Monday, February 27, 2017

Selma Shots

As a followup to my review of a recent history of Selma, I'd like to share some photographs of my hometown I took a few years ago (2010 - 2011) when I was trying to experience it as a tourist might.



Sturdivant Hall, easily in the running for Selma's most picturesque building. Originally a home, it now stands as a museum with gardens around it. There are several private residences that rival it for sheer beauty, but Sturdivant Hall  is often used on tourism brochures.


My favorite house in Selma, sited on Lauderdale street. 


A similar home on Parkman Avenue. 



Brown Chapel, headquarters of the Selma movement during the Civil Rights era. 


Temple Mishkan, testament to a Jewish community that was once considerable. In the late 19th century, Jewish merchants lined Broad Street. The interior of the Temple is unusual for having stained-glass windows depicting David and Esther; images of people are not common in Jewish houses of worship. 


My favorite building in Selma. St. Paul''s Episcopal.  When I began walking around Selma I found St. Paul's particularly irresistible. I believe  part of the magic is its courtyard; partially enclosed from the street by a low brick wall, it's framed by the church on the left, a parish hall on the right, and cloistered administrative offices in the rear. 


The tower of First Baptist edges out its neighbors' -- Cornerstone Presbyterian, St. Paul's Episcopal, and Church Street Methodist. It's a neogothic structure that gives Selma part of its signature skyline. 


Who knew Baptists like gargoyles? 



Curiously,  there are just under a dozen homes in the city that have a marked Spanish-southwestern influence to them; some merely used stucco, and one looks like a hacienda buried in the jungle.  This is a sedate example. 


There is no shortage of fine homes standing in Selma,  and since the obscene destruction of the Hotel Albert, the city's citizens have been more conscience of the need to keep some abandoned beauties in good repair.  Many former residences are now offices for lawyers, dentists, and the like. 


Live Oak Cemetery, running alongside Dallas Avenue, is an eerie place to visit; filled with ornate monuments to previous generations, guarded by Spanish moss. 


Not all of Selma's downtown buildings are in use, but both the government and private foundations do their best to ensure that this kind of heritage is preserved. 



Let's end this little peek at Selma with its most iconic structure, the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  That little yellow building on the right is the Bridgekeeper's house, which formerly controlled another bridge which could pivot to allow ships passage. These days the only ships on this stretch of the Alabama are pleasure craft -- fishing boats and the like -- though bodies like the Black Warrior River still bear the odd cargo ship. 







Sunday, February 26, 2017

Selma: A Bicentennial History

Selma: A Bicentennial History
© 2017 Alston Fitts III
384 pages



On December 4th, 1820, the Alabama legislature granted a town charter to a burgeoning community established on a high bluff overlooking the Alabama river. The place, named after a cities of heroes from a Scottish poem in the romantic period, would quickly create its own heroes and stories. In Selma: A Bicentennial History, longtime Selma resident Alston Fitts delivers a celebratory history of the town and its proud yet troubled heritage, in advance of its 200th birthday.  He builds on his initial history (Selma: Queen City of the Blackbelt),  which was published in the 1980s; here, his initial history is greatly expanded, using references to other works to take readers through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the 20th century through one city's experiences. The work never shies away from the city's most controversial moments, but strives to be fair to all parties. For a Selmian, this is a history that does the city justice, with a multitude of fascinating little stories based not just on old records, but interviews with the city's residents. Their many contributions to the book, in interviews and photographs, make it a true reflection of the city rather than just the view of one author.

To those only familiar with Selma's modern history, as a small city only remembered for being the site of the Civil Rights movement's crowning moment, Selma  reveals another place -- a center of industry and trade that rivaled Montgomery for prosperity and political influence; a city sure enough of its future to argue for its selection as the Confederate capital during the war between the States.  Selma and its mother county, Dallas,  contained some of the richest soil in Alabama, and both civic and business leaders made the most of that wealth by aggressively pursuing railroads; long after the great river had ceased to be the chief commercial artery of the state, Selma's network of banks and railroads were poised to prosper further in the 20th century. Its rails and river made a commercial center, but it was no slouch in regards to industry:  Selma housed an arsenal rivaling Richmond's as well as a principal naval foundry during the war, making it a target for Union troops; still later, during World War 2, Selma hosted an air force base that survived into the 1970s.    Selma's wealth was not merely monetary, however; her citizens were truly dedicated to the city, pouring themselves into creating civil institutions like schools, hospitals, and the library. They created block after block of magnificent buildings, many of which still stand today: the historic district of Selma is one of the nation's largest. 

Selma's past as an agricultural titan would bear unexpected fruit throughout the 20th century, however. The economic culture of the antebellum South meant that Selma and Dallas County' wealth came from fields worked by slaves,  to the degree that Dallas County  has maintained one of the largest black populations in Alabama for generations. When Reconstruction began in the postwar South, it contributed many black businessmen and politicians.  These gains would fade and be reversed by the end of the 19th century, however, culminating in the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws and the 1901 Alabama Constitution. The latter document established barriers to voting which included poll taxes, property holdings, and the explication of Constitutional articles; these requirements together reduced the black voting population in Dallas County from several thousand to under a hundred.  These barriers, disenfranchising poor blacks and whites alike -- and flying in the face of Alabama's original constitution, which incorporated universal white male suffrage -- would not fall for over sixty years.   Selma entered the national spotlight again in 1965, when a local voting league invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help draw attention to the cause of suffrage in the city. Fitts notes that the league was able to accomplish what it did largely because the black community in Selma was so healthy, with a strong middle class supporting several hospitals and two colleges. One of the most dramatic moments of the Selma campaign, for instance, was the mass support black teachers lent to it when they absented themselves from teaching to march instead.  Visiting in 1968, King himself was astonished by the progress of the black community, and the strengthening relationship between it and the city's white population.  Legendary mayor, Joe Smitherman, had just been elected to the office in '65, and continued to sit the big seat throughout the rest of the century in part  because he made himself a ready ally of of the black community. Unfortunately, racial harmony would be disrupted as Selma entered the 1990s,  as a certain group of lawyers created such a hostile atmosphere in the city that one of the state's most integrated systems fell to pieces.  Still, the city is doing what it can to move past that episode, as the actors involved are now dying off. Perhaps their bitterness will buried with them.  The city now has a young mayor in Darrio Melton who has already demonstrated  a strong intent to scrape away the old barnacles and begin making progress once more. 

As a modern history of Selma, Dr. Fitts has done a superb job of presenting the most essential elements of previous histories, connecting them to broader histories of the South and southern institutions (black churches, for instance, via use of Wilson Fallin's Uplifting the People),  His heavy use of interviews and the photographs of Selma citizens make it a community story, almost, and one that the generations are able to contribute to given that he references one older history written by a Selma mayor.   As a native son of the Queen City, I found quite a few questions answered here, learned some interesting tidbits along the way, and finished the book feeling ever more affectionate toward this, my storied hometown.


Related:
Selma 1965, Chuck Fager
Reporter: Covering Civil Rights...and Wrongs in Dixie, Al Benn



Friday, February 24, 2017

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
© 1969 Maya Angelou
304 pages


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography in the form of a novel, following a young woman’s coming of age as she journeys from a small town in the South to the big city – and then there and back again.  Functionally abandoned by her parents, and constantly worried about her status as not only an awkward and homely girl from a family full of photogenic frames and faces, but being a racial outcast, Maguerite makes her way by a loving grandmother and brother and books aplenty. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings largely out of peer pressure, since it is always mentioned in the hallowed company of books like The Scarlet Letter and Tom Sawyer, hailed as essential American and Southern literature.

Racism dominates Caged Bird just as the wilderness fills the reader’s experience in The Last of the Mohicans;  Angelou writes that segregation was so complete in Stamps, Arkansas that she hardly ever saw a white person.  In her younger years , Stamps’ white citizenry were phantoms who she scarcely regarded as human.  They were cold and distant authority figures, or ‘powhitetrash’ wretches who behaved like little barbarians yet expected the blacks of Stamps to defer to them.  On the rare occasions that Marguerite and her family entered the white side of Stamps to buy goods unavailable in their own neighborhoods, they ran the risk of being refused service – as happened with a dentist.

This book remains controversial because of several scenes of sexual violence, which I approached with some trepidation – intending to skim over them, if need be. There are three scenes like this within the same chapter, and Angelou renders them in a way to convey a child’s confusion and detachment – the sort of detachment one adopts while at the dentist, or in preparation for a surgery, a self-defense against panic. Following these scenes, Marguerite enters a mute period in which she reads more devotedly than ever, before finding a positive vision of womanhood in her community to guide her out of the darkness.

In her path to womanhood, Marguerite was provided with several examples, strong in their own way.   Central to her life is her grandmother, “Momma”, who operates a general store that is also the community center for Stamp’s black community.  While the store never makes them wealthy,  the family’s frugality and Momma’ adaptability allow them to weather even the Depression in mild comfort, lending money even to white business owners – including the dentist who considers his obligation merely fiscal, and refuses to budge from his policy of not treating blacks.    Momma and her family provide a safe haven for the main character and her brother, a haven not found when they visit or live with their parents.   Marguerite’s mother is beautiful and independent, but her world is full of violence; when Marguerite is raped, it is at the hand of one of her mother’s beaus. Her father, too, is handsome but not altogether reliable;  when he takes Marguerite to Mexico to buy supplies,  his drunken revelries force Maguerite as a young teenager to attempt driving for the first time in literal terra incognita – a mountainous descent in rural Mexico.   A third example for Marguerite is the mysterious Mrs. Flowers, who has a regal bearing and a full library, both of which inspire Maguerite to better things. For the most part, she takes those lessons to heart -- fighting a protracted campaign to become a streetcar conductor, the first black woman to enter the service. Yet at the end, she decides to have sex with a boy to determine that she is not a lesbian, promptly becomes pregnant, and after the delivery of her boy, the novel ends. It's as if a story of King David ended abruptly with his having Uriah killed so he could cover his petty lust with Bathsheba.  I know the person of Maguerite -- Maya Angelou -- went on to greatness, but as a novel by itself, it's a weird way to end things.




Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Wheels of Chance

The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll
© 1896 H.G. Wells
193 pages



What an odd little story! Begin with one J. Hoopdriver, a draper's assistant who lives for nothing but spare opportunities to ride his bicycle -- or rather, to crash repeatedly on his bicycle, banging up his legs but still delighting in sheer momentum. Mr. Hoopdriver, at the novel's beginning, is finally embarking on his yearly vacation: a cycling tour in England. Immediately he spies a beautiful woman, crashes dramatically, and earns her pity and his own chagrin. He chances to see her again, later on, and this time in the company of another fellow who claims to be her brother. His love-sickness not withstanding, Hoopdriver can tell that something's amiss, especially after the "brother" accuses Hoopdriver of being a detective. Delighted at having a game to play, Hoopdriver pursues the odd couple, eventually changing roles to that of a clumsy knight- errant once he and the woman (Jessie) realize the other chap is a genuine cad. Jessie's intention was to Be Her Own Woman, but her first ally turned out to be a manipulative fink. Eventually the gig is up for everyone, but Hoopdrive ends the tale most invigorated, having gone on a quest and discovered a friend who could put a little steel in his soul and allow him to dream of doing greater things with his life.

Although the story is nearly inconsequential, there's much charm. Wells' writing is often fun (one passage remarks that while Hoopdriver was in the throes of indecision, gravitation was hard at work and thus the man found himself on the ground with a bleeding shin, still wondering what to do), and sometimes beautiful, as when he's describing the landscape or the dreams of these two. Still, there were two reasons I picked this book up: bicycles and H.G. Wells -- and that, in the end, was the reason I finished it.  If nothing else this is literature from bicycling's first bloom of mass popularity.

Related:
Bicycles: The History,  David Herlihy


H.G. Wells and his wife Jane Wells

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Stephen Kinzer discusses TR, Mark Twain, and American Empire




On Tuesday, author Stephen Kinzer appeared on the Tom Woods show to discuss his new book, The True Flag.  This piece takes as its subject the fierce debate on then-nascent American imperialism -- genuine debate in that Kinzer begins with chronicling Congress' 32-day debate on the American acquisition of the Philippines, which started on the same day as the opening session of the American Anti-Imperialist League. The heart of the debate is this: how can a democratic republic formed on the basis of consent by the governed  initiate and persist in policies that involve controlling countries against their will?  Kinzer has written such books as All the Shah's Men: An American Coup, Overthrow, and a look at Turkey as it stands between worlds.   The Anti-Imperialist League's most famous member was Mark Twain (see Weapons of Satire for Twain's anti-imperial writings), though it also included men like Andrew Carnegie and Samuel Gompers.  Kindred books: Bill Kauffman's Ain't My America, and Tom Woods' own anthology, We Who Dared Say No to War

Before yesterday, I'd planned to spotlight Econtalk's recent interview on the book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Reading All Around the World?




A few days ago I caught wind of a project that took me aback with its ambition. Several blogs/readers, including Cleopatra of the  Classical Carousel, are attempting read books from across the world, either fiction or nonfiction. This is being hosted by Howling Frog and Chapter Adventures. I found it intriguing because I'm engaged in that sort of reading, myself; last year I did an extended series in middle-east history, and this year I'm turning to Asia. Following that I've been playing with the idea of a split year in the "global south",  spending six months in Africa and then six months in South America. Another project I've had in mind is a "Eurotour" in which I read my way through Europe, beginning in Portugal and trekking all the way to the Balkans.   Considering I'll be reading across the globe anyway, I might as well do it in company, rather as I'm doing with the Classics Club. Like the classics club this would be a long-term project.    While nothing is finalized, consider this a "toe in the water" sort of move on my part, a declaration of interest..

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Up from Slavery

Up From Slavery
© 1901 Booker T. Washington
332 pages



Up from Slavery is an hopeful reflection by Booker T. Washington on the future of black Americans and the American nation, as he reflects on the thirty-odd years since the abolition of slavery at the time of his writing.  But this is no mere memoir of slavery and reconstruction, for Washington's life as a teacher and founder of the Tuskegee Institute gives him a perspective on education; particularly, what sort of education most befits the cultivation of liberated men and women.  Washington's ideal education, put into practice at the Tuskegee Institute, is 'holistic' in that it places as much value on the practical -- trade skills, agriculture -- as it does book learning. It is moral and social, teaching self-ownership and self-sacrifice,   Although Washington craved knowing how to read even as a child, and his drive for self-improvement was such that he worked his way across a span of a hundred miles to attend school at the Hampton Institute,  he did not see book-learning as a magical solution to the problems of his fellow freedmen.  Some had taken earnestly to the veneer of education, but shared the same disdain towards work that had poisoned the plantation elite.  When he was asked to head the fledgling school for blacks anxious to  uplift themselves, he stressed the dignity of labor, the sense of ownership; he joined students in creating bricks, hewing wood, building the physical structure  of the school.  In this same vein, their practical skills built themselves, gave them the realization that they were capable of producing a good work that they and others could use and value. It is on that foundation that book-learning can rest, and so his students followed a Benedictine schedule of "pray and work", or in his case "study, work, and pray" -- occupied from 5:30 'til 10:00 pm.

Washington was a surprising author in many ways -- opening this memoir up with a joke, and offering insights that I would have never expected. For instance, his writing indicates not a trace of hostility towards the old elite, but rather pity and sympathy ;  his time spent among the wealthy and 'noble', in both America and in England, squelched any notion of viewing them as the enemy.  (If the reader wants to be cynical, he can conclude that Washington is dwelling most on those people like Carnegie who wanted to do some good with their wealth, and putting out of mind the less noble-minded.)   I didn't expect Washington to be as wary of reconstruction as he indicated; he voices suspicion that blacks placed into electoral office were being put there simply out of vengeance against the old aristocrats, and that this would create more racial strife.   On first reading, the Booker T. Washington of Up from Slavery reads rather like saint, a Gandhi-esque figure who endures all things because he hopes and works towards the redemption and progress of all humanity.  I suspect I should read more about Washington to get a better view of the man, but I'm highly partial to his worldview here,  his disdain for the multitude in the cities who "live by their wits" and who would have profited themselves more had they grown up on the land,   living with both body and mind.  His optimism was, alas, misplaced in some respects as the Klan -- which he dismisses as a dead thing which no one would tolerate 'now' -- was reborn with greater power in the 1920s.   His fear that looking to the government for every thing would create a new servility has unfortunately been realized...not just in blacks, but in all of us.   Even so, if illiterate slaves like Frederick Douglass and Booker T Washington could  in their respective youths realize a hunger to conduct themselves like men, sovereign actors in their own lives, there's hope for us all.


Drone

Drone
©  2013
432 pages



In El Paso, Texas, the raging narco-wars between drug trafficking gangs in Mexico has bled over into American streets -- claiming the life of the American president's son.  Having run on a platform of balancing the budget and reversing foreign-policy foul-ups that have lost countless American lives and money overseas, President Meyers nevertheless realizes something has to be done. After diplomatic and above-board covert ops fail to produce results, she turns to an ex-CIA spook named Pearce, who is now the head of a private military contractor that specializes in combat drones. His deadly campaign against one drug cartel will stir up a hornet's nest of woes, because several factions within Mexico are being manipulated by an Iranian who is involved in a multinational conspiracy.  More an intelligent technothriller than a Duke Nukem action-American novel, Drone offers speculation as to how drones might be employed -- and legally justified -- in the near future.  Drones are depicted here not just providing recon and a platform to launch missiles, but sniping targets using facial-recognition software.  Maden's presidential figure is an interesting character, a populist who achieved office by running against her own party and vowing to end endless foreign wars;  she struggles to keep her desire for justice and order in line with a firm commitment to Constitutional government.  A downside of the novel, but a necessary part of its drama, was the domestic chaos that erupts from Meyer's  new policies toward Mexico. After the narco-gangs strike back and the border is functionally militarized,  the media casts Meyers as an anti-Mexican tyrant, creating 'a day without immigrant' labor strikes, etc.  Maden has a good mind for the diverse kind of political chaos imaginable in the United States today, but -- alas for those of us who read this presently -- that sort of chaos is going on now, so it's not enjoyable in the least to read about.   Everyone in this novel has a little schmutz on their face, including the principled executive who can only take the least-worst option of a list of bad choices.

The Gargoyle Code

The Gargoyle Code: Lenten Dispatches Between a Master Dementor and his Diabolical Trainee
© 2009 Dwight Longenecker
103  pages



The Gargoyle Code is a modern sequel-in-spirit  of C.S. Lewis’ much-lauded classic, The Screwtape Letters, in which a senior demon mentors a junior demon in the fine art of spiritual sabotage. Longenecker departs from a strict duplication of Lewis’ style by having the senior demon (Slubgrip) change apprentices halfway through, and a flurry of letters to other demons – coordinating attacks and conspiring against one another – are also included. At first I liked the evidence of demonic infighting as an example of evil will oft evil mar (Slubgrip flatters a fellow demon in one letter, then derides their character when writing to others), but the amount of demonic politicking is such that it consumes a third of the book. It became more distracting than helpful, though others have found it funny.

Still, Lewis’ marvelous subtlety is repeated here in good form. One of my favorite passages from the Screwtape Letters involved a demon using church attendance to weaken his client’s spirituality, by having him think about the moral frailties of his fellow parishioners, self-righteously fuming over their hypocrisy. Here, the senior demon uses a similar approach by having his conservative Catholic target constantly think about how awful ‘reform’ liturgy is, how the wondrous hymns of old have been replaced by happy-clappy praise music, etc. Subtle manipulation is the name of the game: it’s no good to have a target simply fall into sin, for abrupt attacks tend to backfire. The target will be so ashamed of themselves they may literally repent and start avoiding avenues of temptation. Slow and steady is the goal – erode the connections people make between their lives and what is taught, then tempt them. The best of worlds is a subject who goes to church faithfully, but has religion so compartmentalized in his mind that it only exists on Sundays; otherwise he follows his every whim, and is forever guarded against any soul-searching by the comforting notion that he goes to church, so of course he's OK.

While it doesn't eclipse The Screwtape Letters, Code was written as book to read during Lent, each letter or 'text' being spaced out among the forty days, and so is perfect for that season.

Two voices, two centuries, one timeless truth




At once time Mr. Douglass was travelling in the state of Pennsylvania, and was forced, on account of his colour, to ride in the baggage-car, in spite of the fact that he had paid the same price for his passage that the other passengers had paid. When some of the white passengers went into the baggage-car to console Mr. Douglass, and one of them said to him: "I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner," Mr. Douglass straightened himself up on the box upon which he was sitting and replied: "They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of his treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me."

p. 100, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington



[...] when I was being stripped and searched, I decided it was best to treat my captors like the weather. A storm can cause you problems,  and sometimes those problems can be humiliating. But the storm itself doesn't humiliate you. 
Once I understood this, I realized that nothing they did could humiliate me. I could only humiliate myself -- by doing something I might be ashamed of. During my first few days in Lefortovo I repeated this principle over and over until it was part of me: Nothing they do can humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself. Once I had absorbed that idea, nothing -- not searches, not punishments, and, five years later, not even several attempts to force-feed me through the rectum during an extended hunger strike -- could deprive me of my self-respect.

p. 8, Fear no Evil. Natan Sharansky

Saturday, February 18, 2017

10,000 Sing "Ode to Joy"



How incredible this is to watch; the look on the conductor's face is utter rapture.  While this video has nothing to do with books, aside from the complementary nature of literature and the other arts, including music, it was too glorious -- exquisite, even -- not to share.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fear No Evil

Fear No Evil: 
© 1988 Natan Sharansky
437  pages



Fear No Evil chronicles one man’s psychological war against the KGB and the entire Gulag system. Born a Jewish subject of the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky wanted nothing more than to emigrate peacefully to Israel, along with his fianc√©. Forcefully denied exit, Sharansky became an advocate for other ‘refusniks’, and a human rights activist in general, within the Soviet Union. Denounced as a traitorous spy in the employ of the Americans, Sharansky was arrested and thrown into the prison system of the Soviets, subjected to long periods of isolation and physical destitution which was moderated only by the Soviets’ desire to appear to be behaving. This is not a mere prison memoir, however, detailing the abuses of the Soviet state. Instead, Sharansky takes us through his campaign to maintain his character despite being in the clutches of a system that was designed precisely to erode or demolish individual spirits, leaving nothing but the New Soviet Man – an institutionalized zek, a placid cow who existed to be milked and slaughtered as the State wished.

From the beginning, Sharansky approached the KGB and the Soviet state strategically. Even while fighting against them, he did so completely in the open. He maintains that he concealed nothing, met with no one secretly, never once scurried in the dark like a criminal who had something to hid. He was a man, speaking ‘truth to power’ like a man (to borrow from King). While in interrogations, he listened between the lines, attempting to discern what sort of case they were trying to build against him. While the KGB sought to alienate him, he spent his prison hours revisiting every moment of his life, swaddling the memories of loved ones around him to remind him constantly of what he was fighting for. If the KGB wanted to divorce him from his Jewish heritage, he would be the best Jew he could by praying constantly and learning Hebrew – despite not being observant in the least in the outside world. If they wanted to threaten him with death, he would bring the subject so much that the word lost its sting. At every step, he engaged in noncooperation. He mocked the KGB relentlessly, spending day after day in solitary confinement. When threatened with the loss of ‘privileges’ for not cooperating, he deliberately broke rules to ensure that his happiness and peace of mind were never predicated on what the KGB could offer him, or could do to him. From the beginning he maintained that nothing they could do could humiliate him: only he could humiliate himself. Though he never once references Greek philosophy, Sharansky lived as a Stoic in the same way that James Stockdale did while similarly imprisoned. He used his mind to defend his character, his very person, from being broken and cast in an inferior mold.

Fear no Evil is an incredible and commendable chronicle of a man conducting himself brilliantly, who faced a system built on inhumanity and emerged triumphant. This is excellent stuff -- Arete in action.

I think it's high time I hunted down a copy of Gulag Archipelago...

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Conflicting Visions




On Monday, historian and author Tom Woods discussed the premise of Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions.    According to their discussion, Sowell maintains that there are two main political convicions: an unrestrained vision of man and a restrained vision.   The unrestrained vision believes that man and society are infinitely malleable and can be worked to perfection. The restrained view, in contrast, holds that a person at birth  is finite -- agreeable to a certain amount of molding, capable of a certain level of growth, but never perfectible. In an interesting digression, Woods and Malice quickly drifted into a discussion on how Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson fit into this scheme.  (The two authors have previously debated the merits of Hamilton; Woods contends he is a skunk, and Malice maintains the opposite.)    Hamilton, Jefferson, and even Adams are to my mind personalities who do not fit easily into any dichotomy:  Jefferson was indisputably  a romantic about human nature, yet he still had agrarian and decentralist reservations;  for all of Adams' wary conservatism, his moral vision made him more consistently anti-slavery than the liberty-loving Jefferson;  and Hamilton managed to argue for both a strong executive and a government that had built-in quarantines for corruption,  since a certain amount was inevitable.  Towards the end they make the point that a truly liberal and self-deterministic society would allow for both visions to exist simultaneously:  that is, San Francisco can transform itself into a commune if it wants or California into an imitation of a European social democracy, but Texas remains free to be a Randian paradise. People voluntarily give up liberties all the time in the pursuit of more meaningful goals; the problem is if we use the State to strip people of liberties by attempting to order their life for them. 

I found the discussion most interesting because in the last decade or so, I've personally transitioned from the unrestrained view to the restrained, my long study of history and society having convinced me of the limits of human nature and the difficulty of controlling things external to us. I covered that transition more at length in my essay "Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism".   However, I don't think the dichtomy is a left/right thing: George Bush's attempt to remold the middle east in the style of a western democracy looks plainly like an unrestrained vision at work, and I think anarcho-capitalists are just as optimistic. Woods and Malice don't go into that aspect, unfortunately.

Here is the climax of my essay mentioned previously, if you are curious:

Without realizing it, studying the history of these subjects lured me into the dark side: the Other Libertarianism. The American libertarianism. The market-obsessed libertarianism.  When I studied urban planning, I came to realize how the government promotes city-destroying urban sprawl through zoning codes and highway and housing subsidies. When studying food, I grew disgruntled after realizing how successful regulations and subsidies are to letting corporate giants monopolize farming and make it an industrial enterprise, reliant on disaster-inviting monocultures and cheap oil that destroys the land.  Every field I studied attentively,  I found regulation in the way. I was a big fan of regulation: I viewed big business with fear and wanted a government that would keep a pistol pointed in its face all the time. I wanted the lion of the market to be chained and caged. But now I was seeing instances of it hurting people -- and not just getting in the way of productive endeavors, but promoting power accretion. At first, I merely winced -- oh, here's bad regulation, we should remove it and make new regulation, regulation that will be good -- but as I continued to run into those bits of bad regulation, I realized they were popping up with unfortunate regularity. They weren't exceptions to the rule; they were the rule, an example of what happens when we ignore the limits of our knowledge and assume we can make things so by legislative fiat. I believe these community-destroying forces of sprawl and big business would hoist themselves on their own petards were they not on the life-support of public funding. 
Though I've begun to appreciate the market as a means of sorting things out, I'm only slightly evil.  I do not believe the chief end of man is self-satisfaction, or that money is the measure of  a good life. My roots remain in simple living and the  cultivation in myself the best fruits of the human condition.



Week of Enchantment Video




Interested in seeing how Windows Movie Maker and Youtube worked, I "made" a video with 100 of my Week of Enchantment photos, set to music. Enjoy!

Garbology

Garbology :Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash
© 2012 Edward Humes
288 pages



Readers who are passionate about garbage -- a description which includes sanitation workers, victims of SimCity, and ecologists, I assume -- will find no shortage of books on the subject.  Susan Strasser has a history of waste, for instance, and Gone Tomorrow and Garbage Land both follow  refuse through the waste stream.  Garbology has a little history, a little waste-stream-kayaking, and a little of other  trashy topics:  landfill archaeology and oceanic stewardship, for instance.    You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it is less an island of debris and more a vast expanse of water filled with tiny bits of plastic, a chowder of sorts which is an enormous challenge both to clean and to understand the impact of. How does that much plastic particulate affect the human food chain?   Much of the trash comes from the plastic that covers every aspect of our everyday lives: the plastic wrapping around anything we buy from the grocery store, the plastic inside boxes of goods, etc. Accordingly the rise of plastic merits its own chapter, as does the story of one woman who was driven by economy to reduce as much waste  as she could.  Eventual author of The Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson's interview offers many ideas for replacing expensive consumer products with homemade alternatives, like three-ingredient cleaning supplies that can handle pretty much anything.     There are other stirring tales of ordinary citizens being inspired to take action, like one man who launched a campaign to end ubiquitous one-time use of plastic bags.   For the reader with a vague interest in waste and environmental stewardship, Garbology affords a brief look at many different aspects of the question, though more detailed works are out there. They include the ones I mentioned in the beginning, as well as works like Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.    Although there's not an enormous amount of information on any one particular topic, I liked the scientific aspects and the zero waste author's approach. Humes' fundamental conviction -- that consuming natural resources to produce goods and then immediately shoving them underground, consuming more resources to lock them away,  is staggeringly wasteful and sloppy -- bears repeating.


Related:
Garbage Land:  on the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte
Waste and Want: A Social History of Garbage, Susan Strasser
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of NYC, Robin Nagle
Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Helen Rogers
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel

You know what's strange? All of these books about garbage are by women. It doesn't strike me as topic that would necessarily have a strong sex bias, but at least now Humes has broken the monopoly.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Affluenza

Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic
© 2001, 2004, 2014  John de Graaf, David Wann, Thomas Naylor
288 pages



In getting and spending, we lay waste to all our powers -- so sayeth the poet. Originally published in 2001, Affluenza is a critique of consumerism, which it depicts as a disease affecting not just the body politic, but the environment. The authors use visual language drawn from medicine -- "feverish expectation", "hardening of the traffic arteries", "community chills" to argue that rampant consumerism is not only making us unhappy,  it has unraveled communities and is presently sacking the Earth.  This book has been on my radar for many years now, but I've always resisted it given that I'm in the choir this is preaching to.  I found it more varied than expected, and it does an admirable job of attempting to be nonpartisan. This third edition is genuinely valuable in keeping the material up to date,  using the sharing economy as a way of demonstrating of how we can do more with less,  Most of the suggestions for cutting back are appropriate only for an affluent audience, however, so I suspect the target audience is the comfortable-yet-feeling-guilty.

Affluenza has a pronounced emphasis on environmentalism, but it opens with a more diverse array of topics.  There's a disappointingly small section on the psychology of desire, how we pursue happiness through the acquisition or consumption of things but are then left feeling unsatisfied.  Their history of consumerism draws from works like Susan Strasser's Satisfaction Guaranteed indicate that the family-based consumer dream of the 1950s quickly became an individual-based consumer dream, with society being re-made to match.   Stores, for instance, became locations to go to and consume, rather than being part of the community; compare walking down the street and mingling with fellow citizens, then buying goods in a small bookstore owned  by someone in the community, whose business interacted and supported other businesses (local accountants and sign-makers, for instance), to a solitary individual driving by himself to a large box owned and sustained by a corporation outside the community.   The  mass focus on maximizing individual consumption -- the cheapest price, at any cost -- has reactions that not only unravel the very fabric of communities, but create lonelier people in the bargain.  Technology is something of an enabler in this regard: people whip out cell phones to stay "connected" the moment there is a lull in their activity, but in so doing lose focus of the very people they are with.  I think Erich Fromm -- who wrote in To Have or to Be? that we have become a people obsessed with having, with possessing and attempting to mount our happiness on that -- would have much to say about people who attend a play or go to the zoo and spend the entire time staring at their phones.....so concerned with capturing the experience they actually remove themselves from the experience.

The chapters on the despair of consumer therapy have the authors at their nonpartisan best. They report with delight that the Mormons are even more concerned about consumerism -- or rather, materialism -- than the students of Berkley.  They quote William Ropke's A Humane Economy: the Social Framework of the Free Market, in which the conservative offers a measured defense of free markets -- measured in that the free market is a necessary element of a free society, but  that it cannot be  the definer of its values.  Elsewhere,  they continually use the conservative label to refer to  anyone in league with advertisers and plutocrats, so I don't think they're very used to seeing anti-consumerism as a nonpartisan issue.  They marvel at Ropke,  asking readers if they could imagine any conservative writing such a thing today. Well...yes?  Rob Dreher, Wendell Berry,  and Anthony Esolen are a few who come to mind immediately, and just about anyone writing for The American Conservative.    Another hiccough is that the authors don't seem to be paying attention to what they write:  shortly after proposing a series of laws with the object of improving quality of life by reducing hours and mandating vacation/sick/universal paternity-maternity care,  they discuss a factory that reduced its operations to four days a week to save money, despite the union's protests.  After fighting to resume the five-hour day, the union's members immediately realized they actually preferred the extra day off, and so petitioned to reverse their previous petition. The authors comment that it was unfortunate that the  initial choice was forced on people,  apparently not realizing that its previous list of mandatory this--and-thats are also forced.  Ditto for the authors hailing regulatory agencies and in the same breath lamenting that said regulatory agencies are in cahoots with the people they're supposed to be policing.   Regulatory capture, dear authors --  problems can't be dispatched with a bill from Congress.

I found Affluenza an interesting book, quoting from a good range of authors --  diverse in fields as well as core beliefs. Its overall emphasis is a little weak, I think -- "Someday we're going to run out of resources and that will suck". Environmental stewardship is always an easier sell from the  immediate quality of life angle (clean air and water) than the more abstract (bad things...eventually..in the future).   The same is true for anti-consumerism and advocacy for simple living; they would be better served with an emphasis on the misery of getting-and-spending than on matters that can only be handled by the national government at large, i.e public policy.


Related books which were cited:
Satisfaction Guaranteed, Susan Strasser
Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
The Geography of Nowhere, Jim Kunstler
American Mania: Why More is Never Enough, Peter Whybrow

Cited and on my to-read list:
Alone Together, Sherry Turkel
A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market

Related:
The Plain Reader, various authors

Friday, February 10, 2017

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
© 2005 Jack Weatherford
325 pages




For all the differences and tensions between the West, Iran, and China, all can agree on one thing: the Mongols were mean. Genghis Khan roared out of the steppes of Central Asia after uniting regional tribes to create an empire which spanned from the Pacific Ocean into western Russia. His armies emptied Central Asia and under a successor would crush even Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. This history of the Mongolian khanate, from the rise of Genghis to its delayed division after his death, attempts to give the Khan the same sort of hearing that other world-conquerors like Alexander and Napoleon receive, weighing the positive aspects of his realm against the negative mass-slaughter, which in the west renders Genghis as an uber-powered barbarian. Among the virtues of the Khan's realm: general religious tolerance, as Genghis supposedly regarded religion as a private and not a public thing, and liked to hold debates between clerics of competing faiths; Eurasian trade, as Mongolian rule allowed east-Asian goods to flow across to Europe; and a state that valued merit and loyalty more than caste. The author's story is helpful and convincing, but having read Lost Enlightenment only a few weeks ago, I started this extra-conscious of how much vanished under the Khan's wake in central Asia. However, I can now grudgingly admit that some of Khan's destruction had a creative aspect to it as well.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Out of the Ashes

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture
© 2017 Anthony Esolen
256 pages



Some things, like a Roman bridge, can last for millennia through the virtue of their design, the simplicity of their use, and the inherent strength of their materials. Other things, like the Golden Gate Bridge,  or a house, require more steady attention. It isn't that they're built in an inferior fashion, but they are far more complicated and ambitious.  A culture is a thing that requires attention; it must be renewed generation to generation. In Out of the Ashes,  Anthony Esolen calls attention of Americans to the fact that western culture  is past need for attention: it has sat too long exposed to the elements without refreshing layers of paint, the termites and mice of base creation have withered away its walls and support posts, and the foundation has sunk and cracked. What is needed is rebuilding and restoration. No one can do everything, but everyone must do something, and here Esolen offers hearty arguments for resurrecting education, play, a society based on marriage, family, and the home, politics reoriented towards the local, and the veneration of beauty and virtue. In short, he bids us deny the unholy trinity of Self, Sex, and the State, and  to become participants in our own lives once more.

In interviews and lectures Esolen maintains that what  we must realize about American culture is that there isn't a culture there at all, merely memories and leftover habits. It is as we are walking through a dry creekbed; the impression of the creek is still there upon the land, even as the water itself is a far-distant trickle.  The role of culture in Esolen's sense isn't the mere transmission of music and games from generation to generation, with improvisation and growth along the way. Instead, culture is more broadly applied to civil institutions supporting a common appreciation of man and the cosmos, supporting human life -- the cultivation of man as it were, the garden in which we are watered, thrive, and  create anew the next generation.  Society formerly relied on the  subtle, consistent, and constant pressure of civil society -- of places like the home, the church, and the school. These were all institutions which people not only participated in, they were in complete control of them.   These institutions not only shared a common architectural language, in that schoolhouses, homes, and village churches might look like, but they shared a common mission in promoting human welfare.  That mission was also shared by social organization (the organization of dances to allow young people to meet one another, for instance) and ordinary habit, like allowing children to run outside and play unattended.   In 2001, Robert Putnam decried the decline of civil institutions -- churches, civic groups, bowling clubs, local political moments -- and attempted to figure out what caused their decline. Now the fall is complete:  state schools are such failures that colleges must teach remedial English (prior to their English Literature courses on Twilight and Fifty Shades, Dickens and Stoker having been dumped);   young adults raised in the hookup miasma have no socialization in creating a bonafide  soul-speaks-to-soul relationship,  and every romantic encounter must be  carefully navigated lest someone be sued because the old culture what ensured everyone knew what was appropriate and what was not is lost.

There is no use complaining; we can only rebuild, and the place to start is the family.  Esolen emphatically rejects the modern primacy of the individual, maintaining the family is the foundation of every human society. The home and family are where children are created, nurtured, and taught to become authentic members of their society, their polis.   Speaking of the polis, it too needs awakening:   the State has taken away every prerogative of local communities, leaving them a few pittances like garbage pickup. This is wrong in that it takes away from people the ability to be effective citizens of their community.  Citizenship in the national government means nothing; the individual is grist in the mill.  Yet there is little point in running for something like the school board nowadays, because the decisions have already been decided by far-distant strangers who know better than people what and how to teach their children.   Esolen thus encourages people to create alternative institutions, to  homeschool their children and work together to create private colleges in response to the past-pathetic state of university education today, a place that provides safe spaces and coloring books to its wards instead of teaching them to grapple, body and soul, with adversity and ignorance.   Yet helping to participate in the restoration of society isn't as formidable as creating new and virile sources of education like St. John's and Christendom College;   it can be as simple as learning to appreciate the poetic beauty of traditional hymns,  so much more potent than the happy-clappy praisesongs favored by megachurches -- or leaving the television behind to use one's leisure time to build something with their hands.   Fight ugliness with beauty, lies with truth, decay with work. Participation is the thing -- walking one's neighborhood and picking up litter is more effective than parading about D.C. dressed up as a vagina.

Esolen's concerns are not necessarily exclusive to Christians;  the Swedish eudaimonic philosopher Alain de Botton, for instance,  has written extensively on the role of art, literature, and architecture in human flourishing,  seeing them as important as philosophy in allowing human beings to grow to fulness.  Wendell Berry and Bill Kauffman are both emphatic voices for subsidiarity,  but rarely refer to religion.  Robert Putnam also delivered the essential book on civil culture's decline in his Bowling Alone, which was not religious in the least.  Nevertheless, Esolen is indisputably writing primarily to Christians,  because the west’s civil culture has been Christian, and he is  inspired and rooted by the Catholic social doctrine, referring to papal encyclical at times. At the end Esolen doubles down that he is writing a defense of Christian civilization.   As he urges readers to devote themselves once more to truth and beauty amid the constant babble-babble of lies coming from politicians, the news, and , the amazon of banality that is social media, he bids them to realize that truth remains treason in the empire of lies, and that  ultimately, we pursue the good and true because it is Good, not to create a heaven on Earth. That can never be, for all Christians are ultimately pilgrims on a journey to another world.

Esolen -- whom I've heard described as a "fun Jeremiah" --  is a joy to listen to and to read, a man of passion with a deep bench of literary references. In a lecture on the decline of culture, for instance,  he once used an obscure play by Ben Johnson to make his point. In an interview, someone off-handedly mentions a hymn -- "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" -- and Esolen recognizes it, seizes on it with joy, and at once begins lovingly reciting it.  He is capable of slinging barbs as his foes, but animosity is largely absent here. Instead he writes here in a mood of intense concern, driven on by hope in redemption.   For those who  look at the American landscape -- all the lonely people, the dehumanizing stretches of asphalt and smoke, the constant presence of the foul beast of Jabba the State, who forever demands attention and obedience -- this is a handbook to what went wrong, and a bracing cup to cheer to begin the work of restoring a more humane culture.


Related:
Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Before Plan 9

Before Plan 9: Plans 1-8 From Outer Space
© 2012 various authors
354 pages


TV Producer:"About the title...it's highly inflammatory. What if we changed it to 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'?"
Ed Wood: ...that's ridiculous. 
(From Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp)



Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I shall spend the rest! of our lives. But this is not a book about the future, it is one about the past. Specifically, it's a prequel to the 1950s cult classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space.  For those who have never experience the particular pleasure of it,  the film features aliens making contact with Earth,  who have hopes of convincing us not to blow up the universe by creating three "zombies", two of whom are actually vampires.   I watched it a few weeks ago as part of a series of 1950s SF (along with Them! The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms, Satellite in the Sky, and World Without End) and have since become morbidly fascinated with the work of Ed Wood. How could I resist this little volume, each story-chapter documenting the nine previous plans that the mysterious aliens visited upon the Earth?    Like the movie, this book of tales is more comedic than thrilling, and by plan 8 the novelty had worn off on me entirely.  The premise is that roughly since the Age of the Dinosaurs, the same group of aliens has been cloning itself and maintaining a watch over Earth, attempting to persuade Earthings (first intelligent dinosaurs, then humans) not to blow up the galaxy.  The stories are most clever early on, as the authors insert the aliens into the tale of Odysessus (turns out all those gods and monsters were alien creatures, who knew?), ancient Egypt (aliens did build the pyramids!), and the story of the Pied Piper.    There are numerous references to other SF stories and legends -- Roswell, obviously --  and even one particularly funny hat-tip to Ed Wood himself. In a chapter set in Victorian America, a scientist named Glen must pretend to be a woman to find out where mind-control corsets are taking all the wives of his village; naturally, he asks people to call him Glenda.  The Nazi antics seem like something out of an old Captain America plot (Heil Hydra!), and then we get a bunch of monster movies towards the end.   Some references attempt to explain the silliness of the film, like the alien saucers being suspended by wires:  an alien complains that Earth's atmosphere is so turbulent that their ships are damaged and having to be towed by other ships in higher orbits.

If you find Plan 9 from Outer Space to be in the "so bad it's good" kind of movie,  you may enjoy these little stories to a degree.  My enthusiasm waned after the Victorian story, which I think is my favorite.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Future of the Mind

The Future of the Mind: the Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
© 2014 Michio Kaku
400 pages



In The Future of the Mind, physicist Michio Kaku talks with psychologists and neurologists like V.S. Ramachandran (Phantoms in the Brain, The Tell-Tale Brain) and Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, The Language Instinct) to find out: what do we know about the brain, and how will we be using that in the future?    Although he's confessedly writing outside of his arena, Kaku  does his best to pass along current progress in neurology, which is beginning to understand how memories are stored, how the brain is networked, and is even attempting to manipulate the brain according to this fledgling knowledge.  Especially provoking is the idea that the two lobes of our brain are both semi-conscious, constantly jostling for attention,  The essential thing to realize about the brain, says Kaku, is that it runs on electromagnetism like thing else: we can thus contrive machines to gauge its activity and even interact with it. This is starting to be done on a small scale as scientists manipulate mice by stimulating certain parts of their brain with light or somesuch, triggering them to blink at will.  These machines can in a limited sense even "read" minds, or at least determine whether a person is thinking about another person, or an object, or music -- different areas of the brain light up depending.  But more technological-neurological interaction may one day allow stroke victims to once again interact with their environment, and to counter diseases like Alzheimers.  Kaku also includes wilder speculation like recording dreams and downloading memories, and as in his Physics of the Future includes a great many pop culture references -- using films like The Matrix and Surrogates.    Of course, a book on technology and intelligence can't very well miss robotics and artificial intelligence, so there's a good dose all around. I found this book much more interesting than Physics of the Future, in part because Kaku focused so much on toys, and here there's a great deal of emphasis on health.  It's very speculative in parts, but I found the science and the work in progress today to be utterly fascinating, especially appreciating the comments on artificial intelligence and robots.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

The City on the Edge of Forever: the Original Teleplay

The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay
© 1996 Harlan Ellision, with numerous afterwords
276 pages





In the classic Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever", Captain Kirk must chase a mentally disturbed man into Earth's past to save its future. Based on a teleplay penned by Harlan Ellison, it featured the kind of moral dilemma not seen again until Star Trek Deep Space Nine. Kirk falls in love with a woman of Earth's past, but if he saves her from a deathly fate, the Federation itself will -- through the usual 'want of a nail' reckoning -- cease to be. The original teleplay was heavily modified before it hit the screen, however, with many hands tinkering with it. Unfortunately for Star Trek, this tinkering wasn't routine, instead creating and sustaining a long-lived feud between Roddenberry and Ellison. It wasn't that Roddenberry merely altered the teleplay beyond recognition, Ellison hotly maintains here; it's that for years Roddenberry and his admirers mis-represented what was done, defamed Ellison's character and told outright lies about his involvement in the creative process. In this volume, Ellison first presents his side of the story, follows with the original teleplay and several revisions, and concludes with perspectives from other Trek luminaries like Nimoy and D.C. Fontana. For a fan of the original show, this is quite the read. Ellison's opening apologia bristles with contempt for Star Trek as a franchise, which had ceased to be about boldly imaginative stories and became a bland action-adventure series in space. Provided, however, that the Trek-loving reader is not a quivering bowl of jelly, Ellison's jabs can be absorbed and the peek into early Star Trek appreciated in full.

Ellison's original teleplay for the "City on the Edge of Forever" follows the opening essay/rant, and tells a dramatically different story from that portrayed on the screen. Oh, the basics are there -- time travel, New York, Edith Keeler -- but the motives and executions are different. Speaking of execution, that's how in the original story Kirk and company came to the planet to begin with. They were looking for a desolate cinder on which they could summarily execute a crewman for murder, peddling drugs, interfering with the affairs of other cultures, and the unauthorized use of a transporter without additional personal present, as required by the Federation OSHA. (Okay, I'm kidding about that last one.) The notion of an Enterprise crewmember selling drugs to innocent third-world space people was too much for Roddenberry to tolerate, never mind that throughout the show other Federation personnel would prove morally flawed. Think of Captain Tracey from the Omega Glory, or the crazy psychologist whose Tracey's actor also portrayed. In Ellison's original and in the revisions, the drug-peddling fellow seeks escape from justice by entering the temporal vortex on the planet. Kirk and Spock realize that their dope-peddler has changed history somehow, and thus enter the portal to pursue the plot along familiar lines -- until the end.

It is the end that makes City on the Edge of Forever. In the television version, Kirk is forced to make a heroic sacrifice, to allow the woman he loves to meet her deathly fate so that the Federation might be saved. That doesn't happen in Ellison's original. Instead, when push come to shove and Kirk sees death hurtling toward Edith, he fails at the last. Like Frodo, his moral stamina is exhausted at the precipice of Mount Doom, and he can't do it. Only this time, Spockwise Gamgee does the deed for him instead of Smeagol. This is a rare look at Kirk, a man whose pain, love, and yearning can overwhelm Steely Federation Resolve. Roddenberry wanted to make his Starfleet and the Federation perfect -- just see the TNG series bible -- but not only is that more fantastical than Lord of the Rings, it makes for really boring stories. What is left to work with, god-aliens and the warp core constantly threatening to overload? Fortunately, Deep Space Nine brought back moral quandries with a vengeance -- and none surpasses Sisko's "In the Pale Moonlight"!

There are other minor changes; in his afterword, David Gerrold comments on how Ellison's set directions were effectively disregarded or mis-read. He imagined an eerie city filled with runes, guarded by ancient creatures who seemed to be set in stone. What was built was...ruins, and a lopsided donut. (One person in the afterword alleges that the set director read the script while enjoying a night out at the bar, interpreted runes and ruins, and bob justman's your uncle. Seems a bit too tidy for me.) Altogether Ellison writes that he created five different revisions, grooming the story in an attempt to make Roddenberry happy. For instance, he dropped the enterprising drug peddler angle altogether, and has McCoy bitten by an alien creature and subsequently becoming addled. Not satisfied with Ellison, however, other writers were put to work axing this or that, and the doctor becomes a nincompoop who sticks himself with a hypo on accident.

Having read through all this, I can agree that in many ways Ellison's story was superior, even with some rough spots. In the first teleplay, for instances, he introduces too much too soon: the Guardians of Forever give Kirk the entire plot, telling him that the fugitive is going to try to save someone who is fated for death by the laws of the universe or somesuch, and he needs to rescue them. Later revisions improve this to make it more mystical and dramatic when Kirk has a sudden moment of realization. The drug-dealing plot I thought was rather interesting: I'm most partial to the original series when it reveals its rough roots, when we encounter details that demonstrate how Roddenberry was still establishing what kind of Earth this was he was writing about. The original Starfleet, for instance, had many more details and mores from 1950s military culture, including the death penalty for violating a specific general directive. (See "The Cage"/"The Menagerie") The narcotic Ellison used wasn't just some powder or fluid, it used sound to intoxicate the human brain. That's a concept I'd like to see explored!

In the end, the afterwards by Nimoy, Takei, Koenig, D.C Fontana, and David Gerrold (the latter two being Trek writers) add other brief perspectives and make this a book Trek fans should find considerable interest in. They will be insulted repeatedly in the beginning, but the story that follows is worth experiencing, especially given that it allows us a rare look into the creative process. Ellison's temper, which DC Fontana wryly notes is as dangerous as an H-bomb, and has a half-life just as long -- makes him a prickly fellow to get to know at first, but I've read enough of Leonard Nimoy's frustrations trying to work with Roddenberry to realize the "Great Bird of the Galaxy" wasn't the ideal visionary he was sometimes made out to be. I don't know of any Trekkies who hold him in that luminous regard, and that includes the TrekBBS community I'm an active member of. Besides, Isaac Asimov was great friends with Ellison, so he had to have been a good soul under the indignant defensiveness he displays here.

5 stars for interest, 4 for execution. Ellison's opening essay repeats itself a bit.

Related:
I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy

Friday, February 3, 2017

We Forgot Our New Years Pie

Every year I typically post an enormous year-in-review with a pie graph. This year I decided to try out a mere top ten list instead of the usual monograph, but I still need my graph fix. So here's a graphic.

2016 Reading by Category:




History, as usual, gets the lion's share -- still, not as much as last year's 37%.   My reading was intentionally more diverse this year, and accordingly science made a strong showing -- with more reads last year than in the previous two yeas combined.   When I began the year I wanted to model it after 2013, which was terrific in both terms of quality of books and in the variety of topics I considered.  Just look at the spread!

2013




Back to 2016: my Digital World theme became mostly about cyber security, but I made a lot of progress in reading books about middle-east histoy and am building on that this year to look at the history of east Asia.   I also kept three of my five resolutions, the two failures being (1) buying fewer books and (2) reviewing books that I loved but never shared here. 


Trade, ancient and modern: from China to the Sharing Economy

Two micro-reviews for you...one on The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, the other on Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing.




The Silk Road consists of several chapters in central-Asian history, with generous photographs of the landscape or art connected to the region. If readers are interested primarily in the Silk Road's heyday, the volume may be mildly disappointing, as the chapters on exploration, archaeology, and looting in the 'modern' age (19th century and continuing) constitute half the book. There is much of interest, however, and all of that archaeological looting is still firmly connected to central Asia's golden age. I would read it as a supplement to a more substantive history of the Silk Road trade than a history of it, however.



Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing introduces the notion of 'mesh' businesses, which sustain themselves on a great deal of interaction between customers and the business itself, typically involving 'sharing' resources.  Sometimes the business may merely be the platfom through which customers interact with one another -- AirBnB, for instance. The book is written almost as a pitch, urging people in the wake of the Great Recession to consider what kind of mesh businesses they could think of. The author argues that the market is ripe:  because of the recession, trust in traditional brands is or was at an all-time low, and people are more willing to experiment.   Many successful companies were founded amid recessions, says the author, because their founders saw a way to create something useful in the rubble.  Because mesh businesses are all about using goods more efficienctly, they can grow even in an economic crunch: indeed, that's their selling point. Why waste money buying a car when one can be borrowed at-will through Zipcar?  This more efficient use of resources is also more sustainable from an environmental point of view: to use the same example, a Zipcar's pollutants are not only spread out among many people's use, but they and services like Uber mean that cars no longer need to waste their potential sitting around in a parking lot or on the street all day,  consuming space or clogging the arteries of trade.    I found Mesh interesting, but slightly dated, not mentioning services like uber which were technically around back then,but hadn't exploded in popularity the wav they have now.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Podcast of the Week: Lewis, Tolkien, and the Great War




This week I'm highlighting #272 of the Art of Manliness podcast, an interview with the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War.  This book examines C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's role in the Great War and delves into ways that civilization catastrophe shaped the minds and the writing of these two much-loved authors.

The Art of Manliness podcast is another heavy favorite of mine, largely because its author has such an excellent, well-seasoned conception of manhood.  Brett McKay doesn't write articles on being a pickup artist or an alpha-male athlete.  His perception of masculinity is deeply inspired by the Greco-Roman concept of manly virtue; that is, character and masculinity were deeply mixed. Much of his writing concerns not only being good at being male --  learning skills, taking on challenges -- but being a good man, a good husband, a well-informed citizen who can learn, communicate, and work well with others.   He also interviews authors frequently;  professionals, scientists, physicians, soldiers, etc,    In addition to sharing scientific studies, literary criticism, etc. McKay also has sections on grooming and style.

A few samples:
Honor, Courage, Thumos, and Plato's Idea of Manliness
How to Deal with Aggressive People
The Classical Education You Never Had
Harnessing Behavioral Psychology for a Rich Life
The Manliness of Jack London
Level Up Your Life with Nerd Fitness



McKay has been the source of a few reads here, including The Thin Man last year.