arrived at several hours late), he paints G.I. Gurdjieff as a “gifted charlatan” (despite the popularity with “smart successful devotees” in his lifetime, and the on-going influence of his writings), discusses Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and rattles off a string of others, ranging from Joseph Smith to L. Ron Hubbard, and even Charles Manson. He does almost a side-issue section on Near Death Experience reports, focusing largely on the Evangelical Christians who have grabbed on to the NDE stories as “proof” for their version of Heaven (frequently with details as ridiculous as Hubbard's DC-8 space planes) … based on reports that “seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not deliberate fraud.” This does allow Harris to transition to the drug discussion, as (in opposition to the insistence of the Evangelicals that these visions are unique and have no parallel in other contexts) they are almost exactly like DMT experiences, and he even throws in a long quote from psychedelic adventurer Terence McKenna to give a first-person narrative to the comparison. He discusses various psycho-active compounds, some from his own experiences, others from related literature, and looks at how various drugs interact with the brain's chemistry. One interesting bit goes back to Aldous Huxley, where it's suggested that the main function of the mind is to act as “reducing valve” to filter down what ends up actually being part of our awareness … Harris argues against this on a number of functional and medical bases, but he gives the concept its due.

    His conclusion wraps things up pretty well (given as open-ended a subject as this), with at least one good jab at religion: “sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core”, which sets up what could be viewed as a closing statement:
    Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. … Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.
    Needless to say, I found Waking Up both a surprising (the “seeker's journey” that I hadn't expected), and delightful read. While I'm certainly “in the choir” to which Harris is preaching, I'm also hoping that others will read this and (in the last words of the book) “open your eyes and see”. This just came out last fall, so should be out there in the surviving bookstores. I got mine through the new/used vendors (“like new” copies are going for about 1/5th of the cover price), and the main on-line guys have it at a substantial discount (oddly, this is only available in the US in hardcover, although there's an export paperback available via the used channels – at twice the price you could get the hardcover – go figure). I highly recommend this to anybody who has an open mind about what it means to be conscious.

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    Tuesday, April 28th, 2015
    10:52 am
    That's the way you do it ...
    I've met Ann Handley of MarketingProfs a couple of times, and her new book was getting a lot of play over in the marketing discussions of Facebook, so I dropped a line to the good folks at Wiley to request a copy of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content. I was a bit hesitant about slogging into this, as, frankly, having been a professional writer of one kind or another for decades, I'm a bit resistant to having people tell me what I should be doing in what I've been doing for (in many cases) longer than they've been alive. Fortunately, Ms. Handley is not dictating from these pages like some schoolmarm with a Ruler of Pain at the ready (or the “style guide” equivalent), but as a fellow wordsmith bringing the consensus view of a lot of fellow marketing communicators on what works and what doesn't and how to get your verbiage closer to the former. The book also has a particularly comforting Epigraph*: Beware of advice – even this. - Carl Sandburg

    One thing I especially liked about the book is that it's presented in “bite-size chunks” … with its ≅300 pages divided up into 74 chapters spanning five “parts”, with a sixth part devoted to Content Tools. The other five are: Writing Rules: How To Write Better (And How To Hate Writing Less), Writing Rules: Grammar And Usage, Story Rules, Publishing Rules, and 13 Things That Marketers Write. There's a lot of humor in this (like the chapter heading “The More the Think, the Easier the Ink”), and a lot of context building (such as having Ben Franklin's personal daily schedule displayed in the “Writing Is a Habit, Not an Art” chapter).

    Early on, Handley presents a 12-point “Writing GPS” … a GPS because “in writing you need a road map to get you to where you need to be”. This serves as a framework for the first section of the book (“Writing Rules”), as the chapters that follow pretty much step through these in sequence:

    1. Goal.

    2. Reframe: put your reader into it.

    3. Seek out the data and examples.

    4. Organize.

    5. Write to one person.

    6. Produce The Ugly First Draft.

    7. Walk away.

    8. Rewrite.

    9. Give it a great headline or title.

    10. Have someone edit.

    11. One final look for readability.

    12. Publish, but not without answering one more reader question: what now?

    This list, I think most writers will agree, is a pretty good approach to getting work done. One quirk in how things are handled here is that Handley refers to what I'm calling chapters as “rules” - even though these generally feel more along the line of how Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Hector Barbossa framed the Pirate's Code: “more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules”. Of course, not all of these are created equal, some chapters run to 8 pages or so, and some are a mere handful of lines.

    So, the basics on Everybody Writes: it's very useful, it's very entertaining, it's crammed full of good stuff, and if you're in Marketing Communications, you should definitely go grab a copy, because you'll be happy that you did. That being now out of the way, I'm going to indulge in cherry-picking some bits & pieces that I bookmarked while reading through it.

    In the “Develop Pathological Empathy” section she notes:
    ... you have to meet people where they are, with an attitude of benevolence and largesse, to help them find answers to the problems that they have. All of your content – your product pages, your landing pages, your customer support text, your About Us pages, and so on “need to use language to support people's needs and goals”. {that quoted bit is from Facebook's Jonathon Coleman}
    In the “Keep It Simple – but Not Simplistic” chapter she delves into her journalism school experience for some classics:
    No one will ever complain that you've made things too simple to understand.
    Assume the reader knows nothing. But don't assume the reader is stupid.
    To which she adds:
    Simplicity comes primarily from approaching any writing with empathy and a reader-centric point of view to begin with – that is, it's the result of writing with clarity and brevity, and in human language ...
    There's an interesting chapter on readability, which looks at the various scales and provides information on and links to resources for testing your text (including one that's built in to Microsoft Office that I'd been unaware of). I'd never really looked into this, personally, and was interested in the following … a score of 90.0 to 100.0 would be understood by an average 11-year-old student, a score from 60.0 to 70.0 would be understood by 13-15 year-olds, and a score of 0.0 to 30.0 is best suited to college grads … and she breaks out how an assortment of types of material fall on that scale.

    Another suggestion I found on-target was for writing goals … that one should “make sure you measure your writing in output (words) rather than in effort expended (time)”, which is coupled with a concept taken from boxing – one's “weight class” (an idea borrowed from Mitch Joel), where a novice writer might be only good for 50 words at a sitting, while a “heavyweight” can “churn out 5,000 words … before breakfast”. The idea here is to know what your limits of quality composition are … and to work to build up those “writing muscles”, to 250 words, 500 words, 750 words, etc. Interestingly, I recent found a resource on-line for doing 750 words as an exercise ( … Handley notes that 750 words is about 3 pages of text, so getting to the point where you can generate that without much strain is a fairly significant accomplishment.

    There's a section on words one may be misusing or confusing … but I'm hoping that most writers aren't having problems with those words … the part, however, on “usage confusion” is very useful, with discussions of “fewer vs. less”, “bring vs. take”, “who vs. whom”, “that vs. which vs. who”, and several others that I'm sure even the most seasoned word mongers trip up on from time to time!

    The book's full of anecdotes, quips, and borrowings from industry sources, and the fifth part is a platform-by-platform look at “writing for” Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, email, hashtags, landing pages (and other web real estate), blog posts, annual reports, and how long everything from these to podcasts ought to be. There's also a look at infographics and resources for developing them.

    As you can no doubt tell by this point, I'm a fan of Everybody Writes, and really have nothing negative to say about it. This came out last September, but I'm sure it has settled in to its long-term niche in the brick-and-mortar bookshop shelves, with the on-line sources having it at predictable discounts. Of course, it's targeted to Marketing Communications folks (like me), and might not be quite the awesome resource to playwrights, poets, and technical manual writers. However, if you want to improve your marketing writing, you'll want to add this to your stack of "books about writing" (oh, come on, you know you have one).

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    Monday, April 27th, 2015
    9:18 am
    Not just one story ...
    This is another book coming into my hands via the “Early Reviewers” program. Due to the number of Buddhist books in my collection, it was hardly surprising that the LTER “almighty algorithm” opted to hook me up with this, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting this to be when I clicked “request” on Scott Carney's A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, but I'm sure, in retrospect, that I'd have been off in my expectations. It's a very odd book … not so much in its subject matter (although I'm sure many would find that odd enough), but how that's structured, and approached. From the title/subtitle, you might expect it to be a basic non-fiction tale of somebody who ended up dying on “Diamond Mountain”, and it is that in the widest arc here, and that trajectory gives the book its basic skeletal outline, but that in and of itself would be fairly thin, as the implied protagonist is a fairly minor (although sufficiently connected to allow his tale to suffice for the “story”) character in the over-all world of the book.

    For regular readers of my reviews, the fact that I ended up without a single little bookmark should give you pause. The lack of these meant that there were never any particular points in the narrative that I stopped to say “hey, that would be a good way to illustrate this aspect of the book”, or to generally highlight something that I might want to eventually get back to. This also means that I'm “working without a net” in writing this, having to play off of raw recall, rather than having juicy quotes to fall back on (although I may end up pulling some stuff out of the book if it catches my eye tonight).

    It might be useful to quote the book jacket's blurb about the author, as this leads well into the obvious question, “what's the book about?” … “Scott Carney is an investigative journalist who blends narrative nonfiction with ethnography.” … roll that around in the folds of your grey matter for a bit. What you're imagining from that statement in terms of what the book's about is probably pretty close. It's got a journalistic narrative feel to most of it, and deep dives into ethnographic waters, albeit in terms of Buddhism and Cults and Megalomania, and assorted relatively damaged or delusional people.

    While the “spine” of the story is how Ian Thorson ended up dead on that mountain, most of the “meat” of the book deals with Geshe Michael Roach, a Princeton grad who made his way to Tibet, and was able to study at the Sera Monastery, returning to the U.S., on the recommendation of the Dalai Lama, to work with a New Jersey based teacher, Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tarchin. Working with this Lama, in 1976, he had a moment of enlightenment and based most of his subsequent career on that experience.

    Now, Roach's background sounds very solid … doing a lot of dharma work over a lot of years ... and his enlightenment experience sounds perfectly legit, but his “take” on the Gelugpa form of Tibetan Buddhism is idiosyncratic at best, and “heretical” (he was eventually in trouble with various more traditional elements) at worst. While, I am hardly an expert on the subject, I did spend a number of years studying (and, to be very clear, not practicing - mine is an “outsider's view” certainly) Tibetan Buddhism, including attending the Avalokitesvara initiation twice and the Kalachakra three times. Back then, I never heard of Roach nor encountered mention of his “personal deity form” of Vajrayogini, who is very similar to the Hindu goddess Kali in her descriptions. While my lack of experience with this is likely to have been from rarely having the opportunity to have complex iconographies of thangkas, etc., specifically explained to me, it is my impression that Geshe Roach had focused his practice (and subsequent teachings) on a particularly esoteric corner of the Tibetan Buddhist cosmos, and as his work developed, he moved farther and farther away from Gelugpa orthodoxy, and closer and closer to a classic American “Cult”.

    As I likewise spent a number of years in the orbit of one such cult in my youth, I have a pretty good radar for the sorts of things that come with that, and Carney's descriptions of Roach's organization certain have that vibe … right down to running off to the desert to have an environment of isolation where the group's teachings and practices wouldn't have to run into the cognitive dissonances of friction with the “common world” – such as enveloped Roach's center in New York. However, Roach has so many things in the “plus column” (his work, at the behest of his teacher, as a diamond merchant in New York – in which he was remarkably successful, and helped fund numerous Buddhist outreaches and institutions – is a substantial one, plus the work he did to make a vast amount of Tibetan documents available via scanning and releasing on CD) that is impossible to write him off as an insignificant figure.

    The book spends a lot of time backgrounding Buddhism, the various characters involved in the tale, and even the geography and history of key locations … at times to the virtual abandonment of the narrative. Aside from Michael Roach and Ian Thorson, the other “key player” in the story is Christie McNally (later Lama Christie McNally), who started out as an eager follower of Roach, then became his lover (tantra partner), inspriational embodiment of Vajrayogini, main organizer, and eventual partner of Thorson. Each of these characters is essential to the story, but it is Ian Thorson whose life tracks the over-arching flow of the book. Thorson was a seeker, who was noted as having been suspected of being neurologically damaged, his manifestations of spiritual exuberance often appearing more “clinical” than “mystical”. He had a similar passion of esoterica such as Vajrayogini, and a history of being willing to “go all in” for his metaphysical pursuits. His path leads him to latching onto Roach and his organization, and is in place when Roach and McNally eventually have a parting of the ways.

    The main reason that Roach's group ran off to the desert was to have major multi-year retreats, and it was in a second of these that McNally and Thorson were evicted, and ended up sneaking back into the area (in a cave up on the mountain), to still carry out the retreat in the presence of the rest, if in secret. This is, essentially, what causes Thorson's eventual death, as the couple is living without any dependable food or water or fuel or pretty much other creature comforts, and Thorson ends up succumbing to the privations before McNally is able to summon any outside help (also not aided by their well-secluded cave location).

    I'm giving short shrift to a lot here (perhaps McNally most of all), but it is a complicated story that keeps jumping into different contexts … from Thorson's family's attempts to have him “deprogrammed” at points, to the interesting conflicts between Roach's organization and the orthodoxy. There is one bit here which sort of frames the rest, at least at what was the arc of Roach's teaching:
    The Great Retreat broke the hierachy between Roach and Tibetan authorities. Now that he was under the direct guidance of angels, there was no need to appeal to the Dalai Lama. With Lama Christie by his side, he promised they would breathe new life into Tibetan Buddhism. They would forge a faith that shucked off anachronistic Tibetan traditions and make their interpretation of ancient Buddhist wisdom relevant for modern-day America.
    Thorson was pretty much just a damaged seeker caught up in that maelstrom, but it's a fascinating read.

    Again, A Death on Diamond Mountain is not the most linear of tales, but it is more informative than most narratives would be, largely from the journalistic chops of the author. This book, while basically a story (or, is that a history?), is hardly a “thriller”, but more a telling set out on which to hang bits of research, creating a work with unexpected depth, if not a simple synopsis. This just came out a few weeks ago, so should be widely available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it for the usual discount. While I found writing about the book very frustrating, reading it was a pleasure. Whether this was due to my familiarity with a lot of the component elements (leading to it being quite engaging for me), or not is something you may want to consider, but I liked it, and you might too.

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    Sunday, April 26th, 2015
    9:26 pm
    Is LJ being screwy for everybody else as well???
    So, there I was at McCormick Place, with the third day of C2E2 happening, and I'm looking, if I do say so myself, sufficiently geeky in my "Blue Box" shirt (if not in full cosplay mode like nearly half of the people heading in), that one would think I was in the right place ... fitting in almost.

    I guess not. My mission down there this morning (without tickets, mind you), was to try to distribute promo cards for Nature's Little Recyclers' current Kickstarter campaign "No More Landfills" (we had hoped to have had promo cards for a specific part of that, the "NERDICULTURE" event we're having this summer, but although the cards were supposed to have been ready for pick-up on Friday - and probably were - we didn't get the notice that they WERE ready until Saturday, when the printer was closed and we couldn't get them).

    So, there I was, up on the second level, somewhere between the escalators up to that level and the ones to the next (main) level, and I can't get a single person to take a card from me ... nope, NOT ONE. Really. Dozens and dozens of people moving past all doing the hand-wave decline and scooting past me. Even one guy who "got" my shirt and chatted about it wouldn't take a card. This made me a sad and paranoid camper. I suppose I may have looked like some preacher person who was trying to warn them that attending the show was a first-class ticket to Hell, or something (and not some random Urban Agriculture guy trying to get funding for worms to eat waste before it gets to the landfills), but going 0-for-hundreds was pretty damn depressing.

    Speaking of depressing, it looks like LiveJournal is broken today ... I had to fight to get a pic to upload and had to go through "back channels" to get it into the post (none of the buttons in the update screen are working) ... and I can't preview or post this right now. {insert irritating hold music here} OK ... a few hours later ... I still can't get LJ working in FireFox, or Opera, and it won't even LOAD in MSIE. I have, however, finally managed to get it to work in Chrome, so I logged out of the Btripp-Books account and logged in with my main account there, and things seem to be working (I can preview the post and the "post" button appears to be active).

    So, about my shirt. I'd seen this maybe a year ago but hadn't "pulled the trigger" on it, and felt sad about it. Fortunately, it came up as the "shirt of the day" at $6 Tshirts (if you're on their mailing list you get notice of a shirt that goes on sale at midnight each day for $6 and they knock off the shipping with a coupon code, so it's really just six bucks) a few weeks back, and I figured I needed something that geeky. However, I guess I'm in a thin slice of the Venn diagram that really "gets" the shirt ... if you're just a Whovian, it's merely four TARDISes and the words, which I take to be sort of "meh" ... however, if you're of the vintage for whom Black Flag (the band, not the bug spray) is meaningful, it is a MASSIVELY CLEVER shirt which mashes up both the Black Flag "banners" logo and their typography with the Doctor Who reference. But, as noted, you really have to be at least in your mid-40s (I'm guessing) ... and an old punk ... to know what's going on with it. Needless to say, I was pleased that at least ONE person "got it" at the show.

    Anyway, that was my day ... go down to the convention center to be totally frustrated in my mission, then fight all afternoon with Live Journal trying to get this post up (and I was planning on putting up one of the book reviews I got written last night, but now I guess I'll hold that for tomorrow). Once again, sucks to be me, I guess.

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