Monday, January 30, 2017

A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

The Canon: A whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
© 2007 Natalie Angier
293 pages

Science is amazing! Why is so much of the writing about it so lame?   Natalie Angier's The Canon first reviews the principles of scientific thinking before talking - nay, gushing -- about the basics of physics, chemistry, cosmology, biology,  astronomy, and geology.   But this isn't just a science primer like Almost Everyone's Guide to Science, or Theories for Everything. It is written with a conscious desire to seem fun, so the author is borderline bubbly and generous with cultural references and wordplay.  It's sometimes distracting, but I enjoyed it on the whole.  The personable approach to science also manifests itself in the way Angier works in little stories about her life that relate (like being thunderstruck by an earthquake in her normally placid residence in  D.C.), or interviews with scientists in the field, whose own love and continuing wonder for their subject is part of the delivery.   This is definitely a layman's approach to science -- there's no graphs, equations, or tables to be found, no terrifying mathematics -- but what made a winner for me, from the get-go, were the opening chapters on thinking scientifically. Angier sells the scientific method to readers by connecting it to what they already do: for instance,  the act of troubleshooting a technical problem is similar, as we attempt to narrow down problems by focusing on one variable at a time. A reader who reads Brian Greene with ease may find Angier's lively -- manic, even --  romp through the lab to be silly, but I found her enthusiasm welcome and the wordplay diverting.  A sample from her chapter on geology:

The planet we inhabit, the bedrock base on which we build our lives, is in a profound sense alive as well, animate form from end to end and core to skin. Earth, as I said earlier, is often called the Goldilocks planet, where conditions are just right for life and it is neither too hot nor too cold, where atoms are free to form molecules and water droplets to pool into seas. There is something about Goldilocks, beyond her exacting tastes, that makes her a noteworthy character, a fitting focus for our attentions. The girl cannot sit still. She's restless and impulsive and surprisingly rude. She wanders off into woods without saying where she's headed or when she'll be home. She barges through doors uninvited, helps herself to everybody else's food, and breaks the furniture. But don't blame her. She can't help herself. Goldilocks is so raw and brilliant that she has to let off steam. Like Goldilocks the protagonist, Goldilocks the planet is a born dynamo, and without her constant twitching, humming, and seat bouncing, her intrinsic animation, Earth would not have any oceans, or skies, or buffers against the sun's full electromagnetic fury; and we animate beings, we DNA bearers, would never have picked  ourselves up off the floor.   The transaction was not one-sided, though. The restless, heave-hoing motions of the planet helped give rise to life, and restless life, in turn, reshaped Earth." 

Looking ahead & some also-reads

I intentionally launched this year off with some fun reading, so we're off to a good start and there's more on the way.  Yesterday Amazon held a flash sale for science books, and I picked up a few relatively recent releases for the princely sum of $7.   

Read but not reviewed this month have been:

Ask a Science Teacher, a collection of  250 science columns written in response to reader-submitted questions, Many of the initial questions were solicited from schoolrooms, and the book as a whole is targeted to a younger audience -- anywhere from late elementary to early high school, I would think. I found it interesting enough, but laced with corny jokes.

India in the Global Community, P. Paramundi Karan. A brief introduction to India, which I read to grease the rails for a larger and more substantial history. This little book covered geography, politics, industry, religion, culture, diplomacy, etc. all in different chapters. The tone and bounty of photos suggest it was written for younger audiences, like middle school. For whatever reason it was cataloged with my library's adult nonfiction, though, and I stumbled upon it while shelving books.  While it covers a great deal, it's all very superficial. The chapter on political history, for instance, mentions the Aryans, then disorder; Asoka, then disorder; the Mughals, then disorder; the Brits, and then Gandhi & Nehru, followed by several wars with Pakistan.

Coming up this week: a review for another science  book read this week, a possible review for a digital enterprise book, Asian history, and more in my developing "good news for the future" theme.  So far I'm including In the City of Bikes, the Big Necessity, On Bicycles, and The Mesh as part of that series.

Also, last night I watched Bladerunner, which I thought would be a Reads to Reels post. As it happened, the movie references were all subtle, like the offworld settlements and the fake owl. The only major plot element was the lead character's quest to retire some replicants, but one of the best scenes in the book was a no-show.  I didn't mind the abstinence of Mercerism, though.  I found it an odd movie, presumably one that improves upon repeated viewings. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Twilight of the Presidency

The Twlight of the Presidency: An Examination of Power and Isolation in the White House
© 1970, 1987
200 pages

In Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy uses his personal experience as a Johnson aide, along with the study of other administrations of the 20th century, to comment on the apparent decline of the US Presidency as an effective force for serving the public good.   Writing in an age that had seen the ill repute of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, followed by the benign but inept administrations of Ford and Carter,  Reedy was pessimistic about the future of the presidency.  In our own age the imperial presidency has revived and waxed even stronger,  to the degree that  American families may hear or mention the president by name more than their own  relations!    Yet for all the time that has passed, Twilight of the Presidency's insight into how the presidency as an office works remains incredible.

Reedy refers to the office as an elective monarchy, and maintains it had that potential from the beginning.  Yet except for Abraham Lincoln, no president of the 19th century really used the office to its full  authority.   The essential advantage of the presidency, Reedy writes, is the will to action: the Supreme Court can only decide on such issues arrive at its doorstep, and the Congress is an enormous bureuacracy whose wheels are clogged with corruptive grime.  The president can act on his own accord, can be  -- The Decider.    He can seize the initiative and put everyone else on the defense while Congress is still attempting to get a bill from a subcommittee to the floor.     Another advantage in the president's court is the aura of his office; the American president is simultaneously the head of government and the head of state.  He enjoys much of the reverence given to a figure like Queen Elizabeth the II,  escaping direct personal abuse as someone like Tony Blair or Nick Cameron might have to endure during "Question Period".

In one chapter, Reedy dwells on more of the monarchical trappings of the office of POTUS: the fact that the chief executive is surrounded by hundreds of people every day, all of whom are fixated on him. They may be White House staff serving his needs so he can focus on the issues of the day,  or enthralled aides waiting for their chance to bask in the royal farr and be noticed.  This bureaucratic cloud has the effect of isolating the president from society at large;  their own opinions being the only ones the president hears. They're hardly representative: Reedy writes that Johnson couldn't understand the youth rebellion against him, because all of the young men in his employ were  perfectly at ease with the administration's current Vietnam policy.    More substantially, Reedy comments that because the host around the president is there to serve and administer his wishes,  he rarely receives pushback from policy suggestions.  (Reedy alleges that the only president of the 20th century who was nearly completely successful at staying connected to the people, instead of being hemmed-in by his advisors, was FDR. )  Reedy comments mournfully that there were numerous times that  the United States might have resisted further entanglement in Indo-China, but when Johnson passively expected alternatives, all he received were alternating views on what his aides thought he wanted to do -- stay the course.     Staying the course is almost always the easiest thing to do,  even when considered objectively it's unwise. Presidents are not objective,  however; they are the subject of national attention, and of history books. They are the face and will of the nation.   If a private citizen makes a mistake that costs him dearly, he is free to cut his losses and walk away with a slightly reddened face and a lighter wallet. But if a President decides engagement in Vietnam or Iraq was a mistake, he has not only wagered money but lives and honor.   To write off the lives of thousands of young men and women is not a task easy to do in a democracy.

The office's isolation and policy inertia of part of the reason why perfectly intelligent men can make  astonishing missteps in office, whether it's invading Cuba on bad intelligence, or invading Iraq on....can the WMD threat even be dignified as 'intelligence'?. Another aspect, though, is the growth of the office itself: we've come a long way from Washington and his three secretaries.    Because so much authority has been delegated to executive agencies, it is perfectly possible for people of one department to make pivotal decisions under the aegeis of presidential authority without the executive actually knowing about it.  The bureacracy is now so large that it has institutionalized itself;  it moves under its own inertia, and  a particular department's  long-running policies and officers can outlive presidents.  This is why Reedy, despite being a Democrat, thinks it is perfectly possible that Iran-Contra could have been created and implemented without Reagan actually knowing in full what was happening.

Twilight is incredibly insightful, and admirable. Although he wrote out of concern for an office  whose efficiency was fast diminishing,  his exposure of why remains true today.  At least in part, that is; I assume the presidency has become even more isolated from the American people because of security concerns.  The 2016 election results, which took D.C. utterly by surprise, may indicate how out of touch the imperial center is with the people beyond the coasts.  I wonder if such a book could be written today: Reedy had the advantage of witnessing or knowing people who remembered the presidency when it was still boring, before  Hoover and Roosevelt made the office a source of daily fixation. Could an author who has grown up with the imperial presidency analyze it in this fashion? I doubt it.


  • The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy, which quoted on this and recommended it to me. 
  • The Once and Future King, F.H. Buckley. Buckley contends that effective monarchy has re-established itself in the form of the American presidency and the prime ministers of the UK and Canada,  echoing some of Reedy's chapter on the making of the American monarchy. This is one I really must re-read..

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Forever War

The Forever War
© 1974 Joe Haldeman
236 pages
“I called to the waiter, 'Bring me one of those Antares things’ Sitting here in a bar with an asexual cyborg who is probably the only other normal person on the whole damn planet.” 

Sometimes you just can't win.  In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, Haldeman relies on his experience as an engineer in Vietnam, and his extensive scientific reading, to create a visceral account of war and alienation in the far future.   He begins in the near future, however, in the 1990s, as an Earth which has begun to aggressively explore and colonize the Milky Way via a network of 'collapsars' becomes embroiled in a war against another spacefaring power.    Earth has never fought in space before, and since the Vietnam War had actually been tending toward global pacifism. A few veterans from previous wars guide Earth's policy and martial strategy, however, and so begins a galactic quagmire that will span hundreds of years.   Yet because of the relativistic effects of near-light space travel, Private William Mandela and other troops in the first wave will become aliens to their own people,  aging only a couple of years as the decades pass on Earth.    I am not surprised in the least at Forever War's enduring reputation for SF  excellence, as Haldeman succeeds brilliantly on multiple fronts.

At the heart of Forever War's success is the curious consequences of relativistic physics.  Because time passes more slowly the closer a traveler gets to lightspeed,  what seems like weeks to Madella is years on Earth -- and the more traveling one does, the more severe the distortions are. Haldeman hints at this early on, when a sergeant who barely looks older than Mandella  takes over their training. After only a couple of years of "subjective" time -- that is, Mandella's experience of time -- he returns to Earth to find that decades have passed. His mother is elderly, and Earth is in a grim way.  Culture has changed significantly, too, and Mandella feels like a stranger in a strange land.  Despairing of finding a place on Earth, Mandella and his lover-in-arms Marygay return to the service.  Earth becomes a distant memory, but because the war lasts so long Mandella frequently experiences future shock as he encounters evidence of even more radical transformations in Earth's culture.  These changes are staggering: the world is united under the authority of the UN, a government on a war footing which attempts to control every aspect of life, with resulting economic and personal depression. "Every aspect" includes sexuality, as homosexuality is used as a method of population control and assumes such prominence that heterosexuality is regarded as tantamount to sociopathy.  Haldeman's perception of sexuality as fluid and complicated might get him stoned today, for conflicting with the present notions of hard-set "orientations".  Yet here -- as in 1984, as in Brave New World --  this government attempt to rein in the most unruly passion of humanity is resisted.    In the beginnig, Mandella and other soldiers are assigned sexual partners for the night, but tend to gravitate toward one particular partner. Mandella's only thread of hope, of sanity in a universe constantly changing around him, is his fellow relic and lover Marygay.  

The time dilation also effects the military consequences of the war:   Earth's soldiers are far better at war in general, but because so much objective time passes between launches and arrivals, the Taurans often seem to be fighting with weapons from the "future".  Those weapons bear mentioning, because the martial aspects of Forever War are the second big triumph for Haldeman. Frankly, I've never read  SF-military combat this interesting.  Key to space soldiering is the Fighting Suit, a skintight unit that protects and augments the body within; later on,  the fighting suits are an early example of technohumanism,  using an access port plugged in above the hip to interact with the body's systems.   The suits allow for greater effacy and are vital to staying alive in a hostile universe, but they're not foolproof.  Bumping against a rock of frozen gas might cause a deadly explosion, for instance, and if the suits are damaged in combat they're likely to cause total user death through overheating and such. Still later "stasis fields" are invented that prevent electro-chemical activity, so  combat within them has to be  the old-fashioned stuff:  swords and arrows.

Virtually everyone who reads this catches the parallel between Haldeman's soldiers -- who return home to find it a foreign country in every way but the name -- and returning veterans from Vietnam,  who found not a home but an insane asylum in 1960s-1970s  America.    Although modern readers aren't traveling at the speed of light, sometimes it seems the world is. We're all living in various stages of future shock, unless we're kids for whom new things are simply to be expected, and so Mandella is our man.  I found his story gripping on every level -- the science, the combat, and the societal evolution.   Although we're unlikely to start zipping around the stars anytime soon, several aspects of Haldeman's future bear thinking about: the control of society and  soldiers through chemicals, especially.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Laughter is Better than Communism

Laughter is Better than Communism: Politics, Wit, and Cartoons
180 pages
© 2014 Andrew Heaton

 A couple of years ago I stumbled upon Andrew Heaton’s “EconPop”, a series of videos in which he used popular films to illustrate economic concepts in a playful way.  Laughter is Better than Communism  employs a similar approach, collecting satirical pieces on politics and economics written from a libertarian angle. Heaton's pieces include commentary on occupational licensing and gerrymandering, which despite their role in undermining political life and economic growth, don't receive as much attention from libertarians as something like foreign policy. Even when he treads ground covered by other authors, though, Heaton's comic style makes his delivery unique nonetheless. He writes as an entertainer, not a lecturer, and liberally festoons the book with cartoons to illustrate his points. In the chapter on gerrymandering, for instance,  Heaton presents actual maps of congressional districts which have been grotesquely molded to create a certain constituency (a bloc of conservatives in a liberal city, for instance, or  the corralling of black votes into a single district), side by side with illustrations of what those distorted electoral maps might resemble: a man surprised by lightening, for instance, or a lemur throwing a boomerang.

Despite the amount of cheek and comics, though, Laughter has a lot of serious points to make. This is a partial education in political economy and economy in general:  Heaton covers the problem of Congress, for instance, of how the behavior that makes an individual congressman popular in his district (using federal money to build things in that particular state) makes Congress dysfunctional and loathed collectively, because money is constantly being taken from people, only partly reappearing in odd pet projects, and Congress itself  spends all of its time arguing and moving the money.  He hails the salutatory effects of trade between individuals and nations,  noting what he used The Dallas Buyer's Club to illustrate : commerce brings people together who would otherwise despise one another, and gives them a reason not to kill each other.  It also allows them to prosper together,  pooling their expertise and gifts.  Impediments to trade -- like occupational licensing laws which prevent private citizens from developing their own interests and helping people, or burdensome regulations that make growing a small business impossible -- are often erected through bipartisan efforts for good intentions, but often rob the many on behalf of the few, like businesses which have already established themselves and want to squelch further competition.  Heaton alternates between real examples and fictional scenarios, but if you're interested in learning more about how occupational licensing perpetuates poverty,  there's a documentary called Locked Out that may be of interest to you. Listen to a five-minute interview here with that movie's subject, a Tupelo woman named Melanie Armstrong who fought a law forcing her students to obtain an expensive license to braid hair,  read an article on the subject, or read her story directly.  This isn't just about braiding hair, but more largely how occupational licensing serves as  barrier  against self-empowerment, perpetuating poverty in the United States.  The last ten minutes are particularly encouraging, as -- after Armstrong's legal victory --  a wave of impoverished people were able to pursue their own dreams. Hope was restored.

In short, Laughter is Better than Communism fun little collection of Bronx cheers aimed at planners, prudes, and other people who feign to know better than others about how to live their own lives.

More of Heaton:

Revan Paul: And it doesn't matter if it's 'bulk metadata' or not -- who you send holograms to is information about you.

Luke: Ten thousand? We could almost buy our own ship for that!
Ben Kenobi:  The government has increased the cost of risk, and so our supplier is increasing the cost of his services. It's basic economics, Luke. We're gonna do a little lightsaber work, and then I'm going to have you read a lot of Milton Friedman.

The aforementioned economic appraisal of The Dallas Buyers Club

On Bikes

On Bicycles: 50 Ways the New Bike Culture Can Change Your Life
© 2011 ed. Amy Walker
384 pages

On Bicycles collects fifty cycling pieces, collecting in categories on why biking is awesome, how gear can make it better, how biking can improve cities, and how citizens can make a more bike-friendly community happen. But it's not just about the process of getting on a two-wheeled contraption and rolling away into the sunset, because the authors often look at bicycles in the context of community.

Bicycles make good neighbors; they're quiet, except for that pleasant whooshing sound; they don't fill the air with noxious byproducts (except for coffee breath), and they're accessible to everyone while making everywhere more accessible. Accessible to the handicapped? The aged? The pregnant? Yes, yes, and yes. Bikes can be modified. They're versatile machines that can adapted to haul cargo or even serve as a taxi. Their mechanical workings are far simpler than that of a car, and are all out there in the open to see. Anyone can learn to repair a bike, and the process of tinkering and succeeding is an empowering one. Bicycles can bring people together; several interesting pieces I saw here referenced bicycle collectives, shops where people volunteer labor to help others learn to repair their own bikes, and sustaining themselves by offering repairs for free. There are also bike parties, apparently.

Travel by bicycle has its perils, like dogs, but cyclists feel their surroundings as they pass through them. They can smell the air, watch small spectacles like clouds drifting across a pond, and genuinely feel the ground beneath them. There's a reason motorcyclists refer to cars as cages. Bicycles allow their riders to make snap decisions -- if they see something they want to investigate, that's it. They can. They don't have to spend time slowing down and toodling about for a parking space, by which point the initial spark of interest may have expired. Bicycles are also uber-efficient: they use much less space than cars, they can plug into multimodal transport networks more easily than cars, and they don't chew up pavement or guzzle gas. Oh, and they're fun.

If you cycle already, like myself, then this book is a bit of preaching to the choir -- but it covers so much ground there's bound to be something new to discover. For the person who is only curious about bicycles as not just a bit of transportation, but as a part of their life, this is virtually perfect reading.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Podcast of the Week: EconTalk discusses "Dreamland"

On Monday, Russ Roberts of EconTalk sat down to talk with Sam Quinones about his book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opium Epidemic.  That book has been on my radar for a couple of years (and was how I discovered that book on Area 51 mythology, also titled Dreamland), so I was excited to give a listen.  Quinone opens with two subjects: first, the history of one Mexican town which became the headquarters of a new wave of heroin addiction in southern California, then spread easterly towards the Mississippi. They made heroin cheaper and safer to purchase, and according to the author shunned violence to prevent undue police attention. The second subject concerns the rise of painkiller addiction in the United States, owing to a change in healthcare culture that convinced itself powerful opioids could be made safe for consumption.  The two meet together in Appalachia and other areas of the central US as people addicted to painkillers begin using cheaper and readily-available heroin to feed the beast inside him.

About the podcast:  EconTalk interviews generally last an hour, but Roberts posts transcripts below his play button  for those who are interested, but would prefer to skim through the discussion.  I stumbled upon EconTalk back in 2011 or so when I was looking for professional podcasts that would let me absorb ways that people like doctors, lawyers, and economists interpreted the world. (I found EconTalk and Lawyer2Lawyer, but nothing for healthcare. Yet.)   The first interview I listened to was an interesting one on the areas in which industry was returning to the United States.  Although in those days I was much more of an interventionist, I found  the reliably free-market Roberts to be so genial, thoughtful, and nice that I kept listening to him. I've been rewarded with some of the most interesting books ever, works like David Owen's The Green Metropolis, Gary Taubes' Why We Get Fat, and a book on digital medicine that I will be reading soon. Despite the name, EconTalk isn't just about economics -- as those book titles, and Dreamland's, indicate.  Roberts' interviews are often conducted with people he disagrees with, as when he invited Thomas Piketty on to talk about Capital.  He's a gentleman and a scholar, well worth listening to -- or reading.

Note: once my own computer is up and running I will edit this post to include some links to books featured on EconTalk that I've read here. In the meantime, just click the "EconTalk" label if you're curiou.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Digital Divide

The Digital Divide
ed. © 2011 Mark Bauerlein
 368 pages

For those who often think about the way the internet has transformed every aspect of our society -- our daily social interactions, the ways we shop and work, etc -- The Digital Divide presents an anthology of writing on that very subject ranging from the 1990s until 2011. These pieces include excerpts from books (Digital Natives or The Cult of the Amateur, for instance) as well as previously published articles. Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" appears in that category. The material curated here is chosen to represent different aspects of the argument about digital technology and society. A piece on how our immersion in the world of digital device multitasking rewires our brain to make us more efficient is followed by an article commenting on the negative aspects of a brain in perpetual overdrive: chronic, low-grade stress and general inefficiency from the constant breaks in attention. Many parts of the book are dated, but remain valuable nonetheless. For instance, articles penned in the 1990s lamenting how the invasion of the Internet by the common market had made it much more sterile and boring are interesting in the picture they paint of the young network, then a plaything of researchers and techies. (The author of that piece, Douglas Rushkoff, remains a "It's popular and now it sucks" kind of fellow, snarling about the growth of e-commerce while simultaneously praising Yahoo and Blogger for allowing people to produce content and communicate with one another. This is especially amusing when he maintains -- in the same article - -that the internet can't be has its own mind and people, like, do what they want with it, man. (Things like...buying and selling?) Other points are more enduring, like the the plasticity of the brain. By far the most interesting article in the book for me was a piece on Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, originally published in Reason magazine; in that interview, Wales reveals how inspired he was by the writings of F.A. Hayek, particularly on emergent order.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brain, Nicholas Carr

Brief note

My wireless adapter failed over the weekend, and I'm expecting a new one in either tomorrow or Thursday. (I'm a typing terror with a keyboard, but my tablet key-fu is only fair.) In the meantime I've been reading, so expect the ball to start rolling again pretty quickly!   Lots to come in the areas of science, the digital world, and a bit of business/economics. There's also some science fiction coming up the pike...think Ed Wood and Joe Haldeman.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Big Necessity

The Big Necessity: the Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters
© 2008, 2014 Rose George
238 pages

In its initial publication, The Big Necessity may have been an eye-opening look into how many human beings still suffer for want of life-saving sanitation. Already familiar with the sorry state of toilet affairs in parts of the global south, though, I read and enjoyed this more as the story of governments, charitable organizations, private citizens, and small businesses who are steadily working to bring their places to health. The solution is not always technological, although reading about home digesters that convert offal into kitchen gas and fancy Japanese toilets is most interesting. (The digesters are particularly important: not only do they give households a degree of self-sufficiency, they guard against local trees being stripped for fuel, and save China's rural households money in terms of domestic fuel and fertilizer.) A culture of hygiene must always be fostered, and through means that take into account the local culture. The Big Necessity provides a call to arms,  takes readers into the sewers of NYC and London as well as the  Chinese countryside, and offers a view of toiletry's cutting edge. A very interesting book all around, then, and with only the faintest whiff of toilet humor -- the sole instance of which is that George refers to something as execrable.

George is also the author of Ninety Percent of Everything, known in the UK as Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside Shipping.

Flushed! How the Plumber Saved Civilization, W. Hodding Carter

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A reading on the Presidency: The Ship of State Turns Not Easily

Another reading from The Twilight of the Presidency:

Newton's first law holds that a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will continue in motion along the same line until acted upon by an outside force. The federal bureaucracy is like that. It can be moved by a determined president. But once the motion has started and the course has been set, the internal momentum of our government's machinery continues with the implacable determination of an advancing glacier. It also dedicates its powerful capabilities to reinforcing the presidential belief that the original decision was correct. In a very real sense, the machinery has mechanisms that are potent in heading off any desire to change course. [...] Whatever argument [the president] gets is unlikely to come from the internal structure of government, and when it does come that way, it is easy for him to  close his ears to it. He may get an occasional argument on how best to carry out a policy; but  rarely, if ever, that the policy he has set should be abandoned.

p. 16, Twilight of the Presidency.  George E. Reedy

Serving during the Johnson administration, afterwards Reedy wondered how Johnson and other presidents  -- intelligent and gifted political manipulators -- could engage in ruinous decisions like the Bay of Pigs debacle, Vietnam, and Watergate.  It has proven the most fascinating book of the year so far, and despite its age (published  in the Reagan years) still seems very relevant. 

More to come in the days ahead..

A reading on the Presidency: A Man Divided?

The president really has two jobs. The first that has received is that of his managerial role, his responsibility for handling the nation's affairs. Coupled with that is his role of personifying the nation and becoming thereby the unifying factor that holds us together.  It its this dual role that makes the presidency so fascinating intellectually. Many problems arise from assigning double duty to the president, and all of them flow from the fact that the two roles are mutually exclusive. To sustain his position as a symbol of unity the president should keep strictly out of politics and out of management of the government. To manage the affairs of government, the president must decide between competing claimants for social and economic advantage. Such decisions cannot be made without dividing people and creating enmities, which blotches the unifying symbol. An astute president can walk a tightrope but for a considerable period of time, but in the end, he cannot win for losing.

pp. 13-14, The Twilight of the Presidency.

I'd never thought about the curious nature of the presidency's dual role until reading The Once and Future King two years ago.  F.H. Buckley argued in that volume that crown government - that is, rule by a monarchical executive  -- had effectively reestablished itself in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States in the persons of their prime ministers and president, respectively.  Buckley noted that the American president's combined offices -- Head of State and Head of Government --  have the unfortunate consequence of blunting a lot of criticism by way of automatic deference for his Leader of the Republic aura.

How might the constitutional convention approached a two-office executive, having a President and prime minister, so to speak?   The Speaker of the House is the closest thing we have to a prime minister, but the powers of government were deliberately divided so that Congress could not run amok over people's liberties as had the House of Commons  It is incredible to think that once Congress' power was feared; the last time it was a threat to the presidency was during Andrew Johnson's administration.  But let us suppose the convention was dominated by men who wanted a robust Congress and an impotent president, who made the Speaker the governmental manager and relegated to the office of president mere ritual roles:  the Guardian of the Constitution, perhaps, who made the public holiday speeches and sometimes publicly censured Congress for violations of rights.  Later on, during the Progressive period of the 19th-20th century, it is plausible to think of the office being filled by a man who was less interested in natural law and declared himself instead the Guardian of the People,  scolding Congress for not doing enough to protect farmers against the railroad.

No political system endures without change, and I do not know how long our present scheme will endure. Certainly with the current president elect we are at an interesting moment: we have a man who went to war with his own party establishment, who was elected over their joint rebukes and sneers, a man who has little regard for precedence and propriety. It's extraordinary. Has a shift of power ever been this contentious in American history?  The closest I can think of is Truman refusing to speak to Eisenhower when they rode in a car together. Has an assuming POTUS ever entered the office with teeth bared,  avowedly hostile to most of the people on the Hill and to the corporate media?  Have the FBI and CIA ever been this involved so close to an election and transition?  I confess that there are moments when I seriously believe we are witnessing the active collapse of what's left of the Republic.     I speak as someone who is enormously entertained by Trump's contempt for the media, because I, too, loathe it; ditto for his attitudes toward D.C and the Republican-Democratic  establishment -- but as much as I like the idea of the power-caste being so dramatically spited,  I'm a student of the universe.   Strong personalities with a populist base,  going to the mattresses with a corrupt never ends well, whether the personality is modern (Hitler or Castro) or historical (Caesar, Napoleon). This story never ends well.   Human beings cannot handle that much power and adulation. Even the adulation is dangerous: look at the many Hollywood celebrities who have destroyed their lives, reveling in license and attention.

Unfortunately, I don't know that there was an alternate ending.  Clinton would not have been the progressive her fans wanted her to be. She was a fully-vetted member of the power caste, with no career outside the walls of public rule since her teen years. I suspect she would have been predictably but moderately abusive (in the same fashion as Bush & Obama), but remembered most for being the wife of a former president and the first female executive.  Executive power would have definitely increased under her stead,  unless she provoked Russia into a global war, in which case we'd all be dead with glowing bones and the power of the presidency would have been a nonissue.  In the case of Trump, though, who knows?  He might so unnerve Congress that they attempt to check him with law,  or become more powerful through sheer will to action.

The problem with this idea of a president who stands as a unitive figure is that the United States itself so divided. Is there anyone who can count on respect or affection from everybody?  Fred Rogers, maybe, and he's left us.( Readers Digest suggested that Tom Hanks is the most trusted man in America, which...I completely get. )  One example that particularly concerns me is identity politics, which promotes tribalism and thus counter tribalism.  Whenever there is an overtly defined us and them, hostility erupts: even if the Us begins as a genuinely violated party, their constant pushing against the mass provokes defensiveness and thus creates a more solidified Them, and the two then feed one another's flames.  This is why I think the Catholics are onto something when they make solidarity a keystone in social conflict resolution:  we must approach one another in charity, as neighbors, and work something out together. We can't just fight and claim victories from another side, not and remain a nation. On Friday, for instance,  D.C. will be filled with marches -- media spectacles that may grow violent. Violence will then beget violence, everyone will choose sides, etc -- turning and turning in the widening gyre, that sort of thing.

It is my hope that after Friday, once the current president  is hit with the sheer amount of work expected of him, that he will be so overwhelmed that things will quiet down.  I can't bet on it, but it's a possibility:  that chair in the oval office destroys men. Even Trump's personality may not be able to handle the weight of responsibility bearing down on him there.


Future excerpts from this book won't turn into essays, I promise -- but for all of my wariness and cynicism regarding D.C, there is still a big part of me that believes in Washington and the Republic...and that part of me, the citizen of not just a town but a republic, had to ponder some things.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Dynamite from a Film Student

Last night I discovered a series of video "essays about art", or artistic case studies, commenting on various films of the last few decades.   So far I've enjoyed nearly ten of them, and have been utterly impressed with the quality of his commentary, and the production values of the vids themselves.  I've embedded a few below just as a sample of the kind of content he produces.

Gotham: A History of Batman's City

"Gotham is a city that's performed; we know it by the stories that happen there, by the spaces generated by encounters in the night. In this view its many versions don't register as inconsistencies, but cohere into a new way to think of cities, as a site of constant a place that can't be mapped by its buildings and streets, but by the events, people, and minds that make them."

Why Prisoner of Azkaban was the Best Movie

"[Consider the director's] fondness for a moving, often hand-held camera. Just take a quick, sped-up look from this early scene set in the Great Hall. Not a single shot is stationary;  this gives the scene and the film a feeling of forward momentum and establishes a curious camera, but it also lends to the film a sense of unease, an inability to find stable footing. For a  film that is to be haunted by a feared killer throughout, such a style is fitting."

"Synder could make the Justice League a a out and out comedy,and  it still wouldn't fix what I see as a fundamental problem in his filmmaking, something that's really apparent in Batman vs. Superman: his preoccupation, his obsession, with moments at the expense of scene. What do I mean by this? Movie moments are awesome. A really great moment can be transcendent, can leave a deep visual impression on a viewer. They can come to represent a whole new category of feeling. Zack Synder is obviously obsessed with Moments: the film is chock full of them.  Moments when time is slowed down and the composition is just right, when the score swells and the film tries to broadcast a single message: BE AWED. What Batman v Superman really lacks is...scenes. Actual scenes, not just filler between moments. Scenes are hard to define, but what a good scene does is dissolve the actors and soundstage and camera angles into a living, breathing reality. There should be a strong sense of Place, a feeling of Possibility, that the characters who occupy the space could go anywhere within it.   Too often in Batman v Superman, the characters feel awkwardly placed in their scenes. Does anyone get the sense that Clark Kent and Lois Lane actually spend time in the Daily Planet? We visit the Planet eight times, but the longest scene there is only 1:11. The rest are under a minute, often under 30 seconds. This doesn't feel like a place; it feels like a fraction of a location where people say lines."

Interstellar: When Spectacle Eclipses Story

Sunday, January 15, 2017

In the Land of the Tiger

In the Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent
© 1997 Valmik Thapar
285 pages

Imagine a Planet Earth episode focused entirely on India, and then presented in book form. The result is In the Land of the Tiger, which takes readers on a guide through the lush natural landscape of the Indian subcontinent, starting from the mountains and following the rivers to the coast, from there visiting islands before examining other disparate areas of the land.  This volume is replete both with photos and picturesque writing, displaying a soul-stirring variety of animals. Many I had no idea existed, like   the Hoolock gibbon, India's only ape,  and the pied hornbill.  The expanse of human settlement has pushed many animals into new territories and created interesting adapational behavior: for instance,  although lions typically hunt in prides,  those who live in India's forested margins must become solo artists. There are also elephants who swim in the open sea between different island. (There is an extraordinary shot of an elephant swimming, taken from below. Talk about perilous photography!)    Land of the Tiger makes more cultural references than Planet Earth or related series did, connecting animals to Hindu religion and folk medicines.   I've been slowly guiding through this the past few days, savoring the photos and writing -- what a great start for the Discovery of Asia series!

When I finished this book I noticed that Land of the Tiger  was actually a BBC nature series. I was more on the nose than I realized!


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mean Streets

Mean Streets: Confessions of a Nightime Taxi Driver
© 2002 Peter McSherry
256 pages

Mean Streets takes readers into the dark side of Canada, or at least the dark side of Toronto. Ever since the 1970s, Peter McSherry has been driving the night shift at various cab companies,  writing about the strange people and stories the night produces along the way. In this volume many columns he's submitted to taxi publications are collected and organized in particular categories --  his experiences with drug dealers, prostitutes, and criminals on the lam, for instance, or the shady practices of tax firms -- spanning his time driving. McSherry isn't simply witness to many of these stories, but an unwilling participant in them; he is often threatened or solicited, and in his younger days was known to give chase to people who tried to stiff him on the cab fare.  Being far removed from Canada, I tend to imagine it as a bland, safe sort of place, nice to visit but not that exciting. McSherry's account certainly presents a different picture! His Toronto is just as grimy and unruly as New York City. with affair after affair recorded here that are worthy of depiction on COPS.   I didn't realize Canada, or at least Toronto, had the sort of racial strife that still besets the United States, though its came from Britain's colonial heritage, rather like France's does today.  Driving a cab was an education for McSherry, too;  originally an idealist who went to school to teach children and believed the best in everyone,  his experiences being cheated by bosses, customers, and city officials alike definitely create a world weariness.  With that, though, comes a genial tolerance both of people's failings (including his own), though he's definitely no pushover.   He readily ignores teenagers, drunks, pushy pimps, and others on the street who bitter experience has taught him are more trouble as fares than they're worth -- and if push comes to shove, he's as ready with a right cross as he is with a kind word. (Melissa Plaut, in her Hack, also learned to discriminate against teenagers, though she felt bad about it.)

Those interested in learning about the business practices of cab companies won't find too much here beyond the 1970s,  but the memoir has the usual appeal to those who like "a day in the life"  tales or true crime stories.  I noticed that McSherry prefers to drive as an independent contractor, just like Melissa in Hack;  this allows himself and other drivers to work as much or as little as they choose to, depending on their circumstances.

McSherry is, at least of 2014, still writing about driving even as he hits 70.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Related Vids: In the City of Bikes

Welcome to the entry in my Related Vids feature!

Jordan's book gave fine form to the history and culture of cycling in Amsterdam, but the above video shows off another side.  After a brief history of the bike vs. cars battle (a minute and a half),  this video reviews the ways in which cycling is built into Amsterdam's public infrastructure, set to happy guitar strumming.

In his Amsterdam history, Jordan commented on the utterly democratic nature of the bike-riding populace, which included every class and age bracket.  This video demonstrates that variety in just the first  minute and a half, including: someone carrying a carpet,  a mom with a baby behind her, a child riding alongside her mom, an elderly person, and several people talking on their cell phones. Forward and rear racks for carrying cargo are ubiquitous. 

If you're really intrigued, this is a slightly lengthier history of how Dutch cycling infrastructure developed, one which details how Dutch cities pushed back on automobile enroachment. The reasons listed: too many buildings and space given over to the cars, too many pedestrian deaths, and  the oil crisis, 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes: the Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist
© 2013 Pete Jordan
448 pages

"It is quite possible that all the bicycles in the world are not in Amsterdam, but you'll never be able to convince me."  American tourist, 1956

No sooner had Pete Jordan stepped foot outside the Amsterdam airport than did he nearly get run over by a rushing cyclist.  He met his near-miss with utter delight, for that was precisely why he was in Amsterdam. He'd come as a student to the Netherlands, to study urban design and the role of bikes in Dutch culture.   But the student would become something else, as In the City of Bikes documents his first decade as an Amsterdammer, a man whose career, family, and every joy were nurtured by the closely-knit buildings of this bike-and-canal city, where anything can be walked to but everyone rides bikes instead.  For a reader who sees in Amsterdam hope for humane urbanism,  Jordan's work is a delight through and through.

Why are the Dutch so crazy for bikes? It's not a question they'd ask themselves: in a city where over two-thirds of the people use bikes on a daily basis, the elegant little machines are nothing extraordinary. They don't require helmets, lycra, and a man-against-the-world attitude like cyclists in America bring to the saddle.  Cycles fill Amsterdam -- its streets, its sidewalks, its culture.  Early on, Jordan speculates on why the United States and the Netherlands developed so differently in terms of transportation;  he highlights the comparative availability of land, the scale of the American nation, and the abundance of domestic auto manufacturers as key reasons why the United States quickly embraced hordes of automobiles.   Cars only emerged as a serious rival to Dutch bikes in the 1960s, and just as they were provoking serious resistance  from student movements, the nations of OPEC thoughtfully banned oil exports to the Netherlands and bikes made an epic comeback. (This is, I submit, the greatest gift OPEC ever made to humankind.)

In the City of Bikes is essentially a personal approach to Amsterdam and its cycles that mixes in tales of Jordan's first decade of life in Amsterdam with a narrative history of the city and bicycling.  In the late 19th century, bicycling enjoyed intense support as a short-lived fad in places like the United States, but  the elegant machines had more staying power in a place like Europe with human-scale urbanism and close connections between worthwhile places to be. The Netherlands' flatness made it especially easy to cycle, so cyclists' numbers only grew and grew. The cyclists swarmed in such abundance that mayor after mayor despaired of their anarchism; even the Germans, after seizing the Netherlands, were frustrated.  Rule after rule the new overlords posted, and the Dutch ignored them. (Among the objects of Nazi irritation: Dutch cyclists not staying to the right, as well as holding hands and riding two to a bike.  Roads and bicycles are only for transportation, thank you, no joy allowed.) Only when the Nazis began methodically searching and seizing bicycles for use by their own troops did bicycles disappear --  broken down and squirreled away, or tossed into the canal just to spite the greycoats -- with the exception of those so badly maintained that even fleeing Nazi officers couldn't make use of them.

Cycling in Amsterdam is an utterly democratic mode of transportation: every class uses it regularly, and there's  no real relationship between the wealth of the cyclist and the value of the bike. Parliamentarians and bank executives pedaling to work in their $3000 suits often had the same beaten-up wheels as everyone else. This may owe to Amsterdam's intense amount of bike-thievery:   Jordan lost three bikes in his first two years there, and with theft that common there's no point in sinking money into a machine to begin it. (On that note, the black market in bikes is  amusingly perverted; when people have bikes stolen, they simply buy a stolen bike -- which is then stolen again. It's rather like a twisted kind of bike rental.)    Dutch cycling isn't limited to the young and intense: children grow up on bikes, and bike to school on their own accord. The elderly are mobile -- even pregnant women can cycle. Jordan's wife, for instance, transported herself to the hospital to have her baby, and when she left the place a mother, she returned home by bike.   During bicycling's first flare of popularity, Queen Wilhelmina was an ardent cyclist and remained so throughout her life, taking great pleasure in pedaling about incognito.

In the City of Bikes is not a guide to bicycling infrastructure. It's simply a story of humans living well --  Jordan, and the people of Amsterdam as a whole.  It is connected but free, rebellious but highly functional for human needs. If you like the city at its best, or like cycling, or simply have a care for human flourishing, this is a wonderful little book. I loved it before I bought it, I was thoroughly enblissed while reading it, and I already know it's one I will keep remembering with the thought: this is how life should be.

The Twilight War

The Twilight War: the Secret History of America's Thirty-Year War with Iran
656 pages
© 2013 David Crist

 In the presidential campaign of 2008, John McCain made plain what kind of aggressive foreign policy he would pursue by half-singing a chipper little ditty called “Bomb Iran”, to the tune of the Beach Boys classic, “Barbara Ann”. His malice was not even creative, for the song originated as a parody in early 1980. That parody, though, was close to being reality, for throughout the 1980s.  American ships engaged in a quasi-war against Iran, ostensibly to protect the free flow of oil amid the Iraqi invasion of Iran. In The Twilight War, Kevin Crist documents the complete diplomatic and military history of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, from the Carter administration to the the frustrated diplomacy of Barack Obama. Written by the son of a CENTCOM general, it approaches being the American equivalent of Iran and the United States, written by an Iranian aide who appears here in interviews. The Twilight War goes into much more detail on military operations, however.

The essentials of the failed Iran-American relationship are known to most everyone: in 1953, the United States and Britain collaborated to oust Iran's democratically-elected president, Mossadegh, and later militarily supported the increasingly authoritarian shah until he was thrown out in 1978. Most Americans were blissfully unaware that anyone in Iran had reason to cry foul until student revolutionaries seized the American embassy and held over a hundred American citizens, some of them civilians doing aid work, for over a year. The water was thus poisoned from both wells, leading to bumperstickers and Beach Boy bombing threats in America, and cries of “Death to America!” in Iran. Yet the power-caste in D.C cares little for principle; for them, what mattered about Iran was not that it had abused Americans, or that it had previously been manipulated by the American government: what mattered to the fellows in the Pentagon and Langley field was that Iran stood between the Soviet Union and the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf region. If Iran could be enlisted as an ally against the godless Soviets, huzzah; if not, revolutionary government stays popular, and the invasion plans were already on the books.

Thus the initial approach to Iran was framed within not its Islamic status, but within the frame of the Cold War. The CIA accordingly passed in information to their newly avowed enemy, Khomeini, to help him exorcise the communists and other Soviet sympathizers from his rank. At the same time, however, the CIA and other military intelligence agencies attempted to create networks of informants and agents on the ground Iran, who would lay the groundwork for an invasion if that ever became necessary. What no one expected was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran, which wasted over a million lives over an eight-year period. After Iran survived Hussein's invasion and prepared to mount its own, the west –- organized by the United States – obliquely but purposely supported the Iraqi cause by selling war material to Saddam and interfering with Iran's ability to purchase in European markets. More directly, the United States took on a military role in the Persian gulf, protecting oil tankers and other neutral ships from the Iranian military – and ignoring Iraqi movements, as they did when an Iraqi fighter fired a missile at the USS Stark. As with the USS Liberty incident, in which Israel nearly destroyed an American ship, the blood in the water was quickly covered over in the interests of diplomacy. Such was the American commitment tin the Gulf that a separate global command, CENTCOM, was created to watch the middle east, and two mobile sea-bases were created in the Gulf itself to respond to Iran's “guerilla war at sea”.

Later on, after the Soviet Union collapsed, there were moments that the United States and Iran might be able to build upon.The United States' growing commitment in the middle east, prompted by the Gulf War, created no small amount of resentment and fear in Iran, however. For decades, Iran had been the plaything of the British and Russian empires, then the target of both the American and Soviet spheres of influence, and now the Americans weren't even settling for fighting through proxies: their tanks were right there, in Saudi Arabia. Terrorism became an increasingly large factor in foreign relations, and the American commitment to both Saudi Arabia and Israel – Iran's most unfavorite neighbors – continues to be a barrier. More recently, through the Bush and Obama administrations, the prevailing official reason for Iran's designation as classroom pariah has been its pursuit of nuclear energy and the possibility of that pursuit also allowing Iran to manufacture nuclear arms.  Frankly, I no longer trust the official reasoning of anyone coming out of D.C --  coming of political age in age of Iraq's phantom WMDs, and continuing to see the United States talk about both sides of its mouth in Syria  -- but the growth of the genocide in a bottle club is a serious issue.  Still, as Crist's account shows, there have been numerous instances when Iran and the United States were making headway, and then one party of the other decided not to follow through in good-faith arrangements.    

Although The Twilight War's detailed account of military operations and aborted diplomatic deals can sometimes appear overwhelming  in its thoroughness, Iran is not fading in importance.  To the contrary: only recently, an army of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian troops were able to surround ISIS and its allies in Aleppo.  When the United States toppled Hussein's regime in Iraq in the hopes of creating a democratic opponent of Iran,  Iran's influence in Iraq instead swelled.  They're not going away, and after sixteen years of constant war in the neighborhood, Americans aren't particular enthusiastic about more nation-building games.   This book is a good resource for understanding what has happened so far.  In the light of the seemingly unpredictable Trump, however,  who knows what will happen? (Given Trump's business ties in Saudi Arabia and his avowed support of Israel, my guess is that he's more likely to be antagonistic towards Iran than now.) 

Iran and the United States: an Insider's View, Seyed Hossein Mousavian   

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New features

The beginning of the New Year brings with it a good opportunity to try new things.  Since this blog's creation in 2007, nonfiction has always dominated fiction, for my mission  in life is to learn all I can about this world's peoples and their philosophies.  I have found the Internet an invaluable ally in this regard. As a way of making this blog more helpful to those of you who are also insatiably hungry for understanding,  I'm introducing two new features here that are shortcuts to the good stuff! 

1. Related vids

YouTube hosts an amazing amount of user-created content that can deepen appreciation for a subject, or introduce it in a more approachable way. So, for a few particular books, as I find especially helpful connections, I will share them here.  For instance, I might share a short dramatized version of The Epic of Gilgamesh, or an educational clip that explains an especially intriguing concept from a book by its author,  Most importantly, these will not random, but videos I have actually watched and can recommend earnestly. 

This feature may appear as much as once per week to as little as once per month.  As an example,  suppose I read a book like Waiting on a Train.   I might post something like this:

I encountered this clip last night; it is an eight minute review of why passenger rail fell off so dramatically in the mid-20th century,  why it continues to  languish, and why it is unlikely to make a major comeback outside of a couple of regions, unless something dramatic happens. I found it thorough and fair-minded, viewing as someone who would visit Europe purely for the trains but who realizes the enormous problem the country's general sparseness poses for a iron-horse revival.

2. Podcast of the Week

Back in 2007, I used to download several podcasts per week,,, on a dial-up connection.   I liked them that much, and still do.  I listen/juggle to a great many podcasts, though I'm not married to any.  Their subjects are diverse, so some I listen to as often as they publish, and some I only check with every week or every month.  The majority of them are conversational, with a few being lecture-based and a couple being more panel-like, (My real-life restaurant-and-bar conversations tend to be more about cinema and current events than literature, alas, so I get my stimulating conversation vicariously.)   Each week I intend  to spotlight an especially good lecture or conversation. Some potential subjects: astronomy, bicycling, economics, geopolitics, history, skepticism, and urban planning,  

Be warned: I'm especially fond of podcast conversations about books.  

So, here's to trying new things! 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Laughing Without an Accent

Laughing without an Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen
© 2008 Firoozeh Dumas
256 pages

In 2003, Firoozeh Dumas charmed readers with stories about her transoceanic childhood, unfolding in both in Iran and the United States in the 1970s. This sequel to Funny in Farsi uses the same basic approach, blending funny stories about her relatives with reflection on the immigrant experience and the human experience in general.  Here, though, a third culture has entered the picture -- that of her French husband's -- and, with more stories about her life as a parent, she is more serious at times.

 I remember her familial caricatures fondly from last year, especially that of her frugalistic father. Here we find him mystifying his son-in-law by presenting him Christmas gifts wrapped in on-sale "Congratulations, graduate!" and "Happy birthday!" wrapper paper --  subjecting the family to various misadventures after attempting to bring home several  "bargain-priced" tables in a purple hatchback, Her mother's enthusiastic but creative use of English also features again. As a parent Dumas writes more seriously, recording her personal triumph in showing the family TV the door; not only did she create precious space for imagination and rest in her home, but her children were spared thousands upon thousands of commercials.  Imagination is important to Dumas; as a college student she is dismayed to realize her fellow students think getting drunk and gyrating is a good time. She'd much prefer a morning walk accompanied with literary conversation. (Her mother attempts to warn off the future husband, stating that Firoozeh never stops reading.) Through the humor and reflection readers are allowed to experience the warmth of her extended family, gathering frequently as they do -- even if it's just to watch The Price is Right and yell at Bob Barker. (Her father's love of bargains makes Price his absolute favorite bit of American television programming.)  

As with Funny in Farsi, I found this simultaneously educational, funny, and cozy.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Chinese in America

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History
© 2003 Iris Chang
558 pages

Like most Americans, my earliest notion of the Chinese in America is an association with the Transcontinental railroad. As it happened, their story begins before that, with the California gold rush. Poor Chinese men, having caught wind of the bonanza in California, made their way to "Gold Moutain" in hopes  of making a fortune and returning to China with it. While many hit the jackpot and returned, still others made another home in America, becoming actors in its story. In The Chinese in America,  Iris Chang superbly runs together three threads:  a history of China, as the decline of the last empire and the resulting civil strife (including war)  created a need for opportunities and safety to be found abroad;   the history of the United States,  lassoing in the West and needing all the railroad men, miners, and farmers it could get;  and the story of the generations who traveled from one nation to the other, attempting to adjust to a new country without losing their heritage.   It is an admirable story of perseverance amid bewilderment and hardship.

 The earliest Chinese visitors to the United States came not to flee wicked oppression in China, but to make money on Gold Mountain and go home rich men.    A few did strike it lucky and retire wealthy, but many more stayed. Although most of the Chinese who settled in the United States remained on the west coast, not all congregated in urban Chinatowns. They searched for opportunity wherever it might be found; working farms and ranches, mines and railroads, and - occasionally -- even finding their way to New England and the South.   There, despite racially-orientated legislation, they found tacit acceptance, safe in their ambiguous status.  That changed in the 1870s,  when a depression set teeth on edge and prompted unemployed laborers to blame the cheap labor flooding in from the East.   The Chinese Exclusion Act followed, barring most immigration from Asia. Strict quotas were imposed, and only certain professions were entirely welcome.    The Exclusion act would hold until the 1940s, when the United States and the Chinese people became allies, both targets of Japanese imperialism.  (Shortly after World War 2, racial limitations on immigration were ended altogether. even as the war and those which followed generated anti-Asian prejudice)  As one generation pushed the frontier by breaching the Rocky Mountains, linking the coasts and allowing agriculture to prosper in the west, another stretched it still further in aviation and software engineering. Chang doesn't limit herself to politics and economics; a strong reliance on oral history imparts a good dose of social history, as well, like the evolution of  "Chinese" food.

The Chinese-American story is not one I have any experience with -- the South's Asian population is predominately Korean and Vietnamese, at least in my neck of the woods. What little I knew came from histories of San Francisco (particularly Good Life in Hard Times, with a section on Chinese gangs).  This  was, then, a welcome introduction to another aspect of America's mosaic.

Wonder and Skepticism

Last night I suddenly wanted to listen to Carl Sagan's last address to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for Claims of the Paranormal (now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).   I needed to hear Sagan's voice, his particular blend of awe, humor, and bracing rationality.   In this particular speech he shares his introduction to science, particularly astronomy, comments on its value (practical and personal), and reflects on how the values of skepticism might be communicated more broadly, warning against an attitude of arrogance on the part of those who consider themselves rationalists.

"I'm always amazed that there is another area that I'd never thought of -- crop.circles.  Aliens have come and made perfect circles and mathematical wheat!. Who would have thought it? Or they've come and eviscerated cows -- on a large scale, systemically. Farmers are furious. I'm just always impressed by the depths of inventiveness that the new stories that are debunked in Skeptical Inquirer reveal...but then on more sober reflection, it seems to me the stories are fantastically unimaginative. That compared to the stunning, unexpected stories of science across the board, they have a kind of dreariness to them, a lack of imagination, a human chauvinism to them.   That's all they can imagine extraterrestrials doing? Making circles in hay?"

"...the last way for skeptics to get the attention of those people is to belittle, or condescend, or to show arrogance toward their beliefs. They are not stupid; it is a problem of society more than anything else. If we bear in mind human frailty and fallibility, we will have compassion for them. [....]  The one deficiency which I see in the skeptical movement is an us-versus-them [attitude]...a sense that We have a monopoly on the truth, all these other people who believe in these stupid doctrines are morons or worse -- that's it, if you'll listen to us, if not, to hell with you -- that is nonconstructive. That does not get our message across. That condemns us to permanent minority status. "

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
© 1963 P.G. Wodehouse
227 pages

As had so often happened before, I felt that my only course was to place myself in the hands of a higher power.
"Sir?" [Jeeves] said, manifesting himself.

Bertie Wooster has two great weaknesses: needy friends and forceful females.  Now, alas, they're conspiring to take him to a  house whose master is quite certain Wooster is a kleptomanic loony who ought to be put away. Still, for the sake of two friends whose engagement is endangered  by something mysterious, Bertie must journey and face great personal peril, from village constables to Scottish terriers, to play the part of peacemaker. Naturally, he ends up in jail.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves is a short novel in PG Wodehouse's hysterical Wooster & Jeeves tales. They've come up before, but in summary: the main character, Bertie Wooster, is a society wastrel who lives on a family allowance and spends most of his time chumming in gentlemen's clubs and avoiding the schemes of his family to get him either gainfully employed or married   He does attempt to make himself useful in getting his friends out of scrapes, usually by attempting to manipulate events. In this he typically ,makes things worse, but fortunately he has his brilliant valet, Jeeves.   There is no social predicament too complicated for Jeeves to finesse, though sometimes at Bertie's personal expense.

In Stiff Upper Lip, Bertie labors to save his friends' engagement primarily so that the newly-freed bride to be won't renew her interest in him, but when he arrives at Totleigh Towers one problem quickly multiplies into a blizzard of shenanigans that blinds even Jeeves for a bit.  As always,  Bertie-Jeeves books are a brilliant joy  to read just for the language.   I wonder if these books weren't written under the influence of ardent spirits, because they're too giddy to be the work of  a sober mind. Bertie can't tell a story without inventing a noun ("Aunt Agatha called up with a what-the-hell"),  a gerund ("I what-ho'd her"),  or verbs ("legged it over to the Drones').      

Wodehouse is positively mirthful, a welcome start to the year -- but interested parties should start with something like Carry on, Jeeves, instead. This is a sequel to another story and I would have been lost utterly had I not read Wodehouse previously and watched the DVD specials with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry repeatedly.