Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Higher Call

A Higher Call
© 2012 Adam Makos and Larry Alexander
400 pages

"You follow the rules of war for you -- not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity."

The Eighth Air Force operating over Germany in the early 1940s did not fly the friendly skies. They operated in skies black with clouds of flak, and buzzing with angry German fighters, intent on bringing down the bombers that were destroying Germany’s ability to make war and its cities in the process.  But at least on one occasion, the fury of war gave way to mercy – for on (date), the beyond-crippled bomber Ye Olde Pub was followed by a German fighter who not only spared it, but escorted it wingtip to wingtip over his own nation’s most formidable anti-aircraft installations and safely to the sea. Years later, as  aging veterans, each man pondered in his soul a question. Charlie Brown wondered why he had been spared, while Franz Stigler wondered if his attempt at chivalry had worth the risk of the Gestapo’s wrath. The work is based in part on pilot interviews before their deaths in 2008, and follows their journeys as airmen, from the time they were boys playing with models to their attempts in later years to find the man with whom they'd shared a moment of grace. A Higher Call is an encouraging story of humanity rising above war, one which offers readers a rare memoir of a German fighter pilot's experiences in Africa before the action moves to Europe.

Monday, July 29, 2013

This week at the library: France, airborne chivalry, and Wendell Berry

Dear readers:

This past week saw the conclusion of my annual tribute to France after reading An Outline of French History, by Rene Sedillot. The work is translated from French, but bears no weakness on that account: it is as said before, 'oddly personable'. The author endeavors to soar high enough above his subject that he can comment on happenings without sounding partial, and he is generally true to his hopes of nonpartisanship. Though it's narrative history, there are no heroes or villains here; the author is equally hopeful and suspicious of whatever party is ruling at the moment, whether it be the king or 'the people'.  I found it enjoyable, just not particularly remarkable. It is storied history weakened only by the fact that it was written in the late 1940s, and the status of France has changed considerably since then...though there is some amusement to be had in the fact that the author bemoans how strained France's ties with her good old colonies in Africa and Indochina are becoming.

I also finished Hannah Coulter, an enchanting novel by Wendell Berry about a  young widow's coming-of-age, for which comments are pending, and A Higher Call, a nonfiction work about two opposing pilots (one, an American bomber, the other a German fighter) who have a chance encounter in the skies that ends in mercy. Comments will be posted for it as well.

I am cheerfully undecided on what this week's reading shall be. I have a set of essays by Wendell Berry, whom I'm increasingly fond of, entitled What Are People For?, and am fairly itching to get back to a couple of my science reads,  starting with Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish.  I also received Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton, so there's a good chance I'll be starting it.

'Til then, happy reading!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters
© 2012 Karen Le Billon

320 pages

Upon landing in France to spend a year with her husband's family, Karen Le Billon noticed something peculiar about French kids' behavior at the dinner table. First, they were at the table, not in front of the TV: they were sitting politely there, as though they were actors in a 1950s film on table etiquette; and they were eating their vegetables.  Not pizza-declared-a-vegetable-by-Congress, but actual vegetables. And it wasn’t just one French families, but entire  cafeterias and villages full of them!  Spooked, but slightly envious, Le Billon committed herself to figuring out how the French created such well-mannered eaters. In French Kids Eat Everything¸ she documents her exploration of French food culture, and distills it into ten rules which can apply just as easily  to American families.

Those rules are partially sourced in both French parenting and in French gustatory culture. Her account gives further evidence to the lesson of French Women Don't Get Fat and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: the French take food very seriously. It is to be eaten at the table, in special dishes, preferably with a tablecloth, and at ordained times.  In Bringing up Bebe. Pamela Druckerman called attention to well-behaved French kids as well, and attributed it to the fact that the French expect their children to act like little adults. Le Billon's French husband concurs, guffawing at the notion that children are innocent.  Children are untamed animals who must be civilized. Food culture is part of the education that refines selfish, noisy babies into that most elite specimen of mankind, the French person. The manners of the table teach children manners for life: the importance of spending time with family, of slowing down and disengaging from the hubbub of life outside,  of participating in little rituals that imbue the ordinary with meaning, of honoring your community by eating local produce.  Although the education is intended to groom children and open them to a life richer in experience and pleasure, the grooming itself requires discipline: French parents tend toward the authoritarian, insisting that their children try various foods time and again. Their authority is moderated by wisdom: they don't insist or expect that children eat a new food completely up, only that they try it. "You didn't like it this time? That's ok; maybe you'll like it next time," Le Billon learns to teach her children.  Although children may pass through a period where they are adverse to trying new things, persistence will see them through, as it will adults:  people can learn to enjoy any food if they try it enough times.

The book records Le Billon not only divining out these rules by observing French families eat and talking with them about food, but her efforts to teach her mini-barbarians, her oh-so-American children, how to be civilized. In the end, the fact that she's living in France is a tremendous aide: the lessons she flounders at teaching because she's just learning herself are zealously enforced by her children's teachers, friends, and family. When the Le Billons return to America, her girls are anomalies, and Le Billon has to figure out how to apply the lessons of French epicureanism to America's fast food  mentality. That helps the  book become more than a romanticized paen to French dining, or an entertaining account of cultural exploration. There's nothing in the 'rules' Le Billon notes that can't be applied to every culture, or any:  most, indeed, is simple discipline. The trick for American parents reading will be applying those lessons while living in a culture which prides itself on being 'real', instead of mannerly.

French Kids Eat Everything is most enjoyable, especially for people interested in the simple pleasures. The rules, for the curious:

1. Parents are in charge of food education
2. Avoid emotional eating (no food rewards, bribes, etc)
3. Parents schedule meals and menus -- kids eat what adults eat.
4. Plan family meals together -- no distractions
5. Eat a variety of vegetables
6. You don't have to like it, but you do have to taste it
7. No snacking!
8. Slow food is happy food.
9. Eat mostly real food.
10. Remember -- relax. Eating should be joyful.

Bringing up Bébé: One Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, Pamela Druckerman
French Women Don't Get Fat: the Secret of Eating for Pleasure, Mireille Guiliano
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong,  Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Choice

The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism
© 2006 Russ Roberts
128 pages

 Imagine that George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life had wrestled not with the impulse to throw himself off of a bridge, but with the decision whether or not to endorse a protectionist presidential candidate whose platform promised to bar all imports from American shores – and that he was guided not by Clarence, but by the ghost of a long-dead economist, who showed him two different versions of America: one with free trade, and the other with barriers to imports. This is the premise of The Choice: A Parable of Free Trade and Protectionism, which is like two of Roberts’ other works, a policy argument in the form of a novel.

Like The Price of Everything, it’s short on narrative despite having the most ‘storied’ premise. Instead, the work is a series of debate dialogues about economic issues that join together to constitute one larger argument for tree trade and against protectionism. Some points ring more true than others, for instance Russell’s/Ricardo’s demonstration of how total economic self-sufficiency impoverishes a society. He uses the example of a household that chooses to ‘bar the import of bread’ and begin manufacturing its own bread.  Certainly, this has advantages: homemade bread is of a far superior quality and can be made to suit one’s own tastes. But the time involved in making bread to satisfy constant demand for it will take away from other activities, even if the household chooses to consume less bread.  Other points don’t fly nearly as well, like Roberts maintaining that though American jobs will be through free trade, other opportunities will be created. In the book, an auto plant closes, and the children of that plant’s workers thus look for new opportunities in a pharmaceutical company that opens to sell drugs to Japan. If the plant hadn’t moved to Japan, not only would those children have taken the same job as their parents (bo-ring!), but Japanese people wouldn’t have had money to buy American drugs.  Yes, it sucks to be the parents, but life balances out in the aggregate. I don’t like this argument, and ironically just yesterday I heard Roberts saying he doesn’t like it much either*, as it stinks of utilitarianism.  It’s of poor consolation to the auto workers who lost their livelihood, but – life is change.  Roberts hasn’t quite convinced me, though now I understand more fully the reasoning behind free trade arguments. I balk at embracing the book enthusiastically, however, because Roberts uses such an extreme example to argue with: his choice is between free trade America and an America totally without imports. Pardon may be granted in that it’s difficult to make much of an argument between two more moderate stances, as distinctions are blurred.

Be forewarned: though a work of interest to those thinking on the merits of free trade, or attempting to understand  the economics of such,  this is on the dry side. Lively as Roberts’ writing is, policy debates about systemic interaction can only get so exciting.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

It Can't Happen Here

It Can't Happen Here
© 1935 Sinclair Lewis
400 pages

The Great Depression sent the entire western world reeling, destroying faith in the existing order and creating opportunities for charismatic, forceful leaders with vision to sweep into power and create societies anew in their image – but their new orders introduced us to the nightmare world of the totalitarian state, which arise in Germany, Japan, Italy, and in Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale, the United States. It Can’t Happen Here is the story of the rise of American fascism,  beating the bible and waving a cross.

The tale is told through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a solid liberal who amuses himself by rubbing shoulders with staunch conservatives at the Rotary Club, and then scandalizing them by penning editorials sympathetic to communists. He’s manifestly horrified by the rise of one Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a folksy dope whose radical plan for transforming America manages to unite rich and poor, traditional and modern, together in a schizophrenic platform.  He was not always horrified, though – he once though Windrip a comic buffoon, who could not possibly be voted in in a respectable election

The Windrip plan includes, among other things,  strict income limits, a $3000 handout to every citizen of the land,  boosted defense spending, the forbidding of women and Negroes from ‘inappropriate’ occupations, the barring of labor unions, and whatever constitutional amendments or acts of Congress are needed to allow the President, hereafter known as The Chief,  to give the nation a strong, guiding hand without being tied down by Congress.   Such a broad and sometimes self-contradictory platform  is similar to that of the “National Socialists”, and as Windrip’s reign commences, Lewis takes inspiration from Hitler’s reorganization of Germany.  That organization is literal, for Windrip breaks down state and county boundaries and imposes his own set of numbered provinces and distracts, each headed by a loyal minion. Instead of the SS,  Windrip has his ‘MM’s: the Minutemen, whose garb  hearkens to western pioneers.  As much as Windrip’s reign reminds students of European history of the Nazification of Germany,  it is a distinctly American kind of fascism, hearkening to the American mythology of the Founding Fathers, but still reactionary and anti-modern, even in its embrace of modern tools and the modern state. The idea is the same: America has gotten soft, decadent, and corrupt. It needs a kick in the seat of the pants, and Windrip is the main to give it: he'll make America mighty again, he'll take on the rich Jews and put the economy to work for Americans, not a few bankers; he'll revitalize the Old Time Religion and maybe spread it to a few heathen Catholics down in Mexico.

The account follows the relatively quick corruption of the American republic into the empire, and though bleak at times, it is satire, and ends on a relatively happy note.  Although such overt, drastic actions seem unlikely today, and are jarringly unexpected turns of event even in the book, the context of the thirties makes the rise of Windrip more plausible, especially given the success of Huey Long, who was a political boss with a kindred platform until his assassination.  Although the spectre of totalitarianism is alive and well,  it is far more subtle: no marching boots, thank you, just constant surveillance and algorithmized scrutiny. Readers of alt-history and those with an interest in politics will doubtless find this fascinating, if not as potent a warning as it once was.


Monday, July 22, 2013

This week at the library (7/22): free trade, American Hitler, and French food

Dear readers:

This past week has been on the quiet side. I finished yet another book by Russ Roberts, this one proclaiming the virtues of free trade (The Choice),  and resumed reading Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a novel set and published in the late 1930s, featuring the rise of an American Hitler – a ‘corn pone Nazi’, to borrow from James Howard Kunstler.  That work first attracted my attention during the 2010 election cycle when the rise of the bible-thumping Tea Party and its constant allusions to the Revolution, brought to mind the quote: when fascism comes to America, it will wrapped in the Flag and carrying the Cross. Turns out that quotation is sourced to this very novel!  Comments for both will follow in the next couple of days.

My current reading consists of An Outline of French History, which is enjoyable enough though not particularly remarkable,  and French Kids Eat Everything, which I’m loving.  These constitute my belated Bastille Day reading, intended to celebrate the French Revolution and French culture in general. I'm expecting a few titles in the post this week, including a collection of essays by Wendell Berry (What Are People For?) and -- at long last! -- Fighting Traffic, by Peter Norton.  I've been waiting for two years for that book to be offered at a price lower than $30. The timing is perfect, as the book will complement Getting There rather nicely. While one examines the competition between highways and cars and the rails over intercity transportation, Fighting Traffic is an account of how cars came to take over the streets, turning residential neighborhoods into traffic sewers.

The tyranny of this dictatorship isn't primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It's the fault  of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.
"A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it on, were evil. But possibly they had to be violent, because easy-going citizens like me couldn't be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of the government conduced by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn't have been any need for agitators and war and blood.
"It's my sort, the Responsible Citizens who've felt ourselves superior because we've been well-to-do and what we thought was 'educated' who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It's I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It's I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!
"Is it too late?"

p. 169, It Can't Happen Here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Getting There

Getting There: the Epic Struggle  between Road and Rail in the American Century
© 1996 Stephen Goddard
366 pages

Regardless of the status of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Pitt, each man of power traveled at the same speed as the people they governed: no faster than a running horse. But in the early-mid 19th century, the industrial revolution began producing modes of transportation that would shrink continents, reducing journeys of months into a solitary week. Trains first shriveled the distance and their spans allowed for unprecedented economic growth. That growth produced rail's first rival, the automobiles -- and the highways they drove on.  Their competition produced a clear winner in the American  20th century: while the rail lines withered in neglect and passenger service vanished almost entirely,  highways covered the landscape.  But their struggle was not a fair fight between equals, as both looked for government support and the highwaymen's superior politicking created a fixed game. Getting There is a history of how the rail barons squandered public trust,  failed to unite in the face of potent opposition, and continued to flounder as they were supplanted in the lobbying court by a coalition of highwaymen and automobile manufacturers.  The status of the great highways as money pits, however, and the fracturing of that opposing coalition present an opportunity for rail to rally, in Goddard's view.

Goddard begins with a brief history of rail transportation's origins before the struggle between the two ensued, a history pitched toward demonstrating how the rail companies' early success led to abuses of the public, and thus to opposition --  -- both by popular movements, like the Grange movement of farmers protesting high rail prices in the midwest, then by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first government institution designed to oversee any part of the economy. The ICC proved first tepid, then tyrannical, and for most of the book plays the part of a 'bad ref' or crooked umpire, working the game against  trains and for the highwaymen. While regulations forced  rail companies to quote the same price for hauling freight regardless of circumstances, unregulated truck drivers could change their rates at their own discretion: rail companies were forced to write to D.C. for permission, and by the time said clearance arrived, the opportunity for hauling would have already vanished.  Ironically, the rail companies were partially complicit in their troubles: they promoted the first 'good roads' measures so that trucks would take unprofitable short runs off of their balance streets -- and so that automobiles would relieve the burden of passengers. Those measures would prove to be another unearned advantage  for the automobile industry and highways: while rail companies created and maintained their own lines and stock, car companies, and later car drivers, were given such infrastructure, the funds coming from American taxpayers.

Although the history of American rail is checkered with self-serving episodes, the automobile industry fares no better, as their deliberate campaign to destroy trolley lines in the city and replace them with buses demonstrates. Forcing the rails' decline and letting the infrastructure fall into scrap would be egregiously unwise, in Goddard's view. He outlines the problems of our highway-and-auto dominated system: destruction of cities,  the financial albatross of maintenance, and pollution among them.  While he doesn't launch into an extensive plea for a rail renaissance, he sees one as inevitable -- if government will get out of the way and stop propping up the trains' competitors.  Getting There proves an expansive history -- brimming with detail, but never plodding, and covering social life as well as business and politics.

Waiting on a Train: A Year Spent Riding Across America, James McCommons
Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe
The Great Railroad Revolution: A History of Trains in America, Christian Wolmar
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brand Failures

Brand Failures: the Truth about the 100 Greatest Branding Mistakes of All Time
© 2003 Matt Haig
310 pages

        What helps a brand succeed – or makes it fail? Brand Failures attempts to divine out the secrets to success by examining one hundred products or companies which have tanked. Some were new, others ancient, still others new ventures backed by established titans – but failure comes to all.  Each of the book’s one hundred sections features a different American or British brand. The sections vary in length: New Coke, which starts the work off, features a history of Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s competition, setting the stage for why Coca-Cola made the decision it to rework its product, but the book’s midpoint is taken by a series of paragraph-long sections which are more a list of humorous advertising mistranslations than proper chapters. The longer chapters end in list of lessons learned, from the patently obvious (“Advertising is important”) to the more insightful (“Don’t clone your competitors”) .  Some of the lessons conflict: while the author asserts at the start that in the Age of Branding,  actual products matter little compared to the power of the brand, the way it makes people feel.  Hence, while people in blind taste tastes may have preferred New Coke to classic coke and Pepsi,  when the actual product was rolled out, people acted poorly: it wasn’t the coke they had been brought up with. They had been told “Coke is It”, and were now expected to believe that Coke wasn’t It.  

         Despite the author’s deemphasizing the value of a product, numerous examples demonstrate that it can’t be ignored, either.  Haig uses Beta-Max and VCR to back up his belief that quality isn’t particularly important: while he stresses the audio and video quality of the Betamax tapes,  his account also mentions the fact that whole movies could not fit on such tapes.  The quality of the picture doesn’t equal the quality of the product overall.   To whom these lessons are to be imparted is uncertain. While they’re ostensibly aimed at business personalities attempting to launch or expand a brand, would such personalities really be reading a work written for popular audiences?  Wouldn’t marketing executives be paying more attention to marketing journals?  I’m particularly interested in the way marketing works so I can evade its tricks, but I found the work more entertaining as one of business history, for some of the products released were truly weird. In the 1950s, for instance, Dodge produced a car marketed for women: called La Femme and covered in pink inside and out, with floral patterns on the seats, it looked like something even Mattel would  be reluctant to foist on Barbie. (The lesson of this section: don’t patronize customers.)

            This breezy and entertaining book may be of use to budding entrepreneurs, but I suspect most readers who be those wanting to be amused by business misadventures, which it certainly provides.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

This week at the library: politics, Star Trek, a Cold War fantasy for kids, and trains

Last week's titles: 
The Price of Everything, Russell D. Roberts  | What It Means to be a Libertarian, Charles Murray |  Star Trek Silent Weapons, David Mack |  Day of Reckoning, Pat Buchanan | Getting There, Charles Goddard

Dear readers:

This week has seen some grappling with politics, with Star Trek, fantasy, and trains for relaxation.  Both The Price of Everything and What It Means to be a Libertarian  were on the...well, libertarian side, with Roberts exploring how prices work and vouching for markets as a better way of arranging things than government fiat. Murray was more philosophical, starting off by establishing that libertarianism is fundamentally against coercion of any kind, whether physical force or taxation. After a strong start, he then attempts to explore what a libertarian society would look like: it's one with courts and interstates, and not much else, though allowances can be made for government control of 'natural monopolies' like infrastructure that requires an enormous amount of capital and coordination (hence, highways). As much as I like his philosophy in theory, its widespread application depends entirely too much on the hope that things will sort themselves out for me.  I prefer concrete evidence, not idealism -- even Murray's very attractive kind, which posits that the government putting citizens' responsibility for their lives will suddenly witness a rebirth of civic virtue. a rebirth I'd delight to see. 

I resumed reading the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack,  which actually took a potshot at libertarianism by putting the action on crime-ridden Orion, where the government stays out of business and out of most everything else.  I didn't plan Mack as a counter to Murray, so it must have been Fate. Obviously. The book was a fantastic mystery-turned-political thriller, which sees the powers within the Typhon Pact vying for dominance, while keeping a close eye on NATO the Khitomer Accord, which consists of the Federation, the Klingon Empire, the Cardassians, and a few other races who were not quite all the way evil.  The Typhon Pact strife seems to hint that the Downfall series of books being planned for autumn will see the Evil League of Evil, not the Justice League of the Federation, disintegrate. 

Speaking of self-defeating evil, Pat Buchanan thinks the United States has become that, invading everyone while simultaneously letting cheap goods destroy American manufacturers and American jobs. He rails against a handful of ideas -- imperialism, the triumph of ideology, the decline of Anglo-Americans, the glorification of free trade --  but only the first two really piqued my interest. Buchanan is called a paleoconservative, and they seem to  differ from 'neoconservatives' on the key issues of invading people and free trade.  Buchanan believes we shouldn't invade people, but should have the ability to do so if need be, and we should raise protective tariffs to keep other people's stuff from invading us. We should have an export surplus, not a trade deficit.  Out of self-interest I'm given to agree, but if the other fellows take the same stance it seems we'll have  a lot of nations with trade walls up, with the ships of commerce unable to pass them. This seems a story with a sad ending. You could invade people and force them to buy your stuff (he's all for mercantilism), but invading people is out, so.....

On the subject of strife between nations, I recently read a fantastically funny Cold War fantasy about a middle-schooler named Jane whose parents flee McCarthyist witch hunts to live in London, where Jane immediately complicates their lives further by getting involved in a battle between intelligence agencies and an ancient order of chemists. But really, how often do you make friends with someone who just happens to be heir to arcane knowledge passed down through uncountable generations, knowledge that can heal the body, turn it into a bird, and even -- maybe -- squelch an atom bomb of the earth-shattering kaboom sort?  Soon enough Jane and her friends (a trio, naturally) are on the run from both the British government and the Soviets. The resulting shenanigans make for hilarious light fantasy, the only fly in the ointment being the fact that the kids are expected to read a book composed in ancient Greek and Latin by means of their grammar school Latin primer.  I can't even read Der Spiegel on my uni-Deutsch, let alone a technical journal.

So! Next week! Today being the 14th, I should be concluding a series of French reads right about now. I am not. Call it poor planning, but my interlibrary loan books haven't arrived, so today I've been reading an oddly personal survey of French history called The Outline of French History.  I'll be continuing that this week, along with (perhaps) The Body Electric, the last in the Cold Equations trilogy. After that, who knows?  Once I've paid honor to France there are a few essay collections I'm itching to read, from Wendell Berry to Bertrand Russell.  I also have a book on airplanes checked out, because airplanes are fun.  Not as much fun as trains, but fun still. Oh, and speaking of trains -- I also read Getting There, about the struggle between railroads and highways for transportation dominance. Remarks will be posted later in the week.

The Price of Everything

The Price of Everything
© 2009 Russell D. Roberts
224 pages

The Price of Everything is an economics novel about the virtues of prices and markets, explaining how they work to maximize efficiency and spread goods out among those who need them and are willing to pay. Like The Invisible Heart, it is a policy treatise in novel form. There, an economics professor fell in love with a liberal English professor and slowly worked his dark-side libertarian magic on her. Here, another economics professor, this one the provost of a university, takes a passionate youth leader with a social-justice agenda under her wing.  Roberts is harder on his ideological opponents here than in The Invisible Heart, possibly there because his doppelganger there was trying to seduce his opponent, while his professor is only trying to turn her target into the man who will bring the free market to Cuba.

The kickoff issue in The Price of Everything is a minor earthquake which causes a run on supply stores. Home Depot and like stores quickly sell out, but Big Box, a megacorporation which makes Wal-Mart look like a mom and pop operation, doubles its prices to take advantage of the uptick in demand. This causes outrage among customers, who are catalyzed by the presence of a pregnant woman who is unable to afford her groceries and led by young Ramon Fernandez, who condemns the store in a speech and then takes up an offering to allow the lady to meet her need.  Having discovered a knack for impassioned rabble-rousing, Fernandez decides to hold a rally on his university campus, protesting the fact that a new building is named after the Big Box corporation, who are donors. That attracts the attention of the professor, who chatting with Fernandez under the pretense of grooming him to be a more effective youth leader, engages him in questions and discussion.In reality,  she's ever-so-slightly steering him toward her point of view. Look at it this way, she says:  before the earthquake, both Home Depot and Big Box had the supplies on hand. After the earthquake, Home Depot maintained its price (fair to the consumer) and Big Box doubled its own.  But from whom did the lady find her supplies? Big Box, because it ensured that the only people taking the supplies were those for whom they were most important.  Had Big Box maintained its normal prices, all the supplies might have been bought up by whoever happened by first and decided to grab some extras. Home Depot's approach might be 'nicer', but  who served the lady's needs? (Well, the crowd did, but that's not the point she wanted to make.)

Roberts' arguments make a horrible kind of sense, though it goes against the grain to hear a defense for 'price gouging'.  More palatable is his attempt to convey the 'genius' of prices as regulating agents, ensuring that everyone looking for lead (his example of choice) gets enough, but not too much, the balancing being set by competition between firms trying to acquire supplies. This argument is especially convincing because the counter is so weak: if markets don't set prices, what will? Who can acquire and process all of the information needed to decide whose needs are greater than anyone else's?  (Maybe Google and the NSA, if they joined forces...) And by what standard are they using? Who plans for whom?

The Price of Everything is not quite as potent as The Invisible Heart, but it's still a fun little way to digest economic arguments from an author who is passionate, but not obnoxious; bold, but altogether pleasant.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Day of Reckoning

Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Greed, and Ideology are Tearing America Apart
© 2009 Patrick Buchanan
309 pages

What’s wrong with America? Change, brown people, and wars, judging by Day of Reckoning.  Published in 2009, presumably to capitalize on the election, Day of Reckoning puts forth Patrick Buchanan’s vision for America: less war, stronger borders,, protectionism, and more white babies, especially the good Anglo kind.  (Nothing is said about Saxon babies, but one assumes they’re OK.)  Although marred by stupefying sketchiness at times, and more a thought-dump than a coherent argument, Reckoning makes a couple of good points about imperialism and the perils of ideology. Even so, I would have probably passed on it had I not been curious about the 'paleoconservatives'.

Pat Buchanan might not find the lack of one dominating theme tying his book together a bad thing: coherent worldviews, especially forceful ones, are his target. Ideology has ruined politics, he writes, encouraging people to interpret everything that happens through the lens of their particular system of belief, and motivating them to change everything to fulfill their dream – whether the ideology is Leninism or Free Trade. Change is bad.  This is at the heart of Buchanan’s writing. Things that cause change, like energetic politics and mobs, are to be avoided. It doesn't matter if Yugoslavians want to break up, or that Chechnyans want freedom from Russia: stability is god.  Although I found some of his grousing sympathetic (I'm still mulling over global free trade, but much prefer a United States with factories to one without),  the evidence he presents in favor of his causes isn't exactly convincing. Did the early American and British empires, when they were strong and rising, have free trade? No, Ergo, free trade destroys empires.  Isn't that a good thing? Again, Mr. Buchanan isn't consistent. He's an impassioned critic of American misadventures in nation-building and wars on terror/drugs/etc, but he protests them not out of the principle that imperialism is malevolent, but  because these badly-managed affairs have sapped American strength.  Glory, power, empire -- all good things, but they have to be managed with great efficiency. He is a grim pragmatic: whatever is working now, keep it.

Although a healthy respect for the destructive power of ideology is warranted (witness the French and Russian revolutions),  the author's revulsion for change on principle strikes me as more reactionary than thoughtful,  and his conservatism as more or less self serving: he's fine with democracy among fine white western folk, but generic eastern Europeans and Arabs? Best to let them be managed by reasonable strongmen, like that Saddam Hussein fellow who kept Iraq in such good order until our tanks mucked things up. I'd give points for brazen self-interested honestly had he been consistent there, but in cataloging America's imperial wars, he managed to completely skip the invasion of Mexico, a fact worth nothing considering that he's staunchly against immigration.

Day of Reckoning is a book that I should have left on the shelf, I think. I will say this, though: unlike so many other political works, it doesn't feature the author on the cover, a marketing tactic I find particularly obnoxious.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Persistence of Memory - Silent Weapons

Star Trek TNG Cold Equations, Books 1 & 2: The Persistence of Memory and Silent Weapons
© 2012 David Mack
400 and 352 pages

The last time David Mack penned a Trek trilogy, billions upon billions died (Destiny), the Borg were vanquished, and thousands of readers' minds were blown by the intensity of it all. Now he's at it again with Cold Equations, set in the era of the Typhon Pact. A half-score of the Federation's most chronic enemies have their own confederacy, and the two states have been engaged in a cold war of sorts for the last couple of years, vying for power through covert missions. The Persistence of Memory opens with an attack on one of the Federation's most important research laboratories, one housing the deactivated bodies of B4, Lore, Lal, and various other Soong-type androids...the deceased Commander Data's family, as it were.  A cloaked ship, later to be revealed Breen, raids the lab and nicks the bodies...and as the Enterprise-E is conducting its investigation, a man is spotted on the streets who looks very much like Data. The man is none other than Noonien Soong, Data's inventor-father -- a man who was supposed to have died years ago.  But there he is, and looking rather young to boot -- what gives? The Persistence of Memory is largely his story,  the tale of one slightly-mad scientist to achieve immortality while watching the drama of his offspring from afar, with some political drama tacked on at the end.

That drama takes on a life of its own in Cold Equations, where Breen intrigue threatens to disrupt a delicate negotiation between the Federation president, Naniette Bacco, and the Gorn Hegemony. Shenanigans from a Soong-type android lead to Data's arrest (did I mention? he's back), and then come explosions and assassinations.  The Enterprise is on the scene, attempting to solve the mystery to both get their friend exonerated and to prevent their president's untimely demise, but something is screwy.  Their mystery-solving works all too well, aided by a series of anonymous tips that raise Worf's hackles (and Klingons have very big hackles), and lead him to suspect that someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings, manipulating the Enterprise, the Federation, and even the Gorn into playing parts in a bigger scheme. Thus a murder mystery becomes a massive political drama in which the struggle for power between Typhon Pact members proves to be more interesting than the Cold War-like tension between the Federation and Space-Moscow.  Unlike the Federation, which is more or less united (forgetting for the moment the angsty Andorians), the Typhon Pact members all have separate agendas, and they view one another as temporary expedients to their eventual nationalistic supremacy than actual partners.

After the epic-beyond-words achievements of Destiny,  poor David Mack has a lot to live up to. Cold Equations doesn't feature thousands of Borg cubes running willy-nilly, eating planets and inspiring mesmerizing speeches from doomed civic leaders, it's still a fantastic trilogy so far. The Persistence of Memory not only brought Data back (sort of), but gave his, Lore's, and other androids' stories utter cohesion: what Christopher Bennett did for time travel threads, Mack does with robotics, linking not only the Soong family but episodes from the original series.  Soong's perspective on watching his sons grow up is captivating, and then right behind that comes an intelligent political thriller that doesn't simply throw two entities against one another, but has  at least five participating in a tangled web of self-interest and lies.  I already purchased the finale, The Body Electric, and look forward to reading that soon.

Cold Equations on TvTropes

Sunday, July 7, 2013

This week at the library: Independence Day, simple living, cities, and the digestive tract

Last week's titles: 
American Creation, Joseph Ellis | Gulp, Mary Roach |  Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry |  His Excellency, Joseph Ellis | Edens Lost and Found, various authors

Dear readers:

This past week I finished up my Independence Day tribute with a biography of no less than George Washington. His Excellency by Joseph Ellis was a fitting capstone to the series this year, as it would be in any year. I had planned on reading a primary document of the American Revolution, like Tom Paine's Common Sense.  Since my revolutionary readings in the last couple of years  have favored the conservatives and nationalists, I think next year I might try a biography of romantic, idealistic, avowedly anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson.

A few days ago I read through Simplicity: Essays, a collection of essays on minimalism. Divided into three parts, the essays invite readers to consider their relationship with their things, create a meaningful life,  practice habits that make themselves happier and better, and offer advice on getting friends and family to realize, no, you're not crazy because you're getting rid of all your stuff. It fits comfortably within the realm of self-help, with less philosophy than I'd hoped. The authors write a great deal about themselves, mentioning with frequency how they left their high-powered six-figure jobs behind to focus on helping other people, and how much happier they were without all the baggage.  I purchased it as a $1 e-book, but it has a 'real' counterpart. I don't think I'm giving the book its fair due because it was so similar to Disrupting the Rabblement in terms of its advice, and I was looking for something more in the neighborhood of The Plain Reader, that invites us to think about a wide variety of areas of our lives that could do with grooming. The authors here only looked at owning things and mental habits.

I recently finished the gargantuan task of bringing my Shelfari and GoodReads accounts completely up to date: not only is most every book found here to be listed there, but they're complete with reviews and labels.  There were some books that didn't get full reviews here, so I didn't  crosspost them.  That work done,  my intention is to keep those far more current than they usually are. In the process of adding labels to some two thousand books, I created a few  there that I think would serve the blog here nicely as well: "praxis" and "direct action" among them.

This next week:
- Star Trek Cold Equations, book 2: Silent Weapons Another Cold War in Space political-action thriller, this picks up from The Persistence of Memory which I read  a few months back but (embarrassingly) forgot to review. I seriously didn't realize that until last week when I combed every post in the last year looking for any mention of the book. Oops. Turns out there's a half-finished review in my drafts folder..
-  Someone has suggested I read a novel called The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy.
- I also have Getting There, the story of the rivalry between roads and rail in the 21st century. Go trains!
-   Seeing as Bastille Day is a week away, I should read something French. Alas, the interlibrary loan request I put out hasn't come in yet, so I may not get to read French Kids Eat Everything until after the 14th.  I'm sure my library has something appropriately French in the meantime.

Edens Lost and Found

Edens Lost and Found: How Ordinary Citizens are Restoring Our Great American Cities
©  2006 Harry Wiland, Dale Bell,  Joseph D'Agnes
285 pages

I can hear Atlanta crying loud as she looks for hope and change / but we can’t count on a government to create a life we want to see.. (“Our Cities”, The Wild)

The 20th century was not kind to American cities, and the challenges of the 21st, resource scarcity and climate change among them, seem hardly more favorable, especially as the national government continues to flounder. But across the country, citizens are taking challenges for opportunities, and effecting positive change in their own cities.  In Edens Lost and Found, the authors share stories from all stripes of people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Seattle who are doing their part to make their cities more ecologically-savvy, resilient, and overall better places to live.

Adapted from a PBS series, the book is divided into four larger chapters, each containing a half-dozen or so sections of stories about individuals or groups making a difference. The chapter starts off with a history of its host city, one which briefly details the city’s unique challenges and strengths: Los Angeles, for instance, is or was in the strange spot of simultaneously stressing about flooding and having to import water for its citizens’ needs. The citizen-actions range from the small-scale (a man stubbornly removing trash from an abandoned lot so that his daughters could have a clean place to play) to the somewhat larger, as when citizen actions catch the government’s attention and it decides to fund their efforts, as it did when  Chicagoans attempted to safeguard the prairies from further development.  Not every action is done by an individual person: one section in Seattle, for instance, covers the decision of one sporting-goods store to become environmentally friendly and more compelling at the same time by catching rainwater and channeling it to safety in the form of a waterfall. Their actions address a variety of needs, all adding value but in different areas. There are artists here, who transform empty walls into murals,  as well as those who convert an abandoned building into a hydroponics garden that doubles as an urban farmer’s market.  The editor-authors also add sidebars for those who want to recreate  the actions celebrated her: one such column offers advice on creating a nature trail.

Although the individual stories didn't mesh together well beyond sharing the same setting, the authors' attempt to create cohesion with an introduction to each city, and the marginal use of shared themes (managing watersheds, for instance),  serves the book well. It succeeds less on narrative and more on substance: these accounts of citizens engaging in direct action and rebuilding their cities are most inspiring,  giving reason for hope.

Friday, July 5, 2013

His Excellency

His Excellency: George Washington
© 2005 Joseph Ellis
352 pages

Most of the Founding Fathers are exalted, but not quite divine. They are icons not without blemish: John Adams had his temper,   Benjamin Franklin his shameless lechery. But George Washington towers above the rest; in the American mythos, he is more divine than Jesus -- Jesus, at least, was tempted. Joseph Ellis' admitted attempt in His Excellency is to capture the demigod and bring Washington down to Earth. His biography succeeds in making Washington more of a human character, one who in his own time recognized he was being made into a legend and did his best to fulfill the reputation, both for the sake of the nation and his quiet sense of pride.

With precious little material to inform historians about his early years, Washington seems to spring into the world in the manner of Athena: fully-formed, and already in the thick of things as an inexperienced officer who accidentally set off the French and Indian War -- making American history without even trying. His military service, marriage into a wealthy family, and natural air of authority led him to early prominence in Virginia, especially as ties between Britain and her colonies became increasingly frayed. He would be first president of the Second Continental Congress, then commander in chief of its army, and still later the first president of the American union.  His adult accomplishments are well known to most, at least their particulars. What motivates Ellis is a desire to understand what made His Excellency tick.  The biography subsequently takes the form of a character study.

From Ellis’ account, control is the presiding theme of Washington’s life:  control over his passions, his finances, his legacy. Though idealized, he emerges here an intensely pragmatic man who expects the worst and works to minimize risks. This is why he prefers a professional army to one composed of militia-men: though a force of citizens which comes together in times of crisis has great romantic appeal, Washington’s own experience saw nothing in a republican fyrd to commend them. Untrained militia melted away in combat, or lost interest in the war. Only discipline and strength could meet adversity. In the face of the challenges the early Republic faced, Washington wanted those values in the saddle, not Jeffersonian hopes.   Of course,  his opponents might argue that decentralized power mitigated the risk of abuse moreso than a strong state, but Washington distrusted a passionate mob more than he did corrupt aristocrats, possibly because he regarded corruption as self-defeating.  Though held as a champion of American liberty, Washington was thus very conservative in his way: he worked for American independence out of practicality, believing that Britain literally could not govern from a distance, and people needed to be governed, both by a government that prevented them from doing harm to one another and by self-imposed limits.  The limits on Washington were all self-imposed: Ellis sees him as pursuing virtue for the practical reasons: not only would he be happier, but his name would be more gloriously remembered. Posterity would judge him not by the power he held, but by the power he refrained from using, and so Ellis places great emphasis on the numerous times Washington voluntarily surrendered power, moves that not only protected him from the charge of monarchism, but gave the American people a legend to idolize: behold, the philosopher-president, the noble Cinncinatus who governs wisely and then retires, avoiding being stained with the purple dye that Marcus Aurelius cautioned himself against being touched by.

I found His Excellency  to be a most...appropriate biography, in that it reveals the Father of his Country to be a man with vices (like a lust for land), but whose pursuit of self-interest led to him becoming an exemplar of civic virtue. It's the American dream.  Both those who want to learn about his human side-- his errors and frailties -- and those who want to learn more about his life without the shining armor being tarnished will find His Excellency a solid contribution to their understanding.

Nehru: the Invention of India, Shashi Tharoor

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Jayber Crow

Jayber Crow: the Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself
© 2000
363 pages

"Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told."

Jayber Crow is many things. It is one of the most agonizingly beautiful and moving novels I have ever read. It's a lyrical testament to the power of love,  the richness of community, and the pleasures of a life lived close to the rhythms  of nature.  And it's also the story of a man named Jonah, called Jayber, who once thought he had the call to preach, but left the seminary to practice barbering to live out the questions that the seminary had no answers for. It is the story of a man twice orphaned, who went on a journey, a pilgrimage, and found himself. It is a work of art.

I should acknowledge from the start that I am biased to like -- to adore -- this book, for the author's narrative voice is the kind I like best; gentle, wise, and slyly witful. I was unable to simply read the book; it had to be read aloud. Slowly. Multiple times.  The text is swollen with sentences that, like fruit hanging from a tree, demand to be plucked and savoured; they have body, being something beyond ordinary words.  Jayber Crow isn't an action drama with a clearly defined Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, and Conclusion; it's a coming of age story, in which the gracefully maturing subjects are both Jayber and his adopted home of Port William.  Jayber is a child of the Great Depression, and arrives in town shortly before the outbreak of World War 2.  That war and those that follow  will hurt his fair city, but the pain of them brings his characters to life all the more. It is a deeply reflective novel, in which Jayber will begin to wax poetic about one topic or another -- the decline of ecologically-savvy family farms and the advent of debt-based agribusiness, or the damage automobiles do to one's sense of place -- for a spell before returning to telling the story of Port William as it attempts to survive the 20th century like a little skiff tossed in a turbulent ocean.

For a long time then I seemed to live by a slender thread of faith, spun out from within me. From this single thread I spun strands that joined me to all the good things of the world. And then I spun more threads that joined all the strands together, making a life. And when it was complete, or nearly so, it was shapely and beautiful in the light of day. It endured through the nights, but sometimes it only barely did. It would be tattered and set awry by things that fell or blew or fled or flew. Many of the strands would be broken.  Those I would spin and weave again in the morning. 

p. 330

I think the only words that do Jayber Crow justice are the words of the author himself, so plea  peruse some of the quotations for this book listed at GoodReads or even Tumblr. One selection which I posted on facebook:

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, [he said] "They ought to round up every one of them [war protesters] and put them right in front of the communists, and then whoever killed who, it would all be to the good."
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try and top it. I thought of Athey's reply to Hiram Hench.
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said "'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.'"
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. "Where did you get that crap?"
I said, "Jesus Christ."
And Troy said, "Oh".
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

If I could only ever read one novel for the rest of my life, Jayber Crow would be it. The idea that it has only been in existence for thirteen years is staggering. It seems ageless.


Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
© 2013 Mary Roach
352 pages

Mary Roach is no stranger to delving into topics which others find icky -- like corpses. Even her more conventional works flirt with taboo, and in Gulp she embraces disgust whole-heartedly, by treating readers with iron stomachs to a discussion of all things digestive. Gulp is not, strictly speaking, a book about the digestive system. Instead, it's a history of the odder means scientists through the centuries have fashioned to study it, though some of the questions themselves are startling enough (how many cellphones can you pack into a rectum?) Its intent is more entertaining than educational, but readers will glean an understanding of how our body works regardless, and perhaps learn more than they wished they knew. The body's own structure gives Roach an organizational structure her other books might lack: her record of experiments follows the 'alimentary canal', an older name for the digestive tract, from our tongue right through the intestines and out the other side, pausing for a great many fart jokes.  Roach is definitely a 'popular' science writer in that she writes for the lowest common denominator, appealing to as many readers as can be possibly found who are willing to read about spit and constipation.  This is not a work that takes itself seriously; it is disgusting, funny, and informative in that order. Largely entertaining,  but a touch on the gratuitous side.